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Treating Like Things Differently

On August 24, 2011

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11, NIV)

Recently I read a poignant reflection on Colossians 3:11, which argued that Paul’s vision expressed in this verse erases all social divisions within the church. When we look at others in the church, ran the argument, we don’t see race, age, economic status, etc.—all we see is Christ.

What made this argument remarkable to me was that it was written by a well known complementarian scholar and posted on a well known complementarian website. So I asked the author whether gender should be considered one of those social divisions that are erased in the church. And then it became clear that like things were going to be treated differently. The author responded that, according to Paul, males and females are equal with regards to justification, but that didn’t mean that gender divisions are erased within the church. After all, Paul continues to address men and women separately.

This was not the first time I had heard the standard complementarian argument against egalitarianism, i.e., that gender equality is merely spiritual (pertaining to justification only) and not social/ecclesiological (pertaining to the church), and that making gender equality more than merely spiritual leads to an undifferentiated, androgynous race, thus implicitly endorsing homosexual practices. But what struck me is how inconsistent this standard complementarian logic was with the logic of the author’s own reflection on Colossians 3:11 just offered. After all, race and age are much more than merely social divisions too. They are arguably every bit as determinative of one’s personal identity as gender. Moreover, in the very passage under discussion, Paul not only goes on to address wives and husbands separately (3:18-19), but also children and fathers (3:20-21) and slaves and masters (3:22-24). But, while he still employs these distinctions, he concludes by stating that “there is no favoritism” (3:25).

So it seems that there are three ways to read this passage: either (1) these social barriers do still exist within the church, which is why Paul continues to address different social categories in vv. 18-24, or (2) all social barriers with the exception of gender are erased in the church, or (3) truly all social barriers are erased within the church.

If we adopt option (1), then it appears Paul’s vision doesn’t really erase social barriers after all. Maybe Paul is only referring to our spiritual equality with regards to justification, and his argument has no bearing on our ecclesial (church related) practices. Maybe Paul would be okay with our generational, racial, or socio-economic—not to mention gender—divisions within the church. I would suggest, however, that this reading should be rejected by anyone who follows the logic of Paul’s argument, which concludes with his rejection of any kind of favoritism. (Certainly the complementarian author who offered the reflection on this passage would reject this option.)

If we adopt option (2), it seems that we would be treating like things differently.  On this option, Paul believes that in Christ all social divisions within the church are erased—except perhaps the historically greatest division of all: gender. But why would gender be excluded from Paul’s vision? As we’ve already noted, these other social divisions are also more than merely human inventions. Some of them—e.g., race and age—are just as much biological as they are sociological. Clearly the point of Paul’s argument isn’t that these markers are literally eliminated. His argument is rather that they are superseded by our identification with Christ. But, then, why would gender would be any different? After all, in a strikingly parallel verse (Galatians 3:28), Paul explicitly includes gender along with these other social categories.

Thus, it appears that (3) is the best option. It fits the logic of Paul’s vision much smoother and doesn’t run into the seemingly overwhelming difficulties of (1) and (2). But, of course, option (3) is precisely what we would call egalitarianism.

I presented this trilemma to the complementarian author, and I wish I could report that it changed the author’s mind. (It didn’t.) But, minimally, I trust that reflecting on the similarities between race, age, and gender should clarify why the standard complementarian objection to egalitarianism is flawed. Just as our equality in Christ within the church doesn’t create a literally raceless or ageless society, neither does it create an androgynous one. Rather, gender distinctions—as with race and age ones—are superseded by our identity in Christ, in which there is no favoritism. And that is treating like things the same.


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