There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (NRSV).
Both egalitarians and complementarians try to grapple with Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 in their own ways. However, sometimes we do not look closely enough to see how this verse fits into Paul’s logic in Galatians. In part, this is because the traditional interpretation of Galatians (at least among Protestants since the Reformation) has been that Paul is arguing against works in favor of grace.
According to this view, Paul’s opponents (traditionally called “Judaizers”) were claiming that salvation must be merited by a combination of faith in Christ (grace) and circumcision (works). In contrast (according to this view) Paul argues that salvation comes by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone; making circumcision unnecessary. Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians is a classic example of this approach.
Paul’s Primary Concern
Although this idea may be present, many contemporary scholars (for example N. T. Wright and James Dunn) argue that this is not Paul’s primary concern in Galatians. His concern is whether uncircumcised non-Jewish Christians may be considered full-fledged members of the people of God.
In other words, the primary question Paul is addressing is who is in and who is out, the boundary between where God’s people end and the world begins.
Paul’s opponents claimed that circumcision (along with the responsibility to live a Torah observant life) was a requirement to be fully included in God’s people. In contrast, Paul argues that the coming of Jesus historically supersedes Torah observance. Faith in Christ alone makes one a fully functional member of God’s people, heirs of the promise given to Abraham.
Applications for Church Leadership
Given this background, it is not too difficult to see how this applies to church leadership.
If uncircumcised Christians were not full members, Paul’s opponents would have never accepted his practice of placing them into leadership. However, Paul’s practice (as seen in his letters and in Acts) was to consistently place uncircumcised believers in positions of leadership in the churches he started (see Acts 14:23). Paul’s appointment of the uncircumcised Titus to Crete (Galatians 2:3; Titus 1:4-5) and his ministry with Luke (Philemon 24) are clear examples of this practice.
Paul’s practice is a logical and natural outgrowth of the argument he develops in Galatians, even though church leadership is not the primary issue. The path from Galatians to Paul’s practice would be this: if uncircumcised Christians are full members of God’s people, then uncircumcised Christians may serve as church leaders as long as they are spiritually mature and morally qualified.
Expansion of Paul’s Argument to Class and Gender
As Paul develops this argument he expands it in Galatians 3:28 to include both gender and class. As has been noted by many scholars, the three pairs Paul mentions here represent three primary divisions in Greco-Roman society: ethnicity (Jew/Gentile), class (slave/free), and gender (male/female). Although the focus of Paul’s argument in Galatians is on the first pair, Paul himself applies his logic to the other two pairs. This parallel was not invented or imagined by abolitionists and egalitarians.
Based on what we know, let’s imagine what the “Judaizer” arguments might have been against Paul’s practice of appointing uncircumcised Christians to positions of church leadership:
- Jesus was Jewish; therefore, leaders in his church ought to be Jewish.
- All of Jesus’ original apostles were Jewish; therefore, their successors ought to also be Jewish.
- The gospel came to the Jewish people first; it came to the Gentiles second.
- All the previous leaders among God’s people were Jewish (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc.).
- Jewish Christians will not follow the leadership of non-Jewish Christian leaders.
Now granted this list is speculative. There is no record of Paul’s opponents making these arguments. However, given what we know about Paul’s opponents from Galatians (and from Acts 15, assuming that they are the same opponents), it is very plausible that Paul’s opponents would bring up these objections. In fact, some scholars believe that these very same opponents followed Paul around, infiltrating his churches, questioning his legitimacy as an apostle and promoting themselves to church leadership (for example the “super apostles” in 2 Corinthians 10-13 and the mutilators of Philippians 3).
As William Webb has demonstrated, it took more time for the Christian community to apply Paul’s logic in Galatians to the question of class. Although some second century evidence suggests that slaves held positions of church leadership, it was not until the abolitionist movement of the 18th century that Paul’s argument was finally carried to its logical conclusion. Galatians 3:28 was a key text abolitionists cited to defend the anti-slavery movement, with proslavery Christians arguing that this verse was not meant to be taken literally and that it only applied in a “spiritual sense” (See Harrill’s “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy”).
Eventually a consensus emerged that accepted that Paul’s logic in Galatians applied to class as much as to Jews and Gentiles (see chapter 4 of Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God). But the Church has continued to struggle with applying Paul’s logic to gender, perhaps in part because Paul appears to be inconsistent in his utilization of female leaders. (I would argue that Paul did this contextually, based on the setting).
The arguments against women serving in positions of church leadership are much the same as the likely arguments of Paul’s opponents to restrict leadership to Jewish believers only:
- Jesus was male; therefore, leaders in his church ought to be male.
- All of Jesus’ original apostles were male; therefore, their successors should be male.
- God created the man first; he created the woman second.
- All (or at least most) of the previous leaders among God’s people have been male (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, etc.).
- Male Christians will not be able to respect the leadership of female Christian leaders.
The only difference is that Paul’s opponents argued that uncircumcised believers were not full-fledged members of God’s people, whereas complementarians claim that believing women are full-fledged members of God’s people. Perhaps this is because an uncircumcised Christian man needed only be circumcised and take upon himself the full yoke of Torah observance to pacify the concerns of Paul’s opponents. In contrast, complementarians offer no such provision to women, insisting instead on unequal roles in the church and home (submission to male leadership). Given the logic of Paul’s argument in Galatians, one must question whether complementarians really believe that female Christians are full-fledged members of God’s people.
It took a while for the early Church to sort out whether or not uncircumcised believers were full members of God’s people. It took far longer to sort this out in relation to class, reaching a tipping point during the abolitionist movement. And it has taken even longer for some branches of the Church to apply the implications of Paul’s argument to women. Thankfully a movement is growing that takes Paul’s logic seriously and is courageous enough to follow it to where it leads.
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