“The Meaning of "One in Christ"”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons

In our Bible reading for this week, we’re going to encounter Galatians 3:28.  It contains one of the most stirring calls to spiritual unity in the entire Bible.  Here, Paul tells us that because we have been clothed with Christ in baptism, there are no longer Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female in Him. 

We probably should understand this as a reaction to the ancient Pharisee prayer, recorded in the Talmud, in which the pray-er thanks God for not making him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.  Paul is pointing out that the things on which the Pharisee based his self-worth are no longer meaningful under the new covenant.

However, in recent years, this passage has become a rallying cry for those who wish to erase the Biblical distinctions in role between men and women.  If indeed there is no male nor female in Jesus, the argument goes, then anything that a man can do in worship, a woman also can do.

This is what people take from Paul’s words here, but is that really the result that Paul intended?  For that matter, does this argument represent the fulfillment of the spirit of Christianity, or is something else going on here?  Let’s consider these issues as we look at the meaning of being one in Christ.

I will freely acknowledge that especially in our time, the no-more-gender-roles argument has considerable appeal.  However, I see two significant problems with it.  The first is that it takes a statement that Paul was making about value and makes it about role instead. 

Let me explain.  First of all, it’s obvious that in Galatians 3:28, Paul is speaking metaphorically .  It is not literally true that once you are baptized, you cease to have cultural background, legal status, and sex characteristics.  Instead, Paul is saying that once you are baptized, other Christians regard you differently in some way.

There are two possibilities here.  The first has to do with value.  As the Pharisee’s prayer shows, 2000 years ago, some people definitely were valued less than others.  To the Pharisee, the Greek slave woman was at the bottom of the heap!  What Paul could be saying, then, is that in Christ, there is no difference in worth between the Pharisee and the slave woman.

Alternatively, what Paul could be saying is that in Christ, the difference in role between these various groups is erased.  Even though the woman is still a woman, for instance, now she is free to act like a man, and no one should stop her from doing so.

The best way to decide between these two alternatives is to see which one better lines up with the rest of Paul’s writing.  Does Paul seem to think that in Christ, there are no longer different expectations in behavior for these groups, that they all should act the same?  Or, instead, do these different groups continue to behave differently, even though in Christ they have the same value?

To test these competing claims, let’s look at only one book:  1 Corinthians.  In 1 Corinthians, does Paul write as though he thinks there is no longer a difference in role and behavior between the various Galatians 3:28 groups?

The answer here is obvious.  In 1 Corinthians 7:20-22, Paul speaks specifically to slaves, telling them that their salvation has not changed their earthly condition.  Unless they can legally become free, they are to remain as slaves.  In 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul reveals that when he was around observant Jews, he himself behaved like a Jew, respecting their cultural beliefs.  Finally, in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul distinguishes between the way that Corinthian men were to pray and Corinthian women were to pray. 

This is just one Pauline epistle, and it’s not even all the relevant examples in the epistle.  It’s clear that Paul believed that all the role differences between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female were not erased.  Each of these groups still should behave in the way that was appropriate for them.  We must conclude that Galatians 3:28 is about value, not role.

Second, and more insidiously, when we decide that we are going to treat these categories the same, we are IMPORTING WORLDLY VALUES into the church.  By this, I don’t merely mean that we are following a worldly pattern.  Instead, we are adopting a worldly system of values.

This problem is most obvious when it comes to cultural distinction.  I’m reminded of a story a brother told me once that when Russia was opened to the gospel in the 1990s, some American Christians who went there to preach also attempted to teach the Russians Stamps-Baxter hymns to use in worship. 

They did this even though the Russian Orthodox Church has a hauntingly beautiful tradition of a-cappella singing in worship that is much older than our own.  If you’re not familiar with it, look up Russian Orthodox chant on YouTube sometime.  However, these American brethren thought that it wasn’t enough for the Russians to worship God in a lawful way that was culturally appropriate for them.  They had to worship God in a way that was culturally appropriate for Americans.

This kind of cultural bulldozing is exactly the opposite of what Paul is trying to encourage.  His point is emