In an ironic twist, a passage that celebrates the unity we have in Christ has caused a deep divide in the church. In Galatians 3:28, Paul wrote, “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” By these words, does Paul invalidate gender roles in the church?
A number of interpreters think so. Some interpret Paul to be speaking about an eschatological unity that invalidates distinct gender roles in the church, albeit without dissolving all differences between the sexes. One author even goes so far to call it “ludicrous” that Christians should preclude women from pastoral ministry partly on the basis of this passage. Still, yet another scholar even claims that Paul negates all sexual distinctions!
So how should we understand Paul here? Are gender roles no longer valid because of Galatians 3:28? To answer this question, we need to take four actions.
Read the next verse
When we face a puzzling passage in Scripture, sometimes the best course is to keep reading the passage. That holds true here. In the fuller context, Paul says, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:28–29). Notice what Paul says here.
First, he claims we are “all one in Christ.” Then he says “if you are Christ’s, then you Abraham’s offspring.” The logic is clear. To be in Christ and one means that all people are “heirs according to promise” or “Abraham’s offspring.” Oneness refers to equally receiving a share of the Abrahamic promise.
Read the prior verse
Before verse 28, Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27). Hence, any person baptized into Christ has Christ. This means, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
We can summarize Paul’s argument like this. First, Paul grounds oneness on the material condition of baptism. Baptism unites to Christ. Therefore, from this perspective, every person is “all one in Christ Jesus.”
The reason why baptism into Christ works, however, is precisely because baptism fulfills the Abrahamic promise. More specifically, spiritual baptism fulfills the promise made to Abraham. Paul had just asserted that: “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14).
At this point, we can affirm: (1) spirit baptism fulfills the Abraham promise, (2) this promise comes equally to all who are in Christ, and (3) being “one” therefore refers to sharing equally in Christ as heirs of Abraham as well unity in Christ (Bird 2012: Loc. 468).
Given these realities, could Paul mean that all sex distinctions have disappeared? Paul claims that on the basis of “being baptized into Christ” a believer becomes “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27, 28). He does not claim that all social or gender distinctions disappear.
In fact, he still understands himself to be a Jew and speaks of a Jewish restoration in Romans 9–11. Paul certainly understands that Onesimus remains a slave—yet he equally reorders how Onesimus and Philemon relate to one another because of Christ. And lastly, Paul certainly maintains that men and women differ (1 Tim 2:9–15; 1 Cor 7:3–4, 1 Cor 11:14, etc.)
By thinking wide, that is, by thinking about other scriptural passages across the canon, we can gain more insight. Paul knows of ethnicity, class, and sexuality. These realities persist yet become subsumed under the primary truth that everyone has equal access to the promise of Abraham in Christ.
In light of the above, we can conclude with Thomas Schreiner, “Equality as members of Abraham’s family does not rule out all social distinctions” (2010: 258). It does, however, reorder our power structures. In Corinth, the rich eat with the poor; the weak shame the wise; and when Paul is weak, then he strong.
In this sense, Paul does relay a radical pattern of thought. In Christ, the world’s authority and power structures matter not even a little. All that matters is the promise of Abraham by baptism into Christ. On this basis and this basis alone, can one come into the family of God.
Race, class, or gender make no difference. Only Christ does.
I remain a Canadian male in Christ as Paul remained a Jewish male in Christ. Grace does not obliterate nature; it perfects it. Eyes are designed to see, ears to hear, and noses to smell. Our bodies have design and purpose. New creation does not invalidate creation.
Men and women are designed to have sexual powers, namely, to procreate (children) and to unite (marriage, family). Not everyone can or will have children; not everyone actualizes these powers. And that is okay. Having the power (not actualizing the power) lies at the heart of sexuality. So, by sex, I do not mean primarily acts of sex but something similar to gender. Here is the point: the possession of the sexual powers leads into the mystery of Christ’s marriage to the church (Eph 5:32) through which we become children of God.
And this mystery existed before all ages in the mind of God (Eph 3:11). So sexual powers, even in the garden, pointed to our union with God through Christ. And these realities encode certain roles into creation: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25). In doing so, men sanctify their wives (Eph 5:26).
And perhaps in simplest terms, appropriate expressions of creational telos in marriage means: “let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects [lit. fears] her husband” (Eph 5:33). Husbands love as God does; wives fear husbands as we fear God. To fear God does not mean to lie in terror, but to stand in awe at his gracious love. That’s why wives fear husbands—because men are designed to be loving, kind, peaceable, and gracious.
But we are getting too far afield. The point is: thinking deep, by which I mean reflecting on the meaning of Paul’s words, does not lead to a distinction-less, pure egalitarian reading of Galatians 3:28.
It rather leads to the celebration of one salvation in one body of Christ. It leads to affirming that neither race, nor class, nor gender can prevent anyone from experiencing the love of God in Christ. And that is a radical reading indeed.