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7.Role Distinctions in the Church (Galatians 3:28)

(26)You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, (27)for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (28)There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29)If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)


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.

In fact, the text has taken on a large and, for some, a crucial place in the discussion of the roles of the sexes in the Church of Jesus Christ. While traditionally commentators have discussed Paul’s words in the context of the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith, that has become a secondary matter. One can understand this to some extent, since the vigorous debate over sex roles has, in effect, lifted it from its exegetical underpinnings and set it as a lonely text, a kind of proof text, in the midst of swirling theological debate. This is not without justification, but it also is not without peril. I am referring to the human tendency to forget sound hermeneutics and find things that are not really in the text. Listen to some of the comments about the text from both sides of the debate. Ronald and Beverly Allen call Galatians 3:28 the “feminist Credo of equality.”1 In a recent book, Mary Hayter refers to the text as “a crux” and “the locus classicus” for those who believe Scripture does not discriminate between male and female.2 George Knight, a long-time defender of the historic orthodox interpretation of the text, nevertheless refers to Paul’s statement as containing “momentous words.”3

Paul King Jewett, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, in a well-written, careful, and scholarly book, begins his discussion of the text by entitling it, “The Magna Carta of Humanity.”4 Jewett does not believe that Paul fully implemented his “magnificent affirmation,” but at least he made a beginning in carrying it out by advancing beyond the rabbis and associating with women in his work.5 In this Paul Jewett is not as bold as Robert Jewett, who speaks of the text as providing grounds for a Pauline breakthrough. He entitles a paper regarding the text, “The Sexual Liberation of the Apostle Paul.”6

Both sides of the debate have admitted that Galatians 3:28 has not always been handled well. Klyne R. Snodgrass, in his significant article, has said, “This text, like some others, has become a hermeneutical skeleton key by which we may go through any door we choose. More often than not, Galatians 3:28 has become a piece of plastic that people have molded to their preconceived ideas.”7 James B. Hurley, holding a different view of the text, agrees, contending that much of the debate has arisen over “an abuse of Galatians 3:28.”8

A fresh attempt to resolve some of the questions may arise from an overly ambitious expectation, but I believe it is a worthy aim. My method will be simple. After a brief survey of ancient interpretations, the apostle’s argument in Galatians 3:26-29 will be summarized. The remainder of the paper will be devoted to the more important interpretations of the phrase “male nor female” (NIV).

I. Some Ancient Interpretations of Galatians 3:28

The following comments represent no claim to completeness or profundity, being merely a survey of some of the ways in which Galatians 3:28 was interpreted or handled in the ancient Christian world. As a matter of fact, the text did not loom large in that world and, while acknowledging my limited knowledge of that time, I have not yet found one extensive treatment of the text. I can only conclude that the early church regarded Galatians 3:28 as a text that was pellucidly clear.

Ignatius (d. 98-117), the Bishop of Antioch, wrote from Troas a letter to the Philadelphians on his way to martyrdom in Rome during Trajan’s reign. There is no allusion to Galatians 3:28 in the shorter version of the letter, generally regarded as genuine. In the longer recension, however, there is an allusion to it. After exhorting wives to be “subject to your husbands in the fear of God” (cf. Ephesians 5:22), there occur the words, “Masters, be gentle towards your servants, as holy Job has taught you; for there is one nature, and one family of mankind. For ‘in Christ there is neither bond nor free.’“9The new relation to Christ has its application to everyday life.

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), Christian apologist, in his Dialogue with Trypho, likens his conversion to the symbolic picture of the high priest Joshua in Zechariah 3:1-10. He writes, in a text thought by some to be an allusion to Galatians 3:28, “Even so we, who through the name of Jesus have believed as one man in God the Maker of all,” but Justin offers no expansion of the words, “as one man.”10

Clement of Alexandria (c. 155-c. 220), the first known Christian scholar, in his Protrepticos, or Exhortation to the Heathen, xi, speaking of the great benefits conferred on man by Christ’s coming, refers to Galatians 3:28 as support for the unity of those who have received wisdom in Christ. There is a new man, in whom there is neither barbarian, nor Jew, nor Greek, nor male, nor female. The status of believers in Christ is the leading idea.11

