The following is a lightly edited excerpt from The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism by Stephen J. Patterson. Copyright © 2018 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
On a warm, June Sunday in St. Louis I wandered with an old friend through the church where, earlier that morning, my children had been baptized. We came to the baptismal font, around which our family had gathered for the ceremony during the regular Sunday service. It was about four feet high, just low enough for my daughter to reach up and fiddle her fingers in the water and watch the droplets dribble back into its shallow pool. My friend, who had grown up in a secular upper-class home in Tito’s Yugoslavia, had little knowledge of fonts and baptism and the goings-on that morning. So he asked, what does it mean, baptism?
The question gave me pause. When you baptize a baby, it is a kind of naming ceremony, like those found in many societies. When you are baptized, like I was, on the eve of puberty, it is a coming-of-age ceremony, a rite de passage—again, a common practice across cultures. Sometimes, though rarely, an adult is baptized. Then it signals a religious conversion, the culmination of a profound personal transformation. I rambled. “But what do you think it means?” he asked. It was a fair question. I had just seen my own children baptized.
“It means,” I said, “you’re a child of God.”
“So you’re saved?” No. That’s not what I meant. That is what most people assume it means. That is what most people think the Christian religion is all about: salvation. But that is not really it. Earlier that morning the minister had used words from an ancient, nearly forgotten credo once associated with baptism. “You are children of God,” she said. “There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female.” The words were from a letter of Paul the Apostle, who had taken them, in turn, from an ancient baptismal creed he had come to know through the Jesus movement. That is what it’s about—being a child of God. Ethnicity (no Jew or Greek), class (no slave or free), and gender (no male and female) count neither for you nor against you. We are all children of God. He was skeptical. An early Christian creed about race, class, and gender? Unbelievable.
Why not be skeptical? What has Christianity ever had to say about race, class, and gender? I suspect that most people would think nothing good. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American life. From the time African slaves first began to convert to the religion of their masters, whites prohibited blacks from worshipping with them—still true in most American churches until after the civil rights era.
Then, in the 1960s, white churches began to “open their doors” to African Americans and—surprise—most blacks said “thanks, but no thanks.” This wasn’t major league baseball, after all. Most African Americans preferred to worship in the churches their ancestors had built of necessity—theirs, now, by choice—rather than join churches that had shunned them for more than a century. The story of race and religion in America is pocked with indignities large and small. So, while police departments, public schools, restaurants, the United States military, and baseball have all become racially integrated, America’s churches have not. It may be that the church is the last truly segregated public space in America.
How about class? Does Christianity have anything helpful to say about class? Perhaps. You might hear “blessed are the poor” on any given Sunday, but more likely you will hear “blessed are the poor in spirit.” The words of Jesus are assumed to be about your spiritual life, not your finances—unless, of course, you attend one of the larger, far more successful churches where the “prosperity gospel” is preached, where the word is always about your finances. If you believe, keep the right company, straighten out your life, and tithe, you will prosper. The millionaire preaching these words to you is a witness to his own truth. The faithful definitely will prosper. And what of those who do not? Well, anyone can read those tealeaves. In today’s fastest-growing churches, the gospel is all about class.
And gender? Simply put, the church is the last, greatest bastion of gender bias in American society. The Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests and probably never will. Neither do the Orthodox churches. The largest Protestant denominations do not ordain women as ministers, nor do most of the historically black churches. Only the small denominations once known as the “mainline” churches ordain women—and these are the churches that are in decline. My own United Church of Christ, the oldest church in the United States, which ordained the first woman minister in the mid-nineteenth century, now has fewer than a million members. Today the Mormons outnumber the church of the Pilgrims seven to one—and the Mormons are not ordaining any women. The church is the last institution in America where it is still legal to discriminate on the basis of gender.
So, an ancient Christian credo declaring solidarity across ethnic lines, class division, and gender difference sounded a little unbelievable to someone who had come to see the Christian church as more a symbol of social ills than of starry-eyed utopian dreams. And that these words could have come from the Apostle Paul—to anyone with a passing familiarity with Christianity—would have seemed more incredible still. Most people today assume that Paul is the father of Christian anti-Semitism, was profoundly misogynistic, and was authoritarian when it came to slavery. Let wives be submissive and slaves be obedient, he taught. Or so they think. And why not? Clear statements to that effect appear in the New Testament letters claiming the great apostle’s authorship—Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. But every beginning student of the Bible learns that these letters are pseudonymous, forgeries. Paul did not write them. On the other hand, Paul himself did indeed write the Epistle to the Galatians, including the remarkable words of Galatians 3: 26–28:
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus; for as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ: there is no Jew or Greek;
there is no slave or free; there is no male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The debate about the meaning and significance of this passage began already in the early twentieth century. In 1909, the German Catholic scholar Johannes Belser noticed it and its remarkable claim and argued that Paul could not have meant anything social or political by it.1 It simply meant that everyone is equal in the sight of the Lord. But the Protestant Liberal Heinrich Weinel, who helped to found something called the Freie Volkskirche (the Free People’s Church), a hotbed of theological liberalism and social democratic reform in early-twentieth-century Germany, saw it differently. He argued that Galatians 3:28 was at the heart of Paul’s radical social vision—even if his own nerves would not quite tolerate the fullness of that vision in real time.2
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