Galatians 3:28 and gender equality

One thing I’ve heard on a couple of message boards lately is the statement that Galatians 3:28, which says “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but you all are one in Christ Jesus”, does not in fact refer to a social equality that is expressed in the practice of the church. That is to say, specifically, they say this verse does not speak in favor of women having co-equal roles in leadership with men. They say it refers only to some kind of equality within the kingdom that is spiritual, eschatological, and referring to salvation, that all are saved alike in Christ and that Paul is merely expressing that converting to follow the laws of Judaism is no longer necessary for followers of God.

This interpretation is highly inadequate for many reasons, a few of which I will highlight here. Since E.P. Sanders wrote his major works on early Christianity and its relationship to ancient Judaism (including Jesus and Judaism, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People) the old Reformation assumption that Judaism was a religion based on “works” and Christianity was based on “grace” is no longer tenable. The ancient Jews, in the various sects, were every bit as dependent on grace as any Christian, and the workings of the law were properly seen as a response to what God has done, not as a way of earning God’s favor. In light of that, it is extremely difficult to defend the case that Paul is simply putting the law aside in favor of a new grace-based understanding, as his understanding of grace is already quite Jewish. Rather, it is more accurate to say that Paul shifts the locus of our response to grace from Torah observance to following Jesus, with baptism as the sign of the covenant replacing circumcision. If you follow the argument through Galatians 1-3 with this in mind, other conclusions follow.

The obvious first conclusion is that Paul chastised Peter for committing a social gaffe, even though observant Jews who disagreed with Paul’s stance towards the Gentiles would have said he did the right thing. It is precisely the point at which Peter breaks table fellowship with the Gentiles that Paul disputes him, and table fellowship was a concept that had serious social implications at the time. Paul’s practice was to include all at the table, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, which is a practice that stands in stark contrast both to some Jewish practice (remember all the trouble Jesus got into for “eating with sinners”) and to Roman festivals. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman circles, eating with someone was as sign of communion with them, and both communions enforced division between different groups of people. “Good Jews” didn’t eat with “sinners”; Roman patrons and masters would eat at the same table with slaves and other lower-class people, but the higher-ups would consume large portions to demonstrate their wealth and station while those who had not did not – thus the public table practices reinforced the divisions in Roman society (see the relevant discussion in 1 Corinthians 11 for Paul’s magnum opus on this subject).

The nature of Peter’s error reinforces the social equality between Jews and Gentiles in the church – neither is to possess a privilege from which the other is barred. Paul’s basis for arguing thus ultimately is the nature of Jews and Gentiles as the seed of Abraham through Jesus, who ultimately is the seed of Abraham in fulfillment of the promise from long ago, and so all provisions of the New Covenant apply equally to Jews and Gentiles both in fellowship in this life as well as in the eschaton. Paul drives this point home, though, by doing something startling – the same equality he applies to Jews and Gentiles he also applies to slave and free (which undermined the very basis of Rome’s economic system) as well as to male and female (which undermined the patriarchal basis of Roman society, grounded in the idea of Caesar as paterfamilias for the whole empire). If we are consistent in our application of Paul’s argument to all three social divisions, then we must ascribe the same social standing within the church, in this life, to women as we do to men. There are no second-class citizens, which must include provision for women to have equal authority as well as equal opportunity to leadership, teaching, and prophetic ministry to men, just as it did for Gentiles to Jews.

In fact, Biblical scholar Tatha Wiley, in Paul and the Gentile Women: Reframing Galatians, argues that the relationship between men and women is not just a peripheral issue for Paul in Galatians 1-3 but rather closer to Paul’s heart. She argues that, were circumcision to be required for Gentile men who followed Jesus it would not only enforce the Jew/Gentile dichotomy but also the male/female division of Judaism that essentially presented women as second-class citizens who were unable to have real authority and leadership in religious life. Paul didn’t just argue that Jesus does away with the “Holy of Holies” that allows every believer access to God’s presence that only the high priest could have in the traditional Jewish faith, but rather he does away with the whole system and its divisions between Jews, Gentiles, men, women, priests, and people.

When you look at Galatians 3:28 in its literary context and in the context of how exactly Paul’s statements subvert both the hierarchies of ancient Jewish practices and the foundations of Roman society, it seems clear to me that the verse demands equality for women with men which must include all areas of Christian social practice in this age, and not just the age that is to come. The inbreaking of God’s reign of peace and justice into this world requires that we radically alter our perception of social relations and come to the table together to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.


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