Hippolytus (d. 236), an elder and teacher of the Church in Rome, in The Refutation of All Heresies, refers to the text in discussion of the claims of the Naassenes, who had used it in support of their claims of an everlasting substance above, which is hermaphrodite, possessing both male and female natures.12

Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395), the Cappadocian father and bishop of Nyssa, in “On Virginity,” alludes to the text to show that both male and female are candidates for marriage to the true wisdom, Christ, in spiritual virginity, or disengagedness of heart from the worldly to the spiritual.13

John Chrysostom (c. 344/354-407), bishop of Constantinople, in his commentary on Galatians, discusses the text in some detail, asserting that the apostle ardently desires to convey the depth of our union with Christ. We “have all one form and one mold, even Christ’s,” he says. “He that was a Greek, or Jew, or bond-man yesterday, carries about with him the form, not of an Angel or Archangel, but of the Lord of all, yea displays in his own person the Christ.”14 He makes no reference to the clause “male nor female,” evidently not finding that as pertinent as the two other antitheses.

Surprisingly, Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo, the greatest of the Latin fathers, rarely alluded to Galatians 3:28 in his writings. In his Second Discourse on Psalm Twenty-six there is one allusion. Speaking of waiting on the Lord, he writes, “He who has lost endurance has become weak and womanish. Let both men and women take heed of this, for man and woman are one in the one Man. He is no longer man or woman who lives in Christ.”15 The allusion is clear, and it is plain that he has in mind a oneness, a unity, of status in Christ. He says nothing of how this status relates to function in the church.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the great German Reformer, in his important commentary on Galatians, devotes three pages to Galatians 3:28. He reminds the woman to “obey her husband,” and warns that, “if the woman would be the man,” that would be nothing but “confusion.” All the faithful have “the same Christ” that all the saints had. Clearly, Luther sees the text as meaning that all believers have the same status in Christ, but in other spheres, such as the family, a submission within the equality all have in Christ is Biblical.16

John Calvin (1509-1564), Biblical theologian and commentator that he was, alludes or refers to Galatians 3:28 many times. In his commentary on Galatians he stresses the unity of believers in the one Christ. In his Institutes he, while again acknowledging the liberty believers have in Christ, nevertheless points out that the liberty of all in Christ has its limits, for “the same apostle who bids us stand and not submit to the ‘yoke of bondage’ [Galatians 5:1] elsewhere forbids slaves to be anxious about their state [1 Corinthians 7:21], unless it be that spiritual freedom can perfectly well exist along with civil bondage.”17 In other words, the master teacher from Geneva taught that freedom truly exists within limits and restrictions of a different order.

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.

II. The Pauline Argument in Galatians 3:26-29

    The General Context

The Epistle to the Galatians, most likely the first of Paul’s letters, centers the attention of the reader on two dominant themes: (1) the justification of the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ apart from legal works, and (2) the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the indwelling energizer of the spiritual life in Christ.

The close affinity of Galatians with Romans is universally acknowledged. “The Epistle to the Galatians,” Bishop Lightfoot said many years ago, “stands in relation to the Roman letter as the rough model to the finished statue; or rather, if I may press the metaphor without misapprehension, it is the first study of a single figure, which is worked into a group in the later writing.”18 One is written out of first indignant reaction to heresy, while the other is written calmly and at leisure.19 That is probably ultimately the source of the remark of my old New Testament teacher, Professor Everett Harrison, “Romans tells us what the gospel is; Galatians tells us what it is not.”20

Commentators on the letter have generally agreed that it falls into three sections. The opening two chapters are largely personal, containing a defense of his gospel and apostleship. The following section, also of two chapters, contains the exposition, in strongly argumentative form, of the heart of his gospel, the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from legal works. The letter’s final two chapters conclude with a hortatory appeal to practice the principles and responsibilities of the Christian life through the energy of the indwelling Spirit of God.

    The Immediate Context

Galatians 3:28 falls within Paul’s exposition of the purpose of the law, that is, to be a slave-guardian on the path toward maturity and unrestricted enjoyment of sonship (cf. 3:24; 4:1-7).21 With the sonship has come a glorious freedom before God releasing all the faithful, whether Gentiles, slaves, or women, from life under the Old Covenant’s bondage. The saints, enriched by the enjoyment of Abrahamic promises, are clothed with Christ in garments of freedom, family membership with heirship. This Paul now develops, negating any claim by the Judaizers that the Old Covenant life is a better life.

