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Women in Leadership - Part 2

rev. 10-2-10

In the introductory essay to women in leadership, we noted the kinds of attitudes that are in circulation among evangelicals today. This paper is intended to address one of the major New Testament passages on the subject the role of women in the church—Galatians 3:28.

Crux Interpretum: A Look at the Key Texts2

Two passages are typically pitted against each other: Gal 3:28 and 1 Tim 2:11-15. Egalitarians tend to view Gal 3:28 as a very clear passage, and as the pinnacle of Paul’s thought on the new and elevated role of women that the death of Christ has effected. It is a reverse of the curse. Complementarians view 1 Tim 2:11-15 to be clear in its major points and normative for today. This paper will address just the first of these texts, Gal 3:28.

Galatians 3:28

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV)

· Translation is not the issue (all translations are virtually identical)

· Implications of the erasure of the distinctions is the issue: Is Paul making a sociological statement or a soteriological one? That is, is he speaking about our functions in the home and church or our access to God?

· Interpretation:

1. History of Interpretation

Noted church historian Harold O. J. Brown points out, in his article, “The New Testament Against Itself: 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the ‘Breakthrough’ of Galatians 3:28,”3 that the various passages that are now interpreted a certain way by egalitarians were never read that way until fairly recently:

For about eighteen centuries, 1 Timothy 2:12, as well as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and related texts, was assumed to have a clear and self-evident meaning. Then, rather abruptly, some, hardly a quarter century ago, began to “discover” a different meaning in the apostle’s words. Did God suddenly permit “more light to break forth from his holy Word,” as the old Congregationalist put it? Or is there reason to suspect that the many modern interpretations of 1 Timothy 2 are primarily the result of certain conscious or unconscious presuppositions?4

Even more to the point, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., argues, “Never could the Apostle Paul have envisioned the place of Galatians 3:28 in contemporary evangelical literature. The issues of sexual equality and societal roles in modern society, however, have done what Paul could not have imagined.”5 After a brief examination of patristic comments on this passage, from Ignatius to Augustine, and then on to Luther and Calvin, Johnson notes: “From this brief survey it appears that none of the major teachers in the history of the church thought Galatians 3:28 abolished the male-female role distinction in marriage or the church.”6

2. Chronology and Paul’s Thought

R. T. France argued for a trajectory theology that suggests that Christ and Paul were bound by cultural conventions from treating women as functional equals. France writes: “The gospels do not, perhaps, record a total reversal of Jewish prejudice against women and of their exclusion from roles of leadership. But they do contain the seeds from which such a reversal was bound to grow.”7 France’s opinion is shared by other egalitarians. Aida Besançon Spencer makes a similar statement: “Paul’s priorities begin where Jesus’ priorities left off.”8 I am not at all opposed to trajectory theology (for we have to apply it in several other areas); the problem here is that France assumes that, because of cultural pressure, Jesus did not go as far as he wanted to in liberating women. This is different from other trajectories that are based on progressive revelation; this one seems to be based on progressive courage! Yet, do we not see in Jesus’ ministry a constant barrage on the status quo of the day, a constant harping on the error of following the “traditions of men,” of bowing to cultural pressures that are clothed in respectable theological attire? Is it not therefore possible—even likely—that the liberation of women in Jesus’ ministry was not in embryonic form, but was the full flower, and that we need to adjust to him as the proper model, rather than make him adjust to our culture? Frankly, to see Jesus going only half way in the liberation of women is to impugn his character9—an attitude that is only a couple steps removed from blasphemy. As I suggested in the introductory paper on the role of women in the church, when a viewpoint in a minor area begins to impact our understanding of a major one, it becomes immediately suspect. Egalitarians are chipping, bit by bit, at some core issues; in the end, I fear they may give away the farm.10

Concerning Paul’s treatment in Gal 3:28, France remarks, “Perhaps the most we can safely say is that Paul here [in Gal 3:28] expresses the end-point of the historical trajectory which we have been tracing in this lecture, from the male-dominated society of the Old Testament and of later Judaism, through the revolutionary implications and yet still limited outworking of Jesus’ attitude to women, and on to the increasing prominence of women in the apostolic church and its active ministry.”11 If Gal 3:28 is the “end-point of the historical trajectory,” then we should rightly expect it to be one of Paul’s last letters. Here’s where the whole argument collapses on its head: what France fails to mention is that Galatians is probably Paul’s earliest letter. And 1 Timothy is almost his last letter! Thus, if we are to see a trajectory in Paul regarding his view of women, it must reach its culmination in the pastorals, not in Galatians.

