Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: Thinking and Living Biblically in a Gender-nuteral Society – Male Authority and Female Equality: In light of Galatians 3:28

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on July 16, 2003

Galatians 3:28

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Thinking and Living Biblically in a
Gender-neutral Society

Biblical Manhood and Womanhood series
First Presbyterian Church
Jackson, MS
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan

Male Authority and Female Equality in Light of
Galatians 3:28

If you have Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to
Galatians 3, because our title actually refers to this verse. This passage has
been somewhat of a magna carta for those who call themselves evangelical
feminists. That is, those who say we have a high view of Scripture, but we
believe that Scripture does not teach that there are role distinctions between
men and women, and especially between redeemed men and redeemed women in Christ,
in the Church, and in the home. Since this is one of the verses they go to,
let’s begin in Galatians 3:28. This is God’s word:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor
free man, and there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ

Amen. This is God’s word, may He add His blessing to it.

Our responsibility now is to respond to the
assertion that this verse proves male/female role distinctions in the Church and
in the home are invalid or have been changed. Let me share with you the
argument that is typically given. When God created Adam and Eve, He created
them as both equal and undifferentiated in terms of their role relationship and
function. There was no headship for Adam; there was no submission for Eve, and
what happened was when sin entered into the world, that is when headship came
for Adam and submission came for Eve. Headship is equated with domination;
submission is equated with subservience; and so, the idea is that when man and
woman were originally created by God, they were not only equal as image bearers,
but they were equal in function. There was no role distinction in their
functions. But, when the Fall came and sin entered into human relationship,
then you had men over women. The argument then goes that in redemption in
Christ, male and female are restored to the original created relationship which
is no male headship, no male authority in the congregation of believers, but an
identity of function in church and in home. And Galatians 3:28 is one of the
verses used to prove that. Evangelical feminists would say, “See, here is what
the Apostle Paul says, that there is no male or female in Jesus Christ. See,
there’s Paul saying it himself.” Now, never you mind that for 1900 years, no
Christian ever put that interpretation on Galatians 3:28, but nevertheless,
that’s the interpretation that you hear. Now, I would like to respond to that
in three ways.

First, I want to walk through the explicit New
Testament testimony that there continues to be male/female role relationship
distinctions in church and in home. Then, catalog the three basic arguments
against that testimony. Finally, present the five examples of those arguments
and provide a proper response.

First, we need to look at the New Testament passages
in context. When read in context, several other questions will arise. That is
good. There is nothing wrong with asking hard questions about those passages.
We will look at core passages but not all the issues raised. For example, in I
Timothy 2:8-15, if you want to know whether Paul makes a distinction in role
relationships between men and women in the church, we simply look at verses
11-12. “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness,
but I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over man, but to
remain quiet.” Now, clearly, Paul is making an assertion of role distinction in
the church, but if you look back in verse 9, he says, “I want women to adorn
themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided
hair,”–anyone with braided hair tonight? –“And gold,” anyone with gold
tonight? “and pearls,” anyone with pearls on tonight? “and costly garments.”
Ooh, Paul has gone to meddling. Talbot’s does not want to hear this verse;
Maison Weiss certainly does not want to hear this verse. What about the St.
John’s Knits, girls? When you quote I Timothy
2:11-12, the classic retort is, “OK, are you going to stand at the door and
check to see if women have braided hair?” Those are important questions,
perhaps, but not the central issue.

In I Timothy 2:11-12, Paul clearly makes some sort of
role distinction between men and women in the congregation, “I do not permit a
woman to give instruction.” Then, I Corinthians 14:34-36, and there is more of
the same, “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not
permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the law also says.”
Once again, there is this prohibition, and if you see this passage in context,
it is clearly a prohibition against the proclamation of the word that is being

In I Corinthians 11:3-5, “I want you to understand
that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and
God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while
praying or prophesying disgraces his head, but every woman who has her head
uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and
the same as the woman whose head is shaved.” Not apart from all the questions
you can ask about the passage, what clearly comes through is this: even though
Paul acknowledges that in the Corinthians Church both men and women are
prophesying, it’s interesting that he requires men to prophesy in one way, and
women to prophesy in another way. In order to do what? To reflect their
relationship to Christ, and we will see that in our next study, Paul gives
Jesus as the example for both men and women in the way they relate to one
another. Isn’t that a glorious thing, that our Savior took on such a position in
His incarnation that He can be the perfect example for men in the way that we
ought to relate to women, and for women in the way that we ought to relate to
men? It’s a beautiful way in which our Savior has served us in being that

So, what is clear is that once again, Paul is making
a distinction between men and women in their role in the church, and in this
passage, even in their role in the home.

