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What Does Galatians 3:28 Actually Teach?

by Mimi Haddad | June 05, 2022

A while back, a complementarian and I had an exchange on how to best interpret Galatians 3:28.1 Whereas egalitarians often cite Galatians 3:28 as support for mutuality between women and men, my complementarian colleague found no evidence for social or economic equality in this text. In fact, he believes egalitarian notions obscure the deeper meaning of Galatians 3:28. Since Paul does not cite the Greek term for equality or equity (isotēs) in this text, he insists that Paul is teaching oneness in Christ, not race, gender, or socio-economic equality. This oneness in Christ is for him a far deeper, richer vision of unity that egalitarians thin, compromise, or even dismiss when advocating for race, class, or gender equality among believers.

What is more, he suggested that egalitarians attribute to Scripture ideas arising from secular documents like the US Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal . . .” For him, egalitarian views of individual privilege lead to “sameness,” which tragically “flattens” God’s intended diversity, especially between women and men since not all are hands or eyes or ears (1 Cor. 12:14–26). Like other complementarians, at the heart of his critique of the egalitarian view of Galatians 3:28 is a modern misrepresentation of a first-century Christian value: oneness within Christ’s body versus equality.

Are Equality and Oneness All That Different?

Paul does not use the word “equality” (isotēs) in Galatians 3:28 precisely because there is indeed a deeper truth! Our oneness in Christ both redeems and challenges superiority and oppression due to race, class, and gender differences. Clothed in Jesus, we are a new creation. Through the Spirit we can and should experience a new life that ultimately subdues not only death but also sin and prejudice (Rom. 6:1–23). Galatians 3:28 is shorthand for our new ethic. It is the best expression of the gospel in action and reflects Jesus’s life in us as individuals and as the church.

This is why the passage was carved on ancient baptismal pools, celebrating the Spirit’s power that moves us from death to life, and from sinful practices to holiness and justice! Often shaped like wombs, baptismal fonts welcomed Christians to enter and acknowledge death to sin and the false gods of this world. Rising out of the water—a second womb—ancient Christians acknowledged not sameness of flesh (Jews, slaves, women) or body parts (hands, feet, ears, eyes) but that special unity that comes from an alignment with Christ in a new ethic. Being clothed in Jesus eradicates our human enslavement to sin! Through the Spirit’s power we celebrate a new life in harmony. The cross created a new race of people, born of the Spirit, committed to holiness and justice, without “divisions in the body, but with all its parts sharing equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25) regardless of cultural bias.

“If one (body) part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). We say no to “hands only for hands,” “men only for men,” and the “powerful only for the powerful,” because we are made one in Jesus. For this reason, scholars like Gordon Fee assert that what Christ accomplished on Calvary in creating a new, united humanity becomes the work of the church in upending racial, economic, and gender barriers and hostilities.2

Does Equality Reduce God’s Intended Diversity into Sameness?

Some worry that equality flattens human diversity, making the whole body an eye. Quite the opposite! The concern for an integration of hands, all ears, all feet in 1 Corinthians 12 is a call to welcome a diversity of gifts possessed by both women and men of all ethnic and class categories. Exploring the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:14–26; Romans 12:5–8; and Ephesians 4:7, we perceive that they are indeed a call to oneness in Christ. The varied gifts necessary for healthy Christian communities work against human bias because they are embodied by a diverse humanity united in Christ.

These passages teach that in coming to faith believers receive God’s power—a supernatural equipping for extraordinary service by women and men of many ethnicities and social classes. Not once do these texts align the Spirit’s empowering along gender, race, or class lines. Similar to Pentecost in Acts 2, Christians may receive a spiritual gift that proves unexpected and even challenging given human prejudice. Yet Scripture teaches us to fan into flame the gift God has given us (2 Tim. 1:6), suggesting that Christians are accountable to use their gifts. Consider how early church leaders transcended racial, ethnic, gender, and class barriers in using their gifts to advance the gospel.3

Modern Ideas Forced on Ancient Texts

While some fear egalitarians read Galatians 3:28 in ways that would offend ancient culture, that was Paul’s point! Newness of life in Christ is radically different because it challenges sinful human traditions and prejudices. For this reason, Galatians 3:28 is cited as one of the most feminist texts from antiquity.4 Oneness in Christ placed early Christian practices at odds with their cultural traditions (both Jew and Greek) because the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of the church included both women and men, slaves and free, Greeks and Jews. Even the disciples were disturbed by Christ’s welcome of outsiders: Samaritans, Gentiles, prostitutes, and tax collectors. Likewise, those under Roman law supported the rule of free over slave and male over female. Imagine their offense in reading Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia.

