One of the hardest lessons of adulthood for a young, theologically-minded Christian is recognizing that it is possible both to be right about an issue in the wrong way or to be wrong about an issue in a right-seeming fashion.
We can be like Saul of Tarsus, catechized thoroughly in the seminary of Gamaliel, yet clanging, loveless gongs. Alternatively, we can wrap deceitful ideas in sweet words and angelic garb, but even Satan does that (2 Corinthians 11:14). Somewhere in between lies the “sweet spot” of truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
With that as background, let’s look at a recent skirmish on Twitter involving two men I respect deeply (one of whom I’ve had the privilege of interviewing). Having benefited richly from the ministries of both of these men, I derived no pleasure from watching the ensuing controversy unfold. Nevertheless, I felt it worthwhile to weigh in on their recent sword-crossing over Galatians 2, in the spirit of both truth and love.
The controversy began with a statement made at the tail-end of this tweet: “…Paul’s concern was that racial justice was an entailment of the gospel.”
Is Galatians 2 saying that “racial justice” is an “entailment” of the gospel? When the Apostle Paul says his fellow apostle’s conduct among the Gentiles in Antioch was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14, ESV), is he making a point about ethnic relations in the church—either directly or by way of inference?
As brothers and sisters in Christ seeking to mutually edify each other, we must step back from the emotional heat of the discussion and first let the text shed its light, resisting the urge to springboard too quickly into our own cultural agendas—as rightly-motivated as they may be. Let’s examine the context of Galatians 2.
Context: Circumcision, Salvation, and Dining Etiquette
Galatians holds dual honors as both one of Paul’s earliest and most candid epistles. After only a brief greeting, Paul launches into a polemic against the Judaizers, who had been subverting his apostolic credentials and requiring circumcision of Gentile converts. Paul identifies this marauding band of legalists as “false brothers” (ψευδαδέλφους, v. 4) and the “circumcision party” (v. 12)—not the sort of party I’d like to attend, but I digress—and goes so far as to say that they should go all the way (Galatians 5:12), because their seemingly-innocent imposition of the old covenant sign (Genesis 17:10-14) was in reality adding meritorious law-keeping as a prerequisite to the believer’s salvation. This was a full-scale repudiation of the finished work of Christ.
Though separated from us by an ocean of history and culture, the significance of the Galatian heresy should not be lost on our modern ears. Paul’s statement in verse 16 (“…by works of the law no one will be justified”) refers to the ceremonial law of circumcision, the outward mark of old covenant membership, but his point applies to any moral, civil, or ceremonial aspect of God’s law. None of these can justify. To add any works of law to the gospel is to destroy it.
Jesus + law = salvation is a false gospel—one which Paul says ought not to be heeded, even proceeding from the lips of an angel (Hinder reference notwithstanding). In summary, Paul refutes the Judaizers’ bald-faced heresy: “…[I]f righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). A God who can be bought off by bloodstained sinners’ performance of outward rituals is not holy and is thus not the God of Scripture. For this reason Luther purportedly called justification by faith alone the standing or falling article of the church. Either Christ saves us entirely by his own work or we are utterly condemned.
All this came to the fore when Peter found himself cozying up to this very heresy. Although on paper Peter was roundly orthodox, he succumbed to the fear of men and found himself withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles in Antioch (Galatians 2:12)—a tip of the hat to the Judaizers, who saw Gentiles as ceremonially unclean. While he himself had no qualms anymore about breaking Kosher (see Acts 10, 15), he nodded approvingly as Jewish legalists saddled the Gentiles with ritualistic burdens. Peter’s hypocrisy provoked Paul’s toe-to-toe confrontation, after which Paul launches into one of the most vital defenses of justification in the biblical canon.
