I’m reading N.T. Wright’s latest popular installment entitled Surprised by Scripture and chapter 4, “The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women” caught my attention. Having read his stance on this issue in other writings, I expected not to be “surprised.” Though I wasn’t “shocked, amazed, stupefied, or bewildered” (all synonyms of “surprise”), I did get another picture, of sorts, about Galatians 3:28 (from which this blog’s theme is taking it’s name, by the way). This text likely means so much more than a prima facia reading suggests. In fact “this verse is often mistranslated” (p 66). Here’s Wright’s take on it:

“Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” That is precisely what Paul does not say…What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no “male and female.” I think the reason he says “no male and female” rather than “neither male nor female” is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1, and that we should understand the phrase “male and female” as a quotation.

Emphasis his, p 66

On the above “mistranslation” see the KJV, NASB, NET, NIV 1984 ed. The Greek seems to support Wright’s reading (note the negative particle οὐδὲ is not repeated. See the ESV, NIV 2011, NRSV).

οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

Though Wright does not explicitly say so, it is likely Genesis 1:27 that Paul was quoting. The LXX (Septuagint or Greek translation of the OT) reads: “ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς.”

If Wright is right on his reading (alliteration, please!), then Paul is essentially arguing that, when it comes to entrance into and membership within God’s family, gender distinctions are “irrelevant.” They do not count. This is not to say that God’s family is “genderless,” hermaphrodite or androgynous, or even a classless society such that none of these differences matter practically (see 1 Cor 7:18-24; also Philemon 16 where Onesimus is “better than a slave”). It is to say, however, when it comes to convenantal membership in God’s family that gender has no privilege as it did within the Jewish world. Wright goes on to help us recall first century attitude toward women from the “synagogue prayer in which the man prays and thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman” (p 66).

Moreover, most of the biblical storyline unfolds through male descent, which did little to help a woman’s cause. This is no slight against God for the way he chose to bring about his plan of redemption using primarily males, but it does suggest a path for how humans can misappropriate God’s plan for their own maleficent purposes.

Whether by birth, wealth, education, or gender, all of human society for all of time has divided itself into privileged or underprivileged. If this reading of Galatians approximates Paul’s thinking, then the implications are potentially large by turning society on its head (note this was likely written before Ephesians 2:14f where Paul unpacks unity in relation to Jews and Gentiles)! Every known class and social status supposed to be favored by God over another is deemed “flat” when it comes to entrance into and membership within God’s family.

In addition, from the larger context and overall gist of Paul’s letter to the Galatians he was dealing with the issue of circumcision as a sign of covenantal membership. Instead, Paul shows that it is baptism that levels the playing field in ways that circumcision could not. Rather than belonging to God by waving the flag of male circumcision—women included in God’s family via their male counterparts (a membership by way of proxy as it were)—everyone “in Christ Jesus” is equal. The badge of honor is now baptism and is no longer the gender-specific rite of circumcision.

Paul had just written “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27) and then in verse 28 makes application across every social class and gender distinction. Rather than obliterating or abusing the created distinctiveness of each gender, Paul is affirming created distinctiveness of Gen 1:27 by arguing that both male and female are now one, equal, the same, privileged in God’s unique family. “The difference is irrelevant for membership status and membership badges” (p 68).

On further investigation, I found that Wright is considerably in step with the late F.F. Bruce (hat tip to Paul Moser for pointing this out and reminding me that Bruce “wasn’t playing the contemporary NT game of desperately wanting to say something new, as if new was automatically good.” Whether or not this was a swipe at Wright, Moser does have a point that it’s easy to be moonstruck over the creative and novel. In line with Bruce, see also Leon Morris, Galatians, pp 121-123).

Regarding the threefold distinction (Gentiles, slaves or women) Bruce writes “they were disqualified from several religious privileges which were open to free Jewish males” (NIGTC, Galatians, p 187). And, “the reason for the change” in Greek that excludes the negative particle οὐδὲ with reference to male and female, “is probably the influence of Gn. 1:27.” Thus, “it is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role, that is abolished ‘in Christ Jesus'” (p 189). And “Paul may have had in mind that circumcision involved a form of discrimination between men and women which was removed when circumcision was demoted from its position as religious law, whereas baptism was open to both sexes indiscriminately” (pp 189-190).

Although Galatians 3:28 addresses primarily issues related to the scope of the Gospel, it does not ignore pastoral, practical issues. The line between meaning and significance, however, is often so thin that it’s difficult to find at times (see esp. Silva, Interpreting Galatians, pp 203-204). On the egalitarian side (of which I am), it’s a short distance to travel in seeing this text in practical matters of church leadership and governance or matters of the home between husband and wife. N.T. Wright clearly sees this text applying to the ordination of women.

Complementarians, however, draw a thick line insisting only one application is in view; viz, access to God’s family by way of grace. And some are quick to point out that there are other role distinctions between male and female taught elsewhere by Paul that should not be ignored (see Moo, Galatians, p 255. Schreiner, in my estimation, goes way too far and misrepresents an evangelical egalitarian stance, Galatians, pp 260-261).

Yet Bruce, certainly no less an exegete than those mentioned above, offers some rhetorical and profoundly important questions which fit perfectly with the spirit of Paul’s heart as a pastor.

If in ordinary life existence in Christ is manifested openly in church fellowship, then, if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man?

(Galatians, p 190)

Why not indeed! Are we to assume that the only practical implication from this text is that everyone is “equal is essence, but distinct in function” as complementarians insist? Schreiner points to Steve Cowan’s essay as a robust philosophical defense of the complementarian position and Adam Omelianchuk has ably responded. Yet is it not a small (and I would argue it is a safe) distance to travel in drawing out some of these implications from the text as Bruce and Wright have done? While Gal 3:28 may not in itself support a full-fledged doctrine for ordaining women in ministry, we would do well to heed Bruce’s admonition about this text and see it as an umbrella over which other related texts are to be interpreted.

If restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus…they are to be understood in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa.

(Galatians, p 190)

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