Australian passports have three gender options male (M), female (F) and indeterminate/intersex/unspecified (X). Today it’s possible to change one’s preferred sex! And the Western Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended leaving gender off birth certificates, as well as adding a third official option of “non-binary”. Meanwhile, Facebook has 71 gender options (see Appendix)! The reason for this is that the word “gender” has different meanings today. I thought that it meant whether one is biologically male or female. But now it’s also used for the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex and to indicate whether one feels male or female regardless of their biological sex.
Popular culture accepts the idea that gender is fluid and is disconnected from biological sex. If gender is fluid, a biological male can identify as a female. If gender is fluid, perhaps there are more than just two genders. And gender can be seen as more of a spectrum. Now gender is seen as a matter of choice – an expression of how we see ourselves and how we show ourselves in the world. But this can lead to stress and confusion if our gender doesn’t match our biological sex.
According to Corney (2016), there are four stages in the recent history of sexual politics in the West. These are:
– Stage one: The cause of women’s rights to equality.
– Stage two: The decriminalisation of homosexuality and Gay rights.
– Stage three: The legalization of same sex marriage.
– Stage four: The gender fluidity debate. This is the stage we are currently entering. Gender fluidity is based on two ideas; a sharp distinction between sex and gender and the claim that our gender identity is not determined by our biology or the prevailing social construct of heterosexuality but by individual choice.
What does the Bible say about biological sex?
The Bible says that God created humanity as male and female (Gen. 1:27; 5:2). As this happened before the fall of humanity into sinful behavior, it was God’s original perfect plan. Jesus repeated that “at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’” (Mt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6NIV). So the Bible teaches that the biological sex of human beings is binary/dual – each person is either male or female.
Our biological sex is determined at birth. Every baby I know is called either a girl or a boy. There is no ambiguity about this. And it can’t change throughout life. Every cell in our body has either XX (female) or XY (male) sexual chromosomes. Our chromosomes are different. Our hormones are different. Our voices are different. Our body shapes are different. Our body strengths are different. Our reproductive systems are different. We think differently, learn differently, and are generally motivated by different ideas. And we can’t change that! It’s claimed that “up to 1.7% of people have intersex traits” (where it’s difficult to know whether a baby is a boy or a girl), but I don’t know anyone in this category. So, I think this figure is inflated. The figure mentioned for USA is 0.05% of the population.
What does the Bible say about gender?
The first gender role mentioned in the Bible is marriage: “That [the creation of woman] is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united [in marriage] to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). In this basic human relationship, the male’s role is as a husband and the female’s role is as a wife. As the first marriage (between Adam and Eve) happened before the fall of humanity into sinful behavior, it was God’s original perfect plan that gender is fixed and is connected to biological sex. Biblical marriage is between one man and one woman.
After the fall into sin, all God’s creation was flawed. So gender behavior didn’t always follow God’s plan. For example, there are examples of adultery, rape, and polygamy in the Bible. These are reports of what happened in biblical times and not commands or models for us to follow.
Jesus repeated God’s command for marriage that “For this reason [the two sexes] a man will leave his father and mother and be united [in marriage] to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Mt. 19:5; Mk. 10:7). So about 2,000 years ago, it was still God’s intention that gender is fixed and is connected to biological sex. But in a sinful world this is not always the case. For example, in Australia it’s legal for a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman (homosexual marriage, or “marriage equality”), even though this is against what God says in the Bible.
Jesus used one set of terms to refer to “male and female” – two biological sexes. He used a different set of terms to refer to a “man” and his “wife” – two gender roles. There are two sexes, and there are two genders. This strongly suggests that biological sex determines gender as the norm for human existence.
In Paul’s commands about marriage, he always assumes that marriage is between one man and one woman (1 Cor. 7:1-16; Eph. 5:22-33). And he repeated God’s command for marriage that “For this reason [the two sexes] a man will leave his father and mother and be united [in marriage] to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). This shows that under the new covenant, God’s plan is still that gender is fixed and is connected to biological sex.
Proper gender behavior in marriage is important because it symbolizes the relationship between divinity and humanity. In the Old Testament, God is symbolized as the husband and the nation of Israel is symbolized as His wife (Jer.3:14). Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is symbolized as the husband and the church (Christians) is symbolized as His wife (Eph. 5:22-32).
What does the Bible say about cross-dressing?
The Israelites were not to cross-dress: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this” (Dt. 22:5). According to the context of this verse it seems that the main reason for this law is that cross-dressing blurred the basic distinctions of gender duality (male and female) established in creation. The issue at stake is blurring the distinctions in external appearances between women and men. God is saying here that a man ought to look like a man, and a woman ought to look like a woman. The law is against the wearing of any item specifically intended for the opposite sex. The distinctives of each sex should be maintained and protected in regard to outward appearance.
At that time men probably wore a shorter skirt than women and may have carried weapons and tools. Whereas women’s clothing may have used finer materials, vivid colors and distinctive embroidery. This law under the Mosaic covenant isn’t mentioned in the New Testament. But Paul mentions a gender distinction in hair length (1 Cor. 11:14-15). So a possible conclusion is that God still wants His people to do their best to avoid any confusion over gender identity.
We are to respect and honor God’s perfect decision to create us as women or men. We are not to alter our clothing, accessories, cosmetics, hair styles, gait, body language, speech patterns, lifestyles, or anatomy in order to appear to others, or ourselves, to be the opposite sex. To do so is to tell God that His decision to make us a woman or a man was wrong. That is rebellion.
The Bible does not give us free rein to choose our sexual preferences and gender identity. Our culture has taken something simple and obvious, and made it complex and complicated.
The entire Biblical context is that of men and women each operating within the biology given to them by the one true God who created all things. God determines our biological sex. And there is no mention of us determining our own gender identity. Any mismatch between the two is a result of human sinfulness. Sin is when one actualizes their own desires that are contrary to God’s desires. When a person says they are a different gender than their biology indicates, they are saying “I know better than God”.
The Bible clearly differentiates between temptations to sin and the committing of sins (Jas. 1:12-16). To have “feelings” of confusion and to experience temptations to adopt a lifestyle of the opposite sex (either temporarily or permanently) is not sinful. But when one gives in to temptation and does anything contrary to God’s will, it’s sinful.
Meanwhile, our culture’s gender stereotypes are often too rigid. Masculinity isn’t only about sports, fighting and womanizing. And femininity isn’t only about dresses or ‘girly’ things. We don’t need a new body, and we don’t need to invent a new gender for ourselves because God doesn’t make mistakes. There is great diversity within the male and female genders, so we don’t need to go outside them to find ourselves.
Life is difficult and we all feel insecure at times. If we find our identity in things that don’t last, we will be disappointed. But we are all made in God’s image and we all have a unique genetic makeup in every cell of our body (Gen. 1:27). That’s a good start, but Christians have a new identity that’s eternal (2 Cor. 5:17). Christians are chosen, loved, accepted, forgiven, possessed by God, and indwelt by God (Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Pt. 2:9-10). They are set apart for God and through Jesus they have direct access to God. And they are to serve God. God has given them this identity and purpose so they can reveal God’s identity to others. And they look forward to spending eternity with God. This is the only robust and secure identity that’s available to us (Heb. 6:19).
The reason we struggle to find our identity and meaning in life, is because we’re separated from God (Rom. 3:23). But Jesus bridged the gap so we can be reconciled with God (Jn. 3:16). If we chose to follow Him, our identity is in Jesus Christ.
The biblical perspective is that human gender is fixed and is connected to biological sex, which is binary (male of female). Gender diversity/fluidity is a rejection of God’s plans for humanity. It’s sinful to change our gender according to individual choice. According to the media, this kind of sin is becoming more prevalent. As believers, like Jesus we can love, help, and serve sinners without condoning, accepting, or compromising with behavior that God deems sinful (Jn. 8:3-11).
Appendix: Facebook’s 71 gender options
Agender (without gender identity; no gender identity)
Androgyne (a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics; ambiguous gender identity)
Androgynes (a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics; ambiguous gender identity)
Androgynous (a mix of female and male characteristics in appearance and dress)
Bigender (changes between masculine and feminine behavior for the situation)
Cis (“cisgender”, gender identity matches biological sex)
Cis Male (male with masculine gender identity)
Cis Man (male with masculine gender identity)
Cis Woman (female with feminine gender identity )
Cisgender (gender identity matches biological sex)
Cisgender Female (female with feminine gender identity)
Cisgender Male (male with masculine gender identity )
Cisgender Man (male with masculine gender identity)
Cisgender Woman (female with feminine gender identity )
Female to Male (female with masculine gender identity)
FTM (“female to male”; female with masculine gender identity)
Gender Fluid (experience an entire range or spectrum of gender identities over time)
Gender Nonconforming (do not dress, behave, or otherwise “fit in” with gender expectations)
Gender Questioning (exploring their gender identity and how to express it)
Gender Variant (gender identity does not conform to socially defined masculine or feminine gender norms)
Genderqueer (embrace a fluidity of gender identity)
Intersex (characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female)
Male to Female (male with feminine gender identity)
MTF (“male to female”; male with feminine gender identity)
Neither (not putting a label on one’s gender identity)
Non-binary (nether masculine or feminine gender identity)
Other (choosing to not provide a commonly recognized label to one’s gender identity)
Pangender (inclusive of gender diverse people)
Trans (gender identity doesn’t match biological sex)
Trans Female (male with feminine gender identity)
Trans Male (female with masculine gender identity)
Trans Man (female wit masculine gender identity)
Trans Person (gender identity doesn’t match biological sex)
Trans*Female (male with feminine gender identity)
Trans*Male (female with masculine gender identity)
Trans*Man (female with masculine gender identity)
Trans*Person (gender identity doesn’t match biological sex)
Trans*Woman (male with feminine gender identity)
Transexual (through surgery and/or hormones, gender identity is opposite to biological sex)
Transexual Female (male with feminine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
Transexual Male (female with masculine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
Transexual Man (female with masculine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
Transexual Person (gender identity is opposite to biological sex)
Transexual Woman (male with feminine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
Transgender Female (male with feminine gender identity)
Transgender Person (gender identity doesn’t match biological sex)
Transmasculine (female with masculine gender identity, but not wholly)
Two-spirit (individual spirits are a blend of male and female)
Asexual (lack of sexual attraction to others)
Female to male trans man (female with masculine gender identity)
Female to male transgender man (female with masculine gender identity)
Female to male transsexual man (female with masculine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
F2M (“female to male”; female with masculine gender identity )
Gender neutral (without gender; no gender identity)
Hermaphrodite (characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female)
Intersex man (characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female, with masculine gender identity)
Intersex person (characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female)
Intersex woman (characteristics are not either all typically male or all typically female, with feminine gender identity)
Male to female trans woman (male with feminine gender identity)
Male to female transgender woman (male with feminine gender identity)
Male to female transsexual woman (male with feminine gender identity through surgery and/or hormones)
Man (male with masculine gender identity)
M2F (“male to female”; male with feminine gender identity)
Polygender (multiple gender identities)
T* man (female with masculine gender identity)
T* woman (male with feminine gender identity)
Two-spirit person (individual spirits are a blend of male and female)
Woman (female with feminine gender identity)
Dascalu, O (2014) “The rationale of the ban on cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5”, Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.
Corney, P (2016) “Gender and gender fluidity: A Christian response”
Written, September 2018
Europe is fracturing over how to handle hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. Many people don’t want refugees in their neighborhood. They look differently, speak differently and there is a lot of resentment. There is a cultural clash – the role of women in society and dress. The Dutch, Danes and French are in favor of gender equality, while the Muslim immigrants see differently.
The Christians in Galatia were being fractured by Jewish legalism. They were adding their previous religion to Christianity. So Paul corrected them vigorously. In this post we look at the meaning of the verse, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28NIV). We will see that instead of discriminating against each other, Paul tells them to concentrate on what they have in common.
The first Christians were Jews and Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:5, 8-11). After Christianity spread to other nations, the question arose as to whether the new Christians needed to follow Jewish practises. This was resolved at a meeting in Jerusalem in AD 49-50 (Acts 15). It was agreed that Jewish practices associated with the law of Moses, like male circumcision, weren’t required for salvation. This is the topic that’s being addressed in Paul’s letter written about AD 48-50 to the churches in Galatia. The theme is the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ.
The major divisions of Paul’s letter are:
– Introduction (1:1-10),
– Paul defends his authority (1:11 – 2:21),
– Christian doctrine (3:1 – 4:31),
– Practical application of the doctrine (5:1 – 6:10), and
– Conclusion (6:11-18).
Galatians 3:28 is in the section on doctrine, which contains the following teaching:
– Faith or works of the law (3:1-14)? This contrasts Christian faith and “the works of the law” (3:2, 10).
– Law versus promise (3:15-22). God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional; it didn’t depend on works at all. The law was given to the Israelites to show humanity’s sinfulness.
– Children of God (3:23-4:7). After the day of Pentecost, Jews and Gentiles could be children together in God’s family. Both Jews and Gentiles as mature sons can inherit God’s blessings promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ.
– Paul’s concern for the Galatians (4:8-20). They were seeking God’s favour by following legal observances. While Paul sought their spiritual welfare, the Judaizers wanted to isolate them from Paul.
– Hagar and Sarah (4:21-31). Hagar represented the law and Sarah represented God’s grace. Hagar’s son (Ishmael) was a slave, while Sarah’s son (Isaac) was free. As Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the Judaizers persecuted the Christians. So don’t mix law and grace. Instead, get rid of the legalism.
Galatians 3:28 is in the subsection on “Children of God”, which teaches:
– Christians aren’t required to keep the law of Moses today. But in the Old Testament times the Jews were viewed as being under the guardianship of the law (3:23-25)
– Christians are children (“sons” in ESV, HCSB, NET) of God through faith in Christ. They share a kind of unity and the inheritance promised to Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ (3:26-29)
– The Christian Jews had changed from being slaves to the law to being sons of God. They have a great inheritance awaiting them (4:1-7).
In Galatians 3:28 Paul tells the Galatian Christians “you are all one in Christ Jesus”. What does this oneness mean? In this case it means a unity in Christ amongst their diversity. At that time “you are all one” was used to signify a common characteristic that was present amongst diverse objects. For example, those who plant and those who water share a common purpose (1 Cor. 3:8), God the Father and God the Son share divinity (Jn. 10:30), husband and wife share “one flesh” (Mt. 19:6; Mk. 10:8), and all Christians share a corporate body in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17). In all these cases the word “one” describes a unity between diverse people, not between similar people. So it means that the diverse believers in Galatia were united in oneness in Christ. They had unity, not uniformity or unlimited equality.
The paragraph v.26-29 is all about being children (or sons) of God. Paul describes how it happens (v.26), when it happens (v.27), what is changed from being under the law of Moses (v.28) and the resultant inheritance (v.29).
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.
The subject of verse 28 is those “in Christ Jesus” (Christians), who are referred to as “you” in verses 26-29. This is in contrast to the previous paragraph (v.23-24) which is addressed to Jews who are indicated by “we”. So there had been a change from living under the law up to the Day of Pentecost to becoming children (or sons) of God through faith in Christ after the Day of Pentecost. Paul told the Galatians, “you are all children of God through faith” (v.26). They had a new spiritual status through their relationship with Christ.
Then Paul explains that the new spiritual status started when they were “baptized into Christ” (v.27). Although it takes place at the time of conversion (the baptism of the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor. 12:13), it’s confessed publicly in water baptism. This public identification with Christ is like a soldier being identified by his uniform: they had clothed themselves with Christ (v.27). Paul has used this metaphor elsewhere for exchanging an old way of life for a new one (Rom. 13:12-14; Eph.6:11-14; Col. 3-10).
Then Paul says that true Christians are united through their common relationship with Christ – they are “all one in Christ Jesus”. In this respect there is no difference between “Jew” and “Gentile”, “slave” and “free”, or “male and female”. Each pair represents all of humanity. These are binary categories of people divided according to race, social class and gender.
We need to interpret Galatians 3:28 in terms of the contrast between the law of Moses and faith in Christ (which is its context). The implication is that in Christianity there is a unity within the categories of people that is absent under the law.
What kind of a unity is this? The doctrinal portion of Galatians (Ch. 3-4) is mainly about the differences between the law of Moses and the Christian faith. These were ways to enter into a relationship with God before/after the day of Pentecost and what that brings. So the unity involves entering a relationship with God and the resultant blessings. It meant that the way of salvation is the same now for both Jew and Gentile. And for both slave and free. And for both male and female. This is consistent with Paul saying that God’s salvation is equally available to everyone regardless of race (Rom. 10:11-13) and that this salvation removes ethnic barriers (Eph. 2:15-16).
Furthermore, all Christians have the same position in Christ regardless of their race, social class and gender. They are all born again, justified, forgiven, redeemed, adopted, a child of God, spiritually alive in Christ, a new creation, in God’s spiritual kingdom, citizens of heaven, seated with Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and headed for heaven. Each also has eternal life and peace with God. So no one has an advantage in the kingdom of God because of their race, social class or gender.
Equality of inheritance of all God’s blessings maybe Paul’s main point because it’s the subject of the next verse: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). This means that no race or social class receives more inheritance than another and that males don’t receive more inheritance than females.
In the New Testament, salvation is described metaphorically as an inheritance which anyone may personally receive. Under the law of Moses, inheritance of land left by their fathers was restricted to Jewish free men (Dt. 21:15-17). That’s probably why Paul introduces slaves (or social class) and women (or gender) into Galatians 3:28. He’s saying that in Christ, Gentiles, slaves and women receive the inheritance in the same way as Jews, the free, and men. So everyone who receives the inheritance of salvation receives it in the same way.
On the other hand, under the law of Moses, Jews were privileged over Gentiles (Dt. 7:6; 14:1-2), and society was hierarchical and patriarchal, with a free man more favoured than a slave and a man more privileged than a woman. Jews were the children of God, while Gentiles were sinners (Gal. 2:15). What a contrast!
Principle and application
According to Grant Ritchison, the principle of Galatians 3:28 is “God does not recognize human distinctions in those who are in Christ”. Then he makes this application:
“Human role distinctions (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Ti. 2:11-15; Eph. 5:22-24; 6:1-8) have nothing to do with our spiritual significance before God. Christian feminists completely miss the point of this passage which says the male has no spiritual privilege over the female. Every person, male or female, rich or poor, has the same spiritual status before God”.
“When we make distinctions in people, we form a basis for prejudice against them, making some superior and others inferior. Christians should not make race, economic status, or gender a measuring stick of acceptance”.
