Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Gal 3:23–4:7 NRSV)
The year is 1591, in Scotland. A woman named Eufame MacLayne is pregnant with twins and goes into labour. The labour is difficult, physically and emotionally taxing. It is painful, so painful that she pleads with the midwives for relief. Out of compassion, they give her a strong pain-relief drug. She delivers her babies. The midwives’ choice seems reasonable to us, but in the sixteenth century it was illegal to use pain medication for childbirth.
The ecclesial authorities learn of this crime and bring the young mother, still recuperating from childbirth, before a tribunal. Her crime? Trying to lessen God’s curse on women. God mandated in Gen 3:16 that women, due to their sin of eating the fruit, should suffer during childbirth, and how dare Eufame MacLayne be so obsessed with her own freedom and bodily autonomy that she would absolve herself of God’s punishment on her gender! The church tribunal deemed her guilty. Her punishment was no mere parking ticket: She was burned at the stake. Let that sink in for a second.
In Gen 3:16, the woman’s pain in childbearing is increased, and this is a sign of the fallenness of our existence. The church in the sixteenth century deemed it their duty to enforce the curse, to enforce our fallenness, to enforce the consequences of sin. I find that tragically odd. One would think it is the church’s duty and pleasure to undo the curse. One would think!
Notice also in Gen 3:16 that, as a result of the man and the woman choosing to go against God, turning in blame toward one another, our lives as gendered individuals are marred by competition, and sadly, by patriarchy: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b NRSV). The companionship of one flesh in Gen 2:24 is sundered by sin: rather than mutuality—hierarchy; rather than reciprocity—domination.
Sadly, many churches to this day deem it their duty, much like the church did in Eufame MacLayne’s day, to enforce the curse, setting up barriers to women in ministry and refusing to recognize women in leadership, whether in the home or church or business or educational institutions.
The year is 1860. America stands on the brink of civil war between North and South, largely over the issue of slavery. The Baptist Convention had already broken asunder, as the North barred Southern Baptist slave-owning candidates from missionary work. Southern Baptist preachers defended the right to own slaves as biblical, and moreover, the right to own Black slaves, arguing that they are dark-skinned and, therefore, under the curse of Ham. Once again, the church felt a duty to enforce the consequences of sin, rather than undo them.
The churches of the North, led by Baptists like Francis Wayland, argued Scripture must be read through one’s conscience, which deems it unconscionable to own another human being. The South saw this as liberalism; the Bible has slavery. “The Bible says it, that settles it.”
The South, as history shows, lost the civil war; the slaves were freed. Still, in the wake of this defeat, many Southern leaders flowed into the ranks of the KKK and by night carried out brutal intimidation and lynchings. An estimated 5000 lynchings happened over the next decades.
We Canadians like to highbrow our American neighbours, but the city of Halifax tells of its own injustices. In 1960, those who lived in the community of Africville had their homes and their church building bulldozed and were forcibly relocated so that the MacKay Bridge could be built.
In the name of economic progress, the land and homes of the marginalized are always deemed a reasonable price.
The year is 2020. I drive into work today, and on the radio I hear about the fight of the indigenous Wet’suwet’en people over whether a pipeline can go over their land. If the Wet’suwet’en were White, would we be so eager to ignore their voice?
The dismissive mentality of many Canadians reflects an old habit of the colonizer who came empowered by the doctrine of discovery: if explorers found a land not governed by Christian lords, it was their right and duty to take over that land to absorb it into Christendom.
It was their duty to re-culture the native residents into Christian culture; the tragic folly of this is evident to us in the estimated 6000 children who died in the squalor and abuse of the residential school system.
I want to tell you that these horrible things were done by godless people, by those who do not know the Bible. The reality is far more sobering: All these deeds were perpetrated by those who cited chapter and verse to justify their injustice. This truth makes this message all the more urgent today. It makes the work of your studies, the holy fellowship I see in this room, all the more necessary. [This sermon was first preached in a seminary chapel.] As our eyes are enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Bible must be never be read as permitting biases and injustices Scripture itself challenges.
We Must Read the Word of God with the Wind of God.
This sermon should not stand alone, for there are so many passages well-intending Christians have invoked to close down Scripture’s commitment to women’s equality: Eph 5, 1 Cor 11 and 14, 1 Tim 2. I believe these several texts have often been read out of context, but I don’t have the time to explain each of them now. Nevertheless, I hope to impress upon you the necessity that we must read the Word of God with the Wind of God, Scripture by the Spirit: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” says Paul (2 Cor 3:6 NRSV).
We must read the Word of God with the Wind of God. Words spoken without breath will be nothing but a mute whisper in this world. Or, as William Newton Clarke, one of the first Baptist theologians to consider biblical equality for women’s ordination, writes in his profound little memoir, Sixty Years with the Bible, “I used to say the Bible closes me down to this, I now realize the Spirit of Scripture opens me up.”1 I hope to impress this on you today.
Why? Because the Holy Spirit opened Paul up, in Damascus first, and then, in Galatia, as we heard in today’s sermon text.
As the early church expanded beyond Judea, the apostles saw the Spirit’s reach exceed their grasp. The book of Acts shows the wonderful accounts of the Spirit disrupting and unsettling and spurring on and causing the church to reach out.
In Galatia, we see Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus Christ and wanting to be a part of existing communities of Jewish Christians. But this created a problem: if Gentiles wanted to be a part of the people of God, a group Paul called the Judaizers insisted they had to become Jewish (Gal 2:14).
How do you become Jewish? By submitting yourself to the law, which begins in its epitome, circumcision. As theologian Markus Barth pointed out, circumcision was the church’s first race issue.2 Here a religious command becomes a racial issue. Jew: circumcised therefore clean; Gentiles: uncircumcised therefore unclean.
How did the Spirit open up Paul? He realized that the Spirit is without prejudice.
Because the Spirit is Without Prejudice, We are Justified by Our Faith.
“Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2 NRSV). Did you do something to make God love you, or did God love you and you just had to trust it?
Gentiles who were not circumcised, who were not setting out to live out all 613 laws of the OT, or to become Jews by circumcision, nevertheless had the Spirit come upon them.
We should note that Paul does not have a problem with obeying what God has commanded. People forget that Paul actually tells Timothy to be circumcised in order to be a more effective minister to the Jewish people (Acts 16:3). First Timothy 1:8 says, “we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately” (NRSV). Obedience is not the problem; using the Bible to justify oppression and inequality is.
If you are obeying the letter of the law in such a way as to delude yourself that this is why God favours you and why you are better than others, why it reinforces your privilege and superiority, allowing you to “rule over” others, you have made the law do something it was never intended to do. And that is what the Judaizers were doing. Paul responds, “no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Gal 3:11 NRSV). He is quoting the OT here (Hab 2:4). That is what the law is supposed to remind us of. Trust God’s mercy; trust what God’s Spirit is doing. That is what qualifies us to be the people of God. This is what makes you a child of God. Period.
Paul then does something profound. Just as Jesus transgresses the letter to fulfill its spirit, Paul says, if that is how you are going to use circumcision, then I’m ending it. It’s done. We often fail to appreciate just how radical this is.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.”3 That is how radical, progressive, and revolutionary Paul was being.
Circumcision is considered the eternal ordinance in Genesis (Gen 17:13). But it got in the way of knowing Jesus. And if it got in the way of God’s love, if it got in the way of what the Spirit was doing . . . well, circumcision didn’t make the cut (pun intended!).
Paul called into question the very centre of his Jewish religion in the name of the love of Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, we have to ask ourselves, are we going to follow the Spirit, even if that means forsaking our religion too? I hope so.
Because We are Justified by the Unprejudiced Spirit, We Must Remove all Barriers as God’s Spirit Does.
At the apex of the epistle to the Galatians, Paul offers this powerful manifesto: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28–29 NRSV). Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ. Therefore, the physical restriction of circumcision, which divides the two, is removed in the name of what the Spirit is doing.
In Galatians, the act of the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation; by it, we cry out “Abba Father” (Gal 4:6). In 1 Cor 12, Paul gives the same manifesto before listing the gifts of salvation. Verse 13: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (NRSV). Jump down to 1 Cor 12:28 where he lists the result of drinking of the one Spirit: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (NRSV).
Notice that apostleship is in this list, and notice that leadership is also in this list. If the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation, by this same logic, the Spirit is without prejudice in giving the gifts of salvation.
