[Uh, this is really long. I don't think it would flow well if I split it into parts. I've tried to compress it, but there are some difficult parts here that require a careful explanation. Please be patient and wade through it. You see, to me, the key to Christian hermeneutics is found in Galatians.]
The New Testament’s most explicit statement of the new relationship of men and women is found in Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Not surprisingly, there are widely varying views on how to interpret this passage. Paternalists and hierarchicalists typically limit this truth to the requirements for being saved — men and women have the same right to salvation. Egalitarians, however, see this truth as applying more generally — it applies after men and women are saved as well as when they are saved.
The truth of the matter is best determined by understanding the lessons of Galatians gleaned from the entire book. Indeed, this verse shows up well into Paul’s argument and must flow logically within Paul’s overall lesson.
(Gal. 1:6-9) I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
Paul begins Galatians with a rare condemnation. Here Paul, the apostle of grace, pronounces condemnation on all who preach a different gospel.
(Gal. 2:1-6) Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. As for those who seemed to be important — whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance — those men added nothing to my message.
We now learn that the false gospel — which is no gospel at all — is the addition of the command to be circumcised. The false teachers did not deny the basics of the gospel plan of salvation — but they concluded it wasn’t enough.
Following the practice that God had established with Abraham, Jews within the early church were requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised as an additional step. Paul declares that adding to the plan of salvation nullifies it! Indeed, adding a single step to plan of salvation turns the freedom of Christianity into slavery.
Intriguingly, Paul further declares the familiar truth: “God does not judge by external appearance,” but Paul says so with respect to the apostles themselves! Paul’s point is that God’s truth is far greater than the strengths or weaknesses of any individuals — even apostles. Of course, he is also implying that if God does not judge by appearances with respect to the leadership of the apostles, then He surely doesn’t judge by appearances when it comes to something like circumcision — which is purely a matter of fleshly appearance..
Next Paul recounts how Peter was found to be discriminating against Gentile converts by not eating with them, for fear of criticism from those Jewish converts who insisted on circumcision:
(Gal. 2:11-13) When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
Paul then undertook to rebuke Peter publicly for his discrimination:
(Gal. 2:14) When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
Paul ironically points out Peter’s inconsistency in condoning insistence on some of the Law of Moses while not insisting on it all! Notice that Paul charges Peter with violating the “truth of the gospel”! He wasn’t denying them baptism. He was just refusing to accord them equal rights as people who’d been saved.
Paul then explains how Peter’s behavior contradicts the gospel itself:
(Gal. 2:15-16) “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
Now here is one of the key passages in the book. Paul points out to Peter that Christians are saved by faith in Jesus, not by observing the law. And this means that we must judge one another based on faith, not on the observance of law. Thus, Paul declares that the basis on which we are first saved is the basis on which we are to be judged thereafter. The fact that the Gentiles were saved without regard to circumcision means that we must accept them as in full fellowship without regard to circumcision. We may impose no higher doctrinal standard on the saved than we impose on converts! See this post re Rom 15:7.
Paul then responds to the concern that this argument might suggest that converts, who were sinners when converted, may remain sinners:
(Gal. 2:17-21) “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Paul argues that a convert cannot remain a sinner, because “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” There are a couple of valid ways of looking at this.
First, as stated in Acts 2:38, converts are to repent — turn away from their former lives of sin. Second, as also stated in Acts 2:38, converts receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. How does Christ live in me? Through His Holy Spirit. What impact does this have? Paul answers the question in Galatians 5: it bears fruit — the Holy Spirit helps my repentance by changing me to a person “led” by the Spirit, a person who bears fruits “against which there is no law.”
Paul next makes his point regarding the Spirit explicit.
(Gal. 3:1-5) You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
Paul says that, because we received the Spirit (at baptism) (Acts 2:38) by faith, we must seek to attain our goal (heaven) by faith — not human effort. In other words, we began with faith in the gospel — the story of the cross — and we will finish, if at all, the same way.
(Gal. 3:6-9) Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
This is another key passage. Paul defines the “gospel” as faith being credited as righteousness. Paul then begins referring to salvation by faith as the “promise” (v. 17). Paul argues that the promise preceded the Law of Moses by hundreds of years. Thus, salvation could not hinge on obedience to the Law of Moses. The Law wasn’t even around when the promise was made! Moreover, promises don’t hinge on laws (vv. 15-18). Paul further describes the promise as an “inheritance” (v. 18).
