Sincere Christians have serious differences regarding the role of women in church leadership. The egalitarian (or feminist) approach begins with the assumption that God’s original creation purpose was for gender to be irrelevant with respect to leadership roles in both the home and the church. One effect of Adam’s sin was to replace this equality with a hierarchical relationship where only men may exercise authority and where women must be in roles of submission. This is considered to be a part of the curse imposed upon the human race in Genesis 3. One counter-effect of the work of Christ, however, was to abolish this sinful hierarchicalism and to restore the original egalitarianism. This conclusion is usually drawn in part from Galatians 3:28, which is taken to mean that Christ has reversed the Adamic curse, so that no gender distinctions should apply to church leadership roles. Qualified women are just as eligible as qualified men to serve as elders, deacons, and preachers. This is the usual feminist view.

The other approach to this issue, called complementarianism (or hierarchicalism), is that God’s original intention for the human race, established at creation, is summed up in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “The man is the head of a woman.” The headship/submission relationship did not originate with the Fall, but was only distorted by it. Jesus did not abolish male headship, either in practice or in his redemptive work. Galatians 3:28 addresses the equality of males and females only with respect to their access to salvation; it was never intended to apply to the question of role distinctions. The roles of headship and submission are still assigned to husbands and wives respectively (Ephesians 5:22-24), and women are excluded from roles that involve teaching men and roles that involve having authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12).

In my judgment this second view is the correct understanding of biblical teaching, and of the verses that are crucial to the debate, especially Galatians 3:28, “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.” I have explained this text at great length in my book, Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption (College Press, 1994, pp. 217-301). The following summary is adapted from my book, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (College Press, 2002, pp. 432-434).

The key to understanding “neither male nor female” in Galatians 3:28 is to ask why Paul links these three pairs (Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female) together in this context. What do they have in common? Why does he mention these three and no more? This is very important: the context of this verse shows that it is a statement about full equality with respect to access to salvation; it is improper to generalize beyond this.

The historical context of Galatians 3:28 is the false teaching of the Judaizers concerning the nature of salvation; the issue thus is how to be saved. The Judaizers were teaching the necessity of circumcision for Gentile converts. Galatians is written mainly to deny such a necessity: Gentiles do not have to be circumcised to be saved. How does 3:1-4:7 fit into this argument? Again, this is very important: this section is an explanation of WHY Gentiles do not have to subject themselves to circumcision or to the Law of Moses in general, in order to receive salvation through Jesus Christ.

The salvation of which Paul speaks is of course salvation through Christ, but it is important to notice how Abraham is brought into the argument (3:8-9, 14, 16). Salvation through Christ is described as an inheritance received from Abraham (3:17-18). This concept of salvation as inheritance is the key to the right understanding of Galatians 3:28. This inheritance, Paul says, is not based on law; it is based on God’s promise. That is, it is received not by following the rules of the Mosaic Law and by receiving circumcision, contrary to what the Judaizers were preaching. Rather, receiving the inheritance is a matter of believing the promise (3:18).

Here the metaphor of inheritance enters the discussion. The question is this: under the New Covenant, is “the blessing of Abraham” (3:14) inherited according to the rules of law, or according to the way a promise works? Verse 29 says we are “heirs according to promise.” We have received the inheritance, but how? Answer: not according to law, but according to promise.

Why does Paul stress this point about inheritance, and the distinction between inheritance according to law and inheritance according to promise? Because if we were still going by the Law of Moses, as the Judaizers claimed, only certain people would have access to this inheritance. This is true because the Law of Moses, embodying the common practice of the day, limited the inheritance of property to free Jewish males. I.e., Gentiles, slaves, and women ordinarily did not inherit the family property. Some exceptions were introduced later, but according to the rules of the Law of Moses, under normal circumstances the only legitimate heirs were free Jewish males.

But, says Paul, it is different under the New Covenant, the covenant of promise. Technically Jesus alone is the only rightful heir to the Abrahamic promise, a conclusion based on the singular form of the word “seed” in Genesis 22:18. But if this is so, how can anyone else become an heir to the promised salvation? The answer is simple: by taking on the identity of Jesus Himself! This is the point of Galatians 3:26-27, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” When we identify ourselves with Jesus, we become heirs along with him. In faith and baptism we take on the identity of Jesus himself, i.e., his identity as a son and an heir (see 4:7). Even though there is only one true seed and one true heir of the Abrahamic promise, if we belong to Christ then we too are counted as Abraham’s seed and heirs according to promise (3:29).

This is the only point of Galatians 3:28. Let me say that again: THIS IS THE ONLY POINT OF GALATIANS 3:28! As far as salvation is concerned, it does not matter whether we are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free men, males or females. The only thing that matters is whether we belong to Christ. The rules of inheritance sanctioned by the Law simply do not apply. Herein lies the significance of the three pairs in 3:28. Under the rules of the Law, the second member of each pair ordinarily would not be eligible to inherit; but in Christ the inheritance is not given according to the rules of the Law, so these distinctions are no longer relevant for salvation.

This, therefore, is the sole significance of Galatians 3:28. ANYONE WHO IS ONE WITH CHRIST INHERITS THE BLESSING OF SALVATION. IT NO LONGER MATTERS IF ONE IS A JEW OR A GREEK, A SLAVE OR A FREE MAN, A MALE OR A FEMALE. ALL BAPTIZED BELIEVERS ARE ONE WITH CHRIST, AND THEREBY INHERIT SALVATION. The context shows that the end of this verse should be translated, “one with Christ Jesus,” not “one in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s point is not that we are all one with each other when we are “in Christ Jesus.” The point is that, through faith and baptism, when we clothe ourselves with Christ (3:26-27), we take on his identity and become one with him and thus share the inheritance with him.

In conclusion, as far as equality is concerned, “neither male nor female” refers only to equal access to the blessings of salvation through Jesus Christ. The context warrants no other conclusion. Those who wrongly assume that soteriological equality requires functional or role equality should read 1 Peter 3:1-7, which clearly shows that equality of salvation (v. 7) does not imply equality of roles (vv. 1-6). Verse 7 speaks of Christian wives as “fellow heirs of the grace of life,” which is the very point of Galatians 3:28.

As a final note, we should notice that there is not one word in the Galatians passage or its context about Christ’s “reversing the Adamic curse.” It is true that Christ has done this, but that is not the point Paul is addressing in 3:28. For a full explanation of how creation and the Fall are related to gender roles, see my book, Gender Roles and the Bible.

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  1. A good article; stirs thought.

    One flaw: you have no support for the claim that under the rules of the law of Moses, only the free Jewish males were to be inheritors. I would rather read that for myself straight from the scriptures than just take the word of some article writer. Now that I know it’s [supposedly] there, I’m sure I’ll be able to find it, but it works have been much quicker/easier if you had provided the reference.

    • Despite his condescending attitude, I’m sure “Kent” knows that brief articles cannot contain everything. That is why I referenced my fuller treatment of Galatians 3:28 (80+ pages) thus: “I have explained this text at great length in my book, Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption (College Press, 1994, pp. 217-301).” For the OT texts that are relevant, see pp. 277-280. While several texts are given and discussed, the most interesting is Numbers 27:1-11, where Moses amended the practice of sons-only as heirs by allowing an exception in the case where the only children were daughters.

  2. An interesting article. I like your understanding regarding Gal 3:28.

    I think part of the problem that we are actually dealing with is the meaning of “authority”. To my understanding, some people have expanded the term to things that it should not include. As an example, what authority is exercised by those passing the Communion plate. Is there really a difference between a man walking down the aisles and the woman seated next to you in regards to authority?

    I think, that by asking, “What is authority and who has it?” That we may find that there is more things for women to do within our congregations. And still avoid problems with issues regarding to authority.

  3. Recently I have been looking closer into this subject of women and leadership in the church and have begun my search into the word “elder” as used in Acts 14:23 where “elders” were appointed by Paul & Barnabas. I think that one can clearly see there is distinction in the greek plural when referring to “elder women” or presbyteras 1Tim 5:2. But when the greek refers to elders plural in the masculine presbyterous as used in Acts 14:23, is it possible that this could be inclusive of men and women? In other words, does the greek use masculine tense to describe the group of men and women when referencing them together?

    • I think it is a waste of time to ponder whether the masculine ending for the word for “elder” could possibly include females, if the purpose is to find some kind of loophole to justify women elders in the church. Paul has settled this issue in 1 Tim. 2:12 when he says that he, using his apostolic authority, does not allow women to exercise authority over men in the church. “Exercising authority” in the church is the role of elders. Thus women are excluded from that role as a general principle.

  4. Thank you for your articles I am writing my thesis on God’s Plan for women in the church and I am gathering as much information as I can to write a thesis that is biblical without compromising God’s word in the plan He has set forth for women, hopefully when I am done the women will still be my friends. thanks again. I am female and believe the Bible inerrancy and infallibility and that it is the WORD of GOD.

    • Thank you for your encouraging comments. I pray God’s blessing on your thesis project. If you have the opportunity, you might benefit from taking a look at my two main works on this subject: Gender Roles and the Bible: Creation, the Fall, and Redemption–A Critique of Feminist Biblical Interpretation, and Headship, Submission, and the Bible: Gender Roles in the Home.”

  5. Please notice that tha Galatians passage quoted says, “We are all sons of God”. We are not sons and daughters but eldest Jewish sons. Romans 8: makes the same point about adoption, huotasia, which means “placed as sons in the Family of God”.

    At the Fall Adam and Eve were ashamed, brash. Which means ” a loss of identity and inheritance”. At the cross we receive the full identity and inheritance of a new family with a new name and a new inheritance.

    In the fallen nature males under the curse sinfully rule women. That was not Gd’s plan. In Genesis 3: it also notes “women shall desire a man” which means “compulsively desire to control a man”. It goes on to say ” yet he shall rule sinfully over you”. This sets up battles over who will control whom.

    I am sorry that I have no Bible handy to use exact terms. This is from memory.

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