The method of egalitarians when it comes to Gal 3:28 is important to understand. First, they assume that it speaks about functional social roles more than ontological salvific roles, and thus the text which articulates so important a truth about salvataion (viz., that we all come to Christ by faith, that no one starts out better than anyone else) is evacuated of its meaning. Let me repeat a refrain you will see often in this essay: one of the surest signs we have that a viewpoint is wrong is when a great truth of scripture is twisted or destroyed for the sake of that lesser viewpoint. The egalitarian view does precisely that here. Second, they assume that Galatians is the end-point in a gynecological trajectory, even though it is perhaps the second earliest New Testament book (I place James earlier, though many regard James as a later book) and Paul’s earliest letter.12 Thus, only by twisting the text and by ignoring chronology (or rejecting the authenticity of the pastorals) is one able to make Gal 3:28 serviceable to the egalitarian cause.

3. Context

Perhaps, however, the church has misconstrued this verse for eighteen centuries; perhaps the text really is talking about societal roles and the erasure of hierarchical functions between men and women. An examination of the context is in order to determine this possibility.

The entire context of chapter 3 is about access to God through faith. Indeed, the entire letter of Galatians has to do with this issue. These new Christians had been duped by Judaizers who claimed that one had to be circumcised in order to be saved. To see sociological implications here as the primary thrust may well be a perversion of the gospel. The entire focus is on salvation and how God does not accept anyone on a basis other than faith (note how salvation by faith alone is the explicit focus of vv. 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26).

The immediate context of vv. 26-29 focuses on the “universal privilege of sonship in the present age through union with Christ.”13 Then, in v. 28, Paul zeroes in his argument: “The human distinctions of race, social rank, and sex are in some sense nullified in Christ. The crucial question is: In what sense?”14 Verse 28 reads as follows: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NASB). These three groups were possibly brought to Paul’s mind because of the Jewish man’s morning prayer in which he thanked God that he was not born a slave, a gentile, or a woman.15 Paul here declares these distinctions invalid in Christ.

A careful examination of each of these three pairs shows that something different is going on with each of them. Gentiles were completely outside the old covenant, but slaves and women were not.16 The point is that the common element throughout is almost certainly something other than social and functional rights, for even after Galatians was written slaves were still slaves in Paul’s churches. What has changed in Christ then? The entire focus of the verse must surely be on our access to God, for here the cross has become the common denominator: we all come by faith. Hence, the first pair, “neither Jew nor Greek,” is showing that gentiles also have a relationship to Christ through faith—apart from circumcision.

The second pair, “neither slave nor free man,” focuses more on societal status both within Israel and without. Slaves were not outside the covenant, but were generally treated as inferior in society. Paul argues that they come to Christ on exactly the same basis as the free man, that God accepts one just like he accepts the other. One cannot draw from Paul’s words here that he was trying to abolish slavery. That is not his point. Although his preference was certainly that a person be free (cf. Philemon and 1 Cor 7), he does not lay out a master plan in his letters. The importance of this for the issue of the role of women is just this: if Gal 3:28 is so radical a text that all hierarchical distinctions must be obliterated because of it, why is Paul himself slow to acknowledge this with reference to slavery? Balance in this matter is very crucial. Paul was not in favor of slavery. But neither was he willing to make this a major platform in his instructions to churches.17 Yet even here, he does give hints here and there that freedom was the desirable state. Thus, one could conceivably argue that in Paul we see the seeds of abolition, but certainly not the full flower. Further, Paul gives clear articulation to this preference in later letters, and it is only from these later letters that we can make out a case for what Paul’s view of slavery was.