Then, in Ephesians 5, we move primarily to the sphere
of the home. “Wives be subject to your own husbands.” This is every girl’s
least favorite verse for the wedding ceremony. “Wives be subject to your own
husbands as to the Lord.” And then he describes the husband’s role. In
Colossians 3:18-19, ‘Wives be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the
Lord.” You will remember that Colossians is sort of “Ephesians like;” it is the
abbreviated version of Ephesians, so Colossians contains the shortened version
of the longer passage in Ephesians 5. Now, we get out of Paul’s material and
into Peter’s material. Frequently you will hear, “Paul was the only one who
ever talked about these things in the New Testament.” But, look at I Peter
3:1ff, “In the same way, you wives be submissive to your own husbands, so that
even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word
by the behavior of their wives.” And now, the even lesser favorite verse for a
woman at her wedding ceremony, verse 6, “Just as Sarah obeyed Abraham and called
him lord.” The men are lining up in the aisles for me to preach on this.
Whatever the case here, Peter is clearly indicating role distinctions in the

In Titus 2:2-6, Paul again, and what is he saying the
older women are to inculcate amongst the younger women? They are to inculcate
that they are “sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, and subject to their own

Finally, in I Timothy 3:1,2,4 and 12, there is the
interesting description of the qualifications for the officers in the church,
elders and deacons. Here we are told, “It is a trustworthy statement, that if
any man aspires to the office of overseer,” so already there is role
discrimination, “it’s a fine work that he desires to do. An overseer must be
the husband of one wife.” And notice again that what is said about the
overseer? He manages his own household well. Well, if he’s not the head of the
household, how can he be singularly held responsible for managing the household
well? Paul then makes the passing comment, that if a man does not know how to
manage his own household well, how will he take care of the church? In verse
12, the same thing is said of deacons: “Deacons must be husbands of only one
wife, and good managers of their children and their own household.” So, in all
of these passages, Paul and Peter explicitly say that there are role
relationship distinctions between men and women in the church and in the home.
Notice, these are all New Testament passages, in the post-Pentecost period, and
these role distinctions are all over the pages of the New Testament.

I. Arguments against the truth of
the Bible.
What is it, then, that people say who want to argue against
this type of role distinction being grounded in the Bible? Basically, there are
three arguments against the Bible testimony. The first is , “Well, the Bible is
wrong.” There are, however, fewer people now in the church that say, “The Bible
is wrong,” than there were in the hey-day of liberalism. Liberals used to say
that out loud all day long. They don’t say it as much anymore, and there are
good reasons. Most Christians, no matter what their theological perspective is,
have a hard time swallowing it when their leaders come along and say, “The
Bible’s wrong, and I’m right.” That argument, for some reason, doesn’t even
sell among liberal Christians. They would prefer it to be said in a slightly
more subtle way, such as “Well, the Bible is just wrong on this issue.” People
do say that. Don’t get the idea there is no market for this. If you’re reading
former bishop John Shelby Spong, you’ll find in every book he has ever written
that he says the Bible is wrong. But it’s not working as well in the church.
This last week I was at a colloquium in New York, and at that colloquium the
Anglican rector of St. Ebbs, basically the senior
minister of St. Ebbs Church in Oxford, England, was there. He is the young man
who led the charge in the Church of England against the Bishop of Oxford’s
appointment of an openly homosexual Bishop of Redding. This was the first time,
anywhere in the Anglican community, that a practicing homosexual had been
ordained to a bishopric. Now, there have been people who have said, “I’m
homosexual, but I’m celibate. That’s my inclination, but I’m celibate; I’m
chaste.” And people such as that have been put into bishoprics in the Anglican
Church, but never before anyone who announced, “Yes, I have a partner and that’s
who I am.” There was a firestorm, of course, and Vaughn Roberts, this young man
at St. Ebbs, really led the charge, and in God’s mercy, if you read Derek
Thomas’ column, the man’s nomination to the bishopric has been withdrawn.

