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Note of the Day (Galatians 3:28, part 3)

Galatians 3:28, continued

This is the last of three daily notes on Galatians 3:28 and the declaration that “in (Christ) there is no male and female” (v. 28c).

  1. The background and significance of the statement
  2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
  3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

See the earlier notes on the first and second topics.

3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

There is an apparent contradiction between the ideal expressed in Gal 3:28c and the view(s) on gender distinction elsewhere in the Pauline letters (such as 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, and Eph 5:22-24). On the one hand, it is stated outright that there is no gender distinction (“no male and female”) for believers in Christ; on the other hand, 1 Cor 11:2ff etc teaches that essential distinctions (including a subordinate role/position for women) are to be preserved. Is Paul being inconsistent? My discussion on this topic will proceed by way of exploring several possibilities that could explain these differences and diverging points of emphasis. The order of presentation does not indicate any preference on my part, but generally moves from critical to tradition-conservative in approach.

a. Paul is inconsistent. In other words, he accepts the declaration of Gal 3:28 without reservation in the case of socio-religious distinction (Jew/Gentile), but really does not for gender distinction (male/female). His position regarding socio-economic distinction (slave/free) is perhaps more ambiguous. Yet there is no indication of any restriction on roles in the Church based on Jew/Gentile or slave/free, such as we find for male/female.

b. Paul changed his mind. This could be indicated by the fact that, in the passages parallel to Gal 3:27-28—namely, 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:9-11—there is no mention of “male and female”. According to at least one version of this view, Paul realized the implications and difficulties of Gal 3:28c and avoided including sexual/gender distinction as part of the old order that is eliminated for believers in Christ. However, all of this is based on the premise that Galatians was written well prior to 1 Corinthians, etc., enough so that it would allow Paul time to change his mind or qualify his teaching, and this is highly questionable. There is good reason to think that 1 Cor 11-14 may have been written before Galatians, and that the latter is only slightly earlier than 2 Corinthians and Romans.

A more traditional-conservative version of this overall view would allow Paul to have modified/clarified his position (or the way he expressed it) in the context of progressive revelation.

c. Gal 3:28c does not reflect Paul’s fundamental thinking on the subject. This is based on the theory that Gal 3:27-28 (and 1 Cor 12:13 / Col 3:9-11) reflects an earlier (baptismal) formula which Paul is citing and/or adapting. While the declaration regarding “Jew and Greek” generally corresponds with Paul’s theology and practical instruction, that involving “male and female” does not. There does seem to be a fundamental difference, especially in the way that Gal 3:28c echoes the creation narrative—compare this with 1 Cor 11:7-9 and 1 Tim 2:13-15, where the Genesis account (Gen 1-3) is interpreted and used to make almost the opposite point.

d. The declaration in Gal 3:28c is rhetorical and/or limited in scope. Similar in part to (b) and (c). Again, on the view that Paul is drawing upon an earlier baptismal formula, he does so for rhetorical or dramatic effect, to support his overall argument and teaching in the letter; however, the specific declaration is not meant as a fundamental doctrine.

e. Paul accepts the declaration in theory, but not in practical application. This would indicate a kind of inconsistency, perhaps, as with (a) above. Clearly Paul did not go as far as certain Gnostics and other early Christians in the ideal of eliminating sexuality and gender-based distinction from Christian identity and experience. On this, see the discussion in yesterday’s note. It is fine to speak of us all being one in Christ, but this does not remove the practical reality of differences among individual believers (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26). The main problem is that Paul seems much more willing to declare that ethnic and religious differences (Jew/Gentile, Gal 3:28a) do not apply to roles and positions in the Church—so why not for gender differences as well (Gal 3:28c)?

