There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

This verse is often used to defend the ordination of women to church office, the idea being that in Christ a chauvinistic hierarchical church polity has been rendered obsolete, along with the entire dispensable husk of Israelite theocracy. The gospel serves for Paul to smash the idol of essentialist traditionalism. Unity in Christ, as even today we are still learning to appreciate, dissolves the Jew/gentile distinction, making racial inclusivism a hallmark of the new church; frees slaves, establishing social justice as a core kingdom value; liberates the weaker sex from chauvinism, and on some reads bursts the chains of gender altogether.

As is widely recognized, if Gal 3:28 is read this way, it is at odds with a number of other Pauline texts where the apostle distinguishes masters and slaves (Eph 6:5-9) and husbands and wives (Eph 5:22-33) without a hint of disdain for either institution. Some defenders of the egalitarian deployment of this verse simply allow for inconsistency on Paul’s part, and count Gal 3:28 a moment of greater clarity than those regrettable, involuntary lapses of traditionalism such as 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Tim 2:12-15. By thus softening authorial consistency, the tension is easily relieved. Although I wouldn’t go that direction myself, I won’t enter that debate here.

But for the sake of a sound reading of Gal 3:28, I want to point out that to apply the sociological leveling in this verse to church polity and gender roles opens the door to an elitism corrosive of the gospel. In other words, because this verse is about church organism and not church institution (to borrow a distinction), to apply it to questions of polity effectively imposes quantitative distinction onto the very substance of saving grace. There is office in church institution, but not in the organism. To confuse this, I fear, implies that some are more worthy of Christ, or some receive from him, and are ordained unto, a greater portion of heavenly blessing. This we should all agree is unacceptable, and it is precisely the oppressive injustice Galatians 3 is designed to rectify.

3:28 in Context: Adoption as Sons

The point that Paul is arguing in the passage is that the law of Moses is subordinate to Abrahamic promise, that the Mosaic economy is packaging for the delivery of grace. From the opening words of the epistle, Paul is intent on correcting a misunderstanding of the law: that somehow, even in the slightest way, works of the law are supplementary to grace, that grace is incomplete or dysfunctional without meritorious or qualifying works of the flesh. The problem facing Paul’s readers was that this fundamental clarification of grace was obscured by misapplication of Hebrew tradition. The legalistic tendencies of residual Jewish nationalism implied that the blood-descendants of Abraham were a superior class in the church, and that gentiles may share in the Abrahamic inheritance only as step-sons or second class citizens of the kingdom; they are forever guests, never completely at home. One might call it a sort of redemptive-historical atavism corrosive of the gospel. Paul called it “anathema,” no gospel at all.

Works neither prepare the sinner for grace, nor complement grace, nor keep us within grace. There are no works as such; there is only disobedience or the obedience of faith. “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6). “Our [‘so-called’] righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). But “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10). We ought even to be grateful for our own good works. The point is: works have no independent value, least of all before God; the only thing that pleases him is obedience proceeding from Spirit-wrought faith, regeneration, the active presence of Christ. God has provided what his justice requires; and apart from what he himself has sovereignly, graciously provided, we can do nothing.

Paul’s argument here is that the Mosaic system and the genetic advantage of the sons of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, all of which is exemplified in circumcision, was a temporary, anticipatory placeholder for Christ; and now that Christ has come, Israel must, as John the Baptist says so well, decrease, so that Christ may increase. To turn again to works of the law, now that the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Rom 3:21-22), is to attempt to partner with Christ in the atonement for sins—to trivialize the condemnation of the law and to reject grace as such.

If an implication of Gal 3:28 is that gender distinctions in church polity are abolished, it is worth noting that Paul never says as much. On the other hand Paul does in fact state pointedly his thesis for the passage, if not the Galatian epistle: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (3:29).

As in many cultures today, in ancient Israel the inheritance of the father favored the eldest son. Adoption in Christ, really the encapsulating theme here, entitles all who are in Christ to the rights of the firstborn son. We are sons with Christ. He has gone ahead to prepare a place for us in His, and our, Father’s house (John 14:2-3; 20:17). Gal 3:28 proclaims with conviction, not that social and gender distinctions are no more, but that soteriologically, covenantally, in Christ all have the rights and privileges of the first-born son—as Paul says most memorably in the verses immediately following:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son in our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!’ ‘Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:4-7).

Even though the central image is of a son, a privileged male child, the soteriological abundance declared here is a far more glorious achievement than the social equalization competing interpretations find in 3:28.

Reductio: The Boomerang Effect of Organism/Institution Conflation

Equal access to grace must be clearly distinguished from the organization of the church and qualification for church office. If Gal 3:28 is about qualification for church office, then ordination to church office is fulfillment of this verse. If Christians ordained to church office are by virtue of ordination receiving the full blessing of Gal 3:28, then those not ordained, by implication, are not equal beneficiaries of the inheritance as those who are ordained. But Gal 3:28 clearly abolishes elitism and privilege; all are entitled equally to the grace of Christ, himself the inheritance of Abraham. So all are entitled; but only some receive, and since ordination and this special dispensation of grace place the fortunate few in authority over the rest, the impression is clearly given that the whole organization is captive to self-perpetuating elitism. This is an uncharitable read, perhaps, but the substance is there, and over time those left out will get the message. Gal 3:28 says all who are of Christ are heirs of Abraham. If this means also that all are entitled to church office, then all Christians must be ordained. And in a way they are; it is called baptism.

The church as organism, in the language of the Dutch Calvinists, is the whole body of Christ—man, woman, and child of every tribe, tongue, nation, here or there, of years past, of the present, or of years to come. Every person in whom the Spirit has worked to bring the sinner to Christ is a part of the body of Christ, the church organism. The church as organism is no more visible to the naked eye than the work of the Spirit; its substance is invisible, but its work and fruit are evident. And while each member of the body is assigned, by Christ, his own role in the function of the whole organism (1 Cor 12), all possess the whole Christ;  those brought in at the last hour (gentiles, etc.) have equal access to the throne of grace (Matt 20:1-16). If this were not true, then the Jews would be able to claim, by the will of man, by virtue of flesh and blood (John 1:13), first class citizenship in heaven. But there is neither Jew nor Greek.

The church as institution is the visible organization of the body. The organization is given in Scripture, not invented by creatures. This is because the organization is of the body of Christ, the creation of which is a gracious act of God alone. We cannot blend the traditions of men with the grace of God, any more than works create or enable grace; we cannot bring to God what we choose to bring; he must be worshipped according to his own gracious establishment (Nadab and Abihu). Jesus said, quoting his Bible, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:19).

In the institution, there are those who govern, teach, shepherd, oversee, even discipline. Those who labor in teaching and preaching are worthy of double honor (1 Tim 5:17). But the foot, Paul says, is no less a part of the body than the hand, nor the ear than the eye. “As it is,” Paul writes, “there are many parts but one body” (1 Cor 12:15-16, 20). As to organism, in other words, or in the terms of Gal 4, as to inheritance as adopted sons of God, no one receives double, no one receives half, and the only office with currency is ‘in Him’.