The Question of Application
Where is race in the text? Neither the modern notion of “race” nor the biblical category of ethnicity have explicitly appeared yet in the Galatians 2 in our brief survey. This is because the distinction between Jew and Gentile was not only ethnic but religious as well; the primary line of demarcation was not merely descent from Israel but the covenant sign of circumcision. Ethnic Gentiles who joined the national covenant were to be circumcised (Genesis 17:12). Later in history, in the case of Gentile converts to Judaism, rabbinic tradition distinguished between proselytes of the gate and proselytes of righteousness. The latter group, the more pious of the two, were required to undergo both circumcision and baptism to fully join the covenant community—so even the “circumcised” weren’t necessarily, strictly speaking, of one ethnicity or another. (Consider Timothy, who was a half-Greek and was circumcised according to Acts 16:1-5.) Combine this with the diversity of the Roman Empire and the very category of “Gentile” itself in terms of ethnic makeups and pigments, and we find that the Jew/Gentile and circumcised/uncircumcised dualities simply don’t map neatly onto modern racial categories like “black” and “white.”
But this doesn’t get at the deeper question: is the concept of ethnicity present in Galatians 2 implicitly, such that we could make an indirect application against modern racism?
Before weighing the validity of such an application, note that Scripture is univocal in decrying ethnic pride and prejudice at both the social and personal levels:
- From one blood God made all the nations of the world (Acts 17:26).
- God shows no partiality towards any nationality or race (Acts 10:34-35) and judges by the interior character rather than their exterior appearance (1 Samuel 16:7).
- In the revelation of God’s law, not only does racism flatly fall under the condemnation of the golden rule (Matthew 7:12 and parallels), but it also denies the inherent dignity of humanity’s imago Dei (Gen. 1:27).
- The civil government was likewise prohibited from exercising any sort of prejudice; biblical justice is blind (Leviticus 19:15, 18).
- Exercising any sort of favoritism is equally as sinful as murder and adultery, tantamount to breaking the whole moral law and warranting the same eternal punishment (James 2:8-11).
- John, the ultimate old covenant prosecutorial prophet, explicitly denounced the Jewish elites for relying on their Hebrew lineage (Matthew 3:9).
- In the new covenant, ethnic divisions have absolutely no place because all believers are equal participants in Christ and his saving benefits (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
- In light of Christ’s redemptive work, we no longer regard each other according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:16).
- Believers are a chosen “race” (1 Peter 2:9), a new humanity altogether (Romans 5:19, 1 Corinthians 15:49, 2 Corinthians 5:17).
- In the eschaton, elect from all nations and cultures are gathered around the heavenly throne in ceaseless worship (Revelation 5:9, 7:9), transfixed not by the aesthetic of their own diversity but the beauty of the Lamb.
Scripture is replete with denouncements of racism far more perspicuous than Galatians 2. Rest assured, we can condemn racism—in the church or in society—with or without Galatians 2.
But does the specific line of logic from Galatians 2 proffer an indirect argument against modern racism? Yes, but the parallel isn’t without difficulty.
The Problem of Equivocation
One difficulty with using Galatians 2 as a simple prooftext against racism is that it obfuscates Paul’s argument concerning justification. We risk conflating categories of doing with being. The point of the text is that law-keeping cannot justify; only faith in Christ saves. The ceremonial law is something you do, not something you are. Circumcision is an action, not an ontological category. Thus, if we equate “circumcised/uncircumcised” with “black/white,” we have inadvertently undone Paul’s argument against works-righteousness by replacing works with race. It would be a bit like holding that Luther opposed the Pope on justification because he didn’t like Italians.
This may not seem like much of a problem, since race is equally as incapable of justifying the sinner as are works of the law—but the question becomes, what happens to justification? Trace the analogy:
|works of law : justification :: ethnic identity : _________?|
If we equate works of law with race, do we then equate justification with ethnic, covenant-community belonging? To me, it seems that New Perspectivists would be willing to do so, but those of us who hold to the historic Reformed understanding of Paul might object.
