A Study of Galatians 3:28

The Role of Men and Women in the Church and the Home

by Joel Stephen Williams

Galatians 3:28 is the keystone for the theology of every type of feminism which claims the authority of the Bible in some manner. Paul King Jewett, a biblical feminist, calls Galatians 3:28 the "Magna Carta of Humanity." Klyne Snodgrass calls it "the most socially explosive statement in the New Testament." One religious feminist group publishes under the name "Galatians 3:28 Press." Evangelical feminism calls it the "golden text." Ronald and Beverly Allen call it "the feminist credo of equality." Finally, Mary Hayter refers to it as "a crux" and "the locus classicus" for biblical feminists.

What is the egalitarian interpretation of Galatians 3:28? Their understanding is that in Christ all distinctions based on race, economic status, and sex are abolished. First, there should be no distinctions based on Jew versus Gentile in the church or in the home. Second, no role distinctions in the church or the home should be based on whether or not one is a slave or free. They point out that in time the church opposed slavery and worked toward abolishing it. They then apply the same to men and women and urge Christians to adopt feminism and erase role distinctions in the church and, to one extent or another, in the home. In Christ, they claim, all of these distinctions have been reversed and social relationships are now on a plane of total equality. Richard and Joyce Boldrey write: "Galatians 3:28 does not say `God loves each of you, but stay in your places'; it says that there are no longer places, no longer categories, no longer differences in rights and privileges, codes and values." Virginia Mollenkott says Galatians 3:28 expresses Paul's vision "of a classless, non-racist, non-sexist society."

The Feminist Approach

How do evangelical and religious feminists handle Galatians 3:28? Their methodology is to use it as an interpretive center. This is a common method which everyone uses at one point or another. There are statements in the Bible which state a theological truth with such clarity or which have loomed large in forming the Christian conscience over the centuries. These "plain" statements are often taken as a starting point from which we go to other passages which may not be as clear. Evangelical feminists take Galatians 3:28 in this way as a universal principle. Limitations placed on the role of women in the church by other passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:1-15 are seen as exceptions to the rule, applicable only in a limited way to a specific situation where mitigating factors are involved.

Some feminists contend that Paul's concern in the passages limiting women was missionary. While Galatians 3:28 expresses his universal teaching for all the church, the image of the church in certain local situations could affect the church's ability to evangelize. In those specific situations, in order to avoid offending local custom, Paul placed a restriction on the role of women. They would quickly argue that those same problems are not present in our modern world, so we should not follow those limitations on the role of women any longer. We should follow the universal principle of Galatians 3:28. Other feminists simply say that Paul was inconsistent. The passages which contain limitations on women supposedly reflect the Paul of rabbinic Judaism while Galatians 3:28 reflects the Paul of an enlightened Christian conscience. These latter approaches do not take the authority of the apostle Paul seriously enough, so we will not focus on them in this study.

What are the problems with this feminist view of Galatians 3:28? It is an example of hyperexegesis, that is, drawing more out of a passage than is in it. Lewis Johnson, Jr. refers to "the human tendency to forget sound hermeneutics and find things that are not really in the text."1 Johnson did a survey of the use of Galatians 3:28 in Christian writings from the second century until the Reformation movement. He studied how this passage was used by Ignatius (c. 115), Justin Martyr (c. 155), Clement of Alexandria (c. 200), Hippolytus (c. 225), Gregory of Nyssa (c. 380), John Chrysostom (c. 390), Augustine (c. 420), Martin Luther (c. 1525), and John Calvin (c. 1555). He found that Galatians 3:28 was not looked upon as being the text that settled the issue of the role of women in the church and the home: "None of the major teachers in the history of the church thought Galatians 3:28 abolished the male-female role distinctions in marriage or the church."2

The Hierarchical or Traditional Approach

The traditional approach can best be explained by putting Galatians 3:28 in its context. In Galatians 3:2 Paul asks if we receive the Spirit "by doing the works of the law" or by faith? A descendant of Abraham is defined as one who believes (3:7), thus Gentiles could be blessed by means of faith (3:8). Relying on works of the law leads only to being cursed (3:10). We are not justified by the law (3:11). "In Christ Jesus" the "blessing of Abraham" comes "to the Gentiles." They can "receive the promise through faith" (3:14). The promise was made to Abraham and his offspring (3:16). The law of Moses did not deliver the promise. The law was a temporary measure until Christ came (3:17-26). It is "in Christ Jesus" that we are all children of God "through faith" (3:26). By baptism we get "into Christ" (3:27). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). If we are in Christ, then we are Abraham's offspring and "heirs according to the promise" (3:29). A child is no better off than a slave as an heir until the child comes of age. The Jews were in the child stage, thus they did not receive a full inheritance. In Christ "full rights of sons" are attained (4:1-7). "So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir" (4:7).

The chief aim of the whole passage is clear, even if some details of interpretation are difficult. Paul is explaining the relationship between the law of Moses and salvation by faith. The problem in the background was Judaizing teachers who wanted to require circumcision of Gentile converts to Christianity. Paul shows that salvation is by faith, not by law. He shows that the "promise" comes by faith, not by law. To become a Christian, one does not have to obey the law of Moses, and in particular, one does not have to be circumcised. What holds the three sub-groups (Jew/Gentile, bond/free, male/female) of Galatians 3:28 together? It is not that God established all three relationships at creation. At creation there was no Jew and Gentile. At creation there was no slave versus free. But there was male and female. What holds these three groups together is inheritance rights. As a rule, under the law of Moses only Jewish men could inherit property. Sons inherited. Gentiles, slaves, and women ordinarily did not inherit property. Drawing an analogy to Christianity, inheritance is different. One does not have to be Jewish, free, or a male to inherit. One can be Gentile, a slave, or female and inherit eternal life.3

The point of Galatians 3:28 is one's status before God. Salvation, justification, and receiving the Spirit are the focus (3:2, 5, 8, 11, 24, 26, 27). The promise is given in Christ (3:16). If one can be united with Christ, if one can be "in Christ," if one can merge one's identity with Christ, then one receives the promise that is Christ's. The focus in Galatians is on the Gentile problem. It does not matter if one is slave or free, one could become a Christian (1 Cor. 7:22). Likewise, women could become Christians. The bond/free and male/female analogies simply give extra proof for Paul's point concerning the Gentiles. Salvation in Christ is available to all. This is what Galatians 3:28 is trying to teach.

What is not the aim of Galatians 3:28? It is not explaining the existence or non-existence of roles for people in the church or the home. Nothing in the context speaks of these matters. Paul is simply saying that salvation in Christ is open to all. Let me illustrate. If I say that I am starting a soccer team and membership on the team is open to anyone, young or old, male or female, white or black, rich or poor. This does not mean that the team will not have starters and bench-warmers, goalies and fullbacks. It does not mean that the team will not have a team captain. If the army announces that it has an open acceptance policy for applicants of any race or sex, that does not mean that there will be no generals versus privates. It does not mean that some will not drive tanks, while others cook, while others shuffle papers. If you started a chorus which accepted any applicant, male or female, white or black, that does not mean that you will not have sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses.

Ronald Fung explains this in relation to Galatians 3:28: "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 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."4 Herman Ridderbos agrees: "This is not to maintain that the natural and social distinction is in no respect relevant any more (cf. e.g., Eph. 6:5, 1 Tim. 6:1, Titus 2:9, 1 Pet. 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:3ff., 14:34ff., and 1 Tim. 2:11ff.). From the point of view of redemption in Christ, however, and of the gifts of the Spirit granted by Him, there is no preference of Jew to Greek, master to slave, man to woman."5

By trying to make Galatians 3:28 apply to role relationships of men and women in the church and the home, feminism has not handled the scriptures correctly. While we can not know the exact dates of New Testament documents, we can know their dates approximately. Galatians is usually dated A.D. 48 by conservatives. Another theory would date it from Rome around A.D. 60. First Corinthians is dated A.D. 55 and 1 Timothy is dated A.D. 65. If Galatians 3:28 erased all role distinctions based on gender, then why did Paul later write statements which recognized some limitations based on gender? One or, more likely, both of Paul's key limiting passages were written after Galatians 3:28. Did Paul forget or did he change his mind? The answer, of course, is "Neither." Galatians 3:28 does not contradict 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 or 1 Timothy 2:1-15, because it is not erasing all role distinctions based on gender. Furthermore, the feminists are inconsistent in their handling of scripture. Since Galatians 3:28 mentions male and female, they make it the linchpin for interpreting the rest of the New Testament in social ethics. Why do they not use Colossians 3:11 for that purpose? "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." It is curious that Colossians 3:11 is not the "golden text" or the "Magna Carta of humanity," since it does not mention male and female.


Duane Litfin summarizes the issues well: "Even the feminists acknowledge that the context of Galatians 3 is theological, not practical. Paul is here making a theological statement about the fundamental equality of both men and women in their standing before God. Thus any ideas about how this truth should work itself out in social relationships cannot be drawn from Galatians 3:28, but must be brought to it from one's broader understanding of the nature of things....What then are the legitimate social implications of Galatians 3:28? Instead of leaping to the unwarranted inference that all gender-based roles are to be eliminated, would it not be more fitting for Christians to let the Scriptures define what inferences should be drawn?...Traditionalists find the New Testament writers regulating rather than eliminating the hierarchical roles, to prevent them from being abused....One may wonder, then, why feminists continue to insist on reading the unnecessary egalitarian inference into Galatians 3:28. It is as if one has a puzzle comprised of a few basic pieces, which when fitted together form a clear and coherent pattern. But along comes another who on turning one of the pieces insists that the puzzle does not really fit together at all. Rather, he insists, most of the pieces must now be rejected because they form an unacceptable pattern, and in their place the whole new pattern must be designed which is more compatible with the piece that was twisted from its original position. What is it that prompts the feminists to insist on such a drastic redrawing of the pattern of the New Testament teaching, despite the fact that it is not necessary to do so? In other words, since Galatians 3:28 does not demand the elimination of male/female roles in society, what does?"6

In conclusion, Galatians 3:28 is speaking of the accessibility of salvation to all people without regard to gender. It is not discussing role distinctions in the home or in the church, so other passages which define limitations in roles because of gender are not to be disregarded. While limitations undoubtedly were given in response to a specific problem situation, as the occasion demanded, there is no need to consider the limiting passages as contradictions of a general rule found in Galatians 3:28. Since Paul is the author of all of them, there is no reason to conclude that he saw a contradiction or that 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:1-15 were temporary exceptions based on mitigating circumstances. There is no reason for us not to interpret all three passages as a harmonious whole. Therefore, Galatians 3:28 does not overrule Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 or 1 Timothy 2:1-15.

1(Back to text) S. Lewis Johnson, "Role Distinctions in the Church: Galatians 3:28," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991) 154.

2(Back up to text)Ibid., 156.

3(Back to text) See Jack Cottrell, "Role of Women: The Meaning of Galatians 3:28," Christian Standard, 31 January 1993, 4-6; cf. John Jefferson Davis, "Some Reflections on Galatians 3:28, Sexual Roles, and Biblical Hermeneutics," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19 (Summer 1976) 201-08; and Roy H. Lanier, Jr., "Galatians 3:28--Does It Teach Egalitarianism?" Spiritual Sword, 27 January 1996, 19-22.

4(Back to text) Quoted in Johnson, "Role Distinctions," 163.

5(Back to text) Herman Ridderbos, Galatians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) 149.

6(Back to text) A. Duane Litfin, "Evangelical Feminism: Why Traditionalists Reject It," Bibliotheca Sacra 136 (July-September 1979) 264-66.

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