Paul then explains the role of law:
(Gal. 3:23-25) Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
At this point, we need to pause for a moment to dispel some possible misunderstandings. What does Paul mean by “law”? Some contend that this refers to the ceremonial part of the Law of Moses, that is, the sacrifices, the priests, circumcision, the Sabbath, and such, but does not refer to the moral elements of the Law of Moses, such as, “Thou shalt not kill.” And certainly we have to agree that Christians aren’t supposed to be murderers.
However, we have to let Paul speak for himself on this one. Follow the flow of his logic carefully. First, Paul sees the gospel as beginning with Abraham — “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Thus, faith provides deemed righteousness. That is, under the gospel, God treats the faithful unrighteous as though they were righteous. This has nothing to do with ceremonies and ritual not invented for another 400 years — it’s all about righteous living and the fact the none of us can live a life sufficiently righteous to merit salvation.
And why is it that Paul says that we were held prisoners by the law? Clearly, because we couldn’t meet its requirements! The requirements we can’t meet are the requirements for righteous living — don’t lie, don’t envy, don’t commit adultery (even in our hearts!) Jesus came to rescue us from sin — not from the Sabbath. And the “law” that Paul has in mind is the will of God for how we should live — the requirements of righteous and holy living.
This is precisely why Paul felt compelled at the end of chapter 2 to explain why the gospel does not “promote sin.” It was because, properly understood, the gospel frees us from “supervision of the law,” including its moral precepts. If the gospel frees us from ceremonies and not the moral code, then why would Paul need to defend himself from the charge that the gospel promotes sin? Now this is a hard teaching that Paul will deal with in more detail later — so stick with me.
(Gal. 3:26-28) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Now recall that circumcision is no abstraction. It’s a painful surgical procedure performed only on males — during an age that had no anesthesia or antibiotics. Thus, the alleged requirement to be circumcised applied only to men — the false teachers placed a greater burden on men than on women.
Paul says this can’t be true because we Christians are all “sons of God.” Not “children” but sons. The reason we are all sons is because Jesus is God’s son and, through baptism, we have “clothed” ourselves with Christ. Thus, we are metaphorically inside of Christ, and when God looks at us, He sees not us but Jesus, His sinless Son.
Being “in Christ Jesus” means many things to us. It means that we share in His inheritance, the promise of being considered righteous due to our faith. But it also means that we are part of a single person — we are “one.” Recall Paul’s lesson in 1 Corinthians 12, where he explains that we are each a part of a single body, each with different functions.
But the meaning is also that “God does not judge by external appearances.” Indeed, He doesn’t even see our external appearances — He sees Jesus. Thus, God cares not at all whether we are circumcised. But neither does He care whether we are Jewish or free or enslaved or male or female. These are all earthly, external matters that matter not to God. Those distinctions are all hidden by the clothing of Christ Jesus.
Realize that under Jewish law (and most ancient legal systems), daughters did not inherit. The assertion that we are all sons and so all inherit particularly points toward increased rights for women.
Moreover, N. T. Wright points out that “neither male nor female” is routinely mistranslated. The Greek is “there cannot be male and female,” whereas the other pairings are “Jew nor Greek” and “slave nor freeman.” The language thus refers to Gen 1:26 — God created them “male and female.”
Now, this is a truly remarkable turn of phrase. Paul is saying the distinctions between men and women that go back to the creation are erased in Jesus! And this is much more that the inheritance laws under the Law of Moses.
But we shouldn’t overstate Paul’s argument. He’s talking about how we should treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. Should we eat with both Jews and Gentiles? Should we impose requirements on male Christians we don’t impose on female? He’s no more eliminating gender than he is freeing slaves. However, in Christ, he is insisting on a relationship not built on external appearances.
(Gal. 4:1-3) What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.
So what is the role of law? Paul says that, before Jesus came, we were enslaved under the basic principles of the world. The “basic principles” are how things were before Christ — that is, when mankind had fallen due to the sins of Adam and Eve and was without grace. In other words, the basic principles are the curse of Genesis 3 that was lifted by Christ.
