The egalitarian implications of Galatians 3:28

Galatians 3:28 is perhaps the passage most widely quoted in support of equality for women in the church:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In this passage Paul is arguing something very particular – that everyone who has been baptised into Christ is now of equal status before God because of their common justification through faith.  A critic of the egalitarian position might suggest that this equal status in Christ does not necessarily mean that we ought to treat one another as equals in the Church, pointing to the fact that Paul does not immediately follow Galatians 3:28 with an exhortation about egalitarian relationships between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female.  However, elsewhere in the undisputed letters of Paul [1] we do in fact find Paul arguing that our equal status before God ought to be recognised as the standard by which we ought to judge the goodness of present relationships between believers.  An appreciation of Paul’s wider application of the principle behind Galatians 3:28 suggests that it is reasonable to quote that passage in support of an egalitarian position on the role of women.

In Galatians, Paul argues that justification by faith means that all who share in Christian faith are now members of the same family of God.  Gentiles that belong to Christ are now of Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise God made to him, that is, they are included in the new covenant along with Jews who are descendants of Abraham by blood (Galatians 3:29).  Paul is not so much concerned with the equal value of Gentiles as human beings (although he would obviously affirm this) but of the equal status of Gentiles with Jews under the new covenant.  This the context in which we ought to read Galatians 3:28, where Paul goes so far as to say that the very categories of Jew and Gentile no longer have any meaning because they have no relevance in Christ.  This sentiment is repeated in Galatians 5:6 – “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

For Paul, this equal status is not just some abstract concept with no consequences for the present.  Rather, he believed that since being in Christ has radical implications for Jews and Gentiles in terms of their justification, this ought to be reflected in the present relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  The most fundamental implication of this was that Jews must no longer continue to act as if they were superior to Gentiles because of their historical possession of the Law.  In Galatians itself, Paul mentions an argument he had with Peter at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21).  Initially, Peter openly shared meals with Gentiles demonstrating with his actions that the law no longer bound him and that Gentiles were his equals in Christ.  But this changed when Peter separated himself from the Gentiles due to his fear of what Jews of the “circumcision group” might think of him.  For Paul, Peter’s withdrawal from the Gentiles was hypocrisy – his actions denied the truth of justification through faith and as such Peter was rebuilding what Christ had destroyed, undermining not only the identity of the Gentiles in Christ but his own identity in Christ too (Galatians 2:18).  Condemning this behaviour, Paul argues that since Gentiles are now equal in Christ, Jews should have no fear of freely associating with them apart from the law.   In other words, their present relationship must reflect their equal status before God and common justification through faith.  For Paul, the oneness of Jew and Gentile in Christ means that it is absurd to maintain worldly distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

In Galatians 3:28 Paul closely links together the categories of Jew and Gentile with male and female, slave and free.  The clear implication of this is that he also believes male and female to be of equal status through their justification through faith and slave and free to be of equal status through their justification through faith.  Given the implications of an equal status in Christ for present the relationship between Jew and Gentile, one might reasonably expect Paul to argue that the present relationship between men and women and slave and free must also change to reflect their oneness in Christ.

Indeed, we have an excellent example of this in the Epistle to Philemon, where Paul intercedes for Onesimus – a runaway slave of Philemon.  In this letter, Paul does not merely ask Philemon to forgive his slave for running away but asks him to welcome him back as a brother.  Of course, by running away Onesimus had deprived Philemon of his property and insulted his honour.  A master would usually severely punish a slave for this offence, even to the point of death, yet Paul says in Philemon 1:15-17:  “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for ever – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.  He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.  So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

"Am I not a man and a brother?"  Abolitionist Wedgewood medallion, 1787

“Am I not a man and a brother?” Abolitionist Wedgewood medallion, 1787

In doing this, Paul is fundamentally redefining what it means to be a slave or a master.  No longer is that relationship seen in terms of the worldly concern of maintaining a strict hierarchical relationship in order to preserve the honour of the master, but rather it must be viewed in terms of Christ.  And since Philemon and Onesimus are now united as one in Christ without distinction, the relationship between slave and master must radically change in order to reflect their equal status before God.  For Paul, this means that Onesimus can no longer be a mere slave to Philemon but a dear “brother in the Lord”.

I think it is reasonably follows from these examples that if Paul believed men and women to be of equal status in Christ, he also believed that the present relationship between men and women ought to reflect this.  And just as Paul rejects the idea that Christian Jews should behave as if they are superior to Gentiles and radically undermines the social hierarchy essential to slavery, I consider it likely that Paul would have instinctively rejected hierarchical distinctions between men and women that have no bearing in their justification.  The oneness of male and female in Christ means that there is no basis upon which one can justify hierarchy.

1. The undisputed letters of Paul are those that are widely accepted by scholars to be the original work of Paul due to their close agreement in style, vocabulary and theology.  They are (excluding minor interpolations) Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.


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