But a deeper danger is that by equating circumcision with ethnic categories, we might unintentionally draw lines of negative association where they ought not be drawn. To put it bluntly: are we implying that “white evangelicalism” is comparable to the pious, law-keeping Jewish class, and “black evangelicalism” represents the unclean, uncircumcised, Gentile masses? That logic would outrageously racist. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone is making that claim. But we have to be careful that our exegesis doesn’t open that door.
The Jew/Gentile distinction, under the old covenant, was at least legitimate in that the ceremonial law taught God’s people to distinguish between the holy and profane (Leviticus 10:1) and marked out the covenantal borders of God’s dealings with humanity, setting apart Israel as a temporary, missionary nation (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 1 Kings 8:60, Isaiah 26:18) and Christ as the chosen Abrahamic seed (Galatians 3:16). Although the Jews ended up trusting too much in their Jewishness rather than in their Messiah, the distinctions between their community and the surrounding nations was at least initially divinely-ordained, even while foreshadowing the eventual Gentile ingrafting. But there is absolutely nothing legitimate or divinely-sanctioned about promoting whites as superior to blacks, blacks as superior to whites, or tolerating any other arrangement of animosities. To connect the ceremonial markers of the old covenant people of God with modern racial categories—arbitrary groupings of physical traits, not even necessarily indicative of descent, culture, or geographic origin—gives undue legitimacy to racial division in the first place.
The True People of God
In spite of our tendency to engage in newspaper exegesis, we must slow down and consider how Scripture itself develops the motif of the Jew/Gentile bifurcation throughout progressive revelation. The destruction of the ceremonial barrier of animosity between the two groups (Ephesians 2:14-17) is an important New Testament theme, but this is not the only direction the motif takes.
Envision the progress of God’s dealings with humanity as two parallel horizontal lines forming the something of a bowtie shape. Beginning from the left, God interacts broadly with all the nations—i.e., in the history comprising Genesis 1 all the way through the Babel incident in Genesis 11. But as time progresses and revelation unfolds, towards the center of the two lines, God narrows the scope of his interactions—first to the Abrahamic line, then to Isaac’s line, then Jacob’s, down to Judah’s, then David’s, until finally God’s purposes reach a climax in the sole person of Christ, the true Israelite. From the beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham, his intent was to reach all the nations (Genesis 12:3), and that’s exactly what happens to the right side of this bowtie graph; God’s purposes broaden as the kingdom of Christ spreads throughout Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
In the immediate history flowing from the “right” of the cross, linearly speaking, the typological and temporary ceremonial division between Jews and Gentiles under the old covenant branches off into two different antitypes. The first and more obvious antitype is that which we have discussed above; the dividing wall is broken down. Christ “has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). But the second antitype reapplies the Jew/Gentile contrast to the elect/reprobate antithesis—the broader struggle between the true people of God and the kingdom of Satan. The redeemed humanity is called out from among a sea largely comprised of the non-elect. Hence we are sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), seeking a better homeland (Hebrews 11:14), delivered from the present evil age (Galatians 1:4), and transferred into an alternative kingdom (Colossians 1:13). The ceremonial distinction between the Jews and their pagan neighbors prefigured the Christian’s calling to live in holy separation from the sinful world (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Jewish and Gentile Christians are the spiritual Israel, and Jewish and Gentile unbelievers are spiritual Babylon.
So again, if we attempt to take modern black/white racial categories and retroactively map them onto the categories of Jew and Gentile, we are actually at risk of reaching the perverse conclusion that race x is to be likened to the elect and race y to the reprobate masses. This is not to say that I think most of those promoting social justice/racial reconciliation even remotely intend to open the door to such logic—anything but. This is, however, the logic of liberation theology, which maintains that the elect/reprobate “us vs. them” themes in Scripture should be applied to racial struggle. The result of such theology is abhorrent.
But What About Partiality?
Doesn’t Galatians 2 teach against the sin of partiality? Yes, but we must get there exegetically.
