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Women in the Church: Part 3 (Galatians 3:28)

Galatians 3:28

The next passage to be discussed in this series is Paul’s famous statement in Gal 3:28. There is a definite tension (some would say contradiction) between the idea expressed in this verse, and Paul’s instruction elsewhere regarding the role/position of men and women in the Church. It is therefore necessary to study and explore the matter in some detail.

Historical and Literary Context

Galatians was written (by Paul) sometime in the 50’s; more precise dating has proven difficult, especially since it is not certain whether the churches he addresses are located in southern/south-central Asia Minor (modern Turkey), or in the central region. The former could have been in existence as early as the first missionary journey (cf. Acts 13:13-14:20), while the latter presumably would not have been founded until the second journey (Acts 16:6ff; 18:23). Some traditional-conservative commentators prefer an earlier date (late 40s), on the assumption that it was written prior to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and that Galatians 2 records a different meeting in Jerusalem. Most scholars, however, accept that Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10 are separate accounts of the same basic event, and that Galatians was written after the Council. Internal evidence of style and subject matter strongly suggests that Galatians was written relatively close in time to Romans and 2 Corinthians (i.e. early-mid 50’s).

In the letter, Paul is opposing the view of certain Jewish Christians, who had maintained that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers ought to be circumcised and observe the Old Testament Law (Torah). The entire letter is written to persuade the believers in Galatia that such a religious step is not necessary—salvation and being made right (“justification”) in God’s eyes comes entirely through trust/faith in Jesus. Moreover, in Christ, our life and ethical behavior is governed/guided by the Spirit and the teaching/example of Jesus (the ‘love command’), not by observance of the Old Testament Law. We have true freedom in Christ, and are no longer in bondage to (i.e. bound/required to follow) the Law of the old Covenant. Of all the Pauline letters, Galatians has perhaps the clearest rhetorical structure: the main proposition (propositio) is stated in 2:15-16, along with a brief exposition in vv. 17-21. This restates the cause (causa) or purpose of his writing, as indicated in 1:6-7ff, and is prefaced by a narration (narratio) which illustrates the issues involved (1:122:14). The central section of the letter (chapters 34) is the probatio (“proof”), in which Paul produces arguments and illustrations in support of his point, and to convince the Galatians of the truth of it. The arguments Paul uses build upon one another—for example, in 3:6-14, he adduces an argument from Scripture (Gen 15:6, etc) to demonstrate that the covenant God made with Abraham is prior (and superior) to the introduction of the Law at Sinai, and that believers in Christ are the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. Now, in Gal 3:264:11, the argument has been refined and developed so that Paul can affirm, on the basis of Christian experience, that believers truly are the heirs of the blessings and promises to Abraham (realized in Christ).

Outline and Exegesis

Galatians 3:26-4:11 may be outlined as follows:

  • Argument: Believers are the sons/heirs of the divine blessing and promise (3:26-29)
    • Basic statement—sons/heirs through trust in Christ (v. 26)
    • Demonstration—symbolism of the Baptism ritual (vv. 27-28)
    • Conclusion—this is a fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham (v. 29)
  • Illustration (proof): The heir comes of age (in Christ) and is no longer treated like a slave (4:1-11)
    • No longer under the bondage of the Law (vv. 3-7)
    • No longer under bondage to the “elements” of the world (vv. 8-11)

The specific verse (28) under examination is part of the demonstration from Baptism, which must be understood in the context of the two statements in vv. 26 and 29:

V. 26: “For you are all sons of God through the trust [i.e. faith] in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}”
V. 29: “And if you are of (the) Anointed {Christ}, then you are (the) seed of Abraham, heirs according to (the) promise [e)paggeli/a]”

The symbolism of Baptism in vv. 27-28 is introduced to illustrate/demonstrate that believers are the sons (and heirs) of God. Clearly, Paul’s use of “sons” here applies to all believers—male and female both. We could translate with inclusive language here and say “sons and daughters” or “children”, but that would distort somewhat the image he is using—that of the heir to the household, which typically would be the (eldest) son. The demonstration from Baptism has two parts:

  • V. 27—A fundamental formula indicating the believer’s new identity in Christ:
    “For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed {Christ}, have sunk yourselves in(to the) Anointed {Christ} [i.e. put him on as a garment]”
  • V. 28—A (three-fold) formula expressing the essential character and nature of this identity:
    • “in (Christ) there is no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek”
    • “in (Christ) there is no slave and no free (person)”
    • “in (Christ) there is no male and female”
  • —along with the concluding formula in 28b:
    “for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}”

The statement in v. 28b is also parallel to that in v. 26:

  • “For you are all sons of God through trust in Christ Jesus”
    “For you are all one in Christ Jesus”

It is certainly not an issue of maleness (“sons”) here—the expression “sons of God” is essentially synonymous with “one”, i.e. the unity of all believers in Christ. This is what the three-fold formula in v. 28 indicates. It is possible that Paul (or an earlier baptismal tradition) is playing on an old Jewish prayer formula, whereby the male Jew gives thanks to God that he was not created as a Gentile, slave (‘brute’) or woman (t. Ber. 7:18; b. Men. 43b; cf. Bruce, p. 187). Each of these elements is significant from the standpoint of the rhetorical context of Galatians:

  • Jew/Greek—this of course is central to the overall argument of Galatians (cf. also throughout Romans): there is no longer any ethnic or religious distinction in Christ between Jew and non-Jew (Gentile)
  • Slave/Free—Paul uses slavery/freedom imagery throughout the letter (2:4; 3:22-25; 4:1-11, 21-31; 5:1, 13), emphasizing the freedom believers have in Christ and through the Spirit; here he uses the terms in their literal/legal sense: the social distinctions of slave and free person have no meaning in Christ
  • Male/Female—as indicated above, Paul has repeatedly been using the image of son/sonship, but this is purely symbolic and illustrative: in a fundamental sense, the social/biological distinction between genders is irrelevant to the identity of believers in Christ.