This is an important consideration for the final pair, “neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28 must be interpreted by later Pauline letters rather than the other way around. Johnson makes these observations:

First, the antitheses are not parallel, for the distinction between male and female is a distinction arising out of creation, a distinction still maintained in family and church life in the New Testament. Second, it must also be remembered that in this context Paul is not speaking of relationships in the family and church, but of standing before God in righteousness by faith. And, third, the apostle in his later letters, such as 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, does set forth just such restrictions as Bruce mentions.18

Johnson’s significant contribution to the discussion reminds us of the real focus of Galatians 3:28 and its context: “The richness of the oneness, without any denial at all of role distinctions, is the preeminent thrust of the section we have been considering…. The context contains no denial at all of role distinctions and, in fact, to inject the feminist agenda at this point dims the splendor of these grand truths.”19

Further, there is a major logical problem here: If social and hierarchical distinctions are erased in Christ, then Christian children do not need to obey their parents! That is, if the principle of erasure of social hierarchies is in view in Gal 3:28, then it would logically extend to Christian children even though they are not explicitly mentioned. No egalitarian embraces such nonsense, of course, but their view logically leads to this conclusion. Thus, their view is inconsistent, suggesting that it is motivated by an agenda rather than based on sound hermeneutical principles. The question is, Should we attribute this inconsistency to Paul?

How do egalitarians respond to this traditional interpretation of the text? The most carefully worded treatments are by Paul Jewett and Klyne Snodgrass.20 Both of them assume that scripture contradicts scripture, for that is the only way they can ‘harmonize’ egalitarianism with the Bible. (Again, we see here a minor issue wreaking havoc on a more central doctrine; this is one of the key evidences that a position is wrong.) Second, Snodgrass assumes that the NT statements about the functional subordination of women are based on Gen 3 rather than Gen 2. That is, they reach back to the post-fall state which has been redeemed in Christ. (France argues in a somewhat similar vein: Gen 1 has priority over Gen 2 and 3. He apparently follows the documentary hypothesis of Wellhausen, which is normally considered outside the pale of evangelical theology—at least in America.21) The problem for this view is that in all of Paul’s main passages about the role of women in the church and home (1 Cor 11:2-16, 14:34-35; Eph 5:22-33; 1 Tim 2:12-13), the apostle explicitly links his argument of functional subordination to the pre-fall state. Redemption in Christ brings us back to that idealic state for it restores the Imago Dei which has been damaged in the fall; redemption brings us back to the way in which God created men and women to be in the first place. This is one of the most damaging arguments against egalitarianism: the NT argument links functional subordination to the ideal of Gen 2.22 If anything, redemption restores both roles because neither husband nor wife will abuse their respective roles when they are following Christ.

In the brilliant treatment of Galatians by Ronald Y. K. Fung, this exegete concludes on Gal 3:28 as follows:

It seems precarious to appeal to this verse in support of any view of the role of women in the Church, for two reasons: (a) Paul’s statement is not concerned with the role relationships of men and women within the Body of Christ but rather with their common initiation into it through (faith and) baptism; (b) the male/female distinction, unlike the other two, has its roots in creation, so that the parallelism between the male/female pair and the other pairs may not be unduly pressed.23

· Conclusion: To say that Gal 3:28 makes no comment about social structures in the home or church is not the same as saying that Paul (or other writers) does not elsewhere speak to this issue. In other words, it is possible to hold to the soteriological view of Gal 3:28 and yet be an egalitarian. Nevertheless, egalitarians really should find no comfort in this text. And yet, Gal 3:28 is usually the main passage that egalitarians appeal to. But if it does not really support their view, where will they turn?

Frankly, to reduce Gal 3:28 to a statement about social hierarchies is to trivialize Paul’s great emphasis here: we are all saved on the same basis! When it comes to the cross, no one group has the upper hand. We all get in on the basis of faith! The problem of the egalitarian position in Gal 3:28 is that several more important doctrinal issues are jettisoned or significantly defaced. What we have seen already is that (a) the soteriological truth of this passage is trivialized, and (b) the authority of scripture is compromised. When we get to 1 Tim 2:11-15 we will see the Trinity under attack as well.


1 The title of this essay was originally “Biblical Gynecology, Part 2: Galatians 3:28.” See “Women in Leadership, Part1: Setting the Stage,” for the rationale on changing the name.

