An Antiquated Interpretation of Galatians 3:28

I wish to begin here with a disclaimer before making the comments that follow: those who might employ Galatians 3:28 to advocate gender justice, I’ve found, are serious students of the Bible and people who sincerely love God and Christ. I don’t wish for what follows to be understood by any as a jab at them or even their position no matter how much I happen to disagree with their interpretation that somehow Galatians 3:28 would be grounds for permitting a woman to preach. I’ve been fortunate to speak with certain of these good people, and the majority of my interactions with those who find this interpretation valid have been civil and courteous. I wish that readers of what follows would read with the understanding that I want to be civil and courteous, but challenging.

Simply put, Galatians 3:28 points to the equality of dignity of each person and doesn’t at all suggest that men and women should have equal roles or duties in church matters. While most who read my column realize that I rely on historical interpretations for many conclusions I draw, I don’t at all think that historical interpretations are without fault. Nevertheless, my view, even when there is disagreement among ancient Christians, is to see what if any consensus may be drawn. On this particular passage, both John Chrysostom and Augustine—two major theologians in their time—would not have given an interpretation to Galatians 3:28 that is often made today by those who advocate that it should permit women to be preachers or elders.

One might criticize a citation of them as a source of authority on this matter, but I find it rather odd that though they are later than the writings of the New Testament, some of the same people who might criticize my usage of them have no problem using Scripture to support a dissenting interpretation. I’ve been amazed at how some have to try to linguistically, historically, socially, and any other “aly” one might offer, explain away the original meaning to support a modern movement of gender justice and equality. I’ve read some of the arguments, and it seems as if pains were taken to try to make the passage say what it precisely didn’t seem to say, to begin with.

Chrysostom wrote that the statement, “You are all one in Christ” from Galatians means that we “have one form, one character, that of Christ” (Homily on Galatians 3.28). He didn’t at all write that our being one in Christ indicated that the distinction of the sexes then meant that we could share the same roles. Augustine commented on Galatians 3:28, “Difference of race or condition or sex is indeed taken away by the unity of faith, but it remains embedded in our mortal interactions, and in the journey of this life the apostles themselves teach that is to be respected” (Galatians 28). Each of these men represents a rather general understanding of this passage which in no way interprets how modern interpreters use it to promote an equality of function among the sexes in the life of the church.

From the gender justice side, I might ask why Galatians 3:28 is only the removal of sexual distinction focused on and not the other reconciliations—e.g., Jew and Greek, or slave and free. Certainly, I might think that if any justice might try to be made from this passage, racial reconciliation might be more or equally loudly spoken than gender equality. Perhaps one might also speak more to slave-free issues given the current way that people are enslaved (e.g., debt, etc.). Regardless, I fear that a huge leap is made from: “there is no male and female,” to “women can now preach,” when other passages seem to suggest that not being the case.  

I don’t believe that men are equal to women nor the other way around. God made men be men and women to be women. I can no better be a woman than a squirrel can be an elephant. Though men and women are both humans, we are different, and I think we should celebrate the uniqueness of the sexes and stop trying to make one sex what God hasn’t created it to be.

This isn’t to say that women can’t do what men can do or that I think a woman’s place is in some demeaning role. Much to the contrary. Women, so I hold, are precious, beautiful, and mystique. When they try to be as men are, in my eyes, they lose that uniqueness with which God created them. Same for men when they try to do or be anything other than how God created us to be. Are there talented women? Yes. Are there women who are capable of outdoing a man in preaching and teaching? Yes. Nevertheless, why seek the ministerial office of preaching or using one’s abilities in any way that would subvert the station of a male. Not that a woman couldn’t do the job better than some men, but does submitting to the authorities of government (Romans 13:1–5), church leaders (Hebrews 13:7), and husband (Ephesians 5:22) indicate that a woman’s in any way inferior to any of these? Men conjointly are to submit to governing authorities and leaders of the church, and children are to submit to parents. This doesn’t indicate that any in positions of leadership are superior, but that God has created order.

I know that gender justice has good intentions. I know that those who advocate such are well-intentioned people who love Jesus as much as I do. This just happens to be a matter on which I disagree with them. I personally feel that sometimes we Christians get caught up in social and political issues and then take that baggage to our Bible studies. We grope to find a verse or passage that might substantiate our preferences. Conservatives do it as much as liberals and progressives. My only hope is that we’d each examine our motives for understanding passages as we do. Have we read the entire letter in which the passage appears? Do we fully grasp the fullness of the context? Why when something appears rather plain, do we take the pain to see if it says something else?  

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.

1 Comment
  1. Reply
    Travis February 16, 2017 at 7:56 am

    Once again, a very well written article and I agree with the main point that Galatians 3:28 isn’t the “go to” verse for authorizing women in ministry. I think it’s talking about overall freedom in Christ and the equality of our acceptance before Christ. The earthly barriers have been torn down and God accepts us all (so we should all accept each other!).

    When it comes to the role of women in general, though, the “church fathers” give us mixed results. Clement of Alexandria wrote that the apostles were accompanied by women as co-workers in the faith “that they might be their fellow-ministers in dealing with housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused. We also know the directions about women deacons which were given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy.”

    Many of the church fathers considered Junia to have the rank of Apostle, with all the power and privilege afforded to that office. Chrystostom, who you cited in your article, wrote “Indeed, to be an apostle at all is a great thing; but to be even amongst those of note; just consider what a great encomium that is…Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should even be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle.”

    Polycarp references the role of women as church officers and teachers. About 112 A.D., the Roman governor Pliny the Younger wrote about efforts to deal with the church in Bithynia. He referenced interrogating the leaders, who happened to be two slave women called ministrae, or deacons.

    I appreciate your ministry, brother, and the grace that is always evident in your writings. To be honest, I am still studying this issue and agree that it is beneficial to know how early Christians interpreted certain passages that still cause problems today. It would just be nice if they were a little more consistent! Ha!

Leave a reply