To Christians in the Galatian church, Paul expressed his astonishment that they so quickly embraced a perverse gospel: one that pleases people but offends God (Gal. 1:1–10). So he reminds them that as an apostle, he received the gospel not through humans but revealed through the risen Christ himself (Gal. 1:12). Paul’s gospel promoted circumcision not of the flesh but of the heart (Rom. 2:29)! It did not divide people through food taboos but united them through agape meals where all were welcome at the table (Acts 2:42–47). Though born of Christ, the church at Galatia experienced divisions based on race, class, and gender, which undermined their service and witness as the church.

The oneness Paul evokes among Christians in Galatia was not spiritual renewal because they were already believers! Paul is calling them to a functional and thus an ethical renewal. They were born again, but now they needed to grow up! For the sake of the church and its mission, the privileges of the Jew, the freed, and the male are now especially that of the Greek, the slave, and the female.

Philemon and Onesimus: An Example of Unity as Equality

Consider Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Paul calls masters to give their slaves “what is right and fair” (2 Cor. 8:13–14) just as he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, a term that points to their oneness in Christ (Philem. 1:16). Onesimus and Philemon share a spiritual rebirth which calls them to a new ethic. Our renewal and baptism in Christ come with ethical and functional responsibilities.

What is the result of newness of life in Christ for the slave and master? Philemon releases Onesimus, and he becomes useful not only to Paul but to the entire church, eventually becoming bishop of Ephesus. In releasing Onesimus, the ethical realities of oneness, fairness, love, and justice triumph over cultural prejudice and sin’s domination.

Our New Christian Ethic

Consider the depth of oneness on display in Ephesians 5, not only between believers who mutually submit to one another (5:21), but also between fist-century husbands and wives in Christian marriages. Notice that Paul appeals to those with the most cultural privilege to be the first to love as Christ did, sacrificially. Husbands must be the first to demonstrate their newness of life and oneness in Christ because of the cultural privilege assigned to men. Paul is asking husbands to live out a deeper Christian ethic—mutuality—because the gift of Christ upends sin’s curse (Rom. 5:15).

Our sameness of spiritual rebirth imparts a new Christian ethic, including service without prejudicial barriers. Our material or bodily differences remain part of the rich diversity God intended for humanity. They are the foundation of a strong and vital church. Unfortunately, they have too often resulted in divisions, marginalization, and oppression—as seen in the church at Galatia. In response, Paul elevates our union in Christ and our unity as Christians as the basis of our ultimate identity and ethical destiny—shaped not by our physical birth but by a Spirit-led rebirth.      

Our newness of life in Christ is an invisible, eternal reality that forms a new human ethic—one that sin destroyed (Gen. 3:16b). Thus, egalitarians argue that it is not race, gender, or class that determines service but Christian character (Gal. 5:2–23). We appeal to a new ethic that is the fruit of oneness in Christ. The sameness egalitarians celebrate is not androgyny but a sameness of spiritual rebirth that results in holiness, justice, and the fruit of the Spirit.

We are committed to life and service without barriers due to human prejudice because we are a new creation made one in Christ. Indeed, equality is too thin a word compared to the oneness that results from our rebirth in Christ. And yet being clothed in Jesus as believers is also a call to a oneness of Christian ethic that dismantles racial, class, and gender barriers and hostilities within our church and world.

This article is from "The Fullness of Galatians 3:28," the Summer 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. My response to Andrew Wilson was published by Missio Alliance in 2017 at https://www.missioalliance.org/biblical-equality/.
  2. Gordon Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 58ff.
  3. Mark Reasoner, “Chapter 16 in Paul’s Letters to the Romans: Dispensable Tagalong or Valuable Envelope?” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (2006): 11–16, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/chapter-16-pauls-letter-romans-dispensable.
  4. Daniel Boyarin, “Paul and the Genealogy of Gender,” Representations, no. 41 (1993): 1–33, https://melc.berkeley.edu/Web_Boyarin/BoyarinArticles/67%20Paul%20and%20the%20Genealogy%20of%20Gender%20(1993).pdf.