Vol. 8, No. 9
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The text for our consideration at this time was written by Paul to the churches of Galatia, where he said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
It is of interest to note, in the current controversy regarding the role of women in the church, that it is a growing practice to attempt to use Galatians 3:28, with particular interest given to the phrase "neither male nor female," to override and supersede plain New Testament instruction that calls for men to be in positions of leadership in the local church and the worship assembly.
The purpose of this article is two-fold: First, to examine some of the many serious abuses of Galatians 3:28 in the current controversy; Second, to consider a brief contextual study of this crucial passage, and its meaning.
The idea has long persisted in sectarian circles that there are no gender distinctions that are to be recognized in Christ. The one passage that has become the sole bastion of support for this falsehood has become Galatians 3:28. It has only been in recent years that this crucial passage has gained lofty notoriety among some in churches of Christ as authorizing everything from women passing communion trays during the Lord's Supper to serving as elders in the local congregation. The way in which Galatians 3:28 has been employed in this controversy has amounted to a gross mishandling of inspired Scripture (2 Corinthians 4:2). Long before women in positions of spiritual leadership became an issue in the denominational world, or the Lord's church, Mr. Albert Barnes, perhaps with a prophetic sense of how some might abuse Galatians 3:28, said, "I do not see any evidence in this passage that the Christian religion designed to abolish slavery any more than I do in the following phrase, 'there is neither male nor female,' that it was intended to abolish the distinction of the sexes..." (Barnes 353).
Among the bold positions being advanced, some seem to insist that certain Scriptures override or supersede plain New Testament teaching relative to the role of women in the church. For instance, Galatians 3:28 is often cited as showing that women are on an equal plane with men in the realm of religious activity, whereas other passages are interpreted as limiting and repressive. For example, in an anonymous article, a brother writes:
Paul says that there is neither male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28). We accept that in a straight-forward manner concerning masters/slaves and Jews/Gentiles, but not males/females. Why not? Would we accept restriction of the role of slaves and Gentiles in the church? We do not accept this as the basis for dealing with women. We rather have asserted that the principle of submission is the basic principle for women in and out of the church, but not for slaves. ("Women in the Church" 3)
As another case in point, one writer refers to 1 Timothy 2:12-15, and inquires:
What did Paul really mean? Did he intend for his commands to stay in effect throughout church history? The church fathers generally assumed that he did, and many moderns agree. But then why does Paul commend his many female co-laborers in the gospel? How does that jibe with Jesus' teaching and practice? And how can we reconcile it with the liberating theology of Galatians 3:28? (Peterson 31)
It is only a gross misuse of Galatians 3:28 that would call it "liberating theology," and exalt it over the reputedly more "oppressive" and "limiting" passage of 1 Timothy 2, et al. Some among us are not a whit behind the sectarians in this assessment. Anna M. Griffith called Galatians 3:28 "God's inauguration of Christian freedom" (12). Galatians 3:28 is wrenched from its context and its meaning is perverted when it is used in an attempt to say that women are on the same plane as men when it comes to preaching and other roles of spiritual leadership. Galatians 3:28 does not deal with who may and may not preach, or otherwise assume public roles of leadership in the church or worship assembly; rather, it deals with fellowship and the utter dissolution of race, class and gender distinction in the Gospel. It speaks of our spiritual standing in Christ, and not the blending of roles and responsibilities.
Some allege that Paul was "traditional," and therefore sexist in 1 Timothy 2, but that he reveals his true feelings in Galatians 3:28. One well known biblical expositor who made this untenable argument was the late William Barclay, who said, while commenting on 1 Timothy 2:8-15, "All the things in this chapter are temporary regulations laid down to meet a given situation. If we want Paul's real and permanent view on this matter, we get it in Galatians 3:28" (78-79).
If Galatians 3:28 reflects the apostle's "permanent view," as opposed to his temporary, traditional, cultural view on the role of women in the church, we find it interesting that Galatians was penned some ten years before 1 Timothy was written (Galatians, AD 57 or 58 and 1 Timothy, AD 66 or 67). If Mr. Barclay were correct in his view (which, of course, he was not), then, Paul, surrendered his "permanent view" for the traditional view a decade later! If such is not the case, then Paul is guilty of duplicity. The viewpoint is absurd!
Sensing the difficulty of their position, our liberal brethren are ready with an explanation for the problem with which they are faced. At the Freed-Hardeman University Preachers' and Church Workers' Forum in 1990, brother Robert Randolph expressed it this way:
I suggested to you that Galatians 3:28, that passage precedes the references in Corinth, the references in Timothy. And it is quite possible that Paul had found that what he had preached in Galatians, those references in 3:28, had created a situation where women were behaving inappropriately in a manner that was not acceptable in those cultures. And, therefore, in the Corinthian letter, if you look further in Corinth, he restates all of Galatians 3:28 without the reference to male-female, indicating that he is pulling back from the position that he has articulated in Galatians 3. (162)
Believe it if you can!
