Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 19, 2010

Galatians (Part 1: Male and Female)

This week I’ve been studying in Galatians.  I was prompted to go there for two reasons.  The first is that in Part 11 of my series on gender theology, I touched on Gal 3:27-28.  The complementarian interpretation of this passage holds that we are all equal in the sight of God, and salvation is equally available to everyone, but this text holds no significance for how we are to relate to one another in this life.  I argued that this cannot be the correct interpretation in light of Jesus’ teaching that our faith should result in a noticeable difference in how we relate to others.  Since then, I wanted to revisit Galatians to answer the question, “What did Paul mean by this?”  Today, we’ll take a look at that question.  Tomorrow, I plan to share some thoughts on Christians observing the Old Testament law.

Many pastors and teachers are of the opinion that epistles are the easiest type of literature to interpret because they’re just like reading an instruction manual.  All the epistles, however, were written to specific people in specific circumstances, and for a reason.  Most believers have an intuitive grasp that this is so.  Few would suggest that it would be appropriate to interchange, say,  Eph 1:1, “to the saints in Ephesus,” with 1 Cor 1:2, “to the church in Corinth.”  Yet many Christians approach the epistles as though we can take Gal 1:2, “to the churches in Galatia,” and just cross out “Galatia” and write in “Chicago” instead.  To do so is to deny the divine inspiration of the first one or two verses of nearly every book in the New Testament.  And it lays the foundation for anything and everything said in the letter to be taken out of context.

I think Dr. Tim White makes a good point:  reading an epistle is a lot like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.  In order to correctly handle the text, we must learn as much as we can about the characteristics of the recipients and what prompted the letter.  The text always tells us to whom the letter was written, and many times is very clear about why.  Sometimes we need to do a little detective work to discover this information, but in Galatians it’s pretty straightforward.  Gal 1:2 says this letter is to the churches in Galatia.  This church comprised both pagan and Jewish converts (Gal 4:8, 1 Pet 1:1).

Paul doesn’t waste any time explaining why he has written:  “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” (1:6).  In 2:3, he tells us very plainly why he has concluded that they are turning away from the gospel:  circumcision.  It’s very clear from this letter as well as other texts (Acts 15, e.g.) that Jewish Christians enjoining obedience to their law upon Gentile believers was a widespread problem facing the New Testament churches.  We know that these were Christian Jews in particular, and not Jews in general, because if they weren’t a part of the church, there would be no reason for them to concern themselves with what Gentiles did or didn’t do. Conversely, Christian Gentiles weren’t terribly concerned with what Jews thought of them, but Christian Jews were (Gal 6:12-13, e.g.). Remember that persecution of Christ & His followers came first not from the Romans, but the Jews, Saul/Paul chief among them (Acts 7-9). This letter is, in its entirety, a repudiation of the Judaizers’ theology that had infiltrated this church.  Paul begins with this theme in 1:6 and talks about it nonstop right through to the end of chapter 6.  His goal for this church is for them to not only get their minds right theologically, but also to change their behavior, because their behavior showed that they had embraced theological error.  When Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,” he wasn’t simply waxing metaphysical here; this spiritual reality was the reason they needed to change their behavior.  So to take 3:27-28 (or some portion of it) and insist that Paul doesn’t mean for this truth to have any application in the here and now is to divorce it from its context and thereby evacuate it of its meaning.

So if this letter is all about circumcision and the Judaizers, why didn’t Paul just stop with Jews and Greeks?  Why does he throw in socioeconomic status and gender here?  It’s interesting to note that all 3 pairings in this passage involve one group of Christians that was requiring some type of deference from the other.   In an attempt to avoid persecution from unsaved Jews, Christian Jews were demanding deference to their law from Gentiles (Gal 6:12-13).  Others believers thought it was acceptable for them to require deference from those members of the household of faith who stood lower than themselves in socioeconomic class (1 Cor 11 and James 2).  And some Christian men, even to this very day, argue that they are owed deference from women.  To all of these, Paul’s answer is a resounding “no.”  The point of Gal 3:27-28 is not that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” but that believers must not place behavioral requirements upon other Christians because of who they are.



  1. Could you clarify your last sentence? Regarding “who they are,” who are you refering to, believers or other Christians?

  2. By “because of who they are,” I mean characteristics that people have no control over, such as race or sex. And with a few exceptions, slave status. These people were on the receiving end of “you have to do this because…” Because you are a Gentile, you have to get circumcised, because you are a slave, you have to give up your seat because someone more important than you has shown up, because you are a woman, you have to obey men.

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