The Ancient Christian Forum, a student organization at Southern Seminary sponsored by the Center for Ancient Christian Studies, will host a discussion on the topics of Race and Gender in early Christianity on Monday October 19th from 11:30-12:30 in the President’s reception room (adjacent to Heritage Hall) on the campus of Southern Seminary. Southern Seminary’s own Jarvis J. Williams, Associate Professor of New Testament, and Nathan Collins, New Testament researcher and adjunct professor, will discuss their research and writing projects in early Christianity.
Paul’s words in Gal 3:28 serves as a suitable starting point for placing Christian scripture within the discourse of ethnic and gender identity in antiquity. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s views on ethnicity are more complex than the previous verse may indicate. One only needs to consider Paul’s ethnic flexibility to win some to Christ in 1 Cor 9:20–23, or his rhetoric of “Jew first, then Greek” in Romans to see that race was an elastic category for Paul and yet vitally important for his mission — especially since he considered himself “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles (Rom 15:16).”
Ethnic considerations are not beyond the pale of the message of New Testament authors. This is readily seen as one branches out from the Pauline corpus to observe racial tensions throughout all of Acts, or Mark’s emphasis on Gentiles expressing faith, or the apocalyptic global rhetoric in Revelation (“every tribe, tongue, and nation”).
Moving beyond the NT era, the tripartite division of Greek, Barbarian, and Christian demonstrates how early Christians considered the question “why this new race?” Take for example, the Epistle of Diognetus, which demonstrates that these questions were early objections to the faith (Diogn. 1:1). However, it is naive to assume that all Christians were of one mind on this topic, as much as it is naïve to assume that their categories of ethnicity and race exactly parallel contemporary discussion.
Likewise, some of the most vexing pastoral issues coalesce around categories of sex and gender—even during the period of the early Church. Consider the lengthy discussion about sexual morality stretching across 1 Cor 5-7, or Paul’s extended instructions to care for widows in 1 Tim 5. If ethics and identity are closely linked, then who we are as gendered and sexual beings becomes an extremely relevant category of Christian inquiry.
Furthermore, much like race and ethnicity, the categories of sex and gender exhibit a significant degree of overlap. This overlap points to different aspects of an embodied and relational experience that together reflect the complex composition of human personhood. The stage is now set for a variety of conversations about soteriology, Christian identity, and racial reconciliation as they intersect with biblical teaching and early Christian experiences.
These realities, then, call for students of early Christianity to think through ethnicity and gender as they research, write, and minister to others. Come listen in and dialogue with Dr. Williams and Mr. Collins on matters that matter to the present church as well as the ancient church.
Nathan Collins and Trey Moss