Of course, there is now an outrage on the other side
of that issue, but one of the interesting things that Vaughn mentions is that
now the liberals in the church of England are not saying the Bible is wrong
about homosexuality; what they are saying is, “Oh no, we’re misinterpreting the
Bible.” It’s not that the Bible is wrong, but that the interpretation is
wrong. You see this in working through these passages. Most people won’t come
out and say, “The Bible is wrong about male/female role distinctions.” What
they will say is, “No, the Bible has been misunderstood, and if we would just
understand it wisely, academically, in context, then we would understand that
the Bible doesn’t make these role distinctions. That is the second way that
people deny the Bible’s teaching.

The third way is simply to appeal to experience.
“Well, I just have a hard time accepting male headship because I have a dear
friend whose husband abused her. I have a hard time accepting the idea of male
headship because I had a pastor once, a senior pastor, and she was
wonderful–one of the best pastors I ever had. How could you say that was
wrong? She felt like she had a call from God.” So, the three ways they deny
the clear Bible teaching is to say the Bible is wrong, or you’ve misinterpreted
the Bible; you’ve misunderstood the Bible, and if you only understood it
correctly you wouldn’t have that problem, and then, an argument from experience,
it just doesn’t feel right.

I’m going to omit the first one, the Bible is wrong,
because frankly, that would be the easiest to respond to, and the most fun. I
could really play with that one; we could beat up on the liberals and have a
good time, but it is the other two responses that we have to live with all the
time. It’s when a friend of mine who is ordained, who is female, or homosexual,
or whatever else, is looking at me and saying, “But, I feel that this is
right.” That is when it is hard to respond. So, we will look at five examples
that deal with those last two responses.

II. Biblical responses.
The first is in the area of interpretation. By the way, read
Derek’s follow-up article on homosexuality in The First Epistle, but let
me give you a little peek at what he says. The usual response to the assertion
that the Bible makes these distinctions is, “Well, that’s just your
interpretation.” We see this everywhere, and this is what Derek says,

“No one should be surprised by the liberal church’s ability to engage in
selectivity as regards the authority of Scripture. But what has emerged over the
past 25 years, in the western world especially, is the discovery of a device
that can deal with any and every problem regarding Scripture’s message and its
relationship to contemporary social values. It is a catchall term that, at once,
renders all counter arguments redundant: that’s just your interpretation!

If I had a cent for every time I’ve heard that phrase used! It’s extremely
powerful, if not terribly sophisticated. There’s just no arguing with it. Right!
I do have my own interpretation of what Paul says; and John has his, and Jane
has hers. And they are all different! And post-modernity embraces this
dilemma with open arms. Truth, according to this view, is as slippery a concept
as Pilate surmised two millennia ago.”

So, how do you begin to respond to that? One way you can recognize that
interpretation is not simply a matter of personal opinion is to go back and look
at how Christians, in different centuries and in different cultures over the
last two thousands years, have interpreted a passage. And when you look at these
passages, do you know what you discover? Almost all Christians, in almost
places, in almost all times, have agreed on what they mean. It is only certain
moderns in the western world and, by the way, almost uniformly in churches that
are shrinking, that disagree with that interpretation that has been held by
almost all Christians in all times in all places. Now, that is a good tip that
you are probably not “winging off” on a weirdo interpretation. It’s not always
the case, but if I have the choice of having the holy apostolic band and
gazillions of Christians, or not; I think I’d rather have them on my side.

The second thing to remember is that Peter himself says, “No Scripture is
a matter of private interpretation.” Why? Because God has inspired the
Scriptures and He meant them to be understood. So, we should not expect the
most significant moral issues that the Scriptures speak to, to be so blurry that
only Einstein can figure them out. God is a good communicator, and it doesn’t
surprise me that He said this nine times in the New Testament. It’s somewhat
like, “Oh, yes, did you miss that? OK, Paul, say that one more time. And, just
in case they missed it, say it one more time. Oh, and just in case, say that
again.” He’s a good teacher. Teachers that are good teachers repeat
themselves, and the Lord helps us to understand by repetition.