    The Exegetical Analysis

Verse twenty-six, beginning with its explanatory “for” (see NASB; NIV leaves this out) justifies the new status. The apostle writes, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (NASB). The children have attained their majority and are sons, freemen of God, through a faith that has brought them into union with Christ.22 The second person plural of the subject, “you are,” with the modifying adjective, “all,” underlines the participation of the Galatians in the new status. The universal privilege of sonship in the present age through union with Christ is Paul’s point, and it sets the tone of the context for interpreting verse twenty-eight. Paul’s emphasis is on spiritual status in Christ, the “spiritual privilege of being the sons of God.”23

In verse twenty-seven Paul continues his exposition, explaining how the relation of sonship came into being. He writes, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (NASB). “For” declares that through baptism, a unifying incorporation into Him, the Galatians have put on Christ (cf. Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

The discussion of the relation of faith and baptism, raised here because of the juxtaposition of faith with baptism, as well as the fact that union with Christ is traced to both, cannot be handled here due to the limitations of space. The discussions of Calvin,24 Ridderbos,25 Fung,26 Betz,27 Bruce,28 and Dunn29 provide a wide range of views. I would only echo Bruce’s point that the apostle, who had learned so clearly and pointedly in his conversion experience the insufficiency of trust in the Old Covenant rite of circumcision, could never have ascribed a saving efficacy, a conveyance of grace by the performance of the rite, to water baptism, the New Covenant ordinance.30 “It is absurd to say,” Calvin comments, in harmony with Bruce, “that the grace of the Holy Spirit should be so bound to the external sign.”31

If the apostle were thinking of the reality lying behind water baptism, that is, the baptism of the Holy Spirit by which believers are through faith united to Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13), then the text makes good sense. In Calvin’s terms, he would be using the sign to signify the sense connected with the truth that the sign signifies, that is, the spiritual reality behind the sign. That, he contends, is the sense he uses when speaking of believers.

The final words, “have put on Christ,” represent a metaphor probably derived from Hebrew tradition (cf. Isaiah 61:10; 64:6; Zechariah 3:3-4) and may have come to be associated with the taking off of one’s clothes before baptism and the putting of them on again afterwards.32 If the apostle were thinking of a Roman metaphor, he may have had in mind the Roman custom by which a youth, on attaining manhood, removed the crimson-bordered toga praetexta, the garment of childhood, and put on the toga virilis, the garment of manhood. At that time the young man would take his place in the family councils, taking on the responsibilities of maturity and enjoying the freedom that went with his new position. Since the apostle has just said that the Galatians have attained the position of adult sonship and will add heirship in a moment (v. 29), that “pagan” custom (Bruce’s word) should not be dismissed lightly.

Verse twenty-eight points to a second issue of the universal sonship of believers: “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). The human distinctions of race, social rank, and sex are in some sense nullified in Christ. The crucial question is: In what sense? Betz contends, “There can be no doubt that Paul’s statements have social and political implications of even a revolutionary dimension.”33 When a New Testament exegete uses the expression, “There can be no doubt,” it often is a flag to the exegetical community that there is very good reason to doubt the statement. Let us see if that is true here.

The three antitheses are chosen with a view to fundamental distinctions in ancient society. In fact, as often noted, the apostle seems to have in mind the morning prayer of Jewish men, which can be traced back as far as about A.D. 150, in which the men thanked God that they were not born a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. Apparently the Jewish men intended no belittling of Gentiles, slaves, or women, so both Bruce and Snodgrass explain. Those classes were simply limited in certain spiritual privileges open to Jewish males.34 In fact, similar formulas existed among the Gentiles.35

The three distinctions, important for Jewish life, are declared by Paul to be invalid in Christ. The first distinction, that between Jew and Greek, should be understood in a religious sense primarily, centering in the Abrahamic Covenant’s rite of circumcision. Without circumcision a Gentile could not inherit the promises, being spiritually depraved and lost, without God in the world (cf. Ephesians 2:11-13), but now by the blood of the Messiah the Gentiles have been brought nigh by sovereign pardoning grace and have become heirs of the Abrahamic promises. It is, of course, quite clear from the apostle’s literature that the national distinction between Israel and the Gentiles still exists both in the world (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:32) and in the believing community (cf. Romans 9:1-11:36 ; Galatians 6:16). In Christ, however, both are heirs of the promised blessings, as Paul has indicated already (cf. 3:14) and will underline shortly (verse 29).

The second antithesis touches the inferiority of slaves, so marked in the ancient world and in Israelitish society. For Paul a Christian slave, too, inherits the promises equally, being “the Lord’s freedman” (1 Corinthians 7:22). The Epistle to Philemon provides a vivid illustration of this (Philemon 8-20; cf. Colossians 4:9), and also in principle provides just grounds for the abolition of slavery itself. Yet here again, the distinction of slave and freedman still existed within the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:17-24). In fact, the vast majority of the New Testament commentators have taken the position that the apostle, while affirming the irrelevancy of the institution of slavery for status and relationship within the church, nevertheless did not feel it necessary to raise the issue of its retention in the society of the time (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Colossians 3:22-25). It is difficult to see the “revolutionary dimension” of Paul’s statement here.

The third antithesis, “there is not male and female” (Greek text; see NASB margin) contains a slight change of construction, probably due to influence from Genesis 1:27.36 The distinction in sex also has no relevance to the status of believers in Christ Jesus. The reason Paul gives, introduced by the “for” of the last clause, is that Jew and Greek, slave and freedman, male and female are “one person in Christ Jesus” (NEB; cf. verse 29).

Concerning this last antithesis, Bruce comments, “It is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role, that is abolished ‘in Christ Jesus.’“37Professor Bruce complains that Paul’s other bans of discrimination on racial and social grounds have been accepted “au pied de la lettre” (literally), or litteratim ac verbatim, to use a Latin phrase, while this one has met with restrictions, since people have related it only to “the common access of men and women to baptism, with its introduction to their new existence ‘in Christ.’“38He insists that the denial of discrimination holds good for the new existence “‘in Christ’ in its entirety,” although he admits that circumcision involved a form of discrimination against women that was removed in its demotion from the position of religious law. Other inequities among Jewish and particularly among Gentile women existed.

Bruce argues that, if leadership may be given to Gentiles and to slaves in the church fellowship, then why not to women? Can superiority and inferiority of status have place in the society of which our Lord said, “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (cf. Mark 10:44).39 Certainly Paul welcomed the service of women in the Gentile mission (cf. Philippians 4:3, etc.) and permitted, many believe, their exercise of prayer and prophecy in church gatherings. Does this mean that the apostle affirmed women in the church offices and permitted their teaching in the church meetings? Professor Bruce does appear to admit that other Pauline passages may provide restrictions on female activities, but he contends that such passages are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice-versa.40 We are reserving a fuller discussion of the questions surrounding the third antithesis for the third division of this paper, but perhaps three points ought to be noted here. 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.

Verse 29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise,” forms a triumphant conclusion to the apostle’s argument. Christ’s people are God’s sons, baptized by the Spirit into spiritual union with Him, the Son, Abraham’s Seed. And if believers belong to Abraham’s Seed, then they are heirs to the unconditional covenantal promises in their Representative. Thus, heirship is grounded in faith apart from the works of the Law. Those who would seek to be justified by the works of the Law are rejected. What a telling refutation of the Judaizers and their doctrine of justification and heirship by legal works! The full and complete equality that all possess in Christ is a magnificent thing to behold, and the reference to the discussion over male/female relationships must not be missed. The richness of the oneness, without any denial at all of role distinctions, is the preeminent thrust of the section we have been considering. Justified by faith in Christ, both male and female are “sons of God” (verse 26), both are “in Christ Jesus” (verse 26), united to Him in eternal union through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (verse 27), both have clothed themselves with Christ and are one in Him (verse 28). We belong to Christ and, as if that were not enough, the apostle adds that we all, both male and female, are the patriarch’s believing offspring and heirs of the stunning promises made to him (verse 29). 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.

III. Modern Interpretations of Galatians 3:28

    A. The Feminist Argument

To interact with modern interpretations of Galatians 3:28 has been made a daunting task by the plethora of written materials, books, and articles, both popular and scholarly, that has emerged in recent years. To limit my comments, I will concentrate attention on the position of Paul King Jewett and Klyne R. Snodgrass, scholars who have given two extensive and widely accepted statements of the meaning of Galatians 3:28 from the perspective that would see no limitation on women’s roles in the church.

Jewett’s basic position in his well-written, thoughtful, and scholarly work, Man as Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View, is that the Bible is basically contradictory on the question of the relation of men and women in Christ and the church. The Biblical narratives and Jesus’ attitude to women are incompatible with female subordination, but Paul, following rabbinic exegesis, teaches subordination in certain New Testament passages, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2.41 The apostle manifests a bit of an “uneasy conscience” in his exegesis of the Old Testament, but he still affirms female subordination.42

To some extent the apostle redeems himself, for he is the author of a brilliant piece of Biblical insight in his remarkable statement of Galatians 3:28. That is really the last word on the subject of female equality, and Jesus Himself neither said nor did anything beyond Paul’s word here.43 Paul, however, did not implement his Christian insight thoroughly, which has left us with the problem of the man/woman question. The church must press on to the full implementation of his Galatians 3:28 insight, abandoning, of course, his shortcomings in his other epistles.

Critique: What can we say in response to Jewett? First, Jewett acknowledges that Paul, in the three pairs of antitheses—Jew/Greek, bond/free, male/female—“thinks preeminently coram Deo,” that is, of men before God.44 Further, he later admits that this should be, “beyond all doubt,” the principal concern of the church. Historic orthodoxy would certainly agree with this, and I am grateful for his clear enunciation of the point.

On the first antithesis, that of Jew/Greek, Jewett states that Paul saw the “social implications” of the text clearly enough. He illustrates this from Paul’s withstanding of Peter in Antioch over Peter’s actions when the men came from James in Jerusalem, and Peter returned to the teaching of Judaism about eating with the Gentiles (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Jewett’s point is that Paul did not say, as the men from Jerusalem must have said, “Jews and Greeks are one in Christ, but in other respects, such as in the table fellowship traditions, they are different and must follow the discriminatory traditions. We may enjoy spiritual fellowship with the Gentiles, but the social traditions still obtain.”

This is not quite the point of the apostle. As he goes on to say, he does not rebuke Peter because he has failed to see the “social implications” of the oneness in Christ, but because he had seen them and was now returning to “the weak and worthless elemental things” (cf. 4:9). As Paul saw it, Peter’s actions were a clear attack on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To observe the Jewish food laws was simply a step along the way to circumcision as necessary to salvation, a step along the way to the view that, if Gentile believers were not able to have table fellowship with Jewish believers as Gentile believers, then their Christianity was second class.45

We may grant Jewett’s claim that the essence of the gospel’s proclamation of oneness or equality in Christ demanded a walk in harmony with that position. We may legitimately ask, however, if distinction of roles of believers within that equality necessarily violates that equality, especially since the apostle later in some detail sets out the distinctions of roles, offices, and gifts within the family (cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1) and the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 12:1-31; 1 Timothy 2:9-15) with no suggestion of a loss of equality in Christ.

Jewett finds Paul’s vision not so clear in the second antithesis, slave/free. While Philemon contains a hint that he would have had Onesimus freed by his master, the apostle does not confront Philemon with a demand for freedom. Paul is relegated by Jewett to the ignominious attitude of the churchmen in the time of the Civil War who played the wimp and did not fight for abolition.

In the antithesis of male/female, the apostle was still more cautious. Jewett contends that Paul spoke of women as being subordinate and unequal. However, for a former rabbi he did in a remarkable way act out the truth of no male and female. He greeted women by name (cf. Romans 16:6, 12, 15), and he named Priscilla before her husband (cf. Romans 16:3), after having commended Phoebe as a servant of the church at Cenchraea (16:1-2).46

Jewett’s contention that these things constitute a remarkable acting out of the truth of male/female oneness is overdrawn. Sufficiently explanatory of all of this is the fact that all believers have become one in Christ Jesus, sharing equally the redemption that Christ has won by His atoning sacrifice. In other words, the implications of redemption, the joint blessings of covenantal union with our Lord, account for Paul’s actions. As Jewett says, “How many rabbis had ever said that a man should love his wife as Yahweh loved Israel?”47 The response of prominent women to Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica and Berea may have included appreciation of “the profound worth which they perceived they had, as persons, to the Savior he preached,”48 but it is more likely that they responded first and foremost because they sensed their sin and rejoiced in redemption by sovereign grace.

