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Galatians 3:28 Revisited

Galatians 3:28 Revisited

By Jeff Williams
Special to Virtueonline
April 13, 2022

Perhaps the single most-appealed-to verse in the quest for egalitarian interpretation of the Scriptures to justify ordination of women is Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (ESV). There has been a veritable deluge of egalitarian writings on this passage, which already probably numbered over 100 scholarly articles as far back as 2010; and there is no sign the tide has abated since 2010. However, it is instructive to note that egalitarian interpretations of this passage are not found throughout church history, but rather only since around 1958, when the first known such interpretation was promulgated in the writings of Krister Stendahl, a Harvard professor who was also a bishop of the Church of Sweden. He advocated his new theory while urging the ordination of women in Scandinavian churches.

Stendahl based his then-novel interpretation on the theory that Paul wrote in a patriarchal society, which makes it necessary (in his view) to reevaluate and reinterpret Galatians to make it applicable to "modern, enlightened" times; he differentiates between continually applicable biblical commands and nonbinding, adiaphoric passages, subjectively making one's worldview the determinative factor. For Stendahl, contemporary values must be the standard for proper interpretation, rather than the actual content of the biblical text. Alarmed by Stendhal's innovative exegesis, Harold O. J. Brown muses, "Did God suddenly permit 'more light to break forth from his holy Word'?" Noting how Stendhal's new theory took root and spread rapidly in egalitarian circles, he warned, "When opinions and convictions suddenly undergo dramatic alteration, although nothing new has been discovered and the only thing that has dramatically changed is the spirit of the age, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that spirit has had an important role to play in the shift." Indeed, it would seem that the emergence and rapid acceptance by egalitarians of Stendahl's interpretation was only a symptom of the rapidly growing secular acceptance of feminism, which was asserting itself in seeking to emasculate any remnant of masculine hierarchialism.

Many egalitarian writings claim that Gal. 3:28 does away with all gender distinction in the ministry; yet others hold that this verse also erases all gender distinction in relations between husbands and wives; and some even claim that this first opens the door for the acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyle: "...differences in our day might not take the same labels (Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female). We may need to translate to new categories like...gay and straight...It is true that Christ has shattered the barriers, but Gal. 3:28 calls us who have been baptized into Christ to something more than just gazing across the rubble." Like Matt. 7:1 and 1 John 5:13, Gal. 3:28 is one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.

The presenting issue in understanding this passage is determining whether this verse legitimizes ignoring any gender distinction where church leadership (or family relations) is concerned, or whether this verse simply refers to the Christians' soteriological condition regardless of gender. Writing on this passage in Chapter 10 of the seminal egalitarian compendium Discovering Biblical Equality, Gordon D. Fee seeks to establish the former:

At issue in the debate about gender equality in this passage is the scope of the unexpected elaboration in Galatians 3:28 of the "all of you" in Galatians 3:27. Is the equality, or oneness, of the three pairs--Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female--to be limited to the justifying work of Christ alone, or does it include other aspects of life in the believing community as well? Or is it possible that putting the question this way already exhibits prejudice toward the text one way or the other, since this question does not seem to rise immediately out of the text of Galatians itself?

Fee alleges at some length that the central concern of Galatians is not whether one is justified by faith or works, as is generally recognized by conservative commentators; instead, he claims that "the driving issue in Galatians is not first of all soteriology but ecclesiology: who constitute the people of God in the new creation brought about by the "scandal of the cross" (Gal 6:11--16)? Fee further adduces that Soteriology is not, in fact, in view because "those involved in the struggle in Galatia are already 'saved.'" Complementarian Robert Saucy carefully refutes Fee's argument by noting that

As for the argument that those involved in the struggle are already saved, it is true that the apostle's opening address assumes his readers to be professing believers (Gal. 1:3-4). But his theological opponents are not so much these believers in general, but rather a group of Jewish believers who in Paul's mind were attempting to lead the church away from the truth of the gospel--adversaries whom he is willing to consign to eternal damnation which certainly raises questions about their salvation (Gal. 1:9).

It does not require any particular scriptural sagacity to observe that almost the entire argument of the entire book of Galatians has to do with refuting the false doctrine of the Judaizers -- Gal. 1:6, " I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel;" 2:16, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ...because by works of the law no one will be justified;" 3:1-2, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" The three pairs contrasted in 3:28 are a gracious description of how all classes and types of people are welcome in the Beloved, equally saved and secure regardless of their background or situation in this life.

