This entry is part 74 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Have all gender distinctions been abolished by the gospel?
Longenecker thinks so, calling this verse the ‘The most forthright statement on social ethics in all the New Testament’ (although he agrees that ‘the elimination of divisions in these three areas should be seen first of all in terms of spiritual relations: that before God, whatever their differing situations, all people are accepted on the same basis of faith and together make up the one body of Christ.’ (My emphasis). Intriguingly, Longenecker suggests suggests that an emphasis on creation tends toward subordination, whereas a stress on redemption leads towards equality.
Timothy George notes that ‘the violence with which this verse has been taken out of context and misrepresented as a manifesto for contemporary social egalitarianism is seen in a new translation of the Bible that renders Paul’s words thus: “There is no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, cleric and lay, white and multicultural.” According to this invidious translation, what Paul elsewhere recognized and condemned as heinous and sinful he here embraced as acceptable and blessed!’ (quoting Sister Fran Feder)
According to George, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas called for the elimination of gender distinctions by relating an apocryphal dialogue between Jesus and his disciples: ‘Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom.” They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?” Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one in the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female … then you will enter [the Kingdom].”’
In an article on androgyny, D. Smith writes: ‘the equality or oneness of persons without gender-based identity is implied to be the ideal state in the family of God (e.g., Gal. 3:28).’ (Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling)
With more nuance, the article on ‘Woman, Doctrine of’ in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible states that ‘the position of a woman of faith before God is assured on the same equal footing as any man of faith. In the Lord Jesus Christ there are no stratifications of sex, race, or social station, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse speaks of justification, not socialization. In Paul’s day there were still great differences based on sex, race, and social station. Within the assertion of justification in this verse are the seeds of change in socialization. Lines of race, of social station (slave and free) blur between those who know God. Debilitating lines of gender are beginning to blur as well.’
David C. Steinmetz writes:-
‘Women may be forbidden to preach, teach, and celebrate the eucharist only if it can be demonstrated from Scripture that in Christ there is indeed male and female (contra Paul) and that in the last days sons shall prophesy while daughters demurely keep silent (contra Peter). Women already belong to a royal priesthood. Otherwise they are not even members of the church.’
Carson, quoting the above, notes that the context of the present passage has to do with justification. It is in respect of their standing before God that there is no distinction between male and female. Paul wrote other passages (1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which do recognise some distinction between the roles of men and women. (Exegetical Fallacies, 92f)
Chris Dowd places this verse alongside others which present (he claims) gender variant images: ‘…women are called brothers (Romans 14:10, 1 Corinthians 6:5-6). We are all brides of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27), all part of the one body (Ephesians 5:30). Paul writes of himself as a woman giving birth (Galatians 4:19) and Galatians 3:28 asserts that there is no male or female but all are one in Christ Jesus.’
The above is cited by Davie, who comments that ‘two things need to be noted in relation to this language. First, this language is metaphorical and as such is not intended to describe the human sexual identity of the people concerned. Secondly, in line with this fact the New Testament continues to divide the Church into men and women (as in the advice about Christian conduct contained in passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Peter 3:1-7). A clear division between those who are male and those who are female continues to be maintained.’
With regard to the present verse, Davie urges that when we read it in context we realise that it is ‘not about
sexual identity but about spiritual identity. What these verses are saying is that anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and is baptised (regardless of their race, social standing or sex) is an inheritor of the promise of divine blessing made to Abraham and as such part of the family of God. So men and women do not cease to be men and women, but this distinction does not count in relation to their being heirs of the promise to Abraham.’
Elsewhere, Davie puts it like this: ‘These verses are often read as if St Paul were saying that the difference between men and women established at creation has been done away with amongst Christians. However, that is not his point. These verses are not about sexual identity, but about spiritual identity. Paul means that anyone who has faith in Jesus and is baptised is a member of the family of God regardless of their race, social standing, or sex. Christian men and women are still men and women, but they both have equal standing before God, both as those originally made in God’s image and likeness and as the recipients of the blessing promised to Abraham and delivered through Christ.’
