We conclude our conversation on “Identity in Creation and Christ,” by considering how the apostle Paul addressed Christian identity, and how that identity relates to gender. If you’d like to read parts the last three weeks visit Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
As in the ministry of Jesus, women advanced the gospel by ministering beside Paul, building the church as teachers, evangelists, prophets and as an apostle—Junia. Paul offers the theological foundations for the shared authority of women with all of its spiritual and social implications, throughout his epistles. He summarizes identity and purpose in Galatians 3:27–29. Here Paul says: “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.” In a profound way, Galatians 3:28 is one of the most radical theological and social statements ever made, because in the first century, identity and purpose were determined by ethnicity, gender, and class. To which Paul says no! It is not our natural birth that defines us, but our spiritual rebirth in Christ! Through Christ we are equal heirs, exercising our spiritual influence within a diverse spiritual tribe or family of Christ followers. Our rebirth in Jesus defines our truest identity, explaining why so many ancient baptismal pools were shaped like wombs, with Galatians 3:28 inscribed on them!
Paul was certain that God’s covenant people are brought to life in Jesus—who is the origin, source, and head of the church. God’s New Covenant community can never be defined or limited by natural birth, because our rebirth comes only through a supernatural life in Christ—a rebirth that has nothing to do with their gender, class, or ethnicity. That is why Paul did not hesitate to celebrate the spiritual authority of Junia, a female apostle in Romans 16. Nor was Paul reluctant to require respect for Phoebe, a deacon and leader in the church of Cenchrea (Rom 16:1). Nor does Paul shy away from celebrating the leadership of teachers like Priscilla—who taught Apollos in her house church at Ephesus, the very place where Paul limits some women who were false teachers. Priscilla and other house church leaders like Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, and Apphia made deep inroads for the gospel globally. The new wine of identity in Jesus required new wine skins where slaves and women would exercise their spiritual authority in accomplishing the purposes for which God had gifted them. Our new being and identity imparts our purpose and power for service, a service that is not bound by cultural standards and biases.
In Christ’s kingdom, spiritual authority is given to individuals not to rule over or to dominate, because domination is a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16), which the early Christians opposed in their teachings and practices. Jesus said that those who wish to be first must become a slave, “just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:27–28). Thus, the spiritual gifts are not given along ethnic or gender linesbecause the spiritual gifts are first and foremost an opportunity to serve. Strikingly, Paul’s description of elders and deacons follows the fruit of the Spirit. Hence, our selection of leaders, deacons, pastors, elders, and teachers should be from individuals who best exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, regardless of gender.
Purpose, leadership, and the authority to serve arise from our identity. Inasmuch as Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, they shared authority in caring for Eden and one another. While sin introduced the dominion of male over female, in Christ we receive a new birth and a new identity in which we are remade in the image of Jesus—who served humbly and sacrificially. Identity in the New Covenant follows that of Eden—both men and women are created in God’s image and share dominion. So too our rebirth in Christ comes with the spiritual dominion or authority to serve, to exercise our God-given gifts selflessly, for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom.