In this passage from Galatians, Paul continues his theme of how the Law imprisons and enslaves those who seek salvation through fulfilling it. He wants the Galatians to understand how truly free they really are in Christ. No longer slaves or minors under the law, but children of God!
Part of this freedom is that all distinctions—natural, social, religious, and cultural—are abolished. In Christ, we have the freedom of children of God and members of God’s family, full adult citizens of the kingdom of God.
Law as paidogōgos
Galatians 3:23 asserts that “before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until would be revealed.” Paul then makes an analogy to explain how we were “imprisoned and guarded.”
The word in Greek is paidogogos, which the NRSV translates as “disciplinarian,” the NIV as “guardian,” and the KJV as “schoolmaster.” But the paidogogos in the ancient Greek-speaking world was not quite any of these. Rather, this person was someone who would accompany a child to and from school, making sure that they actually went to school and didn’t get into any trouble along the way.
Paul’s point is that just as a child who has a minder who walks them to and from school is constrained to one particular avenue of action, a person who seeks to fulfill God’s law is also constrained. This is because keeping the Law means keeping all of it, which no human being can ever perfectly do.
It’s not that the Galatians aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping the Law. Rather, he wants them to understand that, having been baptized into the body of Christ, they are no longer children who need a minder. They are free adults, children of God, citizens of the kingdom of God.
Clothed with Christ through baptism
The metaphor that Paul uses to describe the effects of baptism on the believer is that we are now “clothed in Christ.” Paul uses a similar metaphor in Colossians 3:12-15, the theme scripture for the Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference in 2018; the theme itself was “Bound Together, Clothed in Christ.”
What does it mean to be clothed in Christ? First, that there are moral and ethical consequences to becoming a baptized member of the body of Christ. We who have counted the cost of discipleship and chosen this path are called to mirror God’s love and justice to the world. We are called to bear a moral likeness to Christ and be in spiritual communion with him and all other believers. Our calling is to reflect Christ’s beauty, the beauty of humility and freely chosen servanthood.
One of my Brethren heroes is Evelyn Trostle. Evelyn was serving as a Brethren relief worker in Marash during the Armenian genocide. When the French arrived to evacuate the city, Evelyn made a decision. She wrote to her family, “I have decided to stay with my orphans.”
Evelyn’s courage and compassion in choosing to continue to serve the children in her care rather than travel to safety brings tears to my eyes because it was such a beautiful act. In her willingness to face danger and possible death to continue to care for orphaned children, Evelyn Trostle reflected the beauty of Christ’s servanthood and sacrificial love.
No longer Jew nor Greek
Directly on the heels of declaring that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v. 27), Paul goes on to say that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28).
What a radical statement this is! In Paul’s time, just as in our own, these kinds of social, cultural, religious, and even natural distinctions carried tremendous weight in terms of who had access to wealth, power, and freedom, and who must rely on the often-capricious decisions of others who held the power of life and death over them.
In Christ, these distinctions are to be no more. Not only are we called to clothe ourselves in Christ’s compassion, humility, beauty, and love, we are to actively work to dissolve the barriers that separate humanity. Too many Christians today seem to be able to rationalize supporting political initiatives that are both divisive and unjust.
But the Christian community is to be a place not only of unity, but of equality in diversity. The priesthood of all believers is not to be constrained by factors of race, gender, age, ability, ethnicity, nationality, class, or anything else. When Jesus walked among us, he didn’t see distinctions like “prostitute” or “tax collector” or “slave” or “Samaritan” or “Gentile.” He saw human beings.
Regardless of the externals that make us different from one another, we are all equal, sinners gathered before the cross. Christ’s incarnation on earth is meant to end factionalism and division of every kind.
For us, dissolving the barriers that separate humanity often means that we have to learn to see them first. Dissolving barriers means becoming aware of them so that we can work on them, and sometimes becoming aware is painful. Finding out we have obliviously participated in systems of injustice doesn’t feel very good. But it’s rather like starting an exercise regimen at the gym: although it might be painful at first, doing this work will ultimately make us, our church, and our society, much healthier.
Co-heirs with Jesus
The remainder of our passage from Galatians discusses how in Christ we become children of God, “Abraham’s offspring,” and “heirs according to the promise.”
In the ancient Roman world, it was legally permissible for Roman citizens to adopt someone—even as an adult—in order to elevate that person’s status in society as part of the family. Here Paul proclaims that even as we were slaves under the law, tasked with nothing more and nothing less than total obedience, in Christ we are not only set free but adopted, made children of God.
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the elder brother of the returned prodigal seems to not understand the distinction between child and slave. When his father implores him to join the celebration of his brother’s safe return, the elder son responds, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command” (v. 29). He has equated sonship with obedience, as though he were merely a slave, failing to understand the freedom that comes with being a son.
Paul tells the Galatians that, through baptism, they are both children of God and heirs according to the promise given to Abraham. After Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice even his beloved son, God tells Abraham that he will be blessed, and that by his offspring all nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 22:17-18). Our freedom as sons and daughters of God and spiritual descendants of Abraham is to be both blessed and a blessing to others.
Which circles back to slavery or servanthood. The freest person of all is the one who chooses to be servant of all, just as Christ did. Jesus lived out this voluntary loving servanthood throughout his earthly ministry, but especially in his incarnation as a human being (Philippians 2:7), his washing of his disciples’ feet—a task customarily done by slaves (John 13:1-17), and his willing acceptance of death on a cross.
Like Jesus, we are truly free when we have a minimum of external restraints, such as the Law, and a maximum of internal motivation. We are truly free when we permit God to do whatever God wills with our entire lives.
Bobbi Dykema is pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Ill.