“Basic principles” is more literally translated “elements,” that is, the very fundamental nature of things. Without Christ, the basic nature of things is that the world is fallen due to the Fall of Man in Genesis 3. “Basic principles” cannot refer to the Law of Moses as the “law” from which we are saved is the moral law of God, which is certainly found in the Law of Moses but is found in the hearts of men as well (Rom. 2:1-16). Indeed, Galatians is written to Gentiles as well as Jews, and for the argument to apply to Gentiles, Paul could certainly not have referred to his readers as having been “in slavery under the basic principles of the world” if he meant only the Law of Moses. Moreover, Paul would never have referred to the Law of Moses as being “of the world,” as the Law of Moses was given by God.
Paul said in 3:24 that the role of the law was to lead us to Christ, that is, to teach us right and wrong and, ultimately, that we need a savior. Thus, Paul calls the law a guardian or trustee, which kept us from receiving our inheritance until the right time.
(Gal. 4:4-5) But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
But God rescued us from the condemnation brought on by the basic principles by sending His Son.
Why does Paul point out that Jesus was born of a woman? Isn’t everybody? I believe that it is to emphasize two things. First, that Jesus has an earthly ancestry that traces back to Abraham, and thus He is a legitimate heir to the inheritance of righteousness by faith.
Second, Paul declares that God honors women — He chose a woman to bring His Son into the world! How, then, can the false teachers insist on a male-centered command?
By treating Mary abstractly as “a woman,” Paul is surely implying more than that Mary was Jesus’ mother. His point must be to contradict the notion that men are greater than women in God’s scheme since circumcision brings them into a relationship that women cannot share. Thus, his point is that God has honored women by bringing the Savior to the world through a woman — clearly offsetting any claim to superiority that the Judaizing teachers could make.
And so, thanks to the Son, we — both male and female — have “full rights of sons.” Here the NIV is not entirely literal. As literally translated in the KJV, the Greek really states “the adoption of sons,” rather than “full rights of sons.” However, in conjunction with verses 1 and 3, Paul’s point is not literally adoption, but emancipation, that is, becoming an adult no longer subject to guardians and trustees and thus fully entitled to the right to enjoy one’s inheritance. Thus, we have “full rights” rather than the limited rights we previously enjoyed.
Is this just the right to be saved? Hardly. After all, we weren’t even clothed with Christ until we’d been saved, and being clothed with Christ is what gets us full rights! Being clothed with Christ is not about admission to salvation — it’s a result of salvation, and therefore our new status as sons of God affects how we live and relate to one another as Christians.
Also, recall that Paul confronted Peter over the rights granted by Peter to Gentile Christians after they’d been saved. Peter wasn’t denying the Gentiles’ salvation — he was treating them as lesser Christians, Christians without full rights. Paul rebuked him, reasoning that God’s acceptance of the Gentiles as Christians entitles them to the same rights and treatment as Jews — long after they were saved.
“Full rights of sons” and “God does not judge by external appearance” are fundamental truths of Christianity that ban discrimination based on externalities of race, social class, and gender. Many other verses are to the same effect.
(Acts 10:34) “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism”
(Rom. 2:11) “For God does not show favoritism”
(Deut. 10:17) “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.”
It must be true.
(Gal. 4:6-7) Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
Another of our rights as sons is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in us makes God truly our Heavenly Father, gives us an intimate, personal relationship with the Creator, and assures us of our inheritance of grace.
Recall how Peter described wives as “co-heirs” of salvation (1 Pet 3:7). Women now inherit the same salvation as men. But the Galatians already considered women saved. That wasn’t in dispute. Paul’s point (like Peter’s) is that the gospel tells us how to treat one another. Equal salvation means equal acceptance in the household of faith.
In chapter 5, Paul teaches the scariest lesson in the New Testament. This is the passage that speaks of “falling from grace.” Clearly, this is a fate we should all flee.
(Gal. 5:1-3) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Come again? How can it be that being circumcised makes Christ of no value — “at all”? After all, most American men are circumcised. And Paul had Timothy circumcised so that he would be accepted by the Jews well enough to preach the gospel. So what is it about circumcision that damns?
Plainly, the danger in circumcision is in trying to be justified (saved) by circumcision. And why is this so dangerous? Because if you seek justification by any part of the law, then you must “obey the whole law.” And none of us can do so. Thus, we must entirely rely either on grace or on the law for salvation. Either can, in theory, work, but we are all too frail, too weak to actually meet the righteous requirements of the law, and thus seeking salvation through law keeping is futile.
Moreover, there is no in-between position. You can’t seek to insist on some law and some grace. It’s grace or law. And law enslaves and kills, because we cannot satisfy its requirements.