Fee shows his bias clearly when he says, "It is reasonable to assume that the patron of a household gave leadership to the church that functioned in the context of that household...when the householder was a woman (e.g., women in ministry, Nympha), we may rightly assume that, as in all other matters in her own household, she gave some measure of leadership to her house church [emphases mine]. Here, in a writing which ostensibly is intended to produce a sound, exegetical proof of the proper application of a passage of Scripture, Fee is indulging in ratiocinatory speculation as to his unprovable assumptions, attempting to build a stronger case for the idea of the formal leadership of women in churches. While female patronesses of early house churches likely had a significant part in the order and activities thereof, that is a far cry from establishing formal pastoral teaching and/or ruling authority. Andreas J. Köstenberger says,

Contemporary egalitarians argue that, in Christ, "There is neither male nor female," which they take to mean that the paradigm of new creation in Christ replaces the old paradigm of man and woman under the Fall...But even the vast majority of egalitarians do not take this passage literally. They acknowledge that the distinction between male and female still remains in place in this life. Salvation in Christ does not transform men and women instantaneously into genderless, androgynous creatures devoid of sexually distinct, yet complementary characteristics. Paul's statement in Gal. 3:28 only refers to spiritual access to and position in Christ, not to an obliteration of male and female biological or other functions in this life. To deny this duplicates the error of an overrealized eschatology.

As Köstenberger implies, perhaps the basic logical error of mainstream egalitarians and feminists lies in equating equality with interchangeability.

Unlike the modern-day tendency of egalitarians to consider Gal. 3:28 as being of signal importance and authority, it is instructive to note that prominent fathers and scholars of the church in ages past either did not discuss it too much, or, when they did discuss it, did not read into it any rejection of economic differences between men and women in God's plan. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98-117) only makes one allusion to the passage, as does Justin Martyr. Clement of Alexandria (c. 155-220), Hippolytus (d. 236), and Gregory of Nyssa (330-395) all deal briefly with the text.

Chrysostom (c. 344-407) is the first notable source to discuss the passage at length, yet makes no reference whatsoever to the clause "no male and female." Augustine of Hippo (345-430) only alludes to the passage, in a discourse on Psalm 26. But when Luther (1483-1546) writes his Commentary on Galatians, he spends three full pages on Gal. 3:28, with a reminder to women to obey their husbands; as S. Lewis Johnson Jr. says, "Clearly, Luther sees the text as meaning that all believers have the same status in Christ, but in other spheres, such as the family, a submission within the equality all have in Christ is Biblical. Calvin (1509--1564) deals with Gal. 3:28 extensively; his Commentary on Galatians emphasizes that the main point of the verse is the unity of believers in Christ. In his Institutes, he repeats the application, pointing out that spiritual freedom, oneness, and unity in Christ have economic temporal limits.

Given that none of the major lights and expositors of the church down through the ages ever perceived or recorded an egalitarian-friendly application of the passage in question, one must ask, is this because God hid this understanding from all the learned sages and godly seekers after him for many centuries, only to allow it to finally come to light in recent decades? Are the egalitarian authors in the last few decades more perceptive, more sagacious, or more spiritual than the entire corpus of orthodoxy theology until very recently? Or is it more reasonable to conclude that no competent scholar saw any merit in such permutations? Wresting the interpretation of selected verses which stand athwart of one's desired conclusions is the path to degenerate liberalism, not the path of increasing enlightenment.


1. "For essays and periodical literature, Gal. 3:28 competes for the most number of contributions on a single verse...entries published on just the verse,...[and yet more] on the pericope...the total publications on this passage may well come to a hundred items." Wayne Walden, "Galatians 3:28: Grammar, Text, Context, and Translation," Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 15:1 (Spring 2010), 26, fn 4.
2. Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, trans. Emilie T. Sander (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966 [1958]).
3. Harold O. J. Brown, "The New Testament against Itself: 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the 'Breakthrough' of Galatians 3:28," in Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 197.
4. Ibid., 199.
5 . E. Louise Williams, "The Broken Walls of Galatians 3:28," Word and World 20, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 228.
6. Gordon D. Fee, "Male and Female in the New Creation (Gal. 3:26-29)," Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, eds. Second edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 172-173.
7. Ibid., 174.
8 . Ibid., 176.
9 . Robert Saucy, "Male and Female in the New Creation: Galatians 3:26-29 (Ch 10) by Gordon D. Fee [book review]," Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 10:1 (Spring 2005), 30.
10 . Ibid., 184.
11. Köstenberger, "The Crux of the Matter," 41, fn 74.
12. S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "Role Distinctions in the Church: Galatians 3:28," in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 156.
13. John Calvin, tr. William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 112.
14 . John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1486.

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