Jews, slaves, women, and baptism

Bathroom-gender-signIn the comment section yesterday, Mike Cope, who directs the Pepperdine Lectures, responded to my post from Monday. He offered both clarifications and criticism. Both deserve to be heard. You can read Mike’s comments here and here.

Mike took exception to my calling Jarrod Robinson’s lecture “an agenda-driven talk.” Mike said that he chose both title and text, basing his decisions on scholarly writings, particularly those of Richard Hays. The choice was made for scholarly reasons, not in an effort to promote a certain agenda.

Mike also felt that I was saying that “if someone knew a little more about Galatians, they’d know how irrelevant it is to discussions of gender roles.” That’s not something I said nor intended, but it may have come across that way. Mike refuted that by referring to quite a number of scholars who feel that Galatians 3:28 does in fact reflect Paul’s egalitarian view of gender. Mike quoted both from Hays and from Gordon Fee in his comments.

I will note that Fee’s writings have generated quite a bit of pushback. I’m not as familiar with Hays’ writings. Either way, I recognize that many scholars hold the view Mike described. My study has led me to a different conclusion, one that I feel is biblical. As people say in Spanish, I don’t consider myself to be “the owner of the truth,” but I do feel that my beliefs line up with the larger themes we see in Scripture.

So let’s keep looking at this passage. Actually, I’d like to start by looking at two others, alongside Galatians 3:28:

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

One thing that I learned from Dr. Tom Olbricht is the importance of noting what is repeated in Scripture. Things that are repeated often represent concepts that were consistently taught among God’s people. They are less likely to be localized teachings and more likely to be important points with a broader application. Such is the case with the unity of God’s people, a unity that overcomes divisions among people.

When dealing with similar passages, it’s also important to note differences. One thing that jumps as we compare these three statements from Paul is the inclusion of male/female in Galatians 3:28. That bears investigation. Why does Paul include that particular grouping in the letter to the Galatians and not the other two letters?

One possibility is that the Galatian church had a particular problem with gender relations. That’s a possibility, but there’s really nothing else in the letter that would support that.

A better understanding, in my view, is one proposed by Troy W. Martin in his article “The Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14) and the Situational Antitheses in Galatians 3:28” from the Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2003. Martin notes the parallels between what the Law said about circumcision and the three pairs mentioned by Paul in Galatians 3:28. Briefly, the idea is that male Jews were to be circumcised, along with any slaves that they owned. Jews. Slaves. Males. The same three groups that Paul addresses, when talking to a church that was wrestling with the issue of circumcision.

Why does Paul mention women in Galatians 3:28? Circumcision. Those who sought to impose circumcision on the Galatians were imposing it on the males, not the females. They were saying that one group came to Jesus one way, the other a different way.

Paul says no. We are all baptized into Christ. In that same way, we all become children of God, descendants of Abraham, and heirs of the promise. There is no difference. We are all one.

Note: that interpretation alone doesn’t answer the question of whether or not this verse has a broader application or whether it is meant to redefine all roles within the church. But it does make sense as to why women were mentioned in Galatians 3:28 and not in the other unity formulas written by Paul.

But we need to note a couple of things:

  • This is not a main part of Paul’s argument
  • This does not seem to have been something that Paul emphasized in other places; other unity formulas don’t include male/female
  • It’s dangerous to take a minor point in a single text and make it the basis for interpreting other texts. Many egalitarians accuse others of doing that with texts from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, then do the same thing with Galatians 3:28

12 thoughts on “Jews, slaves, women, and baptism

  1. Jr

    Not that it matters a lick for eternity, but I’m in agreement with Tim here. Even Fee’s snippet that Mike quoted in his second comment is clearly agenda driven; particularly this line: “even though our text does not explicitly mention roles and structures, its new creation theological setting calls these into question in a most profound way.”

    Um. No it doesn’t. At least, not in the way Fee *wants* it to. And as a correction, the text doesn’t even *implicitly* (let alone explicitly) mention roles and structures. It’s not even in Paul’s mind and I highly doubt the original hearers of this letter would have come away after hearing this read letter and said, “well, guess that means Sarah can be our spiritual head!” (which is the real issue re:gender)

    There is absolutely zero contextual link of Galatians 3:26-29 with the other (1 Cor 11,14; 1 Tim 2; etc.) where roles are actually explicitly and contextually addressing the issue. As has been mentioned, Gal 3:28 is not talking about roles and ministry, it is talking about Jews/Gentiles on equal footing by faith alone. It is talking about who is an heir of Abraham and who has a share in all the inheritance promised to him. It is an abusive interpretive method to wave all the other texts away that actually address the “gender role/headship” issue and use this one as the foundation for the interpretive method.

