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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" (Col. 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, et cetera—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 does not 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 complementarians suggest that gender equality is merely spiritual (pertaining to justification only) and not social/ecclesiological (pertaining to the church), and that pressing gender equality beyond a spiritual status leads to an undifferentiated, androgynous race, and thus implicitly endorses homosexual practices. What struck me, however, is how inconsistent this logic was, given the logic of the author's own reflection on Colossians 3:11. Race and age are much more than merely social divisions as well. They are arguably every bit as determinative of one's personal identity as gender. Moreover, in the very passage under discussion, Paul not only addresses wives and husbands in this passage (3:18-19), but he also mentions 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 at least three ways to read this passage: (1) These social barriers do still exist within the church, which is why Paul continues to address different social categories in verses 18-24; (2) All social barriers with the exception of gender are made null in the church; or (3) Truly all social barriers (including gender) are rendered insignificant within the church.

If we adopt option (1), then it appears Paul's vision does not eliminate social barriers in the church after all. Maybe Paul is only referring to our spiritual equality with regard to justification, and his argument has no bearing on our ecclesial (church-related) practices. Perhaps Paul would be okay with Christians maintaining generational, racial, or socio-economic—not to mention gender—divisions within the church. I would suggest, however, that this reading should be dismissed by anyone who follows the logic of Paul's argument, which concludes with his rejection of any kind of favoritism.

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 done away with, except perhaps, historically, one of the greatest divisions of all: gender. But why would gender be excluded from Paul's vision? As we have 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 is not that these markers are literally eliminated. His argument is rather that they are superseded by our identification with Christ. But, then, why would gender be any different? After all, in a strikingly parallel verse (Gal. 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 more smoothly and does not 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 does not create a literally raceless or ageless society, neither does it create an androgynous one. Rather, gender distinctions—as with those of race and age—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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