The request was unusual. “I am working on a college assignment regarding the role of women in the church. Would you have any resources?” After lending her some books, I began to reflect upon the phrase, “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Disputes, some heated, others congenial, have swirled around those words.
I believe a simple story can assist everyone to accurately understand, agree upon, and draw application for today. OK, I concede this is too optimistic since people value different goals. Nevertheless, if we place priority upon an authored-centered meaning, as opposed to a reader-centered one, “neither male nor female” would seem rather straightforward.
Before examining Galatians 3, consider a true story revolving around 1 Corinthians 12. Years ago some Christians gathered to discuss implementing church small groups. Some opposed them. Others supported the idea. Adherents of both viewpoints valued following God’s word.
On that day the discussion revolved around maintaining Christian unity. Some felt strongly that small groups would fracture congregational unity. For this reason, they believed their implementation should be rejected. If you anticipated that those favoring small groups also highly valued unity you would be correct.
What you might not expect is how some viewed small groups would promote divisiveness. The primary concern was not that this topic would be divisive or polarizing. Rather, they asserted that the act of meeting in multiple locations would divide the body of Christ. To prove it is unbiblical to geographically separate Christians for prayer or discussing God’s word, they quoted 1 Corinthians 12:25, “there should be no divisions in the body.”
As you are aware, Paul’s admonition against schisms had nothing to do with where the church met geographically. He was concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were exhibiting arrogant and divisive attitudes or behaviors toward their fellow believers.
To combat such divisive pride, Paul taught the Corinthians how God had worked to create a unified church. For example, the one and same Spirit had baptized socially and ethnically diverse people into one church body (1 Corinthians 12:13). Furthermore, this one Spirit had equipped them with various spiritual gifts. Although ethnic and social differences, as well as different spiritual gifts, might suggest disunity, the reality was that the church constituted a single corporate entity.
Paul’s affirmation against divisions in the body addressed the nature of the church, not the context of geography. To use his words to denounce geographical issues involves making assumptions and going beyond his context.
This brings us to a valuable principle of interpretation. Is it valid to permit a phrase or verse to convey a meaning exceeding the range of the author’s message? If so, it would be acceptable to infuse ideas foreign to the biblical context into scripture. Furthermore, although 1 Corinthians 12:25 simply addresses the church’s nature in order to shape Christian attitudes and behaviors toward one another, it could then legitimately prohibit small groups.
If however, we reject inserting foreign meanings and usages, then we gain a valuable interpretation principle. To accurately understand and apply a biblical message will involve limiting what the text can mean for us to what the context reveals the author communicated.
Consider how this principle guides our understanding of Galatians 3:28-29. In these verses, Paul described how all of God’s people share the same future expectation. Regardless of social status, race or gender, all Christians can equally claim the inheritance God promises. When it comes to our future inheritance, no Christian enjoys more privilege or advantage over another.
We might ask, if gender is not significant then why describe all of God’s people as being sons? In that ancient culture, sons received the inheritance. Paul powerfully conveyed the message to his audience using their culture. As Paul later explained, “what I am saying is … if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God” (Galatians 4:1,7). Regardless of gender or social status, everybody receives the same inheritance!
To force Galatians 3:28 to go beyond affirming that all of us receive the same inheritance, in order to comment upon gender roles within other contexts, involves making assumptions and exceeds Paul’s message. When studying whether gender roles exist within the church setting there are a number of verses which should be studied. This, however, is not one of them.
If it is valid to use Galatians 3 when discussing gender roles in worship, then maybe small groups are unbiblical.