“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Many Evangelical Christians have found themselves convinced of a more egalitarian understanding of the relationship between men and women after reading Galatians 3:28 in context. While this verse does not say: “Women ought to be allowed to be senior pastors,” it lays out a crucial framework for church participation. Since we are in Christ, and no longer under the law, partiality must not be shown on the basis of ethnicity, social standing or gender because these barriers do not exist in Christ. Full justification translates into full participation of these groups as heirs (first-born sons) within the church (2:6-13; 3:5-9,18-29).
Women Have the Status of First-Born Sons in The Life of the Church
If the status of women (slaves and gentiles) is that of first-born sons, then women may not be barred from a pastoral or elder ministry on these grounds. Paul says, that in Christ, there is no male or female. If such divisions do not exist because both are to be considered sons, then one needs a compelling argument for exclusion, not inclusion. On what grounds may women be barred from leadership? In the absence of passages to the contrary, we are left with a general principle that tells us gender is not a barrier when it comes to the practical life of the church (and naturally this would extend to leadership). But why take this principle to be practical for the life of the church?
Consider our passage in light of the Jew and Gentile conflict mentioned earlier. Paul was opposed to the Judaizers’ insistence on upholding the ceremonial law in the church. He even stood up to Peter, who had reflected the exclusionary nature of the Judaizers, by not eating with the Gentiles. In order to fully participate in the church, it was thought that Gentiles had to be circumcised and adhere to the dietary laws (Acts 15). Paul saw this as a return to slavery, which was at odds with the spirit of the gospel (Gal 4:8-11; 5). Paul was opposed to the favored status of the Jews over the Gentiles. This went beyond merely repeating that Gentiles could also be saved (there was already a court for the Gentiles in the temple). It had radically practical implications. Gentiles could now fully participate in the life of the church and this was symbolized by their ability to share a meal with the other members. The dividing wall of separation had been torn down (Eph 2:14). This shows that Paul had the practical outworking of justification in mind as well and extended the discussion to slaves and women. They too were fellow heirs—sons in Christ.
Philip Payne in his book Man and Woman One in Christ brings Ephesians 2 into focus for the sort of practical implication Galatians implies: “Ephesians 2:14 asserts that Christ...’has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ between Jew and Gentile. The court of the women with its own dividing wall lay between the court of the Gentiles and the temple. Galatians 3:28 implies the spiritual fellowship status to women as well as Gentiles. Similarly, the abolition of the necessity of circumcision (e.g., Eph 2:11-13) opens the door to full participation by women as well as Gentiles in Christian worship…the barrier metaphor Paul chose implies not just equal spiritual standing but equal access and privileges within the church” (93). The pairs Paul presents in Galatians 3 are social divisions. The negation of these divisions indicates that discrimination based on these divisions is to be rejected as heartily as Paul rejected the discrimination of the Gentiles throughout the Galatians.
Besides, the earthly implications of being a son or heir and the use of common social divisions, what other reason is there to think Gal 3:28 is practically minded and not limited to a justification that is mainly in spirit? It is also evident in parallel passages. The other similar passages are Colossians 3:11 and the baptismal statement 1 Cor 12:13. Both are applied to practical issues within the church and take on some familiar themes.
“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col 3:9-11).
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor 12:12-14). Clearly, unity in Christ is tied to practice.
Another big reason to take this passage to be practically-minded and not repeating the already understood truth that gentiles, slaves, and women could also be saved, is the affirmation that all who were baptized into Christ "have clothed" themselves with Christ (Gal 3:27). This concept is used by Paul throughout his writings to "urge the community of God's people in Christ to cultivate virtues that will foster that community in practice" (The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Moo p276). You can see the idea of clothing oneself with Christ referring to Christian practice based in salvation in verses such as Col 3:9-12 and Romans 13:14. Interestingly, Colossians 3 is also one of the parallel verses that give a similar listing of social divisions with a practical application in mind.
Lastly, it is important to note the well-known Jewish prayer of Paul's day that has the same order Paul uses with quite a different message: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a heathen…a bondman…a woman.” Jews already believed gentiles, slaves, and women could be "saved" and to this day I don't know that the Jewish people doubt Gentiles can go to be with God after death. The question was of participation in the community life of the people of God and in the case of the prayer, practical exclusion.
The purity laws that kept women from being priests and the requirement of being Jewish Levites that kept most from entering the holy of holies, was superseded when the veil was torn, the barrier of the dividing wall crumbled, and we were baptized into Christ. Now we live with this knowledge and reality. We the church, live in the “already but not yet.” The kingdom of God that will one day be consummated is breaking into the present. Our status as fully justified and free in Christ will one day be completely made known. For now, our world does not quite look like the kingdom to come and that is why we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done: on earth as it is in heaven.” Miraculous signs, exorcisms, deeds of mercy and the outpouring of the love of God on our fellow man are signs we might participate in. They are evidence of the kingdom’s work. May God’s work be visible in the life of the Church.
At the end of the day, what some folks want is a single verse stating: Women as a class in and of themselves are permitted to be the equivalent to our modern conceptions of church leadership: A Senior Pastor. The Bible has no such statement. It tells you how to live your life as a person and community "in Christ" in a variety of circumstances and gives narrative frameworks in which to understand various claims or assertions.
From Gal 3:28 (in context) we can gather: Since we are in Christ (includes heirship, sonship…ect) and no longer under the law, partiality may not be shown in church practice on the basis of ethnicity, social standing or gender.
What follows from this principle or statement in our present context: Women may not be barred from a pastoral, elder, teaching or leadership ministry on the grounds of gender or other cultural-social class. Why does it follow? A universal argument was made against partiality towards 3 specific categories in the church. If there is no partiality based off of these 3 distinct groups can be made, then this applies to a specific instance of partiality as well: namely, leadership.
What else is needed to support this principle?
1. Church practice is in view here.
2. Church practice is tied to Paul’s view of justification (since justification is in view in the passage).
3. These barriers no longer exist in Christ and that this is universal (the verse in question says as much, and so the question turns to “in what sense?”).
4. In view of the Gender Debate and Complementarian claims that would seem to be defeaters to this principle or make us reconsider it, other verses such as 1 Tim…ect would have to be considered (We woudl of course also have to ignore the rest of Scripture and rip these verses out of context!...but we have already written and spoken on 1 Timothy and other passages).