Another potent abuse of Galatians 3:28 is the cultural quibble. It is insisted that 1 Timothy 2, et al, are Scriptures grounded in the limitations of a first century culture, and that Galatians 3:28 somehow rises above the cultural liabilities of that distant day to bring us up to a plane of equality so radical that we have yet to attain unto it. Again, Robert Randolph said, "But I do feel that Galatians 3:28 is a kind of time bomb, if you will, within the context of our communities as we grow to understand what the implications of that really are, because it is very radical" (154).
Other writers have been so bold as to imply that Paul knew better than to write what he did in 1 Timothy 2, but, that he knew his culture would have it no other way. The suggestion even borders on the possibility that Paul withheld truth purely for the sake of culture. The writing team of Jim and Jeanenne Nichols said:
One of the greatest statements of Paul about Christianity is in Galatians 3:28 where he proclaims the oneness of believers. But this theological side of Paul was balanced by his practical side. Paul was highly concerned (rightly so) that the gospel be heard and not be covered by other issues. He knew that his world afforded few rights to women and very little respect. It seems to us that this concern for culture caused Paul to give instructions to some specific situations which have a clearly cultural feel to them. (25)
The cultural quibble misses one basic truth, as do all these pretentious abuses of Galatians 3:28. It ignores the context of the verse. F. LaGard Smith wrote:
One remarkable irony of our current struggle over the role of women is the widespread practice of extracting (wholly out of context) the single verse of Galatians 3:28 in a disingenuous attempt to use "neither male nor female" to overcome the many specific instructions which unquestionably call for male spiritual leadership. (57)
The issue of the role of women in the church was not in the apostle's mind when he penned these words. Galatians 3:28 does not set aside or overrule laws relating to roles of men and women. It does stress oneness of redemption in Christ. It does make it clear that in Christ racial distinctions are to be forgotten: "for there is neither Jew nor Greek." It does make it clear that in Christ social distinctions are to be forgotten: "there is neither bond nor free." It does make it clear that in Christ gender distinctions are to be forgotten: "there is neither male nor female." It does not mean that in Christ gender differences are dissolved, nor does it suggest that the duties of men and women are the same in the church.
An old adage says, "A text taken from its context becomes a pretext!" Those today who force this (or any text) to defend a preconceived notion are no different than the "textuary divines" or "scrap" preachers for which Alexander Campbell had so little respect. In his early days as editor of The Christian Baptist, he said, "An ingenious or an enthusiastic preacher may bring forth or create any dogma or doctrine he pleases from a text or sentence, detached from the scope or design of the writer...A whole system of theology has been deduced from one text, and scores of sermons have been woven from one thread..." (189). Campbell was even more to the point, when he wrote:
Now we are always prepared to show that to cite a sentence from the body of a discourse, to extract a sentiment from the scope of a speaker or writer, to confirm a position which he had not before his mind when those words were pronounced or written, is always hazarding an error, mostly wresting the author, and frequently just the same as interpolating or forging a revelation, and imposing it upon the credulous and unwary. (191)
One of the elementary rules of Bible interpretation is to consider the context of any passage of Scripture before endeavoring to reach a conclusion relative to its meaning. Guy N. Woods wrote: "The practice, all too common, of lifting a verse from its setting, and using it according to the whim of the speaker or writer, has led many people to the conclusion 'that you can prove anything by the Bible'" (75). Those who would make Galatians 3:28 a proof text and thus a pretext in defense of the error under discussion here are not satisfied with having the entire verse at their disposal. They are interested only in the phrase "neither male nor female." They are not bothered by the entirety of the passage nor the context in which Paul gave it.
Again, as the late brother Guy N. Woods has noted, "Passages must be allowed to have their original significance, and that alone; and any other usage is a deceitful handling of God's word" (75-76). In order to put Galatians 3:28 into its proper context, we want to look at the following considerations.
The Book of Galatians shows that Paul's apostleship was being challenged by some (Galatians 1:1, 11-12). Since Paul was not one of the chosen twelve, his enemies tried to use this to discredit him by denying his apostleship. They tried to persuade the Galatian Christians that Paul received his Gospel from no higher authority than man.
The Second Chapter of Galatians helps to explain the purpose of the book. Two questions are under consideration (Camp 19-20). First, "Was it necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised and to keep the Law to be saved?"