One final question interests me. Professor Jewett lays great stress on the fact that males and females must learn to live in partnership rather than in any form of hierarchy. He does not, however, spell out in detail what this means specifically and how sexual egalitarianism will work. Does this mean that he is willing to leave this to each body of Christians to decide for themselves? Does Scripture then leave us with no clear, normative guidance beyond the principle of Galatians 3:28?49

The position of Klyne Snodgrass, professor of Biblical literature at North Park Theological Seminary, is not dissimilar to Jewett’s, although his approach to the questions is different.

Snodgrass affirms “the unity and equality that all persons experience in Christ,” and surprisingly he admits that equality and hierarchy are “not necessarily antithetical ideas.”50 But this concession turns out to rest on an unusual definition of hierarchy.51

Snodgrass also appeals, like Jewett, to Galatians 2:11-14 and contends that Galatians 3:28 has “social implications.” To Snodgrass, the social implications of Galatians lead to the ministry of women as they did in the New Testament. This, as he indicates later, means “ecclesiastical equality,” a term, however, which he does not carefully define.52

With refreshing candor, Snodgrass admits that Galatians 3:28 does not answer all our questions about the role of women in society. He sees 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as strong challenges to his views on ecclesiastical equality, as statements “necessitated by specific problems in Corinth and Ephesus.” They are texts “less direct in their application.”53

Snodgrass contends that the prophesying of women in 1 Corinthians 11:5 cannot be separated from “authoritative teaching and preaching.”54 This view explains aspects of his stand for “ecclesiastical equality,” but unfortunately it cannot stand the test of Biblical exegesis.55

Critique: We might mention incidentally that Snodgrass deplores the “ironhanded”56 view of traditionalists regarding Scripture, namely, that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture, but surely commitment to the non-contradictory unity of Scripture cannot legitimately be called “ironhandedness.” It is the view of our Lord and His apostles. It would seem to be more perilous to me to pick and choose subjectively among competing texts by less reliable norms.

First, Snodgrass considers five passages parallel to Galatians 3:26-28 in the Pauline corpus: 1 Corinthians 7:17-27; 11:11-12; 12:13; Colossians 3:9-11; and Romans 10:12-13, to be “of major significance” for his position.57 Only one of the five, however, mentions explicitly the male/female antithesis. Perhaps Paul did not give it the “explosive” force that Snodgrass sees in it. The other two antitheses seem of more importance for him, and Snodgrass calls the Jew/Gentile issue the (italics his) issue dominating Paul’s concerns throughout his ministry.

Second, Snodgrass thinks that hierarchy arises only from the time of Genesis 3, but a more thoughtful exegesis locates the principle earlier, just as 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 2 indicate.58 What Genesis 3 sets forth is the effect of the fall on an already determined relationship (see Genesis 2:7, 18-25 and the apostle’s use of the passage in his letters).

Third, Snodgrass stresses the conflict between Paul and Peter in Antioch as indicating how far-reaching the social implications of his statement in Galatians are (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). We have dealt with this in the critique of Jewett’s claims.

Fourth, Snodgrass tends to think that, because women performed certain legitimate forms of ministry in the New Testament, such as ministering to our Lord and to Paul in personal ways and ministering to the church in Christian service, as every reader of the Bible acknowledges, the church must grant women, who have full equality in Christ, the office of elder, the oversight of the body, and the freedom to teach the gathered church. That does not follow. Christian service is the responsibility of all believers, but that does not prove that the office of elder is open to all. Christian teaching is a sovereign gift of the Spirit that not all have (cf. Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:6, 11, 29; 1 Peter 4:10-11).59

In other words, and to conclude this section, one must not try to answer all questions of Christian office and ministry from Galatians 3:28, as Snodgrass acknowledges in one place.60

“It seems precarious,” Fung wisely declares, “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.”61 I find that eminently Biblical and reasonable.

    B. The Historic Orthodox Argument

Historic orthodoxy, as noted in the brief survey of the Fathers’ views, has contended that Galatians 3:28 affirms the full equality of males and females “in Christ,” as Paul says. All are equal in Christ, the church, and family, but the phrase, “in Christ,” refers to the mystical and universal, the representative and covenantal union of all believers in the Lord. In the context of Galatians, the apostle simply affirms that every believer in Christ inherits fully the Abrahamic promises by grace apart from legal works.