Wayne Grudem agrees that this verse is often inappropriately recruited by egalitarians to support their cause. Their argument is that role distinctions are abolished because we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’. But this is not what the verse says. To be ‘one in Christ Jesus’ is to be united. It does not mean that we are all the same.
Grudem and Piper say: ‘The context of Galatians 3:28 makes abundantly clear the sense in which men and women are equal in Christ: they are equally justified by faith (v. 24), equally free from the bondage of legalism (v. 25), equally children of God (v. 26), equally clothed with Christ (v. 27), equally possessed by Christ (v. 29).… Galatians 3:28 does not abolish gender-based roles established by God and redeemed by Christ.’ (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)
Grudem (citing Hove) adds that Paul, when saying that things are ‘one’, never says that those things are identical. For example, in Rom 12:4f he says that the many members of the body, which do not all have the same function, are ‘one body in Christ’. Similarly, in 1 Cor 3:8, the apostle says that those who plant and those who water (i.e. different persons carrying out different tasks) ‘are one’. In each case, the unity is not of role, but of purpose and function.
Stott writes: ‘This does not mean that Jews and Greeks lost their physical differences, or even their cultural distinctives, for they still spoke, dressed and ate differently; nor that slaves and free people lost their social differences, for most slaves remained slaves and free people free; nor that men lost their maleness and women their femaleness. It means rather that as regards our standing before God, because we are “in Christ” and enjoy a common relationship to him, racial, national, social and sexual distinctions are irrelevant. People of all races and classes, and of both sexes, are equal before him. The context is one of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It affirms that all who by faith are in Christ are equally accepted, equally God’s children, without any distinction, discrimination or favouritism according to race, sex or class. So whatever may need to be said later about sexual roles, there can be no question of one sex being superior or inferior to the other. Before God and in Christ “there is neither male nor female”. We are equal.’ (Issues Facing Christians Today, p332)
See also the discussion in Clare Smith, God’s Good Design, chapter 4.
For T. Martin, Paul’s point relatives to the restrictive nature of circumcision in the old covenant, and the inclusive nature of baptism in the new. Martin, according to Garlington, who
‘proposes that the pairs of antitheses in 3:28—Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female—are rooted in the covenant of circumcision, that is, the Abrahamic covenant of Gen 17:9–14, which precisely makes such distinctions. Martin argues that the verse does not proclaim an absolute abolition of these distinctions but only their irrelevance for entrance into the Christian community: participation in baptism and full membership in the new people hinge solely on faith in Christ. The antithesis male/female particularly attracts his attention. “In response to the Agitators’ insistence on the distinctions in the Covenant of Circumcision, Paul simply denies that these distinctions have any relevance for determining candidates for Christian baptism and entry into the Christian community. Whereas not everyone in the Jewish community is circumcised, everyone in the Christian community is baptized. Thus, baptism into Christ provides for a unity that cannot be realized in a circumcised community”’
Martin quotes Stephen Clark:
‘In this context, the phrase “neither male nor female” takes on a special significance, because women could not be circumcised. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant of Israel and was only open to the male.… The woman [according to Paul], then, comes into the covenant relation of God’s people through her own faith and baptism, and is fully part of the covenant relationship with God.… The free circumcised male was the only full Israelite. It is against this background that we have to understand “neither male nor female”.’
Jervis remarks that the link with circumcision had been made long ago by Justin Martyr.