The issue of partiality does come up in Galatians 2:6: “And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me” (ESV; emphasis mine). Paul’s gospel was not bequeathed to him by the intellectual elite in Jerusalem but revealed directly from heaven. It was not man’s message to edit (Galatians 1:11-17). Hence Paul was thoroughly unfazed by the the outward pomp of the Judaizers.
Even beyond the issue of ethnicity; no outward show of pomp should compel us to start hedging our bets on the gospel. It is impossible to read Galatians 2 and conclude that Christians ought to be respecters of persons. Broadly, the text encourages us to look past all the superficial traits (including ethnicity) of the various voices within the church, looking instead to the content of their character and teaching. Gospel truth is gospel truth, no matter what color the speaker’s skin is or how long his phylacteries are. And heresy is heresy, even with Peter’s backing. We don’t have to make the same mistake he did.
The doctrine of the unification of Jew and Gentile in Christ—à la Ephesians 2:11-22—does have significant bearing on the issue of racial harmony within the church. If the wall of prejudice based on the legitimate, ceremonial barriers between Jew and Gentile under the old covenant economy has been demolished in the cross of Christ (Ephesians 2:14-16), how much more are the illegitimate barriers of prejudice among various Gentile ethnic groups rendered irrelevant in light of the cross. Moreover, the mystery of Gentile inclusion figures prominently in Paul’s broader gospel proclamation (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Two Systems of Works-Righteousness
By rejecting all kinds of partiality, Paul’s argument cuts both ways. How?
If you draw a straight line through Paul’s argument, the species of partiality he condemns is that which gives platform to those who pad the requirements of justification, adding things like circumcision. Peter was to show no partiality to the Galatian heretics. In turn, we should show no partiality to racist churches in the U.S. South that treated blacks as second-class Christians; these churches should be condemned along with the Judaizers. Neither should we favor a leftist order in which, to be socially “justified,” one must keep the secular ceremonial law by doing penance for one’s privilege, atoning for your imputed participation in oppression.
White racism and the radical leftist breed of social justice warriorism both posit a system of works-righteousness. Only the gospel gives grace.
Which brings us to a final question relating to the gospel: extended application aside, does Galatians 2 frame racial justice as a “gospel issue”—an “entailment” of the gospel itself?
Gospel Issues, All
The bluntness of Paul’s denouncement of Peter—that his conduct was “not in step” with the gospel (Galatians 2:14)—accounts for why Galatians 2 has become such a lightning rod of racial reconciliation passion. Is this text telling us that racism is a “gospel issue”?
As we have already seen, the immediate point of reference for Paul is not racism as an abstract sin but the specific Galatians heresy. Peter’s toleration of the Judaizers was compromising justification itself. This context matters.
But the reality is that racism is a gospel issue. Some racist ideologies may not directly dispute the historic claims regarding Christ’s death and resurrection (i.e. the summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4), but racism, like any and every sin not repented of, is a “gospel issue” in that it has the power to exclude human beings from the kingdom of God.
And since racism is a gospel issue, the gospel is the solution. Christ died for racism, as he did for all the other sins of his people, to wash them, renew them, and give them a decisive break from their old identity and sinful behaviors (1 Corinthians 6:11).
Again: Jesus died for racists, murderers, legalists, adulterers, and more. The gospel is good news for bad people. The sin of racism sends people to hell, but prejudiced people can also repent and be saved and transformed through faith in Christ—like Peter!
Although the West has made significant progress away from racist elements in its history, we find ourselves in a new cultural moment in 2018 where these issues are bubbling violently to the top of the collective consciousness.
The church ought to be—and sometimes, by God’s grace, is—one of the loudest voices in society decrying any attitude or social system that values one arbitrary classification of image-bearers over another. We should do this, however, armed with clear texts that speak directly to the issue of ethnicity and prejudice. There is a plethora of them. But we do not need to wage the entire war against racism on the hill of Galatians 2.