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God’s Grace Doesn’t Require Additional Rules

“Sesame Street” was one of my favorite television shows as a child.

The segment on the show that I most looked forward to seeing regularly was the one where characters would figure out what object in a group of four things didn’t belong.

The lyrics for the song in this segment were: “Three of these things belong together. Three of these things are kind of the same. Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here? Now it’s time to play our game.”

The purpose of the song and segment was to help children get into the habit of understanding and identifying what made something in a group different from the other things in that group – whether it was different because of its shape, color, material or its intended use.

Although I believe that learning how to identify what makes something similar or different is a valuable skill that we are all able to use in life, I think that it is a skill that can be misused even in the church.

For the past several weeks, verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians have been part of the lectionary readings.

One of Paul’s goals in writing this letter was to deal with the question of whether Gentiles, or non-Jews, with all of their uniqueness should be counted as equal members in the family of God.

Some people in the early church believed that the only way for Gentiles to be acceptable to God, even after expressing faith in Jesus as Messiah, was if they also followed all the same rules as those who adhered to Judaism. For this group, rule following was as important as following Christ.

Paul disagrees with this sentiment and throughout the letter makes the case that because of the grace that was extended to everyone through Christ’s sacrifice, following a set of rules no longer made people acceptable to God.

Although this idea of someone being left out of God’s family based on a person’s race or whether they kept certain dietary or ceremonial practices might be a foreign concept to most of us in the 21st century, there are other things that have become the gold standard for determining whether someone is worthy of God’s love.

I find a great deal of irony when people point to the law as the standard for how we are to live our lives today because these same laws were used to justify slavery and to keep generations of minorities in subjugation and servitude; it seems like some would prefer to continue this practice over other people groups.

My comments are not an attack on the law. I am not against it. I see great value in it because it comes from God. But the law was not God’s final words of wisdom to humankind.

Paul says, “In fact, the Law was our teacher. It was supposed to teach us until we had faith and were acceptable to God. But once a person has learned to have faith, there is no more need to have the Law as a teacher. All of you are God’s children because of your faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:24-26).

Paul concludes his thoughts by saying that through God’s grace, there isn’t a hierarchal status in God’s family based on whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, man or woman. We are all equal in God’s sight.

Although I’m not against the law or tradition, I’m concerned about our human tendencies to use it to justify violence, separation and discrimination against people who are different from us.

I’m concerned about our practice of using law as a way to determine who is worthy of God’s love and who can be cast aside.

I’m concerned about our comfort in using the law as a way to keep things from changing and losing our personal power and influence.

I believe that Paul was also concerned about this. I find comfort in knowing that I’m in good company.

Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of the forthcoming volumes “Leadership in Black and White: Practical Suggestions to Help the Church Become a Healing Presence Between Racially Divided Communities” and “Ten Commandments for Good Negroes: Public Conversations about Black Maleness and Society’s Responses to It.” His writings can be viewed at his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.