As in all of history, people today are searching for their unique identities. The great quest of life is often driven by the question: who are you, from which one asks—what therefore must I do? Learning what makes you, you, is a quest that requires great courage, fortitude, and most of all, attentiveness. Yet, too often, identity is linked exclusively to ethnicity, gender, nationality, age, and education. These social categories were very much a part of the order of the ancient world and they had a direct impact on religious life—barring many from participating in social and spiritual activities. This was a reality of the world prior to the work of Jesus.
However, the gospel offers a different picture of human identity through our rebirth in Christ, lived out practically in the shared leadership of men and women. In his Commentary on Galatians, F.F. Bruce notes that, “he [Paul] is concerned with practical church life in which men and women (like Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons) are here and now fellow-members. It is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role that is abolished ‘in Christ Jesus’” (Bruce, 189). Here, Paul is not dismissing differences, ethnic, gender, or otherwise, but he is pointing to a rebirth, a baptism into a higher category that defines identity in a deeper and more powerful way.
Today, “natural” or social categories still have decided power to shape our sense of worth, value, and service. Tragically, even for Christians, these forces often eclipse our truest identity found in the most powerful force of all—our spiritual rebirth in Christ.
Consider the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as newness of life burst into human history in the person of Christ. Wondering about the miracles of Jesus, Nicodemus admits that no one “can do these signs apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2). “Indeed,” Christ replies! “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus asks how anyone can enter the womb a second time. Precisely! It’s not the womb of flesh, but the womb from above—the womb of God’s Spirit that births our deepest identity. The metaphor of birth, in God’s womb, embodies the climax of Scripture and all of human history—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This one sentence encapsulates the Christian faith that one third of the world professes.
When we are born again through public acknowledgment of faith in the waters of Christian baptism, believers receive a new life. Intriguingly though, to be born again implies one has also died. For this reason, many of the early Christians were baptized in buildings that resembled mausoleums—burial places. The baptismal pool within was shaped like a womb, as Robin Margaret Jensen observes in Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions. Through faith in Christ, the early Christians entered the baptismal chambers as one ready to die. Through the waters of baptism, they were joined to Christ in his death, rising with him in victory over sin and death. Rebirth, through dying and rising with Christ is the meaning of baptism—our second birth where we encounter our truest self, our highest destiny and purpose. We are Christ-followers—and we mirror and carry out Christ’s work in the world.
The Apostle Paul declares that:
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 (Galatians 3:26-29).
Both egalitarians and complementarians agree—baptism replaced circumcision as the covenantal marker of God’s people. Baptism is open to all people, women and men (Bruce, 190).
For egalitarians, however, newness of life in Christ is the gift which is not like the curse (Romans 5:15). In Christ, the “he will rule over her” of Genesis 3:16 has no place, because for Paul, baptism reflects the inseparable nature of justification and new creation. With the gift of justification comes this newness, a transcendence of the social hierarchy through the reality of our oneness in Christ Jesus. We know that the egalitarian relationships among the early Christians eventually threatened the paterfamilias of Rome, inciting what Rome viewed as “a disintegrating ferment” (Bruce: 191). Clearly, this new creation is evidenced in practical ways.
While many Christians today have an easy time admitting that there is neither “east nor west,” male and female inequalities persist both as a theological ideal and as a part of church practice. This does violence to the witness of the gospel and its redemptive purposes in the world. As Bruce observed, “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?” (Bruce, 190).
Both egalitarians and complementarians wish to retain the distinction of male and female, but for egalitarians, gender differences are not accompanied by rank, rule, authority, or power. It is not the male and female “distinctiveness but their inequalities of religious role that is abolished in Christ” (Bruce, 189). Our newness of life in Christ is our primary identity as men and women, not our maleness and femaleness. For this reason, we select church leaders, pastors, elders, board members, deacons, and church officials based not on their gender, but by virtue of gifting, character, and devotion to Christ.
That is why we find records of leaders in Scripture and catacomb artifacts throughout the ancient world who were women, slaves, and youth from every ethnic tribe, making clear that the centrality of newness of life in Christ eclipses the old cultural prohibitions associated with gender, ethnicity, and age. For egalitarians, Galatians 3:28 reflects the inseparable nature of justification and new creation—and the new practical life of the church reflects the shared authority of male and female. Should this surprise anyone truly acquainted with Christ?
Jesus identified himself as a servant who came to give up his life for others. He told his followers, clothed in his image, that the first will be the last and the last the first (Bruce, 190). We are being remade, day by day, not in the image of ourselves, but in Christ’s image through the very real power of the Holy Spirit. We put away lesser gods—hierarchies of gender and ethnicity—with their tendency to lord power over others, to cloth ourselves in the humility Christ. We are united to Jesus in our truest identity and eternal destiny. We are a new creation. The old has passed away, the new creation has dawned. We are the new wine that bursts the old wineskins.
So, I remain me, but I am a me who has decided to be clothed in Jesus. It is our sacred vocation as Christians, and our truest identity that stands at odds with so many lesser gods.