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Regarding Galatians 3:28 and the "priesthood of the believer", why can't women be priests/ministers as well?

Allow me to begin by making some observations and comments:

The Bible teaches many things which are contrary to our natural inclinations, so much so that apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit we would never grasp or accept them (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). We would never come to God’s teachings on our own, but only through His Word, illuminated by His Spirit.

Our culture despises and reacts to anything which deals with men and women differently. Thus we now have women in the military, and even in combat (whether or not we admit it). That isn’t the end of it. There are already reports of a movement toward removing the distinction between men and women in public rest rooms. Being in agreement with our culture doesn’t prove some teaching is wrong, but it should raise some questions, especially since the consistent warning of Scripture is that we don’t let the world press us into its mold (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:17-24).

There are those who would abuse and misuse the teachings of Scripture regarding the submission of wives in marriage and the silence of women in the church to justify their sinful attitudes and actions. But this does not make the Scriptures wrong; it only proves that men can twist the Scriptures. Some did the same thing with the grace of God, as we see in Romans 5:20-6:13.

Even those who agree that women must not assume a leadership role over men in the church do not all agree as to how this teaching of Scripture is to be applied. Some may carry this to an extreme (e.g. Women cannot open their mouths during church, even to sing congregational hymns.), and such extremes may make the teaching of Scripture look foolish. Don’t judge biblical teaching by the extremes people take, but by the words of Scripture.

Having said this, let me deal very briefly with your first question regarding the priesthood of all believers: “Why can’t believing women, who are all priests, speak and lead just like men, with Christ as their covering?”

There are several issues here. First of all I think we need to distinguish between the popular view that “every believer (individually) is a priest” and the more biblical declaration that all believers (corporately or collectively) are a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 1:6; 5:10).

But let’s assume for the moment that all believers are individually priests. Does the priesthood of a woman need to look and function exactly like that of a man? I think not. Only the tribe of Levi was made the priestly tribe in Israel. And within the tribe of Levi different tasks were assigned to different descendants (see Numbers chapter 4). Let us also keep in mind that Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ sister and brother) protested against Moses’ leadership, claiming that they were equal to him in authority. God’s response to this was very strong (Numbers 12), and should serve as a warning to us today.

But your question assumes that a woman can do what any man can do in the church because Christ would be her covering? Nowhere in the Scriptures is it ever said that Christ is the woman’s covering in this sense. In 1 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul tells us that the chain of command is (1) God the Father, (2) Jesus Christ, (3) the man, and (4) the woman. A woman’s head covering is a symbol of the her submission to her husband’s authority and leadership. The woman’s silence (so as to allow her husband to lead) is the evidence of that submission. (It is difficult to say symbolically, “My husband is the leader God has appointed over me,” while leading him and other men in the church.

Now, concerning your main question. Your position (that women should be able to do what men do in the church) seems to be based largely upon one text – Galatians 3:28. You also indicate that the position you reject is that which “some churches say,” but you don’t acknowledge that the teaching and practice you question is exactly what a number of biblical texts written by the same author (Paul) say – clearly:

33 . . . As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).

8 So I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute. 9 Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, 10 but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But she will be delivered through childbearing, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with self-control (1 Timothy 2:8-15).

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 – specifically his teaching about the public ministry of women in the church – is the command of Christ (1 Corinthians 14:37). Acknowledgement of this and adherence to this instruction is the test of whether one is to be recognized as being spiritual and obedient to Christ (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). These are strong words, but they are not mine; these are the words of Scripture.

The things Paul commands are not just for a particular church in a particular place or culture (Corinth); these are commands for the churches everywhere to follow:

16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17, emphasis mine).

If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16, emphasis mine).

33 for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says (1 Corinthians 14:33-34, emphasis mine).

Thus, the teaching on the silence of women in the church gathering is not found only in 1 Corinthians, but also in 1 Timothy, a book which instructs Timothy as to how the church at Ephesus should conduct itself (1 Timothy 1:3; 2:8-15).

The ministry of both men and women in the church is determined by God, on the basis of what happened at creation and at the fall of man in Genesis 1-3:

3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered disgraces his head. 5 But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head. 6 For if a woman will not cover her head, she should cut off her hair. But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head. 7 For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for man (1 Corinthians 11:3-9, emphasis mine).

12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first and then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, because she was fully deceived, fell into transgression (1 Timothy 2:12-14, emphasis mine).

In 1 Corinthians 14:33-38 Paul calls his teaching on the ministry of women a “command of Christ,” and makes accepting it a test of one’s spirituality. He also claims that his teaching is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament:

33 . . . As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone? 37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:34-38, emphasis mine).

Jesus Himself distinguished the ministry of women from the ministry of men on the basis of gender. No women were appointed as apostles. No women went out healing or preaching the gospel, as did the male disciples (see Luke 8:1-3). This was no reflection on the spiritual condition of the women because it is obvious that they were more spiritually perceptive than the male disciples. They believed in the resurrection before the male disciples did, for example (Luke 24:1-11). If it was wrong to distinguish the kind of ministry one could have on the basis of gender then Jesus must have been wrong as well.

Finally, you have assumed a certain interpretation and application of Galatians 3:28, but the meaning and application of this text must be determined by careful study within the context of the argument of the Book of Galatians, and particularly of chapter 3. So, let’s focus for a moment on what Paul is teaching in Galatians, and particularly in chapter 3.

What is the problem with the Galatians, and how does Paul seek to correct it? The error initially occurred at Antioch, leading to the Jerusalem Council, as we see it recorded in Acts chapter 15. The error was the teaching of some Jews that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved:

1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

In other words some Jews were insisting that in order to be a Christian one must also be Jewish. The decision reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem is summed up by these words of Peter:

7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (Acts 15:7-11).

No Jew (or anyone else), Peter declared, was ever saved by law-keeping. The law condemns all men – Jews and Gentiles alike – but it cannot save them. It merely points them to their need of the Lord Jesus and His saving work at Calvary:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:19-26).

By the time we come to the Book of Galatians it would seem that the error may have been modified to appear to comply with the decision of the Jerusalem Council. It is as though the Judaisers (those who sought to impose the Old Testament Law on Gentile converts to Christ) were willing to admit that one is not saved by law-keeping, but only by faith in Jesus. But then they go on to insist that in order to be sanctified and live godly lives the Gentiles must keep the law. That is why Paul writes:

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified! 2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so many things for nothing? – if indeed it was for nothing. 5 Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5)

As Paul wrote in Colossians chapter 2 we are sanctified on the same basis that we are saved – not by our works (such as law-keeping), but on the basis of faith in the saving work of Jesus in our behalf:

6 Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and firm in your faith just as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (Colossians 2:6-7).

Galatians is thus written to correct the false gospel which requires law-keeping, whether for salvation or for sanctification. And since circumcision is the symbol by which one commits to law-keeping, Paul instructs that Gentiles must not be compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 6:11-16).

Now, with that very brief overview of the false teaching which had impacted the Galatians, and Paul’s response to it, let us seek to trace the argument of Galatians a little more in detail, with special attention to Galatians 3:28.

O.K., having set the stage for Paul’s argument in Galatians, let me try to walk through Paul’s argument, from chapters 1-3, and then on quickly to his conclusion.


Chapter 1: There’s a new gospel in town, but it is not really the gospel. Any “gospel” other than that which Paul preached to the Galatians is not the true gospel, and anyone preaching such a gospel is accursed. The gospel Paul received did not come through men, but was communicated to Paul directly from God.

Chapter 2: After 14 years, Paul received a revelation to go up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus, where he met with some of the church leaders/apostles. Though they were not the source of the gospel Paul received they did accept his message as the same gospel which they preached. And thus they extended to Paul the “right hand of fellowship,” signifying their unity with him and his ministry. They recognized that as Peter was called as an apostle to the Jews, Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles. While he was there some false brethren demanded that Titus be circumcised, but Paul refused to do so because it would rob Paul and those with him of their liberty in Christ, thus putting them under bondage, which was contrary to the gospel Paul preached.

Back in Antioch Paul did find it necessary to rebuke Peter in front of the others because of his hypocrisy. Certain Jews came down from James in Jerusalem. While Peter previously had eaten with the Gentiles (eating like a Gentile – that is, eating food devout Jews would not eat because of the Old Testament food laws), he ceased to do so when these Jews came down from Jerusalem. These men were seeking to compel the Gentiles to live like Jews, even though the apostles had ruled that Judaism (law-keeping) could not save the Jews who became believers. They so intimidated Peter that he stopped eating with the Gentiles, and began to eat separately with the Jews. Peter’s actions inferred that Gentile Christians must act like Jews (living under the Old Testament Law of Moses) in order to be treated as equal participants in the saving work of Christ. This was something Paul had to rebuke publicly because it was contrary to the gospel, the gospel Paul preached, and the gospel which Peter and the apostles also embraced and proclaimed. So, the error Paul corrected was teaching (or implying by one’s actions) that in order to hold the same status as Jewish believers Gentile converts must live according to the Old Testament law (symbolized by the initiatory rite of circumcision).

Chapter 3: Those in Galatia who had fallen for this “false gospel” had amazingly been convinced that while they were saved by the blood of Jesus (and not law-keeping), they were now to be sanctified by law-keeping. Paul reminded them that they did not receive the Holy Spirit by law-keeping, but by faith in Jesus. Likewise they were being perfected by the Spirit, not by the flesh. In verse 6 Paul turns to Abraham and the Abrahamic Covenant to show how God saved (and will sanctify) both Jews and Gentiles in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Abraham was saved by his faith in God; so, too, all those who (like Abraham) believe in God are saved, and thus become “sons of Abraham.” True Jews, then, are people who trust in Jesus, as Abraham did (before the law was given, and before he was circumcised – while a Gentile, as Paul says in Romans 4). By inference we can see that there are false Jews who are biological descendants of Abraham, but do not share his faith in God. Their trust is in their ability to keep the law. Those who choose to be “under the law” (rather than a true child of Abraham by faith) are actually under a curse, for that is what the law prescribes for those who fail to keep it all.

It is Christ who saves us, not law-keeping. He (although He was without sin) took on our sin and bore the curse of the law on our behalf. In this way the blessing of the Gentiles which God promised through Abraham came about in Christ, for Abraham’s “seed” to whom God referred in Genesis 22:18 is Jesus, a descendant of Abraham (Gal. 3:16).

The Law of Moses which came much later – 400 and 30 years later – did not nullify God’s earlier covenant with Abraham. The Law was not given to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant; it was given as a temporary stop-gap measure, until the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant in Christ.

Does this mean that the Law was in opposition to this Covenant promise to Abraham? No! The Law was never intended to make men righteous, only to keep men in custody, so to speak, until God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled (3:21-23). The Law was our tutor, pointing us to Christ until He came and completed His saving work at Calvary. But now that Christ has come, faith has come, and we no longer need the Law as a stop-gap.

Through faith every believer is a son of God in Christ (3:26). All who have trusted in Jesus have been baptized into Christ, and have been clothed with Christ (3:27). As a result of faith in Jesus we are all “sons of Abraham,” all “true Jews.” Being in Christ makes all true believers one in Him. Thus, the earthly distinctions (Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female) do not nullify or even hinder the fundamental unity of all believers in Jesus. (As Paul says in Ephesians 2:15-16, even though we were distant from each other and opposed to each other, God has made all believers in Jesus into “one new man” – one body in Christ.)

Now watch where Paul takes this truth of the unity of all believers in verse 29 (and beyond): If you (Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female) have placed your faith in Christ, so as to belong to Him, then you are Abraham’s offspring. You are, so to speak “true Jews.” The Judaisers are seeking to make you Jews by putting you under the Law, a commitment that is commenced by the rite of circumcision. Since true believers are true Jews and thus one with all other believers there is no necessity of imposing the Old Testament Law of Moses on Gentiles to give the external appearance of unity. Indeed, because all believers are one in Christ, one body, one new man, they are free to express their diversity. Unity is, in fact, the basis for diversity, not an excuse for imposing uniformity through conformity to the Law.

Skipping to the final chapter of Galatians we see that Paul’s application is to emphasize that all believers (Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female) are “the Israel of God” (6:16), and thus Gentiles who are believers in Christ ought not succumb to the false teaching of those who would impose circumcision and law keeping on them so as to appear to give them equal standing with Jews who keep the law.

To say it in a nutshell, the premise of the Judaisers is this: You are equal with Jewish believers if you do the same things Jews do – get circumcised and keep the Law. Paul’s premise is this: You are equal and truly Jewish if you do what Abraham did – believe God by trusting in the promised “seed,” Jesus Christ. Since you have believed in Christ you are all one in Him, and thus you do not have to conform to Jewish practices and to put yourselves under the law that could not save and which cannot save because it relies on the power of the flesh, rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do you see how Galatians 3:28 proves the exact opposite of what so many claim. It does not teach that there are no longer any differences between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves or free, or between males and females. It teaches that the deep spiritual unity that God has brought about through Jesus is so great and so strong that we are free to be different from one another. The Jews said that everyone should be alike – like Jews. Paul taught that everyone who is in Christ is one in Him. That unity is precisely what allows for the function of different spiritual gifts and different ministries – a point that Paul makes in both 1 Corinthians and in Ephesians chapter 4:

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. 8 For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men.” 9 Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth? 10 He, the very one who descended, is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things. 11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-12).

There is such oneness in Christ, such equality in our standing before God, that women don’t need to function just like men to be equal with them in Christ. Slaves don’t need to have the same role in life to be equal with their masters in Christ. And Gentiles don’t need to do what Jews do (keep the law) in order to have equal standing with Jewish saints in Christ. Unity is the reason why we can be different and not agonize about those differences.

When understood in this way (the way I believe Paul meant us to understand him) Galatians 3:28 is perfectly consistent with all those texts – written by Paul through the inspiration of the Spirit – that assign men and women different roles in the church.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

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