f. Gal 3:28c is meant as a declaration for all believers, while the other instruction is not. This is based on the interpretive principle which subordinates instruction, related to specific issues in the local congregations of the time, to doctrines and statements which clearly apply for all believers. While this may be acceptable as a general method for us today, there is little indication that Paul drew such a distinction in his actual letters. Even if we were to theorize, for example, that he allowed customs and practices (e.g. women speaking/preaching in the congregation) which he did not personally endorse (cp. 1 Cor 11:2-16 with 1 Tim 2:11ff), he always is careful to connect his teaching with basic Gospel/Christian principles and traditions. Paul had a much narrower geographical and chronological frame of reference—the establishment and (relatively brief) life-span of congregations, between the resurrection and (imminent) return of Christ—and could readily connect the local with the universal. It is exceedingly more difficult for us to do this today, with the wide gulf in time and culture between, say, mid-1st century Corinth and early 21st century America.

g. Paul sees a distinction between essential identity and practical application. In other words, Gal 3:28 relates to the spiritual identity of believers in Christ (as a theological doctrine), while the other instruction in the letters (1 Cor 11:2-16, et al) applies to the way our Christian life is acted out in practice within an organized community. Such a conceptual division is popular among commentators and theologians, but is altogether too neat and artificial. Why should being male or female have no significance for coming to faith in Christ, but then suddenly be of great importance for our daily life and relationships in Christ? Admittedly, Paul himself, as a minister and founder of churches, had a strong practical side—his vision of the Church involved functioning local communities embedded within the society at large; yet he rarely offers practical instruction which is not closely wedded to the Gospel message and the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This is part of what makes 1 Cor 11:2-16, for example, so problematic for Christians today.

h. The apparent restrictions only apply to role and do not affect essential unity/equality. This is an especially popular view for traditional-conservative commentators today, since it allows one to affirm both (i) equality of men and women in Christ, and (ii) distinct/subordinate roles and positions in the Church. Many today (women especially) consider the logic and terminology (“complementarian”, etc) employed to be rather disingenuous—how can men and women be both (truly) equal and yet (at the same time) in a subordinate position one to the other? Some traditional-conservative interpreters would downplay the idea of subordination—especially in the sense of being secondary or inferior—yet it is hard to deny that Paul has something of this is in mind in 1 Cor 11:3-10 (cf. also 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15 and Eph 5:22-24ff), especially the manner in which he ties it to the order and hierarchy of creation (vv. 3, 7-9). One very much wishes that Paul had expounded further upon what he presents in 1 Cor 11:2-16, as I suspect it would clarify considerably his actual view of the matter—i.e. how the old order of creation has been transformed for believers in Christ.

i. The apparent restrictions represent a compromise for the sake of peace and order. This takes a simpler, pragmatic view—while Paul accepts essential equality (and unity) for male and female believers in Christ, he also wishes to maintain a certain (customary) order for the Church within the larger society, both from a social and religious point of view. Along the same lines, on the basis of Christian unity itself, believers ought to subordinate their individual rights and privileges, etc, for the good of the community. In 1 Cor 7:2-4ff he describes this in egalitarian, reciprocal terms, for men and women (husbands and wives), while in other passages (cf. above) he uses a more traditional hierarchical relationship (man/husband as head of the wife/woman).

Summary

Arguments can be offered for and against each of the nine interpretative viewpoints presented above. I will comment on them only indirectly, by looking at four key points which much be considered and addressed if one hopes to find and accurate (and satisfactory) interpretation to the overall question.

Point #1—Paul, in his other letters and instruction, retains the gender distinction with regard to ministry roles, etc, in the congregation, but does not do the same for religious-cultural (Jew/Gentile) or socio-economic (slave/free) distinctions. It is easy to charge Paul with inconsistency here, but that is a rather superficial way of looking at the matter. I believe a better, and more thoughtful, explanation lies in a consideration of several important factors:

  • At the time Paul wrote Galatians (as well as 1-2 Corinthians and Romans), only the Jew-Gentile distinction was at issue with regard to Christian identity. This was natural enough, since the distinction is fundamentally religious, and defined the community in religious terms. It was for this reason that Paul fought so hard to eliminate the distinction among believers. Our identity in Christ was not to be defined by religious and cultural factors (such as ethnicity, the observance of the Torah, participation in festivals and holy days, etc), but by our faith and (spiritual) union with Christ. On the other hand, going all the way back to the time of Jesus, men and women were accepted as believers together, with little or no distinction (cf. the discussion in Part 7). Similarly, believers from the beginning were drawn from various social classes, and, while there were doubtless questions of status and prejudice which had to be addressed in the congregations, they do not seem to have been serious or widespread enough to affect one’s basic Christian identity within the community. Thus, these social and gender distinctions could be accepted or maintained without seriously affecting a correct understanding of the believer’s religious identity.
  • Paul’s letter to Philemon is instructive, as it expresses Paul’s understanding of the socio-economic distinction (slave/free) in the Church. Onesimus was a slave, with Philemon his master, and yet both men were Christians. Thus, they were brothers and equals in Christ, while at the same time, on the wider social level, they were in the hierarchical relationship of master and slave. While this situation is foreign to us today, and rather difficult to appreciate, it allows us a window into the thought of many early Christians, such as Paul. The social distinction could be maintained right alongside of the ideal of equality among believers.
  • It was the biological-gender (male/female) distinction which was most fundamental to Christian society, centered as it was on the family unit and marriage bond. Paul’s model for the Church seems to be as a community existing within the larger society. He may have encouraged believers to remain single and unmarried (1 Cor 7), but he recognized that husbands and wives (with their children) made up, and would make up, a large segment of the congregation. Thus, there was greater reason to maintain the man/woman and husband/wife distinction.

Point #2—In the places where Paul (or the Pauline tradition) mentions the male/female distinction, it is often connected with the Creation narrative of Genesis, as I have discussed extensively in earlier notes and articles in this series. Even in Gal 3:28, the phrase “male and female” almost certainly derives from the Genesis account. While Christians today may not always appreciate (or agree with) Paul’s interpretation and use of the Creation account to establish male-female relations and roles in the Church, this dependence on the Scriptural tradition must be recognized. It also means that his view of gender relations is not merely practical or customary, but reflects an essential aspect of the human condition as established by God.

Point #3—Gender distinction and roles in the Church are not simply based on the original created order, but, rather, I believe, in Paul’s mind are supposed to reflect the new creation among believers. Admittedly, he does not discuss this in detail, and the point must be inferred from the relevant passages in his letters, but I think it is reasonably clear, especially when one examines 1 Cor 11:2-16 (cf. Part 1 and the related notes). According to Paul’s thinking (and his theology), the new creation in Christ does not abolish the old order, but transforms it. The old order is eliminated only in terms of the fallen human condition—i.e. our bondage to sin (and the Law).

Point #4—When considering the portions of the undisputed letters (i.e. 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:33-36) which seem to contradict Gal 3:28c, one must keep in mind the two fundamental (and interrelated) themes Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians:

  • That believers should fulfill in practice (that is, in the life of the Community) the ideal of unity—i.e. of our union in Christ, as the body of Christ. To this end, believers are to subordinate their individual concerns and interests to the (greater) good of the Community.
  • While the principal bond of unity is spiritual (that is, in and by the Spirit), it should be manifest in practice, and in daily life, according to a particular arrangement or order established by God. Paul makes this particular point numerous times, especially within the instruction regarding congregational life and worship in chapters 11-14. This arranged “order” is expressed and realized two ways:
    (i) horizontal—the reciprocal relation between believers, i.e. we are to subordinate ourselves to each other, as brothers and sisters, equally.
    (ii) vertical—a hierarchical chain of relation: God–Christ–Believers. Paul extends this by way of the Genesis account: God–Christ–Man–Woman.

Contrary to some the view of some commentators, Paul does not only emphasize the latter (vertical) aspect of the established order; rather, he has both aspects in view. Admittedly, Christians today often find it difficult to accept both aspects, and it is in the specific division of believers into male and female (based on the Genesis account) which is most problematic, as I have already discussed extensively in relation to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (cf. Part 5 and the notes on v. 12 and Gen 3:16). However, if we wish to be faithful students and interpreters of the Scriptures, we must grapple with the language and imagery which Paul (and the Pauline tradition) uses.

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