The second type of interpretational argument against male/female role
distinctions is the “What about shrimp?” argument: “The case law in Moses’ day
forbade Israel to eat shellfish. So, how many of you evangelical Christians are
out there eating shrimp and lobster at Red Lobster on Friday night?” And
everyone raises their hand, and the accusation is made, “You are inconsistent.
You’re picking and choosing. The Bible says you shouldn’t eat shellfish. And
the Bible says you can’t wear mixed fiber clothing, and the Bible says you can’t
have a meal, and eat milk, and fish at the same time.” And on and on, using
every obscure passage possible. Here’s an example. Just today I received in
the mail a copy of a letter, “Gender Issues Need Answers.” This was a column
from the Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper, by Ina Hughes. This is what she says:

“I just want to know how somebody can read the same Bible and live in the
same century and hold to the law against women ministers. If they’re going to
quote from Scripture, then they’ve also got to sign a faith statement saying
that all ministers have to grow beards, and can’t be married, and won’t have
personal bank accounts and IRAs, and won’t own the clothes on their backs.
Plus, they can’t eat clam chowder. “Bible tells me so” legalists aren’t being
consistent. They pick and choose their passages and the “no women allowed”
verses are just as outdated and out-theologized as the ones that require a man
to have sex with his widowed sister-in-law or give fathers the right to kill a
rebellious child.”

An enlightening and civilized bit of discourse, no doubt. How do you
begin to respond to this argument that we are just picking and choosing? Let me
say, frankly, that the examples that Mrs. Hughes gives are easy to dispense
with, because they all come from the ceremonial code. And once again, almost
all Christians at all times everywhere, have recognized that Jesus Christ
brought an end to the ceremonial code. So, there is not a problem with us
learning from that ceremonial code, even while we do not attempt to implement
that ceremonial code for Christian living in our own day and time. That is, we
will serve pork at dinner at First Presbyterian Church from time to time, and do
other things that are prohibited to Israel in the ceremonial code. But, if I
could help her argument a little bit, a better argument for her to make would be
to go to a passage such as we have read from I Timothy 2 and say, “Wait a
minute, if you say that Paul’s prohibition against women being preachers in the
Church still holds, what about what he says about women braiding their hair and
wearing gold, etc, etc.?” Now, there’s a better argument, and a slightly more
difficult one to respond to. And again, let me give you a brief outline
response. The easy response is to say, “The principle that Paul is speaking
about there in I Timothy 2:9, about the way women adorn themselves, is indeed
still in force.” The question then comes, “Does this mean an absolute
prohibition against expensive dresses, braided hair, gold, etc.?” Just as I
would nuance the way we understand what Paul says in verses 11-12, I also
recognize that what he says in verse 9 has to be put into context.

But putting into context is one thing; throwing it out is another. So as
an evangelical Christian, what I want to say is, I am prepared to do whatever
Paul is telling me to do in that passage. Now, how we end up understanding that
is one thing, but I am starting out with a commitment to do everything that God
expects them to do in the Bible, however unpleasant it may be for me. So,
that’s how we begin to respond to that argument.

The third interpretation argument, regarding Galatians 3:28, is simply
this: the idea that Galatians 3:28 which says, “There is no longer male and
female” means that there are no longer distinctions between men and women in the
Church and in the home because of what Christ has done. How do we respond to
that argument? Once again, we go back and notice that all of the interpreters
in history, over the course of time, have interpreted that passage in a
different way, and let me just read a little summary of an answer to that
question. Most evangelicals still agree, for instance, that this passage is not
a warrant for homosexuality. If there is no distinction between male and
female, then that passage is just as much a warrant for homosexuality as it is
for women to preach or to be the heads of their households. Most of us do not
force Paul’s “neither male nor female” beyond what we know from other passages
he would approve. For example, we know in Romans 1:24-32, that Paul does not
mean for the created order of different male and female roles to be overthrown,
for he clearly says in Romans 1, that when men sleep with men and women with
women, it’s wrong. So clearly, he does not mean there are no differences
between men and women.

John Piper goes on to say, “the context of Galatians 3:28 makes it
abundantly clear that the sense in which men and women are equal in Christ–they
are equally justified by faith, verse 24; they are equally free from the bondage
of legalism, verse 25; they are equally children of God, verse 26; they are
equally clothed with Christ, verse 27; they are equally possessed by Christ,
verse 29; and they are equally heirs of the promises to Abraham, verse 29. This
last blessing is especially significant; namely, the equality of being a fellow
heir with men of the promises. In I Peter 3:1-7, the blessing of being joint
heirs of the gracious gift of life is connected with the exhortation for women
to submit to their husbands, and for their husbands to treat their wives with
respect. In other words, Peter saw no conflict between the “neither male nor
female” principal regarding or inheritance, and the headship submission
principle regarding our roles. Galatians 3:28 does not abolish gender based
roles established by God and redeemed by Christ.”

The fourth type of response we get is that the Bible is culturally bound
and, therefore, theologically limited on some social issues, and that we need to
read is not exactly what the Bible says, but to note its trajectory. I’m not
joking; this is a real argument and very popular. And books by InterVarsity
Press, United States, are making this argument. The Bible is culturally bound,
theologically limited, and we don’t need to discover what it says; we need to
see the trajectory of the argument. So, if you go from women in the Old
Testament having a lesser position, to women having a relatively greater
position in the New Testament, what you then need to do, is go beyond the New
Testament, and follow the trajectory. So, even if Paul doesn’t come out and say,
“Women can be preachers, and women have gone from a lesser position to a greater
position,” you just follow the trajectory of the text and that leads you to the
proper understanding of the thrust of Scripture as opposed to what Scripture
really says.” So, there’s a fourth way that people argue from interpretation.

The final way I want to mention is that whole issue of experience and
personal opinion. You know, “It just doesn’t seem right to me.” Well, let
me say in response to that, that you never ever can win a debate from
experience. We don’t debate experience. We base our actions on what the Bible
actually tells us to do. If a person is deciding their actions based on their
experience, then they are their own little pope. You can’t tell them, “No, your
experience is wrong”–even if it is wrong.” They are going to think their
experience is right, and so, if you get into a debate over their experience, the
argument is over right then. So, I think it is very important for us as we
discuss with people experience-based arguments to say, “Look, I am not
interested in undercutting the value of your experience. I am simply interested
in trying to be Biblical.” And there is a way to do that. Let me go back to this
letter by Ina Hughes in the Knoxville News. It is an editorial that she
wrote on June 8, this year called Gender Issues Need Answers.

“Will somebody please explain to me
what the Southern Baptists have against women? I’m serious; I really want to
know. I’m not being flippant, sarcastic, or close minded. Nor am I necessarily
picking on the Baptists. All denominations are struggling with issues of faith
and social justice, but the Baptists are the only major Protestant denomination
that will not give women the same spiritual credibility as men. Just last month,
their international mission board fired all its missionaries and staff who would
not sign a faith statement that opposes female pastors and says wives should
submit to their husbands. That bothers me because not only do I consider myself
a person of faith, though not a Baptist, I come from a long line of people who
have felt called into full-time ministry, people who have made preaching and
teaching their life work as ordained ministers of, as we Presbyterians would
call it, word and sacrament and some of them are women. [Now you know which
denomination she’s from.] I’m an active member of the New Providence
Presbyterian Church in Merryville, TN, and my own senior minister is a woman,
Dr. Emily Anderson, and she is certainly one of the most effective and dedicated
pastors I’ve ever met. I’d even go so far as to dare anyone, Southern Baptist or
no, to come to our church and listen to one of her sermons and still say in all
honesty that she is unqualified to preach from a pulpit on Sunday morning, or to
baptize a child, or to serve communion. I don’t feel like I have to defend the
female ministers I know. Their very lives verify their legitimacy. It’s not that
I want to argue the point. I just want to know how someone can read the same
Bible and live in the same century and hold to this law against women
ministers.” [2]

Now, notice that the whole argument there is an argument from experience.
“I know a woman; she’s ministered to me, therefore, you’re wrong.” Well, what
are you going to say? “No, she hasn’t ministered to you? No, she’s an
incompetent boob who couldn’t get a job sweeping the floors in my church?” No;
you can’t do that. You have to say, “Look, I am not arguing that your friend is
not a wonderful, talented, gifted, able person. I just want to talk about what
the Bible tells us we should or shouldn’t do here. That is the issue. The
issue is not a matter of my experience versus your experience.”

We don’t claim to be able to read the private experience of anyone, but
we do believe that everyone’s private experience must be assessed by the public
criterion of the word of God. And that is what it is about
. If the Bible
teaches that God wants men alone to be preachers, or to be heads of their
households, my experience can’t trump God. I can’t say, “Well, God called
me to do this” if God says, “I don’t do that in My word.” If so, and we’ve
become sort of our own individual pope and we get to say what we want to do in
any circumstance.

We do not believe God genuinely calls women to be pastors. Probably what
is discerned as a divine call to the pastorate in some earnest Christian women
is indeed a call to ministry, but not to the pastorate. Very often the divine
compulsion to serve comes upon Christians without the precise avenue of service
being specified by the Holy Spirit. At this point, we should look not only at
our gifts but also at the teaching of Scripture regarding what is appropriate
for us as men and women. Amen.

Understanding the Times.

Derek Thomas

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