The Magna Charta of Galatians 3:28 and “Women In The Ministry”

Derek Ouellette —  January 31, 2012

I’m going to say something here that may be a little controversial. I agree with John Armstrong when he said, “I am persuaded that both sides of this [egalitarian/complementarian] debate miss important things here [in Galatians 3:28]…” (How I Changed My Mind About Women In Leadership, p.27).

I think egalitarians often stretch this text to its breaking point when we reach for it as a sort of “trump” card in the debate regarding women in the ministry, particularly because “this text is not primarily about the ministry. The context is about being the ‘children of God.'” (Ibid.) Egalitarians tend to reach for this verse – our magna charta – more than any other passage. And every time I read one of us do that I roll my eyes and huff, “if we can’t do better than this, we might as well pack up our biblical arguments now.

1. Not About The Ministry: The text is primarily answering the question of who are the people of God and what does that mean for how they socially interact with one another (i.e. eating together). Paul’s point is that there is one family, not two. “Distinctions of race, ethnicity, social status, and gender must not divide the Church!” (Ibid.) As Jews tended to say, in that context, if you are a gentile you cannot be a part of God’s family. Paul is saying, one’s participation in God’s family does not depend on race, ethnicity, social standing or gender. Of course that women are Christians too is a de facto, Paul’s point is simply that if one has faith in Christ, one is a Christian no matter what. That’s the main point.

2. Is About Equal Footing: The Bible has much to say on the subject of women in the ministry. For that reason alone it is dangerous to appeal to Galatians 3:28 as a trump card because it exposes too quickly our eagerness to defend our position regardless, really, of what the Bible has to say objectively on the matter. Armstrong quotes N.T. Wright here in observing that “the ground is level at the cross”. That’s the point of Galatians 3:28 (which ties in very closely with our first point).

So far, whether we like it or not, the complementarian position has the higher ground. In interpreting it as we just did (which is contextually the correct way to interpret it), they are paying the context its due respect (we are not doing that when we try to make it about “women in leadership”). The passage is talking about “who’s in and who’s out”. It is not talking about role’s in the ministry. But having said that, Armstrong points out that this passage does in fact have something to say on the subject that both sides of this discussion often miss. The passage, in connection with Paul’s meta-narrative theology, is deeply eschatological.

3. Is Eschatological: Armstrong points out that in this debate both sides tend to point back to the garden, which is fine, but he reminds us that the major theme running through the Bible, and in fact, through Paul’s letters, is the subject of renewal. He says, “this is a good place to insist that the order of creation has been renewed and is being renewed in Jesus Christ.” (Ibid.) That of course doesn’t solve the debate, rather it shifts it back to the garden and asks, what was the original state and goal pre-sin? Then it uses whatever conclusions that come out of that and projects it into the Age to Come, asking, how will that renewal look on the New Earth? Finally it turns to the present and asks, since we’re in the “Already but Not Yet” stage, how does this eschatological order play out practically among the people of God today?

Every time I read some egalitarian say ‘well of course women can be head pastors, just look at Galatians 3:28” I feel like tossing the book across the room. I feel the same, now, when complementarians think that Galatians 3:28 has nothing to add to the subject. I think if we are to appeal to Galatians 3:28 in this discussion, both sides need to come at it with the questions just raised.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • drew chapados

    good points on all sides of this conversation–while still a complementarian–this is a verse to look at seriously and I grant some points by egalitarians.
    One thing to notice is that it is not simply about ministry–for instance while all are children of Abraham regardless of race, class or gender–Paul will later say that for the role of the elder (1 Timothy 3) there are some people who are not qualified for it. He is not saying they are not equal as Christians, but there are certain qualities that allow some to be and some not to be.

  • Craig L. Adams

    Oh, people are always proof-texting. It would be nice if we could stop it, but …

  • Leslie

    I totally agree. While I am technically an egalitarian, I’ve always found their use of this scripture as the “trump card” to be exegetically problematic. There are good arguments to be made for egalitarianism without resorting to bad exegesis. And if there isn’t, then theological integrity will require that I become a complementarian :)

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post.