Interpretation of Verse 28 (Male/Female)

How precisely does Paul intend this last point to be taken? In the case of the Jew/Greek and Slave/Free distinction, it would seem that these no longer apply even within the context of the organized life and worship of the congregation. In other words, there is no apparent restriction in terms of the roles or (religious-cultural) privileges in the Church—i.e., slave and free, Jew and Gentile, could participate in the meeting or hold leadership roles equally. But, as we saw in the earlier studies on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:33b-36, this does not seem to apply as completely to the distinction of gender. Does this reflect an inconsistency in Paul’s thought and teaching? Many commentators today think so. Perhaps Paul did not fully recognize the (logical) consequences of his statement in Gal 3:28; or, on the assumption that Galatians was written prior to 1 Corinthians (and, of course, the Pastoral letters), he may have changed or qualified his approach to the matter in the later writings (cf. Betz, p. 200). Traditional-conservative commentators are more sympathetic toward Paul, but there is still some tension between the two viewpoints: (a) there is no distinction between male and female in Christ, and yet (b) there are to remain clear distinctions in how men and women participate in the body of Christ (the Church).

Interestingly, Paul makes use of language similar to that of vv. 27-28 (referring to Baptism) elsewhere in his letters, in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11—in both passages there is no mention of the male/female aspect. Since 1 Cor 12:13 is contextually relevant to the discussion of 11:2-16 and 14:33b-36, I cite it here for comparison:

“For in one Spirit we were all dunked [i.e. baptized] into one Body—even if Jews (and) even if Greeks, even if slaves (and) even if free (person)s—and we all were made to drink of one Spirit”

This could indicate that Paul was subsequently more guarded in his language, perhaps to avoid the suggestion that gender-distinction was eliminated (i.e. could be ignored/disregarded) for Christians. Indeed, a number of so-called Gnostic traditions in early Christianity seem to have emphasized this very thing—cf. the saying of Jesus in 2 Clement 12, also the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas log. 22; the Gospel of the Egyptians 2 (in Clem. Alex. Stromateis 3.92.2); the Gospel of Philip 78, etc (cf. Betz, pp. 195-7). While such sayings and teachings were probably meant to be understood in a spiritual/symbolic (or “mystical”) sense, as opposed to advocating a radical social transformation, they would be scandalous enough for many (proto-)orthodox believers. While it is possible that Paul wished to avoid certain extreme spiritual/gnostic implications, I believe that he actually held a rather radical view himself regarding the new religious identity which was assumed and realized by believers in Christ. This can be seen if we take seriously, not only his statements in Gal 3:27-28, but also the numerous passages which indicate that those who are in Christ are a “new creation”; cf. especially 2 Cor 5:17:

“And so if any(one) is in (the) Anointed {Christ}, he/she is a new ‘creation’ [kti/si$]: the beginning [i.e. old/earlier] (thing)s have gone along [i.e. passed away] (and) see—they have [all] become new!”

Humankind in the original creation was “male and female” (a&rsen kai\ qh=lu, Gen 1:27 LXX), the same expression Paul uses in Gal 3:28. Note that he does not say “in (Christ) there is no male and no female”, but specifically, “in (Christ) there is no male and female“, likely as a direct allusion to Gen 1:27 (cf. Bruce, p. 189). What then of the new creation? That this new identity in Christ is fundamental and must transform all aspects of human life, including gender and sexuality, seems clear—but how, and to what extent? In the earlier note on 1 Cor 11:10, I raised the possibility that this may be part of Paul’s formulation in 11:7-12; here, I further suggest the following interpretation for consideration:

  • 11:7-9: the original created order—hierarchical/vertical—man the head of woman, woman from/through man, etc
  • 11:11-12: the new (transformed) order (“new creation”)—reciprocal/horizontal—man and woman together, interconnected (and equal)

The complexity of Paul’s position is that he seeks to affirm and preserve both aspects for believers, at least within the organized (social and religious) setting of the Christian Community. Keeping this in mind may help us better understand Paul’s teaching and instruction regarding the role/position of women in the Church as expressed in his letters. I will be returning to this theme (and to Gal 3:28 specifically) in upcoming notes as part of this series. For the moment, in closing, I would state that, with regard to the apparent conflict between Gal 3:28 and the instruction involving women elsewhere in the Pauline letters, I agree wholeheartedly with F. F. Bruce, that the passages which seem to restrict the role of women “…are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice versa” (Bruce, p. 190).

References marked “Bruce” above are to F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC]), Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1982.
Those marked “Betz” are to Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians (in the Hermeneia series), ed. by Helmut Koester, Fortress Press: 1979.

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