    Twisting Galatians 3:28 into an approval for the ordination of women (I mention that only because that is was Hays refers to in his quote used by Mike) robs the text of its intended glory; that all men and women, no matter race, creed, color, social status, etc., are found righteous (justified) before God by faith alone; just like Abraham was. By faith we belong to Christ and are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. What an awesome reality! The Gospel in its glory.

    By all means, let’s discuss roles and headship. But let us use texts that actually deal with the issue.

  2. Mike

    Tim – This is well written and argued. Though I don’t agree with you, I understand what you’re saying. It’s the spirit of the article (unlike the first comment, which is typical of the problem of the church faces with incendiary language like “twisting”) that I like. Let’s argue our cases. But let’s give the other the benefit of the doubt. I doubt that Hays, Wright, Fee, etc. are “twisting” the text that they so revere to fit an agenda. They could be wrong (I don’t think so, of course); but they are earnestly seeking to understand scripture.

  3. Paul Smith

    Tim, thanks for the very well presented argument.

    It strikes me as odd that Mike could get so upset about a fairly benign term such as “twisting Scripture” (labeling it as *incendiary*) when those he agrees with use such intentionally incendiary language such as complementarians being abusive, repressive, and promoting “gender injustice.”

    One point of view that has been studiously ignored in the discussions of your posts is that of the females within the Churches of Christ (and outside of the Churches of Christ) who object strenuously and passionately that they are being repressed or abused. I wonder why these voices are being ignored? Is it similar to the silencing of pro-life women in the national debate over abortion? To hear the pro-abortion crowd, the only people who believe abortion is murder are misogynistic males. So, are female complementarians also abusive, repressive and do they promote “gender injustice?”

  4. JTB

    I do realize that the majority view here seems to be that “gender justice” as my preferred term for the labeling the issue somehow necessarily implies an intentional desire to hurt everyone’s feelings. I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; I am not slinging accusations; I am not calling names; I am hanging in here just trying to ask good questions and give my own answers when asked good questions.

    The issue we are discussing is IMO best described as gender justice. We have disagreements on what is just. As I have tried at length to explain, I do not think that disagreeing on this has to imply that I think anyone is intentionally unrighteous, unjust or faithless. I just think you’re wrong. I think you are sincerely and faithfully wrong, not deliberately mean or unjust or untrue to our common commitment to discern the will of God. I will continue to use the term gender justice because I think justice is in fact the best way to frame the topic, and I will continue to remind everyone that no, I am not trying to piss you off, simply trying to have a discussion using terms that get at the realities of the issue that are obscured when we use phrases like “women’s role” and even “gender equality.”

    I am not under the impression that hierarchical complementarianism is some sort of males-only conspiracy–certainly plenty of women are complementarians. I think that complementation views of gender are flawed and inaccurate descriptions of what gendered humanity actually is like. It does not matter whether complementarianism is espoused by a man or a woman–it is the framework that is faulty.

    Further–it is not at all uncommon for sexism, racism, etc., to be internalized in the self-perception of those on the undervalued side of the dichotomy. This is a reality that is very well addressed in anti-racism training, for instance, and the same logic applies here.

  5. Paul Smith

    JTB, when you make statements like, “I do not think that disagreeing on this has to imply that I think anyone is intentionally unrighteous, unjust or faithless,” I’m confused. You claim that this issue is a matter of “justice.” Well, you have one view of what “justice” means – a very narrow and, in my opinion, incorrect view. So, if I am to disagree with “justice,” that means I am advocating injustice, repression and abuse. You cannot have it both ways. To argue one point is to disallow its opposite. If you are committed to the term “justice,” then you have to admit that its opposite is injustice – and in view of the discussion at hand other terms that are frequently used are repression and abuse.

    And your last paragraph hints at the worst level of paternalism and condescension. Who are you to judge the thoughts and attitudes of women who disagree with your position? That kind of language reminds me of black people who call other black people “Oreos” – black on the outside and white in the middle. Some of the best arguments I have read concerning male spiritual leadership were written by women – and that is because they realize they have such a vested interest in this discussion. Not because of some “internalized self-perception,” but because of deeply held and Scripturally based convictions.

  6. JTB

    Why is it so hard to believe that I understand that we are both aiming at “justice,” even if we disagree substantially on what that should look like? Why is it so hard to grant the difference between thinking someone is wrong, and thinking someone is bad? This is what I keep trying, and apparently failing, to communicate.

    My last paragraph is not paternalistic. That would certainly be a feat. Nor am I being condescending toward women who disagree with me–of which there are many, I have no doubt. I am referring to a very real phenomenon, one which I have lived through myself, and still struggle with. If you look at the Crossroads anti-racism workshop description ( you will find a brief description of internalized racist oppression, which is the parallel I was making. This is not the same thing as a rational or theological commitment to a complementation anthropology; this is a level of self-perception and identity which is affected by the context we find ourselves in. Part of why it is difficult for many women to embrace gender justice in the church is that we have invested our sense of identity–who we are in the eyes of God and others–in the system as it stands. Gender justice work is identity work, and there’s nothing scarier than realizing that your sense of self is at stake. I get that. It’s not being condescending to acknowledge that–it’s just being real. If I’d spent 70 years of my life being the very best woman of God I could be according to what I had been taught, and some 30-something brash what’s-her-name came up and said “gender justice blah blah blah” you can bet I’d resist.

