Download a PDF version of this article.
If Galatians 3:28 declares that unity in Christ has obliterated ethnic and gender barriers, what should we make of the household codes in Eph 5:21–6:9 and elsewhere? If Gal 3:28 is the universal principle, how is that lived out in the tension between the already/not yet in a fallen world?
This article elaborates the fundamental, transcultural message of Ephesians that puts its household code in context. Ephesians teaches about the one body of Christ, with explicit implications for ethnic and gender unity. But first, investigating the connections between Genesis and Gal 3:28 will provide a foundation for understanding Ephesians.
Galatians 3:28 and Its Genesis Allusion
When Gal 3:28 says there is neither Jew nor Gentile, it teaches equality without bulldozing cultural differences. This teaching has significant concrete implications. Peter, for example, should not have withdrawn from table fellowship with Gentiles in Gal 2. Eating together established a covenant relationship, and withdrawing from table fellowship was a declaration of enmity, treating Antioch’s Gentile believers as second-class citizens or worse.1
When Gal 3:28 declares there is neither slave nor free, it is not ignoring unjust power structures in society. It is announcing that in Christ, all believers are equal; thus, as in Gal 5:13,2 we are all called to serve one another in love. That recognition concretely affects how we treat each other in the church and has implications for what the church should work for in society, as the abolitionists understood.3
The same is true for the third pair in Gal 3:28, except here Paul appeals to a principle even more fundamental than in his first two examples. In the first two examples, Paul said, “neither . . . nor”: “neither Jew nor Greek” and “neither slave nor free.” But for the third pair, Paul says, “neither . . . and,” although some translations obscure this difference. “Neither and” is somewhat unusual grammar, so it gets our attention for its allusion to earlier Scripture. Here Paul not only changes “nor” to “and,” but he avoids his usual Greek terms for “male” and “female.” Instead, he borrows the phrase from Gen 1:27, where God created humanity in his image, “male and female.”4 The exact Greek phrase Paul uses appears in the Greek translation of the OT only in Genesis, and applies there to people only in Gen 1:27 and 5:2, which say that God created humans, male and female, in his image and likeness. The phrase appears only two other times in the NT—when Jesus quotes Gen 1:27 (Matt 19:4, Mark 10:6).
In keeping with Jewish expectations of a restoration that echoes the beginning,5 Paul has in mind a sort of return to that original purpose for humanity, where man and woman together reflect God’s image and rule over creation. It is only later, in Gen 3:16, as a result of the fall, that husbands rule their wives; that passage predicts and describes the prevalence of patriarchy in the world. But representatives of God’s kingdom are not called to promote the effects of the fall, such as pain in childbirth or men sweating (Gen 3:19; or, still less controversially, sinning and dying).
Genesis 3 shows humanity’s fall from God’s original plan in Gen 1–2, but the prophets tell of a day when God will restore his people. Joel 2:28–296 reveals the promised restoration of God’s original plan: God pours out his Spirit on male and female, young and old, slave and free, and ultimately all flesh, including Jew and Gentile.7 In fact, Paul in Gal 3:28 may echo Joel 2 (cf. the echo in Rom 5:58), just as Peter does in describing the new way of Christ in Acts 2:17–18, depicting the present, eschatological prophetic empowerment on both genders, all ages, and all flesh.
Relevance of the Principle for Ephesians
Against the principle of Gal 3:28, however, many of our complementarian brothers and sisters cite the household codes of Ephesians and Colossians. They suggest that beyond fundamental principles, when it comes to what is concrete, Paul supports hierarchy.9 But while Paul adopts the conventional form of household codes, he adapts them in a Joel 2 sort of way. The philosopher Aristotle instructed a male householder how to rule his wife, children, and slaves,10 but Joel speaks of God empowering women, young people, and slaves. And rather than telling householders how to rule their households, Paul does something no other ancient household code I know of does: in Eph 5–6, he actually frames his household code with a call to mutual submission, beginning in 5:21 and concluding in 6:9.11
It should be emphasized that my references to Genesis are theological, not intended to enter current scientific debates. The point is that all of us are from a line of sinners, that all of us are from the same human line, and that all of us must come to God the same way. In the 1800s, Unitarian Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz insisted on the special creation of different races. Often cited by contemporary slaveholders, Agassiz insisted that Blacks and Whites were separate species, making interracial marriage a travesty of nature. By contrast, Harvard biologist Asa Gray argued for the common descent of all humanity. Gray’s evangelical faith encouraged abolitionism, because it taught him the worth of all humans made in God’s image.12
In Ephesians, Paul again draws on Gen 1 and 2. He has precedent for this from Jesus himself. When teaching against wrongful divorce, Jesus combined quotations from Gen 1:27 and 2:24 (Mark 10:6–8). Putting these two verses together, Jesus argued that God created humans as male and female in the beginning (Gen 1:27), and then in marriage he joins male and female back together (Gen 2:24)—one of each. Although exceptions are assumed for abuse, infidelity, and so on (cf. Matt 5:32, 19:9; 1 Cor 7:15),13 ideally, Jesus argues, people should not put asunder what God joined together.