Equality of the gift and gifts is part and parcel with the logic of justification by faith. You can’t have one without the other. Because we trust that the Spirit has brought Gentiles into the people of God, we can’t help but trust the Spirit also calls anyone, regardless of race, gender, or status, to lead his church. You can’t have equality without justification, and you can’t have justification without equality. Gift and gifts are one, as the body of Christ is meant to be one.
It would be a gross error in judgment to think that, just because Paul is working within a society with slavery, he is not trying to subvert slavery. It would be an equally gross error in judgment to think that, just because Paul is working within a culture that saw women as subordinate, his writings are not trying to subvert this either.
The church has not done well to notice this, but the Spirit is without prejudice, and that is why the physical barriers to this new humanity must come down.
Interpreters from Martin Luther to recent commentators like Ronald Fung have been content to say that this manifesto only pertains to spiritual equality. In faith, slave and free people are spiritually equal, despite one owning the other; men and women are spiritually equal, despite women being subordinate to men. In other words, the barriers to equality in our bodies don’t matter.
This does not take into account the bodily nature of circumcision. And if you don’t feel like circumcision has something to do with bodily equality, men, you just have to ask yourself: if a church bulletin said you had to be circumcised in order to be a member, would you really feel welcomed? The issue of equality is very much a bodily matter.
Women’s equality, racial equality, economic equality, they are all different and need to be addressed in different ways, yet they are connected. We cannot have equality for one without equality for another. Why? We are all human. We did not choose the skin we are in.
I have no control over the circumstances of my birth. I could have been born female; I could have been born native or Black; I could have been born in a country ravaged by corruption; I could have been born with a developmental disability or a severe mental illness. Let me push you further: I could have been born with XXY chromosome syndrome and fallen outside the gender binary. I could have been born with testosterone deficiency, and thus been bodily female yet a chromosomal male. That is exceedingly rare, and our political discourses have surely marred this discussion, but the fact remains: I did not choose the skin I am in.
If that is the case, with the social barriers out there today, the stereotypes, we must all ask ourselves, if this could have been me, how would I want to be treated? Biblical equality, empathy, and conscience must guide our interpretation, because Paul says later in Galatians, the whole law is summarized in one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal 5:15).
And if we don’t, as Desmond Tutu once said, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” It is because I could have been you. “We are a lot more alike than we are different.”4
Some see racial and gender differences as the reason for social barriers; the Bible sees these differences as what necessitates the hard work of mutuality in the church. Our differences in race, ethnicity, and culture make the new humanity all the more beautiful.
The Cost of Biblical Equality Is Worth It.
Several years ago, in my first year as a student at a predominantly complementarian Bible college, I wrote a paper on why a certain egalitarian professor should be fired for his liberalism. (A word to the wise, don’t ever write a paper about why a professor should be fired!) My professor in that course (not the one I wanted fired) graciously asked me to rewrite this paper.
Yet, when I later took a course from that egalitarian professor, I found him able to give gentle, articulate answers regarding the Scriptures I quoted at him, such that I found myself convinced. And this is good advice for anyone as we have these conversations: be gentle and be patient. Know your Scriptures.
The professor was eventually let go from his position, and we students suspected it was due to his convictions. When this happened, I knew it would have consequences for me as I began to pastor. When I met with the leadership of the ministerial association with which I was involved to discuss funding for a church plant, talk of ministry turned to talk of theology, and the leader wanted to know if I was all in or if I was out.
I could have remained silent. Our first child, Rowan, had just been born. I was doing full-time doctoral studies, working ten hours a week as a TA, ten hours a week as a soup-kitchen co-ordinator, twenty hours a week as a church planting intern. My wife, Meagan, had gone back to school on her maternity leave to upgrade her teaching degree along with lifeguarding in the evenings. We were barely scraping by.
But I knew I couldn’t stay silent. I would not be able to live with myself if I denied my conscience and my convictions. The association leader was clear: toe the party line or have your funding cut. I pleaded with this individual for several hours to no avail: “Why can we not centre our denomination’s unity and how we do the gospel on something like the Trinity, who God is?” I insisted. His jarring response was that gender roles are more important to the gospel than the Trinity is. Sadly, for many Christians, that is indeed the case.
That night I told Meagan I was going to have to fire up my resume and leave the denominational family in which my grandfather was a founding pastor. After dozens of resumes were sent out with no call-back, no church wanting to hire a doctoral student, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, Ontario, finally called.
