There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
We have witnessed a major change in attitudes regarding gender and gender roles in Western culture in the past few generations. Previous cultural consensus has been overthrown; everyone must attempt to come to grips with the new cultural consensus and sort out what is commendable from what is to be rejected. Christians must seek to understand how to manage gender roles in light of what God has revealed in Christ and in the pages of the New Testament (Colossians 3:17, 2 Timothy 3:15-17).
Specific roles for men and women in the church are described in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12, 14:33-35, and 1 Timothy 2:9-15. And yet many will appeal to Galatians 3:28 in which Paul definitively established the equality of men and women before God. They presume that such equality in standing demands similarity in roles: since they are equal, all roles must also be the same. Does this interpretation accurately convey Paul’s meaning and purposes in Galatians 3:28?
Paul’s instruction in Galatians 3:28 (and its parallel in Colossians 3:11) has proven radical for every generation. Galatians 3:28 flows naturally from the argument Paul advanced in Galatians 3:1-27: God does not justify a person by their ancestry, ethnic heritage, or on the basis of works of the Law, but by their faith in God in Christ. In Christ all can be sons of God through faith (Galatians 3:26); all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27). Since our standing before God is not based in our heritage, wealth, or effort, but in our trust in Christ, all worldly barriers to entry are broken down (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). The Jew and the Greek (and the barbarian and Scythian, Colossians 3:11) are made one; the free and the slave are made one; the man and the woman are made one, and all in Christ (Galatians 3:28). In Christ, therefore, there is no “respect of persons” (Romans 2:11): all have equal value and worth in God’s sight, and all therefore have equal standing before Him when they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. This idea was completely foolish in the first century world in which the Greeks prided themselves on their greater civilization than the barbarians, the Jews prided themselves in their election, the nobility prided themselves on their breeding as justification for enslaving and oppressing others, and women were viewed more as property than as equal citizens. People in modern society have overcome some of these prejudices, in many ways thanks to the influence of Christianity, and yet they continue to value some people as of greater worth or standing than others based on class, ability, ethnic heritage, etc.; these barriers must be broken down in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-18, James 2:1-9).
Full equality of the standing and worth of all persons is subversive; it is hard to oppress and take advantage of people whom you believe are truly equal to you. Christianity spread in the Roman world not least among slaves and women and others who were despised in the world but found hope and standing before God in Christ; slavery was abolished in Europe in part because of Christianity’s influence. While many Americans distorted Biblical teaching in attempts to justify their nation’s chattel slavery system, others, motivated by the teachings of Jesus, worked diligently to abolish slavery. Such efforts to liberate the oppressed are morally commendable.
Does Paul therefore intend to eliminate all distinctions between people in Galatians 3:28? One cannot harmonize such an interpretation with the rest of what Paul declared. It is not as if a Jewish person ceased being Jewish when he or she began to follow Jesus the Christ; Paul still spoke of himself as Jewish when necessary and spoke of the benefits that came from being Jewish (Romans 3:1-2, 2 Corinthians 11:2). James wrote to the Jewish Christians of the Dispersion (James 1:1). Likewise, Paul’s whole purpose in Galatians 3:1-28 is to demonstrate how God accepted Gentiles as Gentiles; they did not have to become Jewish to be saved. Whereas many have stood opposed to slavery because of what Paul taught, and for good reason, Paul never counseled slaves to presume to have the same role as their masters, but to serve them faithfully as to Christ (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25; cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). If a slave could obtain freedom, he should do so; nevertheless, he should otherwise remain in the condition in which he was called, for the slave is Jesus’ freedman, and the free man is Jesus’ slave (1 Corinthians 7:20-24).
Paul’s ultimate goal was not the reformation of society; his goal was the salvation of souls, the acceptance of full liberation in Christ Jesus and His resurrection (Romans 1:16, Philippians 3:8-15). In Christ all stand as equal, but not all are the same. Equality need not demand egalitarianism, for God has so composed the body of Christ with different people with different abilities in different social situations with different roles (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 1 Peter 4:10-11). The master and the slave are equal in Christ but do not have the same roles in society; the same remains true of the employer and the employee. Likewise, the Jew and the Greek are equal in Christ but may not have the same roles in society.
Paul does not seek to overthrow the work of God. Paul uses the same terms for “man” and “woman” in Galatians 3:28 as are used in the Greek translation of Genesis 1:27. God made male and female in His own image and called them “very good” (Genesis 1:27, 31), and they are “one” in Christ (Galatians 3:28). How can “male” and “female” in God’s image be “very good” if in Christ all such distinctions are entirely flattened and removed? “There can be no male and female” not because men and women are not made in God’s image in distinct ways but because those distinctions cannot mean one is worth more than the other in Christ! Therefore, Galatians 3:28 cannot be properly interpreted so as to undermine the distinctive roles of men and women in Christ as revealed in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12, 14:33-35, and 1 Timothy 2:9-15; men and women are co-heirs of the grace of life in Christ but have different responsibilities in their relationships and in the assembly (ibid.; cf. Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Peter 3:1-8). May we recognize that all people can have equal standing before God through faith in Christ, and may we serve God in Christ as He has established!
Ethan R. Longhenry