Surprised by Scripture?

by Paul Adams | July 22, 2014

I'm reading N.T. Wright's latest popular installment entitled Surprised by Scripture and chapter 4, "The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women", caught my attention. Having previously read his stance, I expected not to be "surprised." Though I wasn't "shocked, amazed, stupefied, or bewildered" (all synonyms of "surprise"), I did get another picture, of sorts, about Galatians 3:28 (from which my blog's theme takes it's name, by the way). This text likely means so much more than a prima facia reading suggests. For starters, "this verse is often mistranslated" (p 66). Here's Wright's take on it:

"Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female." That is precisely what Paul does not say...What he says is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no "male and female." I think the reason he says "no male and female" rather than "neither male nor female" is that he is actually quoting Genesis 1, and that we should understand the phrase "male and female" as a quotation.

Emphasis his. (p 66)

On the above "mistranslation" see the KJV, NASB, NET, NIV 1984 ed. The Greek seems to support Wright's reading (note the negative particle οὐδὲ "neither" is not repeated. See the ESV, NIV 2011, NRSV).

οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος, οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ

Though Wright does not explicitly say so, Paul is likely quoting Genesis 1:27. The LXX (Septuagint or Greek translation of the OT) reads: "ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς."

If Wright is right on his reading (alliteration, please!), then Paul is essentially arguing that, when it comes to entrance into and membership within God's family, gender distinctions are "irrelevant." They do not count. This is not to say that God's family is "genderless" (nor hermaphrodite or androgynous) or even a classless society such that none of these differences matter practically (see 1 Cor 7:18-24; also Philemon 16 where Onesimus is "better than a slave" but still a slave). It is to say, however, when it comes to convenantal membership in God's family that gender has no privilege as it did within the Jewish world. Wright goes on to help us recall the first century attitude toward women from the "synagogue prayer in which the man prays and thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman" (p 66).

Moreover, most of the biblical storyline unfolds through male descent, which did little to help a woman's cause. This does not slight God for the way he chose to bring about his plan of redemption using primarily males (hence "patriarchs"), but it does suggest how humans can misappropriate God's plan for their own maleficent (read "male") purposes.

But does Gal 3:28 say more? Pastorally speaking, could this text not only include but also transcend the topic of salvation? Just a brief look at history and we find that whether birth, wealth, education, or gender human society has divided itself into either the privileged or the underprivileged class. Could it be that Gal 3:28 levels the playing field? If so, then the implications turn society on its head (note this was likely written just before Ephesians 2:14f where Paul unpacks unity in relation to Jews and Gentiles)! Every known class and social status supposedly favored by God is deemed "flat" when it comes to entrance into and membership within God's family.

From the larger context and overall gist of Paul's letter to the Galatians we can see he was arguing against  circumcision as the exclusive sign of covenantal membership. Paul shows that it is now baptism that equalizes gender and class in ways that circumcision could not. Rather than belonging to God by waving the flag of male circumcision, everyone "in Christ Jesus" is equal (see also Gal 6:15). The badge of honor is now baptism and no longer the gender-specific rite of circumcision.

In fact, Paul had just written "for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (3:27) and then follows up with a summary statement making application across every social class and gender distinction (Gal 3:28). Rather than obliterating or abusing the created distinctiveness of each gender, however, Paul is affirming the distinctiveness created by God and argues that now both male and female are one, equal, the same, privileged in God's unique family.

On further investigation, I found that Wright is considerably in step with the late F.F. Bruce (hat tip to Paul Moser for pointing this out and reminding me that Bruce "wasn't playing the contemporary NT game of desperately wanting to say something new, as if new was automatically good." Whether or not this was a swipe at Wright, Moser does have a point that it's easy to be moonstruck over the creative and novel. In line with Bruce, see also Leon Morris, Galatians, pp 121-123).

Regarding the threefold divisions (Gentiles, slaves, or women) Bruce writes "they were disqualified from several religious privileges which were open to free Jewish males" (NIGTC, Galatians, p 187). And, "the reason for the change" in Greek that excludes the negative particle οὐδὲ with reference to male and female, "is probably the influence of Gn. 1:27." Thus, "it is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role, that is abolished 'in Christ Jesus'" (p 189). Bruce continues:

Paul may have had in mind that circumcision involved a form of discrimination between men and women which was removed when circumcision was demoted from its position as religious law, whereas baptism was open to both sexes indiscriminately.
(pp 189-190)

Although complementarians are right that Galatians 3:28 addresses the scope of the Gospel, my contention is that it does not ignore pastoral, practical issues and has implications beyond salvation. The schism between Peter and Paul in Gal 1 with the diet and tabling habits show that far more is at stake than simply entrance into the kingdom, though certainly not less.

What must be kept in mind when reading Gal 3:28 is that the line between meaning and significance is often so thin that it's difficult to find in Paul's writings (see esp. Silva, Interpreting Galatians, pp 203-204). It is, therefore, a short distance one must travel to see this text applying to practical matters of church leadership and governance, or matters of the home between husband and wife. N.T. Wright clearly sees this text applying to the ordination of women, hence the chapter's title.

Nevertheless, complementarians draw a thick hermeneutical line insisting only one application is in view; viz, access to God's family by way of grace. And some are quick to point out that there are other role distinctions between male and female taught elsewhere by Paul that should not be ignored (see Moo, Galatians, p 255. Schreiner, in my estimation, goes way too far and misrepresents an evangelical egalitarian stance in his GalatiansSee esp. pp 260-261).

Yet Bruce, certainly no less the exegete than those mentioned above, offers some rhetorical and profoundly important questions which fit perfectly with the spirit of Paul's heart as a pastor and minister of the Gospel.

If in ordinary life existence in Christ is manifested openly in church fellowship, then, if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man?

(Galatians, p 190)

Why not indeed! Are we to assume that the only practical implication from this text is salvific and that everyone is "equal is essence, but distinct in function" as complementarians insist? Schreiner, in his Galatians commentary, points to Steve Cowan's essay as a robust philosophical defense of the complementarian position and Adam Omelianchuk has ably responded. As I read Paul the Apostle, it is not only a short distance to travel but also a safe one when understanding the implications for all of life. Bruce notes:

If restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus...they are to be understood in relation to Gal. 3:28, and not vice versa (Galatians, p 190).

While Gal 3:28 may not in itself support a full-fledged doctrine for ordaining women in ministry, we would do well to heed Bruce's admonition and see this text as a governing principle over which and through which other related texts are to be interpreted. This is in keeping with the standard hermeneutical principle that Scripture is consistent with itself (regula fidei) and God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. If other texts suggest limitations on the role that women play in the home, the church, and the world, then the only limitation is on us to find the consistency in teaching from God.