S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. refers to New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce: ‘Bruce comments, “It is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role, that is abolished ‘in Christ Jesus.’” Professor Bruce complains that Paul’s other bans of discrimination on racial and social grounds have been accepted “au pied de la lettre” (literally), or litteratim ac verbatim, to use a Latin phrase, while this one has met with restrictions, since people have related it only to “the common access of men and women to baptism, with its introduction to their new existence ‘in Christ.’ ” He insists that the denial of discrimination holds good for the new existence “ ‘in Christ’ in its entirety,” although he admits that circumcision involved a form of discrimination against women that was removed in its demotion from the position of religious law. Other inequities among Jewish and particularly among Gentile women existed. Bruce argues that, if leadership may be given to Gentiles and to slaves in the church fellowship, then why not to women? ‘ (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p158)
Bruce accepts that other Pauline passages do place restrictions on female activities, but insists that these passage should be interpreted and applied in the light of the present passage, and not vice versa.
Johnson responds: ‘First, the antitheses are not parallel, for the distinction between male and female is a distinction arising out of creation, a distinction still maintained in family and church life in the New Testament. Second, it must also be remembered that in this context Paul is not speaking of relationships in the family and church, but of standing before God in righteousness by faith. And, third, the apostle in his later letters, such as 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, does set forth just such restrictions as Bruce mentions.’
Richard Hove (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) remarks that, taken out of context, this saying could lead to absurd conclusions: ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female’; therefore, there are not two genders, but one; there can be no heterosexual marriage; men and woman should use the same toilet facilities; and so on. Paul cannot have meant that categories such as male and female do not exist. He is, rather, using a figure of speech – a merism (a combination of opposites to indicate the entirety) – to express the universality of believers’ status in Christ. When we say, for example, ‘I search high and low’, we do not merely mean that we search in high places and then in low places: we mean that we searched everywhere.
That Paul means that there is no distinction between these groups of people as regards salvation, rather than that there is no difference between them, is confirmed by his teaching in Rom 3:21f; 10:11-3.
- Oneness in Galatians 3:28 does not imply unqualified equality.
- Galatians 3:28 does not primarily address the issue of sexual roles. This is seen in the overall flow of Paul’s argument, in the logic of the context, and in the meaning of the expression ‘you are all one’, all of which point to Paul’s main concern here being salvation-historical.
- Galatians 3:28 does have social implications. Since all God’s people share in Christ, there is no room for boasting. Since they are all one in Christ, their attitude and behaviour should be characterised by unity. Though they are diverse, they enjoy an equal standing in Christ, and all must be cherished and valued. Since they are diverse, each should seek to understand the perspective and needs of the others (and this applies to mission and evangelism, as well as to church relations).
Schreiner: ‘Paul affirms the oneness of males and females in Christ, but he does not claim that maleness and femaleness are irrelevant in every respect. If one were to draw such a conclusion, then Paul would not object to homosexuality, but it is clear that he thinks homosexuality is sinful (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). In the same way, the equality of men and women in Christ does not cancel out, in Paul’s mind, the distinct roles of men and women in marriage (Eph 5:22–33; Col 3:18–19; Titus 2:4–5) or in ministry contexts (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:33–36; 1 Tim 2:9–15).’
For Stott, the point is not that all distinctions have been abolished, but that that we have unity in Christ despite these distinctions. ‘What unites the church is a common faith in Christ and a common share in the Spirit. Apart from this one essential, Christians need have nothing else in common at all. We differ from one another in temperament, personality, education, colour, culture, citizenship, language and in many other ways. Thank God we do. The church is a wonderfully inclusive fellowship, in which there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’. In other words, in Christ we have equality. Distinctions of race and status, which are causes of division in other communities, have no place in the Christian community. To bring such things into Christian fellowship is to destroy it. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ may be true in nature, but it is not a Christian proverb. The glory of the church is not our likeness to one another, but our unlikeness.’ (Christ the Controversialist, p179)
Timothy George cautions: ‘the propriety of women leaders in the church must be decided through careful exegesis of those passages that touch on that issue. Galatians 3:28 cannot legitimately be used either as evidence or counterevidence in this debate. It is regrettable that recent discussions of this theme have obscured the amazing good news Paul set forth in this verse.’