by K.W. Leslie, 08 March
GENTILE 'dʒɛn.taɪl adjective. Not Jewish.
2. Not of our religious community.

Years ago a Mormon friend used the word “gentile” to describe non-Mormons. You know, like I use the word “pagan” to describe nonchristians. If you’re used to defining the word another way, it’s a little odd to hear it like that; and of course I had to ask him if he considered non-Mormon Jews to be “gentiles.” Apparently he does. That oughta be super weird for any Jews who hear that.

’Cause “gentile” originates from Jews trying to describe anyone who’s not a Jew. The Hebrew word is גּוֹי/goy, “people-group” or “nation”; and they translated this by the Greek word ἔθνος/éthnos, “ethnic.” It can refer to any people-group, including Israel. Ex 19.6 When St. Jerome translated it, he used the Latin word gentilis, “people-group,” and of course this evolved into the English “gentile.” (The Yiddish word, góyim, comes from the Hebrew plural for goy.)

In the context of the scriptures, it refers to foreigners. In the New Testament it’s frequently interchangeable with Ἕλληνές/Éllenes, “Greeks,” by which Jews meant Greek-speaking foreigners of any sort; anyone who lived outside their particular relationship with God. It wasn’t used as a slur—unlike βάρβαρος/várvaros, “barbarian,” or ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin” (KJV “uncircumcised”). It’s only meant to indicate a non-Jew.

But of course people can turn any term into a slur. If it’s seen as a negative that you’re not a Jew, “gentile” becomes negative. If being gentile implies you’re irreligious or unclean, as it clearly did to Pharisees, using “gentile” to mean such things turns it into an insult: “Wash your hands! What are you, a gentile?”

But whether “gentile” is meant as an insult or not, has to be deduced from context. Ordinarily it’s no slur. Paul certainly didn’t mean it as one when he wrote how God’s new covenant includes gentiles. As was always his plan: He’s not the god of only one nation, but every. Ro 3.29 He always intended to save Jews and gentiles alike, Ga 3.8 though the LORD’s special relationship with Israel can understandably lead Jews to believe he’s particularly their god.

Not gentiles any more?

I’m a gentile. My parents decided to have their DNA tested by one of those genetic ancestry companies, and none of their genes indicate they’re Jewish. Mom’s been digging through the family tree, and even though she’d kinda like to find some Jews there, she hasn’t yet. If there are any Jews way back in there, it’s been largely bred out of me by now.

But as far as Christ Jesus is concerned, everybody who comes to him, follows him as their master, and trusts him to save them, will be saved same as any Jew. Ep 3.6 He’s our king too.

Still, some gentiles are bothered by the word and avoid it. They figure it’s a term for outsiders—and figure if they’re Christian, doesn’t our relationship with Jesus turn us into insiders? Aren’t we God’s family now? Doesn’t that mean we’re gentiles no longer? We’ve been grafted into Israel, Ro 11.17 so doesn’t that mean we’re part of Israel now? “Adopted Jews,” as some Christians put it.

Of course, try telling that to nonchristian Jews. They’ll look at you like you’re that white lady from Spokane who still tries to claim she’s black. And if you know your history, you’ll know various antisemites have used that idea to claim, “The Jews are no longer God’s chosen people; that’s us now,” and persecuted Jews with it.

Gentile Christians are adopted by God, Jn 1.12 and made a part of God’s kingdom, but we don’t thereby become Jews. We become Christian. We’re grafted into the same kingdom as Jews who likewise recognize their LORD’s anointed king, and follow him. But being a Jew isn’t solely an allegiance to God an his Messiah; it’s a whole complicated ethnic, political, religious, and cultural thing. It’s way more than calling YHWH our god. If you wanna become a Jew, there are whole different steps to go through—steps which really only appease Jews, and steps the Council of Jerusalem deemed entirely unnecessary for those who want God to save us. And as far as appeasing Jews go, being Christian isn’t always seen as a step in the right direction. Historically, Christians have been awful to Jews. We still have a lot to undo, and a lot of ill will to overcome.

Unless you take the steps Jews prescribe (and you’re still not gonna appease every Jew, y’know), you’re not a Jew. You’re still gentile. Whether you like the term or not.

The term “gentile” needn’t offend you. Needn’t offend anyone. Needn’t divide people when we refuse to let it. Nothing wrong with recognizing I’m gentile, and other Christians are Jews—and thanks to Christ we’re family.

In fact it makes this fact all the more significant: Outside Christ we’re not family. We might have other things in common: We’re fellow Americans, fellow alumni of the same university, fraternity brothers, fellow club members, co-workers, neighbors, or have a shared love of bagels. But only in Christ do we become family.

That’s a big deal. Outside of Christ, Jews could choose to have nothing to do with me because I’m not as ritually clean as they’d like—or some other hangup about gentile behaviors. Outside of Christ, I could’ve turned out antisemitic like certain ignorant family members. But in Christ, racism’s not allowed—and if we’re both following Christ, it’s not even wanted. We wanna eliminate the stupid prejudices and barriers our culture demands of us. ’Cause Christ did. Cl 3.11

As gentiles, Christ took us away from all that crap, and offers us the same sort of living, close relationship the LORD offered to Abraham, Moses, David, and his prophets. Our ancestry is a useful reminder of how much God’s done for us. (Not that he hasn’t done loads for the Jews, but the Old Testament isn’t full of stories about what he did for our ancestors, y’know.) Even though Christendom in the present day is full of gentiles, it didn’t start that way. Before Jesus, “God’s people” consisted of scattered people from a small strip of middle eastern land… and now Christians are a third of the world, an growing, and all calling upon the God of Israel. We were outsiders; he made us insiders. Ep 2.11-13 Let’s not take that for granted.