Jewish men would often pray this morning prayer: “Thanks be to God that He did not make me a Gentile, that He did not make me an ignorant slave, or a woman.”(1)
Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 seem to purposefully upend this prayer:
(In Christ Jesus) There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Following Jesus has a way of reshaping our view of the world and everything in it. Like following a path into a foggy wood, the mist begins to clear the further inward we go and we begin see how vast and seemingly unending the forest really is. Such is our worldview as we follow Christ; and we realize we will never be able to comprehend His ways fully.
The more we learn to follow Christ the more we change our minds about some things. If this is true for us, certainly it was true for the Apostle Paul. I mean, seriously — talk about a guy who was set in his ways! Yet I am convinced that the longer He followed Christ, the more he began to believe and teach that most man-made rules regarding faith were a hindrance if enforced legalistically. For Paul, enforcing systematic religion instead of authentic faith was as detrimental as blatant immorality.
Below you will find a short discussion on the last part of Galatians 3. I hope you will read the passage below several times as you consider my explanation that follows. Then you may decide for yourself whether or not you think Paul changed his mind about women.
Galatians 3:23-29 (NIV)
23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
This passage has always intrigued and inspired me. Upon first glance, these verses are about freedom, faith, and unity. Paul describes the new age of the Spirit, which Jesus had prophesied in John 14, 15, & 16, as one marked by equality in the Holy Spirit. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Law of Moses was no longer a strict overlord to God’s people. Instead, each and every person who steps out in faith to follow Jesus Christ is free to have a personal relationship with God and is on equal terms with every other believer. There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.
Paul wrote Galatians well into his ministry career, and along the way he seems to have learned some hard lessons about what it meant to relate to Christ in freedom as opposed to legalism. Thus freedom becomes one of Paul’s favorite words in Galatians.
Verse 28 is particularly outstanding to me, and to most people, because of the unprecedented shift it represents in the way God’s people had learned to relate to one another. This must have been especially true of Paul. Before meeting Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had been known as Saul of Tarsus. His life as Saul was one of privilege, success, and unswerving allegiance to the Torah – the Law of Moses. In Saul’s opinion, anyone who did not share his commitment to the Law was the spiritual equivalent of the unclean and diseased in the land.
When Paul says, in verse 28, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, I believe he makes a strong statement about how his personal beliefs had changed since he began following Christ. His newfound relationship with Christ had not narrowed his mind further concerning Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people; instead it opened up brand new horizons.
Consider the depth of this statement in its three parts:
1. . . . neither Jew nor Gentile . . . As a Jewish man, Paul knew the Law of Israel would always favor men like him over a Gentile man. But Paul tells us in Philippians that he was more than just your average Jewish man:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Philippians 3:4-6, NIV)
Before his encounter with Christ, Paul was as ethnocentric in terms of his Jewish heritage as one could be — even to the point that he persecuted others for leaving the Jewish faith. After he began to follow Jesus, however, Paul changed his mind. As John Chrysostom put it, “He who was a Jew yesterday, or a Greek yesterday . . . today displays in his person the Lord of all, the Christ.” (2)
In Christ, Paul says, the division between Jew and Gentile has dissolved, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
2. . . . neither slave nor free . . .We are also told in the New Testament that Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38). To be a Roman citizen, as opposed to a slave, was to experience more than just freedom. It was a life of privilege which provided a man with access to the Roman channels of success and advancement. A slave had few rights and nearly always relied on the charity of others. Slaves knew all too well what it meant to live on leftovers. Citizens, on the other hand, had the potential to delight in the first fruits and could find opportunities for social advancement. Paul enjoyed and took advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen, and he enjoyed the favor that came along with it. After he began to follow Jesus, however, Paul changed his mind.
Whereas Paul encouraged believers who were slaves to seek buy their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21), he reminded all that in the economy of God’s Kingdom, each person was as free as the next.
In Christ, Paul says, the division between free citizens and slaves has dissolved, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
3. . . . neither male nor female . . .
To be born as a woman, even if one was Jewish or a Roman citizen, was to be born into dependence. With few exceptions, women of the first century were both subservient and reliant upon the men in their lives. This dependence nearly always shifted from a girl’s father, to her husband, and perhaps eventually to her oldest living son or the brother of her husband. Without a providential male in her life, a woman would likely fall to the level of slave. Paul, with his strong Jewish background, would have had no problems with this system. Women were of a lesser value than men, and that was that. After he began to follow Jesus, however, Paul changed his mind.
In the household of God, both men and women were treated as God’s children – equally as sons and daughters (Galatians 3:26 above). Men and women were still going to be different from each other, because they were created that way. But their value and potential to make Kingdom contributions was on the same level. In Christ, Paul says, the division between men and women has dissolved, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul not only changed his mind, he changed his practice too. In several places, the New Testament mentions specific women that Paul used for leadership during his ministry including:
- Priscilla – nearly always mentioned ahead of her husband as Paul’s fellow worker and also had a church meeting in her home – Acts 18, Romans 16:3-4, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19
- Phoebe – called a deacon in Romans 16:1
- Junia – referred to with the word apostle in Romans 16:7 (some say Junia was a man)
- Lydia – one of Paul’s first converts in Philippi/had church in her home-Acts 16:13-16
- Chloe – had a church meeting in her house in 1 Corinthians 1:11
- Euodia and Syntyche – called fellow-workers in Philippians 4:2-3
Again, after he began to follow Jesus, Paul changed his mind. Evangelical believers throughout the world today look at Paul as perhaps the most important biblical voice for how the New Testament church ought to look with the exception of Jesus. As an evangelical myself, I believe our view of women in the church still needs some work. Most evangelicals will give ground on the issue of Jew vs. Gentile (if for no other reason than that we are all mostly Gentiles), and most are against slavery in all forms. Yet we still see through a bi-focaled lens when it comes to the role of women in Christian leadership. Whereas this is not true among all evangelicals, it is certainly true among many.
I believe Galatians 3 represents a broader picture of Paul’s theology regarding equality in the household of God’s Kingdom. His Kingdom is a place for all people who are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, and there are no second-class citizens. As one commentator says of Galatians 3:28, “Old divisions and inequalities have come to an end and new relationships have been established.” (3)
I believe that after he began to follow Jesus, Paul changed his mind. Perhaps someday we will too.
(1) From The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Commonwealth of Nations (1962), p. 6-7.
(2) Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians in NPNF, 30.
(3) Longenecker, Galatians (1990) ,136.