“However, God maintains differences in roles within society. God designed differences in sexual roles so there are functional differences between men and women. He did not create unisex; He created gender difference. If so, where is the distinction? Spiritually, men and women are the same. Physically and functionally, they are different. Spiritual blessing is one thing but human function is another thing”.
What does it mean today?
Today it means that the diverse believers in any place are united in a oneness in Christ. As the context is one’s standing before God and one’s spiritual relationships and blessings and not one’s functions or roles (in the family, in the church or in society), it means that racial, social and gender distinctives are irrelevant to salvation (entering into a relationship with God). These distinctives are also irrelevant to position before God and the blessings that accompany salvation.
Consequently, because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different race and respect their customs. It’s unity amidst ethnic (or cultural) diversity and not showing ethnic (or cultural) bias or favoritism. Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch because Peter was following the prejudice of His previous religion (Gal. 2:11-14).
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different social class and respect their position in society. It’s unity amidst social diversity and not showing social bias or favoritism.
Because of what we share in Christ, believers should accept Christians of a different gender and respect their gender. It’s unity amidst male and female and not showing gender bias or favoritism.
The same applies to all other differences between people that don’t affect salvation like: rich/poor, younger/older, literate/illiterate, socialist/capitalist etc. Christians who differ in these respects should also be accepted without bias or favoritism.
After all, Paul encouraged the Jewish and Christian believers in the church at Rome to live harmoniously (Rom. 15:5). His guiding principle for them was “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). If Christ has accepted a person, then we should also accept them. Then he reminds them that the ministry of Jesus Christ includes Jews and Gentiles, and the implication is that we should welcome both as well (Rom. 15:8-13).
India is a large country with a range of races, languages, cultures, customs and religious faiths. It is multiracial and multicultural. In spite of this diversity, there is a sense of national unity and oneness among all the Indians that keeps them bonded together.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Galatians 3:28 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– we ignore or remove all ethnic or cultural customs, or
– we ignore or remove all social differences, or
– we ignore or remove all gender differences by assuming that their roles are identical. If this aspect is elevated to override the rest of Scripture, it can be used to justify homosexuality.
So the Christian faith wasn’t designed to abolish racial, social and gender distinctions. In fact, it’s impossible to obliterate one’s race or gender.
“You are all one” doesn’t mean you are all equal. Because people are equal in one respect (salvation and its blessings), it doesn’t follow that they are equal (the same) in other respects. For example, it doesn’t mean that men and women have interchangeable roles in the home and church.
Instead, the New Testament does recognize the distinction between races (Rom. 15:27; Gal. 2:14) and between slaves and masters (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22 – 4:1). It also recognizes the distinction between men and women. For example, the elders that lead the early church were always male (1 Tim. 3:2; Ti. 1:6). In order to practice the teachings of the early church it’s important not to be deceived by the emphasis on gender equality in the western world.
Instead, let’s accept a diversity of customs and social class and distinct male and female roles without unbiblical bias or favoritism. After all each of us has a particular race, a particular social class and a particular gender. But these differences don’t matter in one’s relationship with God.
Paul has expressed similar thoughts to this in other Scriptures.
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). This verse refers to the “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (3:10). It follows references to the believer’s standing and state (or position and practice). He wants their state to be consistent with their standing (or their daily behavior to be consistent with their Christian faith). Verse 11 teaches that as far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. Christ “is in all” in the form of the Holy Spirit. So no-one is spiritually superior to anyone else. And Christians can no longer blame and excuse wrong conduct (such as anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, v. 8-9) on racial background (“Gentile or Jew”) or social class (“barbarian, Scythian, slave or free”).
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). Each Christian is different (like a part of a body), but they share the fact that each is baptized by and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the case regardless of their race (“Jews or Gentiles”) or social class (“slave or free”). So as far as salvation goes, ethnic and social distinctions are irrelevant.
So in AD 55 and AD 60, Paul told those in Corinth and Colossae that race and social class were irrelevant to salvation and wrong behaviour. And we have seen that in AD 50 Paul told those in Galatia that race, social class and gender were irrelevant to the way of salvation and their position “in Christ”. So Paul’s teaching is consistent over this ten-year period.
Practical applications in Galatians
Galatians 3:28 is in the doctrinal portion of this letter (3:1-4:31). The practical applications made in the letter are:
– Don’t tolerate legalism, like requiring believers to follow the law of Moses (5:1-12)
– Serve one another humbly in love (6:13-15)
– Express the fruit of the Spirit, not the acts of the flesh (5:16-26)
– Share each other’s burdens (6:1-6)
– Do good to all, especially to believers (6:7-10).
Note that none of these applications relate to gender roles or functions in the church. In fact, there is no mention of gender roles in the whole letter. Therefore, to apply Romans 3:28 to gender roles or functions in the church is “cherry-picking” (in this case taking a verse totally out of context and reading in a meaning that wasn’t intended by the author).
More on slavery and gender
We have looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about slavery. The Bible contains additional instructions for slaves that were written about AD 60-64 (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; Phile.; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Ti. 2:9-10; 1 Pt. 2:18-21). These mainly involve obeying, serving and respecting their master. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing slavery, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 10-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that slaves and their masters can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ. This is equivalent to saying that people in all social classes and positions in society can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have also looked at what Paul wrote (~ AD 50) in Galatians 3:28 about gender. The Bible contains additional instructions for women that were written about AD 55-64 (1 Cor. 11:3-16; 14:34-35; Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Ti. 2:9-15; 1 Pt. 3:1-6). These mainly involve godly behavior, including submission to husbands. If Galatians 3:28 meant abolishing gender roles, then we would expect this to be mentioned in some of these passages which were written 5-14 years afterwards. But it isn’t. This is consistent with Galatians 3:28 teaching that women and their husbands can share the same Christian faith and have the same inheritance in Christ.
We have seen from Galatians 3:28 that in Christianity, ethnic (cultural), social and gender differences are demolished with regard to our salvation, our position before God and our inheritance. That’s why the labels that can separate believers are often replaced by the words “brother” and “sister”. All believers are saved the same way and all are entitled to the same privileges as children (sons) of God.
So, instead of discriminating against other Christians like the Galatians, let’s concentrate on what we have in common.
Hove R. W. (1999) “Equality in Christ? Galatians 3:28 and the gender dispute”, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.
Ritchison G. <www.versebyversecommentary.com/galatians/galatians-338>, 1 March 2016
Written, March 2016
Also see: May we go in there?
The need to be culturally relevant
How can the local church, which originated almost 2,000 years ago, survive in a world of diverse languages, customs and ways of life? In particular, how does the church balance a changeless message in an ever changing culture?
The Church is Multicultural
History shows that Christianity and the church have been multicultural across both time and space. They have survived from the first century to the twenty first century. During this period, Christianity was practised in the Roman Empire, in the feudal hierarchical system of the Middle Ages, in the Reformation of the 1500s, in the revivals of the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern world. These were all radically different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across history.
Through missionaries, Christianity and the church has spread geographically across the world, first across the Middle East and then around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe, and finally to colonies across the world as they were visited by European nations. Today, there are churches in virtually every country, although in some places they meet in secret because of persecution. In all these countries there are different cultures with different technology, different languages, different ways of life and different customs. So, the church has adapted to various cultures across the world. Today, it is multicultural.
It was God’s intention that the church be multicultural. On the day the church began, God did a linguistic miracle, so those present could all hear the wonders of God in their native language (Acts 2:1-13) . Christianity was to go to all language groups. As this was a new thing, when Peter was about to visit a Gentile, he was given a vision that taught him that God accepts believers from all nations (Acts 10:35). Peter needed to be retrained to know that God doesn’t have any favourites in the church. So, Christianity was to go to all nations, to all cultures. That’s why before He ascended, the Lord told His followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8TNIV). They took Christianity to the ends of their known world and today it has spread across the globe.
Finally, in heaven Jesus will be praised because He “purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). So, Christianity will go to all tribes, to all language groups, to all nations, to all cultures across the world.
Now we will look at how the church survives in these different cultures. The Bible records the history of the Jewish nation over a period of about 2,000 years. The coming of their Messiah had such an impact that Scripture is divided into two parts: the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament describes what life was like before Christ and the New Testament what it was like after Christ. Let’s see what the Lord said about this change.
The Importance of Wineskins
In Luke 5:33-35 the religious leaders criticized Jesus because His disciples did not fast (go without eating) as was their custom. Jesus gave a reason for not following all the religious customs of that time and He explained it further with a parable: “People do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Lk. 5:37-38).
In ancient times goatskins were used to hold wine (1 Sam.1:24). After the animal was skinned, the skin was tanned, the openings were sewn shut, the neck of the goat was used for the spout, and unfermented grape juice was poured in. Afterwards the neck was sewn shut and the fermentation process began. As the fresh grape juice fermented it gave off carbon dioxide which stretched the new leather wineskin (Job 32:18-19). Only a new wineskin would have the capacity to stretch and not break during the process of fermentation. A used wineskin would break because it was already stretched and hardened and was no longer elastic or flexible. It had lost its power to stretch any more and so was no longer an effective container for the wine. Jesus’ hearers knew not to use old skins with new wine.
The wineskin contained the wine and protected it from the outside environment. This is shown schematically in the diagram as three components: the wineskin (represented by a circle); the wine inside the skin and the environment outside the skin.
This parable, which is reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, illustrated a truth that Jesus was teaching. From the diagram it can be seen that the wineskin is the point of contact between the wine and the world (or the surrounding environment). Old “wine” represented the OT law and old “wineskins” represented the Jewish practices of carrying out the law, both of which are described in the Old Testament. Jesus introduced the “new wine” of the gospel of God’s salvation through the death of Christ as a substitute for us all (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor.3:6). The lesson was that the Jewish practices were too old, weak and rigid for the gospel. They needed to be replaced. The gospel would be destroyed if they tried to express it through the Jewish practices. Because there was a new wine, there needed to be a new wineskin. So, because the gospel was new and different to the Old Testament law, it could not be expressed by the Jewish customs and practices that were related to the law. This problem was faced by the early church in Galatia and other places.
Instead, new Christian practices were required to express Christ’s teachings: “Pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt. 9:17). The new covenant which Jesus was instituting must bring with it new structures, new forms, new practices; which are those for the church. The application of this illustration to the church era is shown schematically as three components: Christian practices (represented by the circle), Christian principles inside the circle and circumstances outside the circle.
Action is essential for putting the principles into practice. Our practices are important because they are the visible aspect of our faith. For example, Jesus said that people will recognize His disciples if they love one another (Jn. 13:35). Furthermore, James wrote, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” and John wrote “let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17-18). So genuine faith and love will produce action. The practices are the action part of our faith, when the principles are expressed in an active way in our world.
Next we will look at the wineskins and then the environment outside the skins.
There is an important difference between the “wineskins” of the Old Testament and those of the New Testament. This is a difference between Jewish practices and Christian practices.
The Old Testament has many detailed laws about how the Jews were to behave including: social life; the tent and temple where sacrifices were made to God; the sacrifices; the priests; health regulations; and religious festivals; even down to circumcising male babies. These characterised the Jewish way of life.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament, where the emphasis is on principles that can be expressed and practiced in many ways in different cultures. For example, Jesus summarised the law as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37-39).
We need to distinguish between the principles and the practices. Scriptural principles are fixed by Scripture. However, we need to interpret these and sometimes there is more than one interpretation. On the other hand, Christian practices are expressions of divine principles in a particular human situation. They can change according to local circumstances. They are multicultural. They enable the changeless principles to be applied to any culture. This is one of the liberties of the Christian faith.
Having the practices between the principles and the circumstances also reflects our dual citizenship. We live under human government and we serve the Lord of heaven: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). Our values are heavenly and our impact and service is earthly.
Responding to Circumstances
We now look at how this applied to the early church. In the above parable, Jesus taught that if the principles (wine) changed, then the practices (wineskins) should change. What if there are changes to the circumstances we live in, which are represented by the outside environment in the illustration? Biological organisms respond to changes in their environment, otherwise there is no evidence of life. Likewise, the early church was urged to address the circumstances it faced.
In the first century, local churches in different places faced different circumstances. This is reflected in the topics of the letters that were written to these churches. For example, some of the issues they faced were:
- Corinth: factions, immorality, litigation, disorder, false teaching
- Galatia: legalism
- Ephesus: false teachers, lacked love
- Thessalonica: persecution, misunderstandings about death and the second coming, idleness
- Smyrna: persecution, poverty,
- Thytaria: immorality and idolatry
- Sardis: lacked spiritual life
- Loadicea: material wealth, stagnant.
In all these situations the writer was inspired by God to tell the church how to respond to their particular circumstances. In particular, the elders at Ephesus were told to be alert for false teachers: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). They are told to “keep watch” over themselves and the congregation, to “Be shepherds of the church of God” and to be on their guard for threats to the congregation (Acts 20:28, 31). This means being vigilant and aware of the circumstances that are faced from both within and outside the local church. They were to protect the congregation like a shepherd protected their sheep from predators. So church elders are to be active and responsive to the circumstances being faced, not passive and unresponsive.
Past, Present and Future
Human behavior is influenced by past experiences, present circumstances and goals for the future. This means that the circumstances faced in the local church can relate to the past, the present or the future.
Influences from the past may be traditions handed down from previous times. These are practices that were followed beforehand. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites for placing more importance on their traditions than on God’s commands (Mk. 7:1-9; Lk. 6:1-11). They imposed many laws on the common people and treated their traditions as though they were scriptural truths.
Jesus also said, “And none of you, after drinking old wine wants the new, for you say, ‘The old is better’” (Lk. 5:39). This indicates people’s reluctance to replace the old for the new. In context, it meant that the Jews of the first century would find it hard to make the change to accept Christianity. They would be reluctant to give up their traditional Jewish ways and try the gospel. It was probably directed at the Pharisees who questioned Jesus. Given this trait of human nature, today some will be reluctant to accept new practices. There is a tendency to perpetuate long-established practices, but our security should be in the principles, not in the practices.
Influences from the present are current circumstances that demand a response. For example, language, way of life and geographic spread of the congregation. These circumstances change with time because life is dynamic.
Influences from the future may be goals that the local church has agreed to move towards.
The balance between these influences will control the practices within a local church at a given point in time. This is shown schematically in the diagram, where the changeless is shown in blue and the variable is shown in black.
Lessons for us
God has established the local church so that it can function in all cultures across the world. The truths of the gospel and the church should be expressed by the practices of the local church in a manner that takes account of changes in culture, technology, language, way of life and customs. That’s how the church is multicultural.
We need to distinguish between Scriptural principles and Christian practices: principles are fixed, whereas the practices can change and should change when there are significant changes in circumstances. We should know the purpose behind our practices, and periodically consider whether other methods would be more appropriate. A practice shouldn’t be viewed as better only because it is old, or better simply because it is new.
Local churches all face different circumstances. Today we need to be aware of the circumstances we face, including the changing culture of our world. If the local church is to be sustainable, we need to know our circumstances and decide how they affect our expression of the principles. If its practices don’t change, the local church becomes a stagnant and unresponsive subculture that will die out. There is no future for churches that are content with the old and caught up in the traditions and the forms of 50 or 100 years ago. Let’s face it, the world we live in has changed drastically over the last 40 years.
This is a challenge that is faced by all local churches, particularly in times of rapid cultural changes. It’s not enough to be a church that is based on Scripture; there is also a need to be culturally relevant. Our vision should include these two components: Scriptural principles that reflect our Lord and our heavenly citizenship and practices that relate to the physical world we live in. Let’s be a Biblical church that is culturally relevant.
Written, November 2007
See earlier article on scriptural principles and practices:
– Practicing scriptural principles
Change is a major characteristic of our modern world. For example, technological developments, increased mobility and multiculturalism all impact on our way of life. How then, should believers respond, both individually and collectively, to change and diversity in their communities?
Two New Testament truths seem relevant here, namely: acceptance, not favoritism; and principles, not regulations.
It is important that we practice New Testament attitudes and behaviors, and not those more appropriate to Old Testament times.
Acceptance – not favoritism
God’s favored people in the Old Testament, the children of Israel, were of one nationality. They were given special promises (Gen. 12:2-3; 17:7-8), the sign of circumcision, and detailed rules and regulations for their customs and culture. (See Exodus to Deuteronomy). Other nations were despised as they had detestable customs (Lev. 18:30).
But in Christ, God’s favor and loving concern now extends to all humanity (Jn. 3:16-17), as His salvation is for all people and nations across the world (Mt. 28:19; Acts 1:8).
The New Testament principle is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people who follow Him from every nation (Acts 10:34-35). All believers are now accepted and favored by God, regardless of their nationality, customs, culture, status in society, or gender (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Clearly, God does not discriminate among believers. In fact, we are told to accept one another just as Christ accepted us (Rom. 15:7), and that it is a sin to show favoritism (Jas. 2:9). Similarly, we are urged to do good to all people, especially all believers (Gal. 6:10).
The only people we should not accept are those who claim to be believers but who are immoral, greedy, who cheat, slander others, get drunk, worship idols (1 Cor. 5:9-13), cause divisions (Rom. 16:17-18; Ti. 3:10-11), or do not bring the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11).
Principles – not regulations
The Bible contains many important principles for humanity from the time of Adam and Eve up until today.
The Old Testament also contains detailed regulations and procedures on how many of these principles were to be practiced by the Jews of that period. This even included the design of their building and furniture to be used for worship (Ex. 25-27, 35-38; 2 Chr. 3-4). These were for a particular time in the history of the Jewish nation.
But Christ freed us from slavishly following the Old Testament law and its regulations (Gal. 5:1; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:10). So detailed regulations are absent from the New Testament where the Holy Spirit is left free to apply biblical principles among the diverse nations, customs and cultures across the earth since the times of the early Church described in Acts. This means that local practices and methods may vary in different communities according to their
way of life and particular needs.
A changing world
The greatest change that faced the early Church was when Christianity extended to the Gentiles (Acts 10, 11, 15). Prior to this time, the believers were mainly Jews and converts to Judaism (Acts2:11, 22; 6:1). Cornelius’ conversion represented a significant step in the separation of the early Church from Judaism. The divine principle of acceptance– not favoritism was given to Peter at this time. Evangelism among the Gentiles was pioneered by men from Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20), encouraged by Barnabas (Acts 11:23) and was Paul’s mission (Acts 9:15).
Different people can react differently to change in their circumstances and environment. When conflict arose among believers because of this change it was resolved after discussion by the elders. Peter claimed that God does not discriminate among believers, but accepts all by giving them the same Holy Spirit. Consequently, unnecessary requirements should not be imposed on fellow believers (Acts 15:8-11). He had profited from Paul’s rebuke of his pride and hypocrisy in forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs, and then separating from them (Gal. 2:11-21). James agreed with Peter: they should not insist that Gentile believers obey Jewish regulations (Acts 15:19).
Likewise, we should not make it difficult for people in our community who are turning to God by placing unnecessary and non-biblical requirements on them.
A multicultural world
Many of us live in multicultural communities where there is a diversity of customs and lifestyles. The Bible recognizes and allows for diversity among believers in the nonessential aspects of the Christian faith.
Such issues faced by the early church concerned food and drink and whether one day was more sacred than another (Col. 2:16).
Paul commanded that we accept one another, as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7) by respecting the other’s viewpoint and their conscience (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 10:23-33). This means not criticizing and not stumbling another, particularly a weaker believer, but acting in love towards them. We will give an account of our conduct to God (Rom. 14:12). Remember, how we treat each other is how we are treating the Lord (Mt. 25:40,45).
Consideration of others, rather than selfishness, is given as the key to unity among Christians, with Christ the greatest example (Rom. 15:1-7). He always acted to please His Father (Jn. 8:29).
This principle also applies to our attitudes and behavior towards non-Christians. Paul went out of his way to identify with all kinds of people, by serving them rather than imposing on them in order to effectively communicate the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:33).
We also should be aware of local customs and respect those that are not evil (1 Th. 5:21-22).
Let’s understand our times (like the men of Issachar in 1 Chr. 12:32) and follow the examples of Christ, Peter, Paul and James in our changeable and diverse world by:
- Accepting and welcoming other believers and non-believers.
- Encouraging each generation, nationality and community to express the Christian faith within their culture.
- Assessing the appropriateness of our customs and practices. Some may hinder the communication of the gospel or the building of relationships among believers.
Summary of attitudes to others
(from Romans 14:1-15:7 and Acts 10, 11 and 15)
|Divine Nature||Sinful Nature|
|Accepts, welcomes, encourages||Criticizes, discriminates|
|Pleases and builds up||Selfishly dominates and controls|
|Allows diversity||Imposes uniformity|
|Is humble, confesses, forgives||Is proud|
|Is loving, patient, tolerant||Causes to stumble or fall into sin|
|Presents Christian liberty||Loads with unnecessary rules|
Published, May 1995
Christianity is for people of all languages and all cultures all over the world. Christ said it Himself: “God so loved the (multicultural) world (of humanity) that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 NIV). He commissioned His followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), and this great commission is the basis of all evangelism. Missionaries spend years studying and learning the languages and cultures of other nations, tribes and peoples in order to fulfill our Lord’s command.
Christ’s incarnation – His coming to earth and living as a fellow human being – is the ideal example of how to relate to another culture. He identified very closely with humanity in every way, except for sin. He identified particularly with the common, ordinary people of His day, as He usually spoke their language (Aramaic) rather than Hebrew, the religious language of the Jews, or Greek, the international language of trade and scholarship in the Roman empire. Aramaic was the mother tongue of most of the Jews of first century Palestine; those raised outside of Palestine spoke Greek. Only about 5 percent of the population were literate in Hebrew, so Christ spoke in the vernacular, the language of the people, rather than the scholarly language1.
It is interesting to note that God performed a linguistic miracle when He communicated the gospel to a multicultural crowd in Acts 2: “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound … each one heard their own language being spoken” (Acts 2:5-6). God wanted these people to hear His message in their own language. And Acts 2:9-11 goes on to mention at least 16 different countries by way of example.
Today, there is often diversity of language and culture in our ever-changing communities, especially as the world population becomes increasingly more mobile. But the body of believers is called to transcend the differences of language and culture: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile … for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All have the right to approach God, and the responsibility to discover and apply scriptural truths within their own cultural situation.
This should really challenge evangelists and missionaries. This should also challenge church groups – especially those whose roots go back to earlier generations – as they reach out to the lost in their communities.
To apply the above principles, we need to do four things:
1. Have a healthy acceptance of cultural variance, including respect for language preference as much as possible.
2. Take account of people’s language, way of life and culture as we go about the Lord’s business of making disciples in our church gatherings.
3. Encourage expression of biblical truths and practices in appropriate contemporary language, songs and cultural forms. Use everyday language as much as possible, rather than imposing a “foreign” language or one from a previous era.
4. Train fellow believers to apply biblical principles to their cultural context and so enable each generation to come to its own living faith (2 Tim. 2:2).
1. Herbert V. Klen, Oral Communication of Scripture, 1982, William Carey Library, Pasadena, California.
2. Biblical truth transcends language and culture: Christ spoke Aramaic, He read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and His words were recorded in Koine Greek by the writers of the New Testament. The New Testament was not written in a peculiar language, as some medieval scholars believed, but in the everyday language of the era.
Published, June 1997
Like marriage and food, the ability to communicate in song was created by God and “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV). Everyone can sing, so let’s make sure we make good use of this ability.
Some people can sing solo or harmony, musicians can accompany singing, and some have the ability to write lyrics and to create melodies. Such creativity may be seen as being part of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). This form of expression and communication is one of the characteristics of humanity and the Bible shows that in many respects singing distinguishes God’s people.
Let’s consider some biblical principles concerning the purposes and characteristics of spiritual songs, as well as some thoughts on practical aspects of singing for Christians and churches.
To praise the Lord
The need to praise the Lord in song for His goodness is evident throughout the history of mankind – past, present and future. It is one of the main themes of the Bible.
Past: After their miraculous escape from Egypt, the Israelites praised God in song (Ex. 15:1-18). The Old Testament has many examples of the Israelites’ songs of praise, with Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, being their hymnbook. Also, David, one of the major figures of the Old Testament, was a prolific songwriter and a skilled musician.
Present: In the New Testament era and today, joy is to be expressed as songs of praise (Jas. 5:13) and our praise is to “our Lord and Father” (Jas. 3:9). This is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of non-Jewish people praising the Lord (Rom. 15:8-12). After describing the importance of Christ, the writer of Hebrews urges, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Future: Songs of praise will be offered to Christ and the Father in a time to come (Rev. 5:1-14). This will culminate in “every creature in heaven and on earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To Him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb be praise and
honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever’” (Rev. 5:13).
To strengthen believers
It is clear from the few references to singing in the New Testament that it is an essential component of the Christian faith. The following verses show that singing is associated with teaching from the Bible and prayer:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16).