Paul quotes Gen 2:24 in Eph 5:31. Paul is using Jesus’s verse about God putting male and female back together in marriage: a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. In Eph 5, Paul appeals to this principle for his underlying point about marriage: male and female can become one, as in the beginning. Paul also applies it not only to the one-flesh union of husband and wife, but to the one-body union of Christ and his church (Eph 5:32). And this same picture of one body in Christ stands behind Paul’s exhortation for ethnic unity in Ephesians (Eph 2:14–16). All people share a common humanity in Adam. That unity was ripped apart as Genesis progressed (Gen 11:8–9), but in the new Adam, in Christ (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45), we are restored to a common bond of unity.
The New Humanity in the New Adam
Even in Genesis, God was working toward restoring humanity from the fall. Between Adam and Noah, Genesis lists ten generations ending in three sons (Gen 5:3–32). When Noah was born, his father named him “Noah,” meaning “rest” or “comfort,” because Noah was supposed to give rest from the ground cursed on account of the fall (5:29). After the flood, God repeats to Noah’s family what he said to the first couple: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (9:1, 7; cf. 1:28). The world was supposed to start over again with Noah’s family, but before Gen 9 ends, the fall repeats itself. Then, between Noah and Abraham, Genesis again lists ten generations ending in three sons (11:10–27). This list culminates in Abram and God’s next step to restore his plan. God blesses Abram (12:2) as he had blessed the first couple (1:28) and Noah’s family (9:1). It is another step toward a renewed creation.
Jewish people in the time of Jesus and Paul spoke often about the coming new creation.14 They spoke of the eternal destiny of the righteous as the garden of Eden, a restored paradise.15 Revelation 22:1–3 also speaks of a new Eden, with a tree of life and no more curse. Paul’s letters emphasize that we have already begun to experience a foretaste of that new creation in Christ now, by the Spirit (e.g., Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 2:9–10; 2 Cor 5:5, 5:16–17; Gal 5:5, 6:15).
Paul speaks explicitly of Christ as the new Adam in Rom 5:12–21 and 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45. He also addresses the new creation in the new Adam in Ephesians and Colossians. Just as Genesis speaks of humanity created in God’s image, Col 3:10 speaks of believers as new persons created in God’s image. Likewise, Eph 4:24 speaks of this newly created self. In Greek, Eph 4:24 speaks of a “new person” or “new humanity” (ton kainon anthrōpon). This “new person” contrasts with the “old person” who we were in Adam, which Paul mentions in Rom 6:6 shortly after contrasting the old Adam and Christ (5:12–21).
One New Humanity and Ethnicity in Ephesians
In Ephesians, Paul applies this idea of a new humanity to ethnic division. In Eph 1:3–14, Paul applies eleven OT terms or phrases for Israel to the church, which includes both Jewish believers and Gentile believers grafted into Israel’s faith. In Eph 2:11–22, Paul speaks of Gentile believers becoming fellow citizens and part of a new spiritual temple in Christ. The Dead Sea Scrolls also spoke of their community as a spiritual temple,16 but their end-time temple explicitly excluded Gentiles.17 Paul, by contrast, explicitly includes Gentiles in this new temple. In Eph 3:6–8 Paul emphasizes his mission to fulfill the OT prophetic promise of the end-time ingathering of Gentiles (e.g., Isa 11:10, 19:22–25, 66:18; Zech 2:11). In Eph 4 he emphasizes how we are all one body, whose many different members need to work together (Eph 4:4, 4:11–16).
In Eph 3:1, Paul notes that he is a prisoner of Christ on behalf of the Gentiles. Congregations in and around Ephesus18 would have understood how this had happened. Paul was in Roman custody because adversaries from the region of Ephesus had accused him of having brought an Ephesian Gentile past the barricade in the first century AD Jerusalem temple that kept Gentiles from going any farther (Acts 21:27–29).19 (There was also another wall inside that one that prevented Jewish women from going any farther.) Signs posted in the temple warned that any Gentile who went beyond the outer wall would be killed. Paul had responded to the accusation by preaching about Jesus, and Jerusalemites stopped and listened—until he spoke about God’s care for Gentiles, which precipitated the riot’s resumption and his arrest (22:1–24). Paul would not compromise the Gentile part of the message, because for Paul, if you really love Jesus, you must love your brothers and sisters whatever their ethnicity.20 You become part of one body with them in Christ.
Christians in the area around Ephesus would have known why Paul was in Roman custody. Paul’s accusers were from this area. The Gentile that Paul was wrongly accused of having taken into the temple was from Ephesus. For Paul, and for Christians near Ephesus, there could be no greater symbol of this division between Jew and Gentile than this dividing wall in the Temple. But in Eph 2:14, Paul declares that Christ shattered this dividing wall, and a few verses later goes on to speak of how the Spirit is building a new temple of both Jews and Gentiles (2:20–22).
How did Christ break down this wall? Ephesians 2:14–16 explains that Jesus did it by nullifying in his own flesh the barrier of ethnic-exclusive rules. He reconciled both groups in the same way by his one body on the cross, so making the two into one new person, one new humanity (2:15) in the body of Christ (2:16). If the cross has smashed a barrier once established by God himself—the division between Israelites and Gentiles—how much more has he nullified every other ethnic barrier, established merely by human convention or, worse yet, human sin?
In this one new humanity, in Christ’s body, we remain individuals, distinct from one another and from Christ, the body’s head (4:16). But we belong together just like the parts of an ideally whole body belong together (4:12, 16). Believers’ unity with Christ was probably something that Paul understood right from the beginning of his experience with Christ; when Jesus confronted Saul on the Damascus Road, he demanded, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).21 Jesus had already told his disciples that whatever their hearers did to them, they did to Jesus (Matt 10:40; 25:40, 45; Luke 10:16). If we mistreat fellow believers or look down on them, we are doing the very same to Christ.
One New Humanity and Gender in Ephesians
In Eph 5:21–6:9, Paul includes household codes. From the time of Aristotle, nearly four centuries earlier, these codes instructed a male householder how to rule his wife, children, and slaves. Paul has cultural reasons for using these codes,22 but they cannot negate his wider principles of our unity in the new humanity. Remember that Gal 3:28 addresses not just ethnicity but also slavery and gender. Remember that the promised restoration in Joel 2:28–29 crosses those barriers and the age barrier. In light of Paul’s faith, he modifies these culturally expected codes.
As Paul is addressing marriage in Eph 5, he elaborates at special length on how husbands should love their wives (5:25–31), well over twice as long as he addresses wives. He instructs husbands to love their wives as their own bodies, just as Christ loves his own body, the church (5:25, 29). This is when he specifically quotes Gen 2:24, about a man becoming one flesh with his wife (Eph 5:31), and remarks that he speaks especially about Christ and the church (5:32). Connecting unity in marriage and our unity in Christ is not unique to Ephesians; elsewhere Paul applies the same Genesis passage to believers becoming one spirit with Christ (1 Cor 6:16–17) and to our bodies belonging to his body (1 Cor 6:15, 19).
By applying Gen 2:24 to both marriage and to the body of Christ, Paul shows that he is still thinking of the one new humanity in Christ. He is still thinking of the restoration of the way God meant things to be in the beginning. His emphasis is not on what the culture emphasized: husbands, rule your wives. His emphasis, justified from Scripture, is on unity in Christ, in marriage as in the wider body of Christ.
In Ephesians, Paul’s essential principle in Gal 3:28 holds. In the new creation, we are a new humanity, one body in Christ. Just as slaves are their slaveholders’ equals in the new creation, and just as Jewish and Gentile believers share the same Lord, so male and female are equal members in Christ’s body. Paul lacked the worldly status and power to transform all the social structures of his day, but the body of Christ is an alternative community, where slaves could become elders, Gentiles could become evangelists, and Junia could be an apostle. As a foretaste of the coming world, we must model for the world around us what the restoration of Eden looks like.
This article is a revised version of a lecture presented at CBE’s 2022 International Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The lecture was given jointly by Craig Keener and Médine Moussounga Keener and can be accessed at cbeinternational.org.
1. See fuller discussion in Craig S. Keener, Galatians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2018) 92; Craig S. Keener, Galatians: A Commentary (Baker Academic, 2019) 157–58.
2. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Gal 5:13 CEB).
3. Some also applied the principle to gender equality; see Julia Foote in Lisa M. Bowens, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation (Eerdmans, 2020) 170, 172, 185.
4. With, e.g., Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, WBC 41 (Zondervan, 1990) 157; Frank J. Matera, Galatians, SP 9 (Liturgical, 1992) 142–43; J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33A (Doubleday, 1997) 376, 380; Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Baker Academic, 2013) 254; Wayne Litke, “Beyond Creation: Galatians 3:28, Genesis and the Hermaphrodite Myth,” SR 24/2 (1995) 173–78.