The phrase, “in the church,” when the subject of office and function is in view, refers to the visible body of believers. In the visible body, equality coexists with divinely mandated leadership and submission, just as it does in the family (cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9). This is not to lead to abuse, offense, or exploitation, for all of us are essential and equally important in our positions and functions within the body, as Paul points out (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-30). The existence of elders in the church, appointed by the Holy Spirit to rule in the body, does not destroy our equality in Christ (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24).

The ultimate and telling proof that equality and submission may coexist in glorious harmony is found in the mediatorial mission of the Son of God, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” (Nicaea), who completed it in the true liberation of submission to His Father (cf. John 8:21-47; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; cf. 11:3).

There is little need to multiply footnotes to document that this has been the view of historic orthodoxy to the present and, in fact, is still the majority view, although presently under vigorous attack. The very fact that its opponents call the view of historic orthodoxy “the traditional view” acknowledges its historical primacy.

There arises at this point, however, a matter worthy of serious consideration: If the Christian church has held this view for centuries with Bible in hand, then we may presume that there exists some good reason for that fact. The Lord Jesus Christ promised the church the gift of the permanently indwelling Spirit to provide understanding of the Scriptures (cf. John 16:12-15; Psalm 36:9). We have reason to believe that His promise has been kept, and that the church has received that light in understanding the Word of God. Widespread agreement in such understanding by orthodox believers should not be abandoned without the most careful consideration of objections, both exegetical and theological.

To treat the church’s historical understanding of Scripture lightly is to forget that it is the believing body that, through the centuries, carries on the theological enterprise with the Word in hand and accompanied by the enlightening Spirit. Thus, the largest part of any theologian’s work comes from reverent consideration and response to the Christian theological tradition. The creeds of the church, the results of serious spiritual and theological strife, are more important than the views of individuals. We should begin our discussions with the assumption that the church is probably right, unless exegetical and theological study compel us otherwise. “The proclamation of new discoveries,” Abraham Kuyper, the famed founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, wrote, “is not always a proof of devotion to the truth, it is sometimes a tribute to self-esteem.”62


There is no reason to claim that Galatians 3:28 supports an egalitarianism of function in the church. It does plainly teach an egalitarianism of privilege in the covenantal union of believers in Christ. The Abrahamic promises, in their flowering by the Redeemer’s saving work, belong universally to the family of God. Questions of roles and functions in that body can only be answered by a consideration of other and later New Testament teaching.

Copyright 1997 Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. All rights reserved.

1 Ronald Beverly Allen, Liberated Traditionalism: Men and Women in Balance (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985), p. 134.

2 Mary Hayter, The New Eve in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 134.

3 George W. Knight III, The Role Relationship of Men and Women: New Testament Teaching (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), p. 7.

4 Paul King Jewett, Man As Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 142.

5 Ibid., p. 145.

6 Robert Jewett, “The Sexual Liberation of the Apostle Paul,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 47 (1979), Supplement, pp. 55-87.

7 Klyne R. Snodgrass, “Galatians 3:28: Conundrum or Solution?” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 161.

8 James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 195.

9 Ignatius, To the Philadelphians, iv, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, ten volumes, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973 rpt.), vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers-Justin Martyr-Irenaeus, p. 81.

10 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, cxvi, in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, p. 257.

11 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, xi, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, vol. 2, Fathers of the Second Century, p. 203.

12 Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, V.ii., in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, vol. 5, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix, p. 49.

13 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, xx, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, twenty-eight volumes in two series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt.), second series, vol. 5, Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, etc., pp. 343-371, p. 366.

14 John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, iii, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Schaff and Wace, first series, vol. 13, St. Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, p. 30.

15 Johannes Quasten and Walter J. Burghardt, eds., St. Augustine on the Psalms, in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 1, Psalms 1-29, trans. and annotated by Dame Scholastica Hebgin and Dame Felicitas Corrigan (Westminster: The Newman Press, and London: Longmans, Green, 1960).

16 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, ed. Philip S. Watson (Westwood, CT: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), pp. 341-344.

17 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xx.1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1486.