“When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray so others can understand: I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing so others can understand” (paraphrase of 1 Cor. 14:15).
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
So, a major purpose of singing is for strengthening the Church. Singing is a means of communication between believers and to the Lord: “Speaking to one another … Sing and make music … to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Collective singing should promote encouragement of one another, which is the purpose of meeting together (Heb. 10:25).
Singing can be a strong symbol of unity as everyone can participate.
With thanks, from the heart
Songs can be powerful ways of expressing feelings and emotions. They should be used to express thanks and gratitude to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:16). Also, singing is the outcome of happiness and joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” As with all we do, we should sing with enthusiasm (Eph. 6:7).
Singing is also a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Christians are instructed to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). So songs and music are associated with the “heart” which is used in Scripture for the emotional part of our lives.
Paul and Silas are an example of Christians whose songs reflected the joy and hope within, rather than the external circumstances. After being falsely accused by the crowd, severely flogged, thrown into prison and their feet put in stocks, they prayed and sang praises to God in the middle of the night (Acts 16:20-25). They also illustrate how we can sing at any time of the day and in any situation.
Our singing should be readily understandable by those present (1 Cor. 14:15). Like speech, singing should be intelligent in the sense of being meaningful, not intellectual and not in a foreign language (1 Cor. 14:9).
Spiritual songs differ from psalms in that they are composed by Christians rather than being direct quotations from the Bible. The Scriptures, which were completed some 1,900 years ago, should not be added to or changed in any way (Rev. 22:18-19). They contain divine principles to guide us. In order to understand these principles, the Bible has been translated into various languages. So, the language can change, but not the principles.
Songs, on the other hand, are expressions of Christian faith that reflect the language, tunes, circumstances and culture of their origin. When language changes and as new experiences and new circumstances arise, the Holy Spirit causes new songs to be written. For example, the faithful will sing a “new song” in heaven (Rev. 5:9). These changes with time usually come about as believers, filled with the Spirit, create new songs (Eph. 5:18-19). In fact, the term “new song” occurs nine times in the Bible.
New songs should flow from significant events in the lives of Christians. For example, Moses (Ex. 15:1-19), Deborah and Barak (Jud. 15), David (2 Sam. 22:2-51), Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79) were inspired to create spiritual songs. The latter two are poems, which were probably also sung.
The diversity of spiritual songs is indicated in the Book of Psalms where some songs are collective and some are individual. They also vary in content from praise, thanksgiving and instruction to personal experience, history and laments.
With musical accompaniment?
It is interesting that little is said regarding musical accompaniment to singing in the New Testament. This is similar to other topics, such as church buildings and other Christian practices. Why the difference, when compared to the greater detail in the Old Testament? I believe it is because the New Testament concentrates on the essentials of the faith, which are to be expressed in various cultures throughout the world over a period of at least 2,000 years. It applies to every community, language and nation (Rev. 5:9), whereas the Old Testament mainly addressed one nation. Many practical details are not mentioned in the New Testament as these can vary according to circumstances and cultures.
The first mention of musicians in the Bible is associated with a generation that also pioneered livestock farming and metal toolmaking (Gen. 4:20-22). One implication of this is that music meets an important human need, as does agriculture and industry.
Three verbs are used in the Greek text of the New Testament to denote singing, namely, ado, psallo and humneo1. Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument. This word seems to refer to the melody or tune of a song in Ephesians 5:19; “sing (ado) and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord.” This supports the fact that the melody or tune is an integral part of a song.
Similarly, three nouns are used in the New Testament to describe what is sung: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms (or psalmos in Greek), used in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, were songs sung to musical accompaniment of voice, harp or other instrument2.
Of course, accompaniment is not essential to singing – and would have been difficult in times of persecution – but neither is it prohibited. Paul and Silas would have sung without it in prison, and this may be why psallo is not used in Acts 16:25, but is in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13.
Any musical accompaniment is to assist singing, with the singing being the primary purpose and the accompaniment secondary. So, while singing is essential to the Christian faith, musical accompaniment is optional.
We need to be careful to avoid putting limitations in areas when they are not clearly given in the Scriptures. Musical accompaniment to singing is such a case3. Whether it is used or not, and the type of instruments used depend on circumstances, traditions and culture. Christians should have the wisdom to know what is appropriate.
The Lord desires expressions of thanks and praise sung from the heart with understanding that strengthens the faith of believers. However we sing, whether with or without accompaniment, our singing should meet these goals.
Now let’s consider some practical aspects of the role of singing in our lives. Failure to sing with understanding and failure to include new songs can hinder our singing and thereby affect our praise to the Lord and the strength of our church.
It should be noted that God accepts all languages and cultures, with none being more acceptable to Him today than others. Consider, for example, a situation where missionaries are living in another culture. The songs from their homeland would be foreign to the local people. Obviously, Christianity should not be considered a foreign faith, and indigenous people should be encouraged to read the Scriptures in their local language and sing Christian songs in that language, with culturally relevant tunes and perhaps accompaniment. In Zaire, when the local language was used instead of French, it was reported that “this seemed to give more liberty in taking part and much joy singing in their own language”.
Of course, living languages also change over the course of time. For example, English has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Under these circumstances, new songs are required from time to time, in order for there to be a balance between traditional songs and more contemporary songs. Churches should have a process for incorporating contemporary songs. Otherwise, they are in danger of wrongly elevating traditional songs to the status of the Scriptures. This was the problem of the Pharisees who treated their traditions as though they were divine principles.
Are we ready to accept new songs and allow others in our church to have the opportunity of singing songs that are significant to them, including songs in everyday language and with contemporary tunes?
Do we have a vision of the role of songs of praise in our church? Are we willing to evaluate our attitudes and practices and endeavor to improve in this area of our Christian lives?
As with other talents, singing, musical ability, song writing and composing should be used for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Have these been neglected in your gathering? Hopefully this article will encourage you.
Let’s sing to praise the Lord; to express thanks, gratitude, happiness and joy; to strengthen the Church; and to encourage one another. Let’s sing with understanding and let’s encourage a balance between new and traditional songs.
1. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1970.
2. See Vine; R. Young, Analytical Concordance of the Bible, 1939; J. H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Baker, 1992.
3. Church buildings would be another.
Published, March 1997 (Scripture quotations updated March 2015)