5. See, e.g., 4 Ezra 8:52–54; Sipra Behuq. 1.261.1.6; Mathias Rissi, Time and History: A Study on the Revelation, trans. Gordon C. Winsor (John Knox, 1966) 4; French L. Arrington, Paul’s Aeon Theology in 1 Corinthians (University Press of America, 1978) 77–81, 157; James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation, LEC 3 (Westminster, 1986) 46–47.
6. Joel 2:28–29 is 3:1–2 in the Hebrew text and the LXX.
7. See discussion in Keener, Galatians (2019) 306.
8. “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5 CEB).
9. I write this on the assumption of Pauline authorship of Ephesians (with, e.g., Lynn H. Cohick, The Letter to the Ephesians, NICNT [Eerdmans, 2020]), but most scholars who attribute it only to a later disciple of Paul acknowledge that it often reflects Pauline thought.
10. See Arist. Pol. 1.2.1, 1253b; David L. Balch, “Household Codes,” in Greco-Roman Literature and the New Testament, ed. David Aune (Scholars, 1988) 27.
11. See discussion in Craig Keener, “Mutual Submission Frames the Household Codes,” Priscilla Papers 35/3 (Summer 2021) 10–14; earlier, cf. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage & Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Baker Academic, 2004), 184–88, 204–11.
12. David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 58–64; cf. Erskine Clarke, Wrestlin’ Jacob: A Portrait of Religion in the Old South (John Knox, 1979) 108.
13. Cf. the argument in Craig Keener, . . . And Marries Another: Divorce & Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1991).
14. See, e.g., 1 En. 72:1; 91:16; Jub. 1:29; 4:26; Mark B. Stephens, Annihilation or Renewal? The Meaning and Function of New Creation in the Book of Revelation, WUNT 307 (Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Moyer V. Hubbard, New Creation in Paul’s Letters and Thought, SNTSMS 119 (Cambridge University Press, 2002) 11–53.
15. See, e.g., 1QHa 14.17–19; 16.21; 4 Ezra 7:36; 8:52; 2 Bar. 4:3, 6; 51:11; 2 En. 8:1–3; 42:3; 71:28; T. Levi 18:10; T. Dan 5:12; m. Abot 5:20; Sifra Behuq. pq. 3.263.1.5; y. Sanh. 10:1, §2; y. Qid. 1:7, §6; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 9:1.
16. Cf. e.g., 1QS 8.5; 9.6; Bertril Gärtner, The Temple and the Community in Qumran and the New Testament: A Comparative Study in the Temple Symbolism of the Qumran Texts and the New Testament (Cambridge University Press, 1965) 16–46; E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE–66 CE (SCM; Trinity Press International, 1992) 376–77; David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Magnes, 1988) 37–39.
17. 4Q174 f1–2.1.3–4; Gerald J. Blidstein, “4QFlorilegium and Rabbinic Sources on Bastard and Proselyte,” RevQ 8/3 (1974) 431–35; Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (InterVarsity, 2004) 113. This was a minority approach (Lawrence H. Schiffman, “The Importance of the Temple for Ancient Jews,” 75–93 in Jesus and Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Fortress, 2014] 93), but so was treating the community as a temple (despite Ps 114:2).
18. The textual variant at Eph 1:1 (“in Ephesus” is missing in the very early p46 א* B*) suggests that the letter functioned as an encyclical, but the presence of “Ephesus” in so many manuscripts suggests that Ephesus was recognized early on as a primary destination, with the message perhaps circulated from there to Roman Asia and beyond.
19. In contrast to some scholars, I regard Acts as a useful historical source; see Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. (Baker Academic, 2012–15); Keener, Acts, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
20. See fuller discussion in Craig Keener, “Some New Testament Invitations to Ethnic Reconciliation,” EvQ 75/3 (July 2003) 195–213; Craig Keener, “One New Temple in Christ (Eph 2:11–22; Acts 21:27–29; Mk 11:17; Jn 4:20–24),” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 12/1 (Jan 2009) 75–92; Craig Keener and Médine Moussounga Keener, “One New Temple in Christ,” 95–112 in Moral Pedagogies for Africa: From Ethnic Enmity to Responsible Cohabitation, ed. Theodros A. Teklu (Routledge [Taylor and Francis Group], 2022); Craig Keener, “Some New Testament Invitations to Ethnic Reconciliation: John 4:42; Luke 10:29–37; Romans; Ephesians 2:11–22,” 207–30 in Forgiveness, Peacemaking, and Reconciliation, ed. David K. Ngaruiya and Rodney L. Reed (Africa Society of Evangelical Theology, Langham Global Library, 2020).
21. For the impact of Paul’s experience on his theology, see Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (J. C. B. Mohr, 1981).
22. See again Keener, “Mutual Submission Frames the Household Codes.”