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, they came to the church at Antioch, and "they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" (Acts 14:27). But certain Judaizers demanded more than simple obedience to the Gospel for the Gentiles: "And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). When Paul and Barnabas had a heated debate with the Judaizers over this issue, it was decided to go to the apostles and elders about this question (Acts 15:2). The grand success of the Gospel among the Gentiles was of little concern to the Pharisees, who pressed their demands, "That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). In reference to the "Jerusalem conference" of Acts 15, Paul said:
Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preached among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:1-2)
The second question is, "Could Jew and Gentile converts enjoy fellowship?" Over this matter of extending fellowship to the Gentiles, Paul said:
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. (Galatians 2:11-12)
The second question with regard to full fellowship is vital to a proper understanding of Galatians 3:28. The inconsistency of Peter in withdrawing himself from having fellowship with the Gentiles is all the more glaring when we remember the lesson he learned in Acts 10 at the house of Cornelius. When Peter returned to Jerusalem soon afterward, the circumcision faction challenged him, "Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them" (Acts 11:3).
Therefore, the purpose of Galatians has nothing to do with who may or may not preach, or teach in a mixed assembly; rather, it was Paul's defense of the genuineness of the Gospel that he preached, and his inspired rebuke of the exclusionary posture of the Judaizers toward the Gentiles, and their hostile and erroneous demands relative to the Law being added to the Gospel for acceptance by the Gentiles.
Paul has argued, "For ye are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27). Therefore, in Christ, all people stand on the same plane before God: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). This is the sole point under discussion, and all interpretation should be limited to this.
Other systems of religion and philosophy endeavored to promote the distinctions of caste among men. But, "when faith came" (Galatians 3:24) ["the faith," i.e., "Christ's doctrine," "the gospel"], these distinctions were not to be seen. The old distinction of Jew and Gentile extended to race. The prophets saw the New Testament church as a society open to all races of men:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. (Isaiah 2:2; cf. Micah 4:1-3)
Roy H. Lanier, Sr., wrote, "This does not mean that one ceases to be red and another ceases to be black, etc., but it does mean that we recognize the equality of all before God" (228).
The next distinction is that of slave and free, which extended throughout the entire Roman empire, where it is estimated that some 60,000,000 slaves were under the yoke. Again, as brother Lanier suggested:
This does not mean that there is no longer such thing as master and slave, for he gave instruction concerning how they were to treat each other (Eph. 6:5-9). But this does mean that we are not to allow social distinctions to determine our acceptance of people as Christians. (228)
The final distinction is expressed by two neuter terms in the Greek, "no male and female." Finally, as brother Lanier has so correctly said, "This does not mean that on becoming a Christian sexual differences are destroyed, but it does mean that one's standing before God is neither bettered nor made worse by being either man or woman" (228).
One who thinks that this passage permits a blending of roles and functions between men and women in the Lord's church is certainly desperate to find support for an unscriptural position. He is guilty of reading into the text what he wants it to say (eisegesis), rather than respecting its context and drawing out from the text what is actually there (exegesis).
There are works and functions in which men and women may cooperate (with God's approval). There are works and functions that may be performed only by women (Titus 2:3-5). There are works and functions which may be performed only by men (1 Timothy 3:1-13). When we respect what God has said in these areas and endeavor to follow just that, we do not make women "second-class citizens," nor treat women as less than men.
Albert Barnes. Notes On The New Testament: II Corinthians And Galatians. London: Blackie & Son, 1884-85; reprint Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.
Barclay, William. The Letters To Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Philadelphia: Westminster P., 1960.
Camp, Franklin. "Galatians 3:28 - A Contextual Study." The Spiritual Sword 22.1 (1991): 19-20.
Campbell, Alexander. "Texts And Textuary Divines." Christian Baptist. 2.10 2 May 1825. Bethany, Virginia: Alexander Campbell, 1825. reprint Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1955.
Griffith, Anna M. "Vision In The Maelstrom" Wineskins May 1993: 12.
Lanier, Roy H., Sr. "Paul Rebukes Peter." Teacher's Annual Lesson Commentary on Bible School Lessons. 34 Lesson IX - August 28, 1955. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1954.
Nichols, Jim and Jeanenne Nichols. "Are We Blindly Following Culture?" Wineskins May 1993: 25.
Peterson, Randy. "What About Paul?" Christian History 7.1 (1988): 31.
Randolph, Robert. "Summary Speech." Gender And Ministry: Freed-Hardeman University Preachers' And Church Workers' Forum, 1990. Huntsville: Publishing Designs, 1990.
Smith, F. LaGard. The Cultural Church. Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1992.
Woods, Guy N. How To Study The New Testament Effectively. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1992.
"Women In The Church: Some Questions To Consider." Outline of a speech. No name given.