18 J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London and New York: Macmillan, 1896), p. 49.

19 Ibid.

20 A course in the exegesis of the Greek text of Galatians at Dallas Theological Seminary, 1945.

21 Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 170.

22 I am separating the phrases, “through faith” and “in Christ Jesus,” taking the latter as intended by Paul to be linked with the verb are and placed last in its clause for emphasis (cf. Romans 3:25; Fung, pp. 171-72). The change in meaning is slight.

23 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 68.

24 Ibid., pp. 68-69.

25 Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953), p. 147-148.

26 Fung, pp. 173-175. Fung agrees with Charles A. Anderson Scott (Christianity According to St Paul [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961], p. 114), who saw baptism as “the normal but not necessary” sign and seal of the faith that appropriates Christ.

27 Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 186-189. To Betz, the rite is not a ritus ex opere operato but “the legal act of joining the Christian religion.”

28 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 185-187.

29 James D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1970), pp. 109-113. The expression, baptizesthai eis Christon, meaning to be baptized into Christ, is to Dunn simply a metaphor taken from the rite.

30 Bruce, p. 185.

31 Calvin, Commentary, p. 68.

32 Cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), pp. 148-149; Bruce, p. 186. Moule thinks it “is difficult not to associate this metaphor with the actual movements of the baptized” (C. F. D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1961], p. 52).

33 Betz, p. 190.

34 Bruce, p. 187; Snodgrass, pp. 169-170.

35 Ibid.

36 The apostle does not say, as one might expect, “there is neither male nor female” (NASB), but there is no male and female. The clause does not point to androgyny, as some early Gnostics thought. The equality of inheritance by male and female is Paul’s point. The masculine form of the cardinal numeral points to a corporate unity (cf. Fung, p. 176; Ernst Burton, The Epistle to the Galatians, ICC [Edinburgh: T T Clark, 1921], pp. 207-208).

37 Bruce, p. 189.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid., p. 190.

40 Ibid.

41 Paul King Jewett, Man as Male and Female, pp. 119, 143-147.

42 Ibid., p. 113.

43 Ibid., p. 142.

44 Ibid., p. 144; cf. p. 147.

45 Cf. Bruce, pp. 128-134; Fung, pp. 110-111.

46 In a footnote, Jewett laments that scholars have not responded to Harnack’s suggestion that the author of Hebrews was Priscilla. He speaks of their “erudite indifference and condescension” to the theory. He evidently does not know that, while the authorship of Hebrews remains a mystery, it surely was not Priscilla. The participle in Hebrews 11:32, rendered in the NASB by, “if I tell,” and agreeing with the pronoun “me,” is in the masculine gender. The author may have been Apollos, who learned significant things from Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26), but he was not Priscilla (cf. p. 145).

47 Ibid., p. 145.

48 Ibid., p. 147.

49 Surely Professor Jewett does not wish to leave it for each group of professing Christians to decide for itself how sexual egalitarianism is to work. And, if there is no male or female in Christ, how will he oppose homosexuality?

50 Snodgrass, pp.174-175 (see n. 7).

51 Ibid., p. 175. Hierarchy becomes “love, servanthood and mutual submission,” a definition that Webster would not recognize.

52 Ibid., pp. 180-181.

53 Ibid., pp. 180.

54 Ibid., pp. 180-181.

55 A careful perusal of David E. Aune’s significant work, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983) will enable one to distinguish prophecy from authoritative preaching. Cf. also Wayne A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1982); David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979). See also Chapters 5 and 6 in this volume.

56 Snodgrass, p. 164.

57 Ibid., p. 171.

58 Cf. George W. Knight III, The Role Relationship of Men & Women (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), p. 32; “Male and Female Related He Them,” Christianity Today, April 9, 1976, p. [711] 15.

59 Cf. Snodgrass, pp. 168, 179. The extent to which some feminists would go is indicated in Susie C. Stanley’s response to Snodgrass. She, since Paul greeted “ten women co-laborers in Romans 16,” says that Priscilla, Phoebe, and Lydia are only “a sampling of the litany of women who labored with Paul as protectors, teachers, deacons and apostles” (italics mine)! Cf. p. 182.

60 Ibid., p. 167.

61 Fung, p. 176.

62 Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, trans. J. Hendrik De Vries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954), p. 577.

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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