When it comes to issues of gender roles and the church there are a few texts that you simply cannot avoid. Complementarians throw out 1 Tim 2:12 and sooner or later back comes Galatians 3:28. ‘Proof text’ shouts one side, ‘control text’ shouts the other.

So what is Galatians 3:28 about?

“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.” (Gal 3:28)

If that’s all you read then you have to hand it to the egalitarians. The case seems pretty clear on the plain and simple reading of what it says. There is no male and female so ‘of course’ that abolishes any distinctions or inequalities that may exist between the two genders. So Krish Kandiah for example says pretty much that,

“That is my belief too in light of what I read in scripture, in Christ the divisive hierarchies of our societies between slaves and free people, between men and women, are nullified, we are one. (Galatians 3:28ff).”

Not so fast comes the response, read around that verse and you see what Paul is saying.

“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:24-29)

Paul is talking about salvation, the Greek doesn’t need to become a Jew to find salvation but comes to Christ, the slave doesn’t need to go through their masters but can come to Christ and women don’t need to go through men but instead just one man – Jesus Christ – just like everyone else in order to find salvation. As heirs, non-Jews can inherit the promises of God, slaves can inherit the promises of God and women can inherit the promises of God. The way to God through Christ is open to all – when it comes to salvation, all are equally lost and all can be equally saved.

So, the argument goes it’s not talking about roles or order in the home, church or society and nor should we try to make it do so, Paul deals with those in other places. But if all are equally saved, if we are one in Christ, if this is the new creation Paul is talking about why are not all equally free to serve however they see fit?

But this approach to the passage leaves me asking a lot more questions.

Why stop at the differences Paul mentioned? Surely, today Paul would also have added, ‘there is no straight or gay’ or in child-centred Sweden, ‘there is no parent or child’. If Paul is abolishing all societal differences and barriers why stop at the ones Paul specifically mentions, if the principle is to abolish all perceived distinctions and injustices?

Why couldn’t, for example, those who argue for a more liberal approach to human sexuality use ‘there is no male or female’ to say, ‘well then, why does it matter who I am in a relationship with?’

If you respond from creation principles, surely then you have to wonder why that works there but not when Paul uses it 1 Tim 2:13? Or if you point to Paul’s prohibitions in say, 1 Cor 6:9, why does the context of Corinth not explain that away where it does when it’s argued that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching in Ephesus was strictly related to Ephesus and not a universal principle?

I remain unconvinced that Galatians 3:28 is a control text that redefines how I read all the other mentions about gender as if Paul had somehow forgotten this verse when he wrote Titus 1:5-6. I’m not yet persuaded that the Galatians would have read these verses and thought Paul meant what egalitarians say he meant. That’s a crucial first base in getting our understanding of the text right.

Even so, the challenge remains though for those who hold this view to be as inclusive and affirming of the role and contribution of women as Paul and Jesus was. My guess is that, those who see this differently, would say that’s impossible in that framework. And so the wheel turns again…