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Paul’s Letters and Modern Race Relations

In the nineteenth century debates about slavery, Christians using the Bible were—those who were in support of a slavery position—really emphasized those Pauline epistles that were mainly written by his disciples that were really emphasizing the submission of slaves to their slave owners.  And, those epistles are, were very, very, deeply unpopular, as you can imagine, among slave Christians.  Other parts of the Bible have more liberative themes and those who were anti-slavery obviously focused on those a great deal.

In the nineteenth and twentieth century, on into today, those who are looking at Paul’s letters to think about race relations are beginning to emphasize the liberative themes that do appear in Paul’s epistles.  I think the most liberative moment is probably the great verse in Gal 3:28.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female, slave or free, but we are all one—you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  That key verse gets that three ways that humans often divide themselves: Jew or Greek representing today, analogous to racial divisions or ethnic divisions; male and female, obviously representing gender conflict that is much more important to us in our society than it was for Paul.  But then of course, the slave or free, may be getting at economic relationships and divisions between people.  The emphasis in Paul’s epistles is much more on the unity across the Christian community versus paying primary allegiance to any one of those three areas.

  • Love L. Sechrest is associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and co-chair of the African American Biblical Hermeneutics section in the Society of Biblical Literature. She is the author of A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2010).