(Gal. 5:5-6) But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Law keeping — even moral law keeping — cannot win us our salvation. Rather, the righteousness we need to be saved will be given to us — we anticipate it through faith. This gives hope. And the Spirit gives assurance that hope will not be disappointed.
Externalities, such as circumcision, have no value in Christ. What does have value, however, is faith — expressing itself through love. Thus, faith comes first, but faith is stillborn unless it produces love. Love coming from faith is another way of saying “repentance.” Repentance is a change of lifestyle, and love is the lifestyle we adopt. And, of course, love must be an active, effective love — resulting in service, as Paul says,
(Gal. 5:13-18) You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
Understand this passage and you understand Galatians, indeed, nearly all the New Testament. Paul declares that we “are not under law.” Well, we must surely ask, why shouldn’t we indulge the sinful nature? Because, Paul says, we are to be led by the Spirit. Only if we are so led are we not under law.
But being led by the Spirit has a practical effect, as does being led by the sinful nature:
(Gal. 5:19-26) The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Thus, we begin with faith. Faith produces salvation, and salvation the Spirit. The Spirit changes our heart so that we produce fruit of the Spirit-in other words, a life of love. And there is no law against living a life of love.
A life of love fulfills the law — there is no other command binding on Christians. But, in reality, even love is not a command — it is a fruit of the Spirit — it is simply being true to our new spiritual natures. Thus, love is not a burden but freedom — freedom to act as we now want to act!
We can elect to seek to be saved by the law — any part or all of it. And if we seek salvation by law keeping, to be saved we must keep all the law. This is the fearsome lesson of Galatians.
Thus, we have been given the perfect tool to distinguish eternal commands from temporary, culturally limited commands: love.
Paul discusses this understanding of obedience in Romans:
(13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Therefore, if I love my fellowman, I have fulfilled the law. Therefore, I do not need to be circumcised to fulfill the law, since I can perfectly well love — and love well — without having been circumcised.
Just so, a woman can love her fellows and love well without wearing a veil while praying — in today’s society. She could not do so in First Century Corinthian society.
A woman may exercise authority over a man without in any way being unloving in today’s society — but not in First Century Ephesus. Certainly, if a woman were to teach a man more about Christ, that would be an act of love in modern culture. But teaching a man in a domineering way would not be — even more so in the First Century.
And so we see that Paul declares an end to arbitrary rules and regulations. There are no rules for the sake of having rules. The only rules that are eternal — not culture based — are those rules that are dictated by the obligation to love. As Paul states in Romans 13, adultery will always be wrong because it always contradicts the pledge of love made by spouses. Similarly, murder cannot be an act of love, nor can stealing.
The command to love not only imposes eternal duties such as these — it may impose some temporary duties, such as the command to wear a veil while praying, or to greet one another with the Holy Kiss, or to wash one another’s feet. These commands were simply commands to love as applied under First Century circumstances. Our circumstances are quite different now. The command to love still applies, but the command has different practical results.
In the minds of some of my more legalistically inclined brothers, this sort of reasoning is nothing but so much liberal, mumbo-jumbo mush. It is too vague and uncertain — even dangerous — to appeal to many within the Church. Indeed, sermons have been preached warning against “liberals” who speak too much of love! And yet Paul — an apostle of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — said that the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love! Jesus Himself said that all the law hangs on the command to love.
Many readers would perhaps provisionally accept these ideas — but would wonder just how their favorite doctrines are affected. But the New Testament is filled with examples of how to apply this command in countless situations. And so we are not saying that there are no absolute commands or conclusions.
Jesus and Paul condemn adultery, stealing, murder, and covetousness as violating the command to love. Numerous other corollary or derivative commands are announced throughout the scriptures. But I do not intend to understate the significance of the words of Jesus, Paul, James, and John. There is much that we must reconsider if we are to take them at their word.
Ultimately, the eternal rule that we may not discriminate on the basis of gender is true, not because Paul said “no male and female,” but because we are saved by faith — expressing itself through love — and nothing else counts. Thus, any arbitrary distinction between Christians must be a product of the burden of living in an evil society — not God’s eternal will.
Indeed, the result would be the same had Paul never said that there is no male and female — the fact the God does not show favoritism and the fact that the only commands that matter are those commands derived from “love your neighbor” make the point quite well enough.