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The Egalitarian Nature of the New Covenant

Jesus' Resurrection
On April 08, 2015

As I noted in my previous post, the resurrection of Jesus Christ marked the inauguration of the New Covenant. Depending on which theologian you read, one might say this “inauguration” period reached its peak with Pentecost, the day when the promised Spirit was poured out on the church (Acts 2). Whatever the case, Christians today—generally since the time of Christ—are living in the age of the “New Covenant.”

Being “new,” the New Covenant is different from the “Old Covenant,” which (again, depending on theology or context) may refer to the Mosaic covenant, or all of the covenantal administrations prior to Christ (e.g., Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.). For simplicity and convenience, most Christians typically refer to the “Old Covenant” in this latter sense. But they don’t do so unjustified. While the phrase “Old Covenant” generally refers to the Mosaic covenant in Hebrews 8 (and interestingly, to the written law/Pentateuch in 2 Cor. 3:14), all of the covenants made prior to Christ looked forward to Christ and Christ’s coming in some way. Furthermore, the specific covenants prior to Christ are not so easily separated as many theologians have done, as evidenced, for example, in the continued implementation of circumcision and sacrifices from the Abrahamic covenant into the Mosaic covenant.

Most of the debates surrounding covenant theology involve these kinds of discussions—the nature of “covenant” and, of course, what stipulations (or “laws”) “still apply” today (and for the record, they all “apply,” but in different senses, see Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God). And most of the “newness of the New Covenant” debates involve a theological exegesis of Jeremiah 31, Hebrews 8, and other areas of the scriptures.  All of this is important. But these discussions can unfortunately blur one of the more obvious and important features of the New Covenant: gender equality.

There is no question that the Old Covenant was patriarchal. Whether in specific laws about women and marriage, property rights, slavery (as women and as men), the priesthood or otherwise, men continually had the upper hand in terms of power, authority, and overall worth (sometimes in specific monetary values, e.g., Lev. 27:1-7). Superior to its legal and cultural counterparts, the Israelite theonomic community was a progressive step forward—but only a step. It was never intended to be a once-and-for-all, universal context-less abstract set of divine principles for all persons to obey for all of time. Even the Ten Commandments (“moral law”) bear this contextualization out, noting the reward for following the 5th commandment (“so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you,” Ex. 20:12), and, of course, being written from a male perspective (“thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife”; on the absence of a prohibition of lesbian homosexuality in Mosaic law, see Friedman, The Bible Now, ch 1). More obviously, are all of the on-the-fly additions to the law, spurned by the concrete particulars of the Israelite community (e.g., Num. 5:11-31; 15:37-41; 30:1-16, etc.). Yes, the Hebrew Scriptures undoubtedly contain a strong critique of such patriarchalism—whether in the form of the story and song of Deborah/Jael (Judg. 4-5), the egalitarianism of the Song of Songs (Longman, Song of Songs, 66), the naming of God by the Egyptian slave woman (Gen. 16:13), or the many other counter-patriarchal pericopes. But, the overall tone of the covenant community was still one of patriarchy—male control.

This patriarchal nature characteristic of the Old Covenant was vividly and continually displayed in its physical sign of circumcision. Only men bore the sign of the covenant. From Abraham until the time of Christ, only half of God’s people received the covenant sign—which was also the sign pointing to the coming Savior. Women were naturally reminded of their secondary, subordinate role century after century, covenant after covenant, as each generation of circumcision took place—until, of course, the final offspring (Gal. 3:16) came.

At the end of all the NT genealogies is the one to whom all the covenants and covenant signs pointed. In a very real and literal sense, patriarchy, along with its patriarchal sign, terminated in the final seed of Christ. And having “all authority” (Matt. 28) and unilaterally declaring things “clean” what were once unclean (Acts 10:15), Jesus now commands Christians to make disciples by administering a gender-inclusive sign of the New Covenant, which is baptism. Should your theology see the Lord’s Table (“Eucharist,” “Communion,” etc.) as another sign of the New Covenant, this, too, is noticeably gender-inclusive.

Theologically, this makes perfect sense. Not only are the offspring of the New Covenant spiritual instead of physical (see table below), but the New Covenant community (“church”) is specifically characterized by an abolishment of these traditional, anthropological and/or social distinctions (Gal. 3:28). In other words, whether one turns to the Old or New Covenant, the sign and its participants correspond to the nature of the covenant being signified.

Baptism then, which likely signifies being buried and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:4; cf Col. 2:12), is a continual reminder that the New Covenant in Christ is egalitarian, where the Old Covenant was patriarchal. The same goes for the Lord’s Table, not being limited to male representatives, and being itself an act of proclaiming the gospel (1 Cor. 11:26). (Note: those who argue for patriarchy on the basis of the male apostolate should also, to be consistent, bar all women from the Lord’s Table since these same male persons were the only ones present in Luke 22).

This is not “egalitarianism,” we should be reminded, in a neo-Marxist sense of abolishing private property or using eugenics to produce a unified, “superior” GMO race, or anything of that nature. It rather refers to the sense of basic equality, recognizing the full humanity of both man and woman. It is an egalitarianism where people, because of their God-given natures, stand beside each other as God’s images—not overtop each other. Men do not, for example, act as general intermediaries or representatives between God and women, nor does one sex always take on a position of subordination with regard to the other just because of their sex. Hopefully this much is clear.

