The following is the third post in a series exploring the beauty of gender from a biblical perspective. Read the first post, Gender Matters: Part 1 — The Beautiful Difference. Read the second post, Gender Matters: Part 2 — The Body of Gender.

In the first post of our series, we began our look at the Bible’s dianoia, mind, on “gender matters,” considering a mutually enriching two-fold proposition. Gender in the Bible — at least in the beginning chapters of Genesis — is a beautiful picture of equality, and it’s a beautiful picture of difference. Together equality and difference bring flourishing to the relationships of persons, strengthen union and fund mission, just like they do in the person of our Triune God himself. We saw further that the Bible’s picture is one where the two — equality and difference — enrich and do not cancel or compete with each other. In this post we want to move further in the direction of the Bible’s dianoia with a ‘flyover’ of the New Testament on the subject of gender.

The Beautiful Difference and Beautiful Equality in the Jesus Movement: Two Choices.

Jesus was (is!) a radical. To the corrupt and power-hungry institutions of his day and ours, he was, as Mark Galli puts it, mean and wild [1]. From his scandalous practice of table-fellowship with “sinners and tax collectors” (Matt 11:19) to his incessant provocation of illicit Sabbath traditions of the “establishment,” and scandalous personal claims about being God no less, Jesus literally turned his world upside down (Mark 11:15), pun intended. He did the same for women. With his inclusion of women as disciples, his acceptance of their patronage, and their place in key moments of his movement’s narrative, Jesus radically elevated and protected women against the rank elements of paterfamilias world view of the first century [2]. He does the same for the two other “despised” classes of the ancient Jewish/Roman world: Gentiles and slaves [3]. However, for all of his inclusion, collaboration, and elevating these underclasses, Jesus still selects twelve Jewish free men as the inner core of all his “disciples.” What are we to make of that?

Paul seems even more confusing. While he also radically elevates the status of women, he still consistently denies them the same opportunities as men to share all aspects of Church life, and he does so against his own words [4]. Didn’t he write Galatians 3:28 to erase such things in the new community of Jesus Christ — you know, “no male or female?”

The decades of ensuing conversation over such questions seem to have left us with two options: (1) either Jesus and Paul for good reason are bending the knee to the patriarchy of the ancient world and “respecting cultural norms,” [5] or (2) they are inviting us to another level of understanding our humanity in the Gospel. A level where difference and equality can cohabit in beautiful harmony and without competition or devaluation. For those favoring the first option, Galatians 3:28 is the intractable herald to what we all know as “self-evident truths.” That is, any conversation where race or gender entail anything but sameness — sameness of opportunity, sameness of function, and even now in some camps, sameness of outcome — are conversations about superior-inferior, power and repression, control, dominance and personal devaluation. God’s name would never be associated with such notions [6]!

There are challenges for the first option, too — challenges that might press for a different reading of Jesus and Paul — and Galatians 3:28, too. For one, this option means Christ’s church in the NT doesn’t really meet divine equality ideals and so requires a ‘redemptive trajectory’ at least for how we practice the Gospel: God’s Way is without gender differences, we just have to get “beyond the Bible” to achieve it [7]. Bracing as that may sound to evangelicals’ ears on the surface, a deeper question follows: if, as advocates claim, the Jew-Gentile question that sets the pace for the other two pairs (slave-free; male-female) in Galatians 3:28 is about the integrity of the Gospel itself, then Paul and Jesus are allowing patriarchal culture to bend their practice of the Gospel. That’s a serious problem, and will require very good reasons for giving up allegiance to certain parts of the Bible, as D.A. Carson reminds us [8]. Following are just some of the challenges this view faces. 1) Jesus and Paul both gave their very lives for the Gospel suffering greatly for its claims for the equal inclusion of Gentiles, women and slaves in the body of Christ. Could that be the intent of Galatians 3:28, rather than pressing for a global, overarching equal inclusion and sameness within the Body reading [9]? 2) Paul uses the Gospel language — “in the Lord” — to justify his views regarding gender differences in other places: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (Col 3:18) [10]. 3) Paul still sees gender differences as saying something about Christ’s relationship to his church (Eph 5:22–24), a transcendent and trans-cultural relationship. 4) Paul doesn’t defend his expressions of the Beautiful Difference in his letters by the usual time-bound markers [11]. Instead, he uses “an elaborate, explicit and deeply Christian account of the way in which it is grounded in the intentions of the creator, interpreted in the light of Old Testament Scripture and its fulfillment in the gospel of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor 11:8–9 and 1 Tim 2:13–14) [12].

The Great Invitation

For these and other reasons, we will proceed in this series pursuing the second option for reading the New Testament (and, indeed, the whole Bible), including Galatians 3:28. That’s in fact why this section is so short — it actually continues on for five more posts! Instead of a message of difficulty and accommodation to overcome in the name of the Beautiful Equality, we will press on assuming the NT invites us to the profound message of both Difference and Equality. I find it to be a message that is compelling, empowering, and stunningly beautiful for all of God’s people. I hope you will too. 


[1] Mark Galli, Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[2] Of Jesus’ actions and teaching in this regard there is no dispute among different sides in the gender conversation. Aída Besançon Spencer offers a good summary, (“Jesus’ Treatment of Women in the Gospels,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 3rd ed. [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021], 91–98).

[3] Luke is famous for his Gentile-sensitive account of the Gospel. On the status of slavery in the Roman empire, see Stanley Porter, “Gender Equality and the Analogy of Slavery,” in DBE, 333–350.

[4] Paul has only men in the elder/pastor/overseer role of all the churches he plants (see Acts 14:23, cf. qualifications for elders as “husbands” (i.e., male) in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1). In his letters he frequently and consistently uses the language of submission/subjection to describe the gender relationship. Churches hundreds of miles away from each other (Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae & Crete) all get the same message.

[5] A patriarchal motif behind Jesus’ actions is difficult to avoid even among conservative commentators. Spencer rightly ties Jesus’ selection to the covenant program of the Old Testament, saying that because the apostles represented the patriarchs, “it simply would not have worked” for him to pick Gentiles or women (Spencer, “Jesus’ Treatment of Women,” 101). This is no doubt correct, but one must wonder also if it also “doesn’t work” precisely because the Bible’s covenant program is patriarchal. “[R]especting cultural norms” is the way the editors of DBE account for Paul (p. 652). A concise expression of this view can be found in this post by Judith Gundry-Volf.

[6] Rosemary Radford Ruether’s words about race are representative here. Gal 3:28 reasonably extends them to gender and slavery: “Fundamental to Christian theology is a belief that God is a god of all nations, all peoples. In Christ there is no more Jew or Greek (Gal 3:28). No one people is especially favored by God against others” (“Christian Zionism and Main Line Western Christian Churches,” in Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Israel-Palestine Conflict, eds. Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis, and Maurine Tobin [London: Melisende, 2005], 157). They also fund the burden of Rebecca Groothuis’ essay in DBE (“’Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Challenging the Logic of Women’s Subordination,” chapter 20). Equality without sameness is a logical impossibility in her view.

[7] Kevin Vanhoozer raises important questions around the sufficiency and finality of Scripture entailed in claiming the Bible itself promotes our moving “beyond the Bible” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Into the Great Beyond: A Theologian’s Response to the Marshall Plan,” in I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology [Baker, 2004], 81-95).

[8] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 284.

[9] This is the argument of Cynthia Westfall Long in DBE (“Male and Female, One in Christ: Galatians 3:26–29,” chapter 9). Equal membership of the Body of Christ requires the same function. For the view that the Gospel is about equal membership only, see John Elliot, “Jesus Was Not an Egalitarian: A Critique of an Anachronistic and Idealist Theory,” Biblical. Theology Bulletin 32 (2002), 75–77, 88.

[10] Stanley Porter argues the Gospel significance of “in the Lord” for the NT’s treatment of slaves in 1 Cor 7 (“Gender Equality and the Analogy of Slavery,” in DBE, 340).

[11] Titus 2:5 might be the exception. David Starling denies that early Christian ethics should be seen “merely as pragmatic accommodation to mainstream Greco-Roman values” (Starling, “’Not as the Gentiles’: The Ethics of the Earliest Christians,” in Into All the World: Emergent Christianity in its Jewish and Greco-Roman Context, eds. Mark Harding and Alanna Nobbs [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017], 124).

[12] David Starling, “Response: David Starling,” in The Gender Conversation, eds. Edwina Murphy and David Starling (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2016), 74.