    The thing is, not all women have been able to invest in the system, because they’ve been too uncomfortably aware of all the ways they don’t actually fit into the complementarian, essentialist idea of what a woman is/must be. And that’s not necessarily generational, either. And there are just as many women–maybe more, who knows–who for one reason or another have always felt wrong, less than, incompetent, unpleasing to God, sinful for wanting to do what they’re good at instead of what they aren’t, sinful for wanting to serve, censured for being outspoken or curious, as there are women who’ve felt comfortable in the complementarian notion of who they should be. How do we account for that? Is there really just one right way to be a woman? Does every woman who fails to fit the complementarian’s notion of femininity just fail at being a godly woman? Does every woman who embraces that kind of femininity prove that it’s the only way, or just that it makes sense to them?

    What I’m saying, in short, is that no matter what we think about gender–whether complementarian or egalitarian–we all have these gender categories to account for. They are internalized to the extent that we’ve invested our sense of identity in these categories–for better or worse. We embrace them or struggle to critique them or maybe even try to reject them altogether, but they are there and constitute a formative aspect of our cultural and religious context.

    I hope that this makes some sense, but unfortunately I do not have time to go back to re-read or edit because I need to go back a birthday cake for my soon-to-be 8 year old. I am literally going to head into my kitchen barefoot and put on an apron, and there is no sense of irony here. This is part of who I am just as much as theological sparring on Ye Olde Internets. But unfortunately I can’t do both at the same time, so I’ll have to take a break for a bit.

  7. Jr

    One can “earnestly seek to understand Scripture” and at the same time “twist” it. They are not mutually exclusive activities, and it’s not “incendiary” to say so. Nobody is perfect. Everybody has biases, presuppositions, and hermeneutical lenses. The “twisting” can even be done in all naive honesty before God Almighty. I’m sure I’ve done it, and I don’t think I’d be off base to assume most (all?) have at some point in their theological walk (even sacred cows like Wright, whose writings we have all probably benefited from greatly). Doubting they have done so on this issue is an opinion. Thinking they have is another. My point was not personal, but positional.

    There are very good arguments on the various sides of this issue throughout church history and into our own day. Let us dig, and “be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. [And] let all that we do be done in love.”

  8. Kaitlin

    I would say we all have deeply held and spiritually based convictions…on both sides. That’s why we continue to have this discussion over and over again. :)

    To be honest, I get lost in the nuance of these debates at times. I don’t understand why a woman preaching or teaching or being part of an eldership is seen as anti-God. I don’t understand how “allowing” people to serve the way they want to serve is sinful. I’m not trying to set this conversation back or “dumb it down,” but it’s truly a hang up of mine.

    If I study the Bible and pray earnestly and come to the conclusion that I have full value and equal footing in the church of Christ, how do you respond to me, as your sister? Tell me to leave? Tell me to repent? Tell me to settle?

    Christ responded over and over again to people no matter their status or gender. He even told Martha that Mary could stay at his feet and study from him.

    I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. This makes no sense.

    We are called to submit to EACH OTHER. Our authority is God and Christ. We aren’t looking to lead men or have authority over men; we’re looking to serve WITH men and submit to Christ’s authority together. Man is not woman’s intercessor for Christ. Woman is not man’s intercessor for Christ.

    We come to Christ together. What does it matter if you or I pray out loud to Him? Preach about Him? Guide others to Him? Are those things inherently male? Will God be grieved if I preach? Pray? Serve communion? Sit on an eldership? Only because I’m female?

    If so, what does that mean for my salvation? I truly want to know…

  9. Tim Archer Post author

    Hi Kaitlin,

    There probably some that think these are salvation matters (kind of what I discussed in Tuesday’s post), but I don’t know that anyone in the current discussion is speaking in those terms.

    It’s better to think in terms of pleasing God. And, as is obvious by now, much comes down to how we interpret Scripture and what place we see Scripture as playing in our lives and worship. Throw in the possibility of other valid/invalid sources of authority: the Church, our experience, nature, tradition, logic, culture…

    Let’s turn the question. If someone goes through the earnest study that you describe and is convinced that God will be grieved if you do the things you mention, how do you respond to them? Will you tell them, “Never mind… it’s no big deal”?

    I think it is a big deal. I think it’s not a simple deal. I think it’s a topic more than worth our discussion.

    Grace and peace,

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