To understand this text—and, in truth, the entire letter of Galatians—it’s paramount that the reader understands that Paul is writing within thematic dyads of freedom and enslavement, inheritance and property, and of slaves and true children. Enslavement for Paul represents a bondage to the law of Israel; freedom on the other hand represents the new reality of radical openness and hospitality that God has ushered into our world through Christ’s fulfillment of that law. While property and inheritance may at first seem disjointed from the freedom/enslavement dyad, it is actually a consequence of it. Slaves are property. This meant that they could not inherit or possess property themselves. Similarly, during this period in the Roman World (approx. 50-55 BCE) slaves could not be adopted; only freed children could benefit from adoption. Hence, in the verses above Paul is attempting to remind the church of Galatia that they are not slaves to the law, but children and inheritors of God’s life-giving freedom, a gift which seems to have overwhelmed the church of Galatia and subsequently caused them to cling to the letter of the law.
Thus, what is really at stake in this text is a question of Christian Identity. It prods us with the question, “do we truly believe that we have been incorporated in to God’s family through Christ, whose crucifixion and resurrection ushered in a newness for all? Or do we still need harmful markers of antiquated identity, to make us feel assuredly Christian?”
Growing up in a Holiness tradition, Galatians has been my favorite Pauline Letter since college, chiefly because the situation that Paul wrote from seemed to mirror my own. Paul was writing against missionaries who were privileging the law over God’s salvific love. Some scholars believe these anti-Paul missionaries were in the pro-circumcision party. Like Peter in Acts 11, it is likely that they were telling the gentile-converts of Galatia that they must part with a certain part of their member, if they wanted to be true children of Israel and her God.
Thankfully, I did not feel pressured to circumcise myself while attending Trevecca Nazarene University. However, there were some undeniably harmful messages present in its campus culture that clung too tightly to the letter of our Holiness tradition for the sake of our identity. For example, “if you are depressed, you might not be Christian,” someone said to me my freshmen year, “because Christians are supposed to have a transcendent joy in their lives.” Or the subliminal messaging that only after marriage is one whole and holy. Worst of all though, for the sake of tradition, our University chose to discriminate against our queer brothers and sisters. Indeed queerness, cohabitation, mental illness and singleness are not fruits of the spirit on Christian Campuses.
I target Trevecca because I know it well, and it makes for a good analogue. Trevecca is not the actual problem though. For this culture is not just a problem at my alma mater; it is present on nearly every Christian Campus in the U.S.
Rather, my problem, as is Paul’s in Galatia, is the refusal to let go of aspects of our faith and tradition that causes pain and privilege regulations over Christ’s radical love, simply for the sake of a “Christian Identity.” Cutting part of your member off hurts, and its benefits are negligible—in fact, circumcision is vastly falling out of vogue because so many health professionals now see it as an act of genital mutilation. In the same way, depression hurts to begin with, but depression (and any other type of mental illness) on Christian campuses hurts especially bad when one believes their ailment is due to their weak faith. Having slept with someone extra-martially, no matter the context, is eerily difficult to be open about on those same campuses which can lead to internal shame and acting-out; similarly, identifying as queer or transgender in these places is impossible—doing so would lead to expulsion or alienation.
The Israelites once required circumcision as a sign of their covenant with God. Yet, when Christ came and offered the flesh of God for mutilation in place of Jewish foreskin, the act of circumcision became unnecessary, because God’s sacrifice in Christ opened God’s covenant with Israel to everyone. Thus, according to Paul, forcing converts to continue the act of circumcision denies the power of God’s salvific work in Jesus. It situates them as slaves to the law. It says Christ, in fact, did not fulfill the law, and therefore we must continue to abide by it. In other words, circumcision is harmful and benefits no one, nor does it display a true discipleship or Christian Identity. In the same way, Christian colleges all around the U.S. have created a culture and identity that denies Christ’s universal act on the cross. Instead of faith in Christ, they judge one’s maturity in faith by their virginity, by their whiteness, their straightness, by their mental health—each of these standards, like circumcision, will never be able to define God’s children. Perhaps, therefore, it is time for us, as we have with circumcision, to let these antiquated standards fall out of fashion.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible: One Volume Commentary (Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, 2010) “Galatians,” Susan Eastman, 825.
Master of Theological Studies Candidate, Vanderbilt University.