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.