A creed at the heart of our story

Stephen J. Patterson is a scholar, teacher and writer. Born in South Dakota he was, for more than 20 years, professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ closely-related seminary in St. Louis. He comes back to his home state from time to time and on a couple of occasions I have had the opportunity to hear him speak and to talk to him about his research and writing. So when I found out that he has a new book, his tenth, I rushed to pick up a copy. Trying not to collect more physical books, I had to wait a while for the electronic version to be available. amazon.com offered a preview that contained the introduction and part of the first chapter, which I downloaded and read. Yesterday, when I checked, he entire book was available and though it was a busy day, I managed to read the first three chapters. I’m fairly sure I will have read the entire book in a week or so.

The basic thesis of the book is that Paul’s formula in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” is part of an ancient baptismal creed that gives a particular insight into the earliest communities of the Jesus movement, before there was an organized church, formal theology or doctrine. Patterson is a very accomplished scholar and an insightful translator of Greek and he has offered a compelling argument that the words did not originate with Paul, but were part of a then well-known liturgy used by those in the Jesus movement and employed by Paul in his letter to make his argument, which focused mostly on his assertion that Gentiles should be accepted as full members of the movement without circumcision, an idea that was not universally accepted among the faithful, many of whom assumed that to be a follower of Jesus one must accept the law and disciplines of Jewish life and faith.

If Patterson is right, there is, at the very core of the Christian faith, a deep assertion that race, class and gender are human constructs, not recognized by God. We humans are quick to fear that which is different and to make distinctions between us and the other. And, in our fear, we set up all kinds of barriers that separate people from one another. Certainly the world of the early church was one in which racism, classism and patriarchy were the rule, not the exception. For the earliest followers of Jesus to declare at the time of baptism that these distinctions disappeared in the eyes of God was a radical statement.

Patterson’s book raises a disturbing question. If this lies at the core and the foundations of Christian faith, how did the Christian church grow into an institution that is Gentile where anti-semitism and hatred of Jews has been common, where slavery was condoned by many Christian congregations and members and where patriarchy is still commonly practiced? There are many who claim the title of Christian who openly practice anti-semitism. There are many who have claimed a relationship between their Christian faith and their racist views. And, you may have noticed that it isn’t just the Roman Catholic Church that is unlikely to ordain women soon. Many fundamentalist congregations cite other comments in the letters of Paul and in letters by others that claim to be letters of Paul as reasons to deny the leadership of women.

Race, class and gender have been championed inside the church as much as outside of it. Those distinctions, however, have been drawn from the surrounding culture and not from the core of the Christian faith. Patterson eloquently argues that despite the way that Paul has been portrayed, he accepted this ancient creed. It is clear that there were women in the early churches that Paul founded and that he was dependent upon the leadership of women as he extended the reach of Christianity. It is also clear that Paul embraced Jesus’ rejection of class distinctions and associated with those on the margins of society. But it was on the issue of race that Paul was most outspoken. He became the champion of arguing that Gentiles as well as Jews were essential to the Jesus movement and to the churches that followed. He argued that conformity to Jewish dietary laws was no longer the mark of faith in God. People could, through Jesus Christ, come into relationship with God and not be bound by the traditions and practices of Judaism. His argument clearly extended to circumcision. Without getting into the ancient practice of genital mutilation, it is clear that circumcision was a barrier for many early believers in Jesus when it came to embracing the movement. If, as Patterson argues, the distinction between Jew and Gentile was not only discarded by Paul, but also a part of an even more ancient creed of baptism, the rejection of race as a category comes not from some attempt at political correctness or drive to extend the impact of the church, but from God’s rejection of the human construct of race made evident in the ministries of Jesus and the practices of the most ancient communities of his disciples.

Clearly issues of class, race and gender continue to be divisive in our society and in the contemporary church. Open any news media and stories of racism, classism and patriarchy dominate the headlines. Today’s New York Times has stories about sexual harassment at Google, about the funerals for the victims of the worst anti-anti-Semitic attack in the history of our country, and about the ways money is manipulated to give political advantage to some while denying power to others. Issues of race, class and gender are at the core of the upcoming election and the deep divides that scar our nation.

Patterson’s call to return to the creed of “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” is poignant in today’ world. His book has already provided me with much upon which to think. And I haven’t even finished reading it yet.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!