2 Other important passages include Gen 1-3; Acts 18.26; 1 Cor 11.2-16; 14.34-35; Eph 5.22-33; Rom 16.1, 7, etc. I have already posted treatments of Acts 18.26; 1 Cor 11.2-16; Rom 16.1; and Romans 16.7 on the BSF website.

3 Harold O. J. Brown, “The New Testament Against Itself: 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the ‘Breakthrough’ of Galatians 3:28,” in Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, edd. Andreas J. Köstenberger, Thomas R. Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). The whole article is found on pp. 197-208.

4 Ibid., 197.

5 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Role Distinctions in the Church: Galatians 3:28,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edd. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991) 154.

6 Ibid., 156. Johnson noted that his research was not exhaustive, but of all the fathers he examined he found none who read Gal 3:28 as modern egalitarians do today.

7 R. T. France, Women in the Church’s Ministry: A Test Case for Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 78.

8 Aida B. Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985) 65. The point is not developed very much, nor can it be easily defended; Spencer is saying that Jesus focused more on a ministry to gentiles than on a ministry to women, and that Paul picked up where Jesus left off, taking the liberation principle to women (ibid.). But exactly the opposite is the case: a careful examination of the Gospels shows that Jesus focused far more on women than on gentiles. Even in his resurrection, they were the first to see the empty tomb. And their testimony—which would not have been allowed in a Jewish court—was, in the plan of God, the catalyst by which Peter and John came to the tomb and to faith. At the same time, I do agree to a certain extent with Spencer’s general statement: “Paul’s priorities begin where Jesus’ priorities left off”; but Jesus started with the liberation of women, and Paul extended this to gentiles.

9 A response to this charge that I heard recently from an egalitarian pastor was this: Jesus only chose Jewish men to be his apostles and yet evangelism expanded to gentiles later. The implication of his response was that there is no difference between Jesus not choosing gentiles and not choosing women to be his apostles; whatever the reason for the one was the same reason for the other. But this response commits two errors: (a) theologically, the redemptive-historical error of making no distinction between Jews and gentiles in the ministry of Jesus or later; and (b) biblically, the error of ignoring clear texts which speak of development in Jesus’ ministry first to Jews and then to gentiles (cf. Matt 10:5-6; 15:24-28; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). What is interesting in this shift from Jew to Jew + gentile mission is that in the pericope about the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:24-28) we have both the confrontation of Jew vs. gentile and man vs. woman. Jesus told the woman that he was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24); he did not reject her request because she was a woman but because she was a gentile. In the ensuing discussion, when Jesus saw that she displayed great faith, he performed the miraculous healing of this woman’s daughter. Here is a gentile woman who gets her request answered. There is no hint in Jesus’ discourse with her that because she was a woman he would not act; it was only because she was a gentile. There is thus no hint here of development in how women were treated; what Jesus did was to treat them with full dignity and respect. It is rather evident that the gentile—Jew tension is not like the male—female tension in terms of functional roles.

10 In many respects, egalitarianism is the new social gospel, for this issue is increasingly occupying center stage of many evangelicals. Whenever objections are raised—even objections that involve the twisting of more central doctrines—egalitarians often resort to insisting on their gynecological interpretation as that which demands other doctrinal shifts. In the case of Gilbert Bilezikian, he goes so far as to say that the complementarian view of the Trinity is heresy—in spite of the fact that it is what was explicitly held from the second century on by all orthodox fathers! (More on that later.)