In hindsight, this was a small cost compared to women I knew that studied at this Bible college, only to realize no church would ever take a chance on them no matter how talented or passionate or godly they were.
There is still work to be done. I recently received a message from a woman wishing me luck, and she mentioned she was speaking with her church about why they can have women pastors. I realize I will never have to do this. I will never have to justify my profession or my vocation because of my gender. That is precisely why I am saying this now.
But it was a wonderful experience pastoring a church that had long supported women in leadership, cultivating a thoughtful, open-minded community. Still, I can also tell you that while our denomination upholds biblical equality in principle, it still has a long way to go in practice.
Whether it is women’s ordination or reciprocity in marriage, racial justice, indigenous reconciliation, hospitality to refugees, dignity rather than disgust for sexual minorities, or seeking to treat those who face poverty with the material support a person made in God’s image deserves, each one of these was a weekly struggle in pastoring.
With every new face around the church came the question of what toxic, half-baked, YouTube-Google-searched theology they are bringing in with them. Many, I found, have built their entire faith on staying safe. Many love to justify social barriers with Scriptures. Many Christians love treating the NT as the second OT, shall we say.
There is that moment in sermon preparation when you know that an illustration the text calls for will upset important members of the church who are set in their ways and each month you know the church’s budget is holding on by the skin of its teeth. It is easy to just not talk about these matters and to offer people a comfortable, spiritualized gospel.
I was pleased and humbled to have First Baptist Sudbury grow well in my five years there, but I know it also came with one sermon after another where so-and-so wasn’t there the next week, all to find out that they didn’t like being “pushed on those issues,” and eventually moved on to the next church in town.
I also found in pastoring that just as many women were opposed to biblical equality as men were. For some, the notion of being restricted meant they don’t have to be responsible and don’t have to worry. The idea that God might call them to something riskier and more vulnerable and messier . . . well, subordination meant safety. After all, the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, didn’t they?
Proclaiming God’s word will cost us. It will cost us in a culture that has fractured into tribes of self-interest. It will cost us, pastors, even more as we pastor churches that have too often created cultures that cater.
I worry that many want to ignore this conversation on biblical equality, let alone our duty to uphold it. And from a worldly perspective, why should I, as a Western, English-speaking, White, straight, middle-class male be asked to give up something for people I don’t know? One might say, “White privilege? Life is hard for me, too, you know!” If freedom is the point of rights, why would I give up my freedom for another’s rights?
But for Paul, this is not his line of thinking, and it can’t be ours. His support for racial and gender equality among all believers is founded on the God who took on our flesh, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). A God who gave up his freedom so that we could be free—equal and free, both in societal matters and in intertwined realities such as spiritual renewal, sanctification, and justification.
We are equal because the barrier of heaven and earth was broken, because the King became a slave, because the Holy One took on our curse, the Blessed One took on our cross, because the Righteous One became sin, because the First became last, because God removed every barrier between God and sinner with his very body, so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come . . . nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God; because of this, we are one; we are free; we are saved; we are blessed; we are counted as God’s people, considered God’s children, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven itself. Living this out is our call as Christ’s church without gender, racial, and socio-economic barriers.
God bore the cross so we could be free, and now we must bear our crosses so that others can know this freedom. Equality will cost us, but I also know there is so much more to gain when we see churches that embrace all the gifting of the Spirit regardless of race, gender, or status. This is when the kingdom shines through the beautiful mosaic of Christ’s body all the clearer. The cost is worth it.
Because the new creation is without gender, race, or class barriers, Paul is able to say, I am willing to endure hardship, hunger, persecution, peril, even the sword, to make this equality possible for another, especially those whom this world has forgotten. He is able to say, for him living is for Christ, and to die was gain. The cost is worth it.
May we die to self today, and may we embrace new life in Christ. May it be the case for us today and hereafter.
1. William Newton Clarke, Sixty Years with the Bible: A Record of Experience (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909) 97–98.
2. Markus Barth, “Jews and Gentiles: The Social Character of Justification in Paul,” JES 5/2 (Spring 1968) 241–67.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (Macmillan, 1972) 281.
4. A quotation from beloved Acadia Divinity College professor, Charlie Taylor, who made this saying integral to his prison chaplaincy program. Many who heard this sermon preached would have known the quotation’s origin and significance.