The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Neither Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female: Did Paul REALLY Mean That?

Nehemiah 8:1 All the people gathered as though they were a single person into the square before the Water Gate. They told the Torah-scholar Ezra to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses, which the Holy One of Sinai had commanded to Israel. 2 So, the priest Ezra brought the Torah before the assembly, both women and men and all who could hear with understanding…

 

 

Psalm 148:

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together…

and Galatians 3:

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The Legacy of Slavery in Flesh, Blood and Scar-Tissue

Let us pray on the theme: “Neither Jew Nor Gentile, Neither Slave Nor Free, Neither Male Nor Female – Did Paul Really Mean That?”

>[Listen to the sermon here.]<

May my teaching pour like the rain, my word go forth like the dew;

like rains on grass, like showers on new growth. Amen.

U.N.I.T.Y. (That’s A Unity) The Queen, Latifah, put it down. Unity. There’s a lot of talk about unity in the Bible. But when you scratch the surface, there is always something more, much more going on. The Israelite monarchy was united, for a while. But the golden age of the Israel was only about one hundred years. At the same time that Israel was beginning its great decline a curious migration was happening in Europe. Warriors who painted their pale skins blue crossed from their island home onto the mainland and began making their way through Spain and Austria to France, Italy and Greece. It would take them hundreds of years to reach the Mediterranean in large numbers. Some of them would eventually settle in the mountains of Turkey where their military dominance would cause one region in the land to be named after them. They were Celtic peoples from what became known as Ireland and Scotland – think “Braveheart” back when Mel Gibson wasn’t acting like he was raised by wolves, and about 1000 years before that story – and when they dealt with the Greeks and Romans they were called Galatois, meaning “barbarians” and became known as Gauls and Galatians.

By the time that Paul began traveling in the south of Galatia the peoples descended from those ancient Celtic warriors had intermarried with the descendants of the great Hittite Empire for generations. Their descendants intermarried with the peoples brought and left behind by Alexander the Great and his successors. And it was to some of their descendants that Paul penned these famous words: [drash – you who the barbarous Romans called barbarians, someone else baptized you, Word for the saints, but you chose to put on Christ; it is a done deal; what it says, what it means; ethnic differences; class differences; gender differences]

Galatians 3:26 All of you indeed are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Judean nor Greek (that is neither Jew nor Gentile), there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Episcopae

Women Bishops in the Anglican Communion

These words have become something of a bumper sticker in the church for unity. But unity is much more than a slogan or even a beloved bible verse. The context which occasioned the writing of these words, the notion that the Galatians were so barbarian that they didn’t even count as Greeks meant that they heard Paul saying it doesn’t matter if the world counts you out – and the Greeks were the world, God counts you in. It doesn’t matter if the greatest empire known to the world, the Romans who conquered and inherited the Greek empire, the height of culture and class thinks you are not worthy to be part of their republic, their empire.

You know how the Galatians felt. Perhaps they were told people like you don’t belong here. You don’ t get a say in how we run this joint. You don’t have the right to vote. You aren’t intelligent enough to vote. We can’t have one of you in the White House. We can’t have the White House turned into the Black House. Your people are barbarians and savages. We only let you into this here church so that we could civilize you but you are not equal to us; you are not one of us and you never will be. I’m not saying that the Galatians were the black folk of the Bible because they were actually whiter than the black, brown and beige folk who made up most of the other biblical folk, but they were on the margins of the Jewish Christianity represented by Paul.

It wasn’t an issue of race as Americans have come to think about race. It wasn’t about skin color or hair texture or the shape of nose and lips, thighs or hips. There was plenty of bias in the ancient world around ethnic identity, national identity, religion and culture without the concept of race which was invented to facilitate the North African slave trade. In the bible, it was more about who your mama was and where she came from than what she looked like. And that was just on the Roman side that inherited and magnified the old Greek prejudices. I haven’t even gotten to the Judean or Jewish side with the deep suspicion of and hostility towards Gentiles. Some Judean Christians – the word Yudaoi doesn’t always mean “Jew” in opposition to “Christian” – some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus would have to make a full conversion to Judaism first and then they could receive the Jewish Messiah.