11 France, Women in the Church’s Ministry, 91 (italics added).

12 Some might object that there really is no theological development in Paul and that therefore Gal 3:28 is the end-point in the gynecological trajectory. I would disagree with that. We see evidence of development in Paul on almost every topic. To cite but three examples: (a) He does not call Christians “saints” in the salutation of his letters until 1 Corinthians. But that letter was written five or six years after Galatians and four or five years after 1-2 Thessalonians. “Saints” had formerly been used of angels (as in 1 Thess 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7), not customarily of human beings. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he had to think through their sanctification. I believe it dawned on him that their position in Christ was just as holy as are the angels in heaven—hence, it was appropriate to say that these Corinthian believers were “called as saints.” (b) When we think about the “head of the body” we immediately think of Christ. That is perfectly natural, since Christ is the head of the body in Ephesians and Colossians, two of Paul’s later letters. But about six or seven years earlier, when he wrote 1 Corinthians, the head of the body was a member of the congregation (cf. 1 Cor 12:21 in its context). Most likely, as time went on, Paul recognized how appropriate it was to speak of Christ as the head of the body rather than an individual member of the congregation as such. (c) Galatians is to Romans what a rough draft is to the polished final manuscript. Or, as J. B. Lightfoot noted, “The Epistle to the Galatians stands in relation to the Roman letter as the rough model to the finished statue…” (Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians [London: Macmillan, 1896] 49). Galatians was written several years earlier than Romans. My point in all this is that I do agree with the general principle of theological development within the NT. But this argument cannot be used with reference to biblical gynecology in Paul’s letters, because Galatians was his earliest letter and 1 Timothy was nearly his last. And no one, to my knowledge, has suggested that Paul got more hierarchical in his views as time went on. Therefore, whatever Gal 3:28 contributes to the discussion, it must be read in the light of 1 Tim 2:11-15 rather than vice versa. (And even for those who regard the pastorals as non-Pauline—usually those outside the pale of evangelical thought—they still have to grapple with the relation of Galatians to 1 Corinthians.)

13 Johnson, “Role Distinctions in the Church: Galatians 3:28,” 157.

14 Ibid., 158.

15 See Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 64-65, for a decent discussion of the relevant rabbinic materials and the problem of their date.

16 Their rights within the covenant, however, were not as great as those of free men. In particular, neither slaves nor women were not permitted to learn Torah, wear phylacteries, or be witnesses in civil or criminal trials in Jewish culture. Cf. Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 67-68, for the Mishnaic references. What is significant here—and a point that Spencer does not address—is that much of this becomes irrelevant under the new covenant: no longer were phylacteries required of anyone, and bearing witness in a court of law was something only relevant to a theocracy (or, in the case of secular society, something that Christians had no control over). Further, the freedom to learn (the scriptures) was explicitly extended to women in 1 Tim 2:11; the fact that in the same breath Paul can restrict women from teaching men (v. 12) suggests that he still maintained functional hierarchies within the church.

17 Except, of course, to insist that masters treat their slaves with kindness and dignity.

18 Johnson, 159-60, interacting with F. F. Bruce’s egalitarian interpretation of Gal 3:28.

19 Ibid., 160.

20 Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 119, 143-47; Klyne R. Snodgrass, “Galatians 3:28: Conundrum or Solution?” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelson (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1986) 164.

21 Repeatedly throughout his book he suggests that there is a discrepancy between these two accounts and that priority ought to be given to chapter 1. On page 67 he addresses Paul’s linkage of the authority of men in the church with creation in 1 Tim 2:13: “The reference to Adam and Eve is introduced by the simple conjunction ‘for.’ This conjunction encourages the readers to think back to the account of man and woman in Genesis 2 and 3 (not to the primary creation account in Genesis 1, where man-and-woman are created together and given authority jointly over the rest of creation). There, in contrast to the first creation account, they will find that Adam was created first, but it was the woman who took the lead in yielding to temptation.” And later France says, “Genesis 1.26-30 offers no hint of inequality between the sexes; it is in Genesis 2 and 3 that this begins to emerge” (89).

Though an evangelical (in the British sense, which is looser than in the American sense), France here seems to embrace the documentary hypothesis, viz. that the Pentateuch was put together over a period of many centuries by several different hands (traditionally called J, E, D, and P [for Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly groups]). Those who embrace the documentary hypothesis use Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 as one of their major prooftexts that different editors were at work, compiling their data at quite distinct ages. The net result is usually that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible as evidenced by the internal contradictions. The acceptance of the JEDP theory is often found among British evangelicals, though not among American evangelicals. The apparent acceptance of this view by France should send up a red flag; in the least, it permits him on more than one occasion simply to dismiss the plain teaching of Genesis 2-3. This seems to be a tacit concession that such a text does not easily fit into his view.

22 Part of France’s method is to link Gen 2 with Gen 3, and to dismiss both together in favor of Gen 1. But even apart from his questionable use of JEDP is the problem that Gen 2 speaks of the pre-fall state, while Gen 3 speaks of the post-fall situation. And the fact that the NT grounds its argument in Gen 2 rather than Gen 3 is conveniently ignored.

23 Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 176.

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)