Galatians 3:28

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Blessings of Identity and Galatians 3:28

For two thousand years, every morning, many devout Jewish men have said the following prayer or a similar version of it:

Blessed are you God of the universe who has not made me a Gentile, who has not made me a slave, who has not made me a woman.

This prayer is not just indicative of the theological views of the person who is praying, it is also indicative of the sociological views of the person who is praying. In particular, it expresses the person’s identity within his worldview. Prayers like this one have been termed “blessings of identity” by modern scholars.[1]

Compare this prayer with what another Jewish man, the apostle Paul, wrote in Galatians 3:28-29:

There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor 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.

Paul may well have been familiar with the Jewish “blessing of identity,”[2] and chose to use the same three categories of humanity, in the same order, to highlight that these social distinctions are irrelevant if we are in Christ. Whatever our gender and whatever our race, we are all sons of God and we are all Abraham’s offspring and heirs (Gal. 3:26, 29). This is our true identity, and this truth should inform our worldview.

Our Identity in the New Creation

Our identity in Christ should have a direct influence on our relationships within the society, or community, of believers—the church. The only reasons given for preserving gender distinctions in the first-century church seems to have been for the sake of outsiders and for evangelism.[3] But Paul tells us that among the community of believers we are not to regard each other according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16 cf. 2 Clement 12).

If we are in Christ we are part of the New Creation and part of a community where old social paradigms and caste systems have no place (2 Cor. 5:17). If we have been “clothed with Christ” (NIV), or have “put on Christ” (KJV), this will affect our identity and status right now as well as in the future (Gal. 3:27).

Our identity and status as New Creation followers of Jesus is more than just “our theological standing as far as salvation is concerned” as some have suggested. Our identity must also affect our society within Christian communities. This is probably one of the reasons Paul mentioned three categories of society in Galatians 3:28: (1) Jews or non-Jews, (2) slaves or non-slaves, (3) male and female. These categories potentially include all of humanity.

“Male and Female” at Creation

The “male and female” phrase in Galatians 3:28 harks back to the Creation.[4] In Genesis 1:27 we read that male and female humans were both made in the image and likeness of God. We are his representatives on earth. God authorised both women and men to be the co-regents of his created world and have authority over the animals. But nowhere in Genesis 1 or 2 does it say that God has given some humans authority over other humans. Moreover, God blessed both women and men (Gen. 1:28). And in response women, as well as men, could truly bless God for the way he had made them—for their identity.

Sin marred the unity, equality and affinity between men and women, resulting in disunity and a gender hierarchy where women were unilaterally subordinated to men (Gen. 3:16). But because of Jesus’ redemptive act, there is again the real possibility of equality, affinity and harmony between the sexes. In Galatians 3:28, and similar passages, we are given “a redemptive vision for community life.” Tim Peck (Source: The Junia Project)

There was no gender hierarchy at creation—men and women had the same status, the same authority and the same purpose (Gen. 1:26-28). And in the New Creation, there is no gender hierarchy as we are all sons of God, led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26).

Galatians 3:28 is more than just a wonderful theological statement. It is also a powerful sociological statement. The equality and unity expressed in Galatians 3:28 is what the church should aspire to. This is what I aspire to. This is my blessing of identity: “Blessed are you God of the universe who has made me a woman and a son of God.”

Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ and in the Church


Footnotes

[1] “Tosefta Berakhot 6:18 teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai (mid-2nd CE) that every (Jewish) man is obligated to recite three blessings daily. These express gratitude for one’s station in life through the negative statements: thank God that I am not a gentile, a woman, or a slave (or in earlier formulations, a boor). This language echoes Greek prayers preserved first by Plato. Especially because this text also appears as a legal dictum in the Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 43b, these blessings, which modern scholars call the “blessings of identity,” gradually became part of the preliminary prayers to the daily morning service.” (Source)
Note that this prayer borrows elements from the Greek philosopher Plato. Greek philosophy has adversely influenced both Jewish and Christian thinking.

[2] Even though the prayer was written down well after the first century (see endnote 1) it is likely that it was passed on orally before this time and was in use in Paul’s day.

[3] Our ethnicity, our level of social freedom, and our gender, etc, doesn’t change when we become Christians, but these things should not be a cause for discrimination within the church. The apostles do give instructions to slaves to be obedient to their own masters and wives to be submissive to their own husbands, but often the reason given for these instructions is to aid evangelism by not giving the church a bad name in a society where slaves and women were seen as lesser people than non-slaves and men (e.g., Titus 2:9-10; 1 Tim. 5:14; 1 Peter 3:1; 1 Cor. 11:10). [More on submission in marriage here.  More on 1 Cor. 11:10 here, esp. endnote 14; More on the New Testament household codes here.]

[4] Steve Harmon writes,

In the Greek text arsen kai thelu (“male and female”) is more of an interruption than English translations would indicate. These words are the technical terms from Genesis 1:27 “male and female created he them,” and their technical character is clear as they are not the ordinary words for “man” and “woman” but actually “male and female.” The conjunction “and” also interrupts the “neither/nor” series. We therefore have good reason to put “male and female” in quotation marks. Paul shows that the Law has been transcended in Christ at the following points: (1) the boundary line between Jews and Greeks has been abolished, the wall of partition which God himself had risen through the Law. (2) The boundary line between slave and free, which also is well attested in the Law, is overcome. (3) And, finally, the most primary division of God’s creation is overcome, that between male and female – the terminology points directly back to Genesis 1:27 and in the direction of man as the image of God, beyond the division into male and female.
Harmon, A Biblical Primer On Women in Ministry, Part 2. (Source)

Postscript

I like what Cynthia Long Westfall says about Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28:

“When this statement is read in the context of the entire Galatian discourse and the gentile-Jew debate to which it belongs, it shows how Paul saw that the implication of the radical change he initiated stretched across gender lines as well as social lines. It is highly unlikely that Paul would see no ramifications beyond women’s eschatological [salvation] position in Christ, since a major part of his life was dedicated to working out the practical implications of the Jew-gentile debate. The priorities and the hermeneutics that Paul applied to the Jew-gentile debate can and should be extended to the gender issue.”
Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 185.

Here is some of what Gordon D. Fee has written about this verse:

“neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” These pairs are not inherent in an argument about “justification by faith,” but they are crucial to Paul’s understanding of the people of God as being newly constituted by Christ and the Spirit. For these three pairs represent the primary ways people were divided/separated from each other in the structure of the present age that was now passing away (1 Cor 7:31; cf. 1 Cor 2:6): on the basis of race, social standing and gender. But “in Christ Jesus,” Paul asserts, these categories have lost their structural significance and relevance; that is, these very things that keep people distance from or at odds with each other in a fallen world have been relativized in the body of Christ, where not only Jew and Greek but also masters and slaves, men and women, all form that one body together.
Fee, “Male and Female in the New Creation: Galatians 3:28,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 176-177.

Image Credits

Blessed © Kirsten Blackstock (Source: CreationSwap)
If anyone is in Christ © Paul Lee (Source: Heartlight.org)


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Paul on Gender Roles in Ministry and Marriage
Being “in Christ”
Children of God
Role or Rank?
Race and Gender Discrimination in the Church
Gender Division Divides the Church

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