A council of elders met in Jerusalem to decide this matter and determined that there were certain ethical obligations that fell on Gentiles but they, we, didn’t have to convert. In Acts 15 the elders of Jerusalem decided that Gentiles who seek to follow Jesus must also follow a greatly abridged and reduced Torah including keeping a small part of the kosher laws. We must abstain from the pollutions of idols. This mostly referred to eating meat that had been sacrificed to other gods but Paul would reject that eventually because there were some people who were so poor that that was the only meat they could afford so that commandment would eventually be waived. The next command was to avoid illicit sexual activity. Most you know the word translated as “fornication,” but pornea is a more complicated term that has to do with unsanctioned sexual activity. The question of what is sanctioned and what is unsanctioned sexual activity is a question for another day. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so suffice it to say that the traditional understanding of sexual purity and holiness in this and other Pentecostal churches won’t get you into any trouble. It’s alright to live holy as big mama taught holiness. There is much more sexual activity that is permissible under a biblical understanding that most of us are comfortable with, but I’m in a COGIC house and that is a sermon for another day.

The elders of Jerusalem also prescribed a modified form of keeping kosher for Gentile converts. In addition to avoiding meat that was sacrificed to idols, they were to avoid meat that was strangled and not slaughtered according to kosher law, including meat that hadn’t had the blood drained out of it properly. And yet here is Paul in his epistle to the Galatians saying it doesn’t matter if you’re a Jew or a Gentile, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Greek or a barbarian. You don’t have to keep the Jewish Torah and then Paul breaks faith with the elders of Jerusalem and says that Gentile converts don’t even have to keep the modified Torah that the elders approved. For you and I are one in Christ no matter who our people are or where we came from. When writing to the church at Ephesus in lands through which the Celtic Galatians passed and some surely settled in ancient days, also now in Turkey Paul writes:

Ephesians 2:14 For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups, Jews and Gentiles, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Paul spends most of his apostolic career tearing down walls between Jews and Gentiles. Surely Paul is preaching unity this morning, unity between different ethnic groups. We need to hear Paul today. Our nation needs to hear that we are one people. In the Christian community our oneness comes from Christ. So those who claim to claim the name of Christ need to claim another name if they’re going to keep hating on our President and First Lady. Because we are one in Christ. In fact whether you are Christian or not we are one flesh with all humanity. We are one and we need to act like it.

And Paul says more: there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. Now this is really something, because women were often second-class citizens in much of the ancient world and in biblical Israel. And at the same time, there were women with power and authority like the prophets Miriam and Deborah and Isaiah’s Baby Mama and Huldah and Noadiah and those whose names we do not know. There were queens in Israel like Bathsheba, Zeruah and Jezebel and Queen-Mothers in Judah like Naamah, Micaiah, Maacah, Azubah, Athaliah, Zibiah, Jehoaddin, Yecoliah, Jerushah, Avi/Aviyah, Hephzibah, Meshullemeth, Yedidah, Hammutal, Zevidah and Nehushta who ruled with and without husbands and sons. And if you don’t know those women prophets and queens it is perhaps because the gender bias of the bible has been multiplied in the church and we don’t study women in the scriptures the way we study men even when the bible remembers to tell us their names. And only 8% of the names the bible tells us are the names of women.

Gender bias didn’t end in the bible. Folk have been using iron age theology suppress, repress and oppress women and girls from the moment Adam blamed Eve to the disciples asking Jesus why are you wasting your time and our time talking to women, to Paul himself saying neither male nor female out of one side of his mouth but men are supposed to be the head out of the other. I haven’t forgotten that one of the great questions of our time was whether women – and they meant white women – should be given the vote before or after coloreds – and they meant colored men. For many the issue was clear neither women nor colored folk should be able to vote in this country, and forget about black women. There are still little girls being told, you can’t do that, you can’t play football, you can’t be a Supreme Court Justice, you can’t be President, you can’t be a priest, you can’t be a bishop in the Church of God in Christ or in the Church of England. You can’t run this shop, you can’t be the boss of men, you can’t be an astronaut or Army officer, you can’t make more money than your honey.

You’re just a girl and you’re not the same as a boy, God made you different, you know, separate but equal. You woulda thought black folk had learned already that separate is not equal. We’ve got politicians and corporate raiders talking about I don’t have to pay women as much as men if I don’t want to. I don’t have to provide them health insurance if I don’t want to. I can use my power to keep them out of the workforce, out of college at home and pregnant, even raped and pregnant. Because for them women are not people, not the image of God and not the same as them, not one in Christ as Paul says here.

Paul is teaching there is no longer male nor female in Christ Jesus. And if this is true then this changes a whole lot in Scripture: then there are no women’s roles and men’s roles in the home, in the world or in the church. And if there are really no genders or no difference in gender then why does it matter so much to some folk who can marry who. I know I’m in a COGIC house, so I’m not going to go any further with that but Paul raises the question for us.

And Paul also falls short of his own preaching. Paul does not work as hard for unity between women and men as he does for unity between Jews and Gentiles. Paul preaches tradition and superstition, he talks about women covering their heads; he admits he doesn’t have a word from God on that but he tells them to do it anyway. But more than that this is a piece of a divine revelation of Paul seems not to like. He doesn’t spend much time preaching on it; he doesn’t spend much time teaching on it and he regresses and allows the church to regress without prophetic critique. Paul had a little trouble with the Jewish/Gentile thing: he told Timothy that he had to be circumcised as a grown man in spite of this revelation that God gave him. Unity is a hard thing, it’s an expensive thing, it will cost you standing, privilege and position if you are on the inside or if you are on top. Paul had a hard time relinquishing power and control, sharing that with other folk, especially women. But he gave it the old college try in Romans 16. You ought to read that and see how many women Paul worked with, along side of, celebrated, shouted out, women with whom he was working as fellow laborers and co-laborers, even sisters he recognized as apostles including a woman named Junia who was chief among the apostles in his book. But he couldn’t stay there. He lost sight of the unity God called him to proclaim.

There was a third category of unity in this revolutionary epistle: slave and free. Paul also had a hard time with this one. He had never known a world without slavery and truth be told he couldn’t imagine a world without slavery. Paul sounded a lot like the white slaveholders of this country, believing that freedom was all in your head or in the world to come but not necessarily for your body in this world. He wished the saints wouldn’t hold slaves but he would not use his apostolic authority to forbid buying and selling and holding of human beings in bondage. In fact when one of the Christian brothers ran away from another Christian bother holding him in slavery Paul sent him back into slavery saying he hoped he would be free one day but Paul couldn’t see his way clear to insist on his freedom in the Gospel. Paul did not proclaim this word of unity to Onesimus and Philemon; that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus.

Paul has hit all of the major categories that still divide us in our times. Ethnic identity which we now experience as racial and cultural identity, speaking to bias against black folk and Hispanic folk and Arab and folk – we are one in Christ Jesus, gender identity which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex identities, bodies and a variety of gender performances – there is more than one way to be a man and more than one way to be a woman and we are one in Christ Jesus. And Paul spoke of the major class division in his day: slavery. We still have slavery in many parts of the world. Sex trafficking of women and girls and boys and sometimes men is modern-day slavery and pervades the United States in the prostitution industry. Some of our favorite corporations like Nike and Apple and Martha Stewart use and have used slave labor at their factories around the world. But the class divide in our time is not limited to sex trafficking or other forms of slavery. The divisions between the haves and have-nots, the 99% and the 1% and let’s not forget about the 47% – those class distinctions divide the country and cost one man the election.

Yet there is unity in Christ. Or at least there should be. The fact that Paul was writing this letter is a testament to how things really were. And if we tell the truth, and we ought always tell the truth – at least in church – then Paul knew perfectly well that the church was not unified. At best we are unity in diversity. Even a casual reading of Paul’s epistles and those who wrote later in his name illustrate that there were some folk trying to reform the church, trying to unify it while some were trying to go back to the old ways men with power and women without, Christians holding slaves and instead of Jews and Gentiles it became Christians were somehow better than heathens. Yet then as now there was diversity of practice, diversity of belief, diversity of interpretation. I for one don’t believe that is a bad thing. I don’t believe that unity requires uniformity.

Take a look at any choir that wears a uniform, whether robes or classic black and white. Their robes may be identical; they may have sprung for identical button-down white shirts and identical pants and/or skirts. But that choir is still made up of individuals with different facial features, skin tones and hair-styles. Even the world-famous Rockettes are not uniform. Before they started hiring black, brown and beige dancers, they had blondes, brunettes and redheads, and even when they were wearing identical wigs or Santa hats they were not identical, yet they move as one. I don’t know much about music but I know what makes a choir work is that they don’t all sing the same notes the same way. There is harmony and melody. Even when they are singing in unison there are treble voices and bass voices; there is diversity in their unity.

So there should always be ethnic diversity in a healthy church because God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And there will be gender diversity in church but not just in the pews – at every level of power. And there should be class diversity in church, folk at every level of income. Maybe one day those differences will no longer matter as Paul wrote, but that day is not today. Because those at the top of the power curve have benefitted for so long from holding other folk back it is not necessarily just to try to erase everyone’s identity without reforming the systems that privilege some folk more than others.

I believe that God gave Paul these words for the church. And I believe that they were too hard for Paul to live up to and into. Paul worked hard to get it right on Jews and Gentiles. But he didn’t get it right with women. And he didn’t get it right on slavery. Paul tells us how church should be – there should be no distinctions and there should be no divisions. And Paul also tells us how it really is, it’s hard to erase distinctions and it’s doubly hard to do so when your distinction holds the power. That works the other way too: When someone who doesn’t look like you uses their power to keep you down, to keep your people down, to hold your children back, to suppress your vote, to count you out, it’s hard to see them as the image of God, let alone part of the body of Christ.

On this your Unity Day, the day on which you celebrate the ministries of women and men together, let me suggest to you that you can have unity without uniformity. Just like that beautiful choir. You can make beautiful music together without all looking the same or sounding the same. There is unity in diversity. The Psalmist takes it farther than Paul can go. She – and why do some folk imagine all the Psalmists were male when 1 Chronicles 25:5-6 says: God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord… The Psalmist has a vision of unity that I’d like to leave you with. One day all of nature will be united in praise of God:

Psalm 148:7 Praise the Holy One of Old from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps:

8 fire and hail, snow and frost, storm wind executing God’s command;

9 the mountains and every one of the hills, trees with fruit and those of cedar;

10 animals wild and tame, creeping ones and flying birds;

11 rulers of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the earth;

12 young men and women alike, old and young together.

13 Praise the name of the Holy One of Sinai, for God’s Name alone is exalted;

God’s splendor covers earth and heaven.

14 God has raised up a horn for God’s people, praise for all God’s faithful,

for the sons-and-daughters of Israel, the people who are close to God.

Praise the God-Whose-Name-is-Holy!

             Whoever your people are, whatever your gender is, whatever your financial situation, you are God’s child and Christ has redeemed you. And there is nothing anyone can say, nothing anyone can do to count you out when God has counted you in. You are God’s. Amen.

25 November 2012

Sanctuary Church of God in Christ, Mt. Airy, Philadelphia PA

 

 

 

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