At any rate, it appears, then, that the New Covenant “inaugurated” (Heb. 8:6) by Christ is egalitarian in nature, and this is something all Christians should remember. And if this is the case, perhaps it is no surprise that God chose to give a few women the remarkable privilege of witnessing both Jesus’ death and resurrection, and being the first ones to proclaim this the gospel to others.  

Postscript: A Table Outlining Covenant Theology (copied from Hübner, Mishandling the Word of Truth, 215-16; note “differing substance”)

Old Covenant

New Covenant

Ultimate Origin, Nature, and Savior

Based on God’s Promise and Character

(e.g., “I will be your God, you will be my people”)

Jesus is the Savior (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 9:26-28)

Fulfillment of and Relation to Abrahamic Promises

Based on same faith in God (Rom 4)

Strip of physical land (Gen 12:1; 15:7; 17:8)

Entire heavenly land (Heb 11:16; Mt 5:5)

Physical nation (Gen 12:2)

Spiritual nation (1 Pt 2:9)

Physical circumcision (Gen 17:11; Ex 12:44-48; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:3-7)

Spiritual circumcision (Col 2:11; Rom 2:29; foreshadowed in Jer 4:4; 9:25; Dt 10:6)

Physical, perishable seed (Gen 17:7; 1 Pt 1:23)

Spiritual, imperishable seed (Gal 3:7, 16, 29; 1 Pt 1:23)

Differing Substance

First, inferior (Heb 8:7)

Second, superior (Heb 8:6-7)

Fading away (Heb 8:13; 2 Cor 3:11)

Eternal (Heb 13:20)

Weak according to flesh (Rom 8:3)

Powerful in Spirit (Rom 8:3-4)

Oldness of letter (Rom 7:6)

Newness of Spirit (Rom 7:6)

Ministry of condemnation (2 Cor 2:9)

Ministry of righteousness (2 Cor 3:9)

Ministry of death (2 Cor 3:6)

Ministry of life (2 Cor 3:6)

Able to be broken (Jer 31:32)

Cannot be broken (Jer 32:39-40)

Ethnically and sexually discriminatory (Gen 17:10; Lev 6:18; 27:3-7; Num 1:2; Neh 13:3)

Ethnically and sexually inclusive (Gal 3:28; Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor 7; Acts 8:27-40)

Differing Signs

Circumcision (Gen 17:11; Ex 12:44-48; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:3-7)

Baptism (Mt 28:18; Acts 2:38; Rom 6:3; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27)

Sign administered to physical offspring (Gen 17:11; Josh 5)

Sign administered to spiritual offspring (Acts 2:38-39; Mt 28:20; Gal 3:27-29)

Differing Members

Regenerate and unregenerate (Heb 8:9-10; Chronicles; Prophets)

Regenerate (Heb 8:10-11; Jn 3:3; 1 Pt 1:23)

Citizenship in Israel (Eph 2:12)

Citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20)

“born according to the flesh” (Gal 4:29)

“born according to the Spirit” (Gal 3:29)

“children of the slave” (Gal 4:31)

“children of the free woman” (Gal 4:31)

Biblical Language and Terminology

“Israel” (OT; Rom 9:6; 11:7; Mt 8:10; 10:6; 15:24; Lk 24:21)

“Israel” (Gal 6:16 Rom 9:6; possibly 11:26)

“Jew” (Rom 2:28-29)

“Jew” (Rom 2:28-29)

“circumcised” (Rom 2:25; 4:9)

“circumcised” (Col 2:11; cf. 3:11)

“circumcision” (Rom 2:25)

“circumcision” (Rom 2:29; Col 2:11; Php 3:3; cf. 1 Cor 7:19 and Gal 5:6; 6:15)

“nation” (Gen 12:2; 17:20; Num 14:12; Josh 5:8; Rom 10:19; Jn 11:52)

“nation” (1 Pt 2:9)

“priesthood” (Ex 28:3; Num 18:7)

“priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9)

“race” (Ezr 9:2)

“race” (1 Pt 2:9)

“offspring of Abraham” (Gal 3:16-29)

“offspring of Abraham” (Gal 3:16-29)

“flock” (Jer 13:17; Ezek 34:22; Mt 26:31

“flock” (Jn 10:16; Acts 20:29; 1 Cor 9:7; 1 Pt 5:2-3)

“bride” (Jer 2:32; 2 Sam 17:3)

“bride” (Rev 21:9; 22:17)

“house of Jacob” (Gen 46:27; Ex 19:3; Ps 114:1; Is 2:5); “house of David” (Jer 21:12; Ps 122:5; Zech 12:8); “children of Israel” (Ex 3:10; 1 Kg 6:13; Is 17:3)

“household” (Gal 6:10; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pt 4:17; Eph 2:19); “church”; “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16; 12:12; Eph 4:12); “temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21)

Transition Metaphors

“…he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph 2:13-15)

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:16)

“…if the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches.” (Rom 11:16-18a)

“But now that faith has come, you are no longer under a guardian” (Gal 3:25)

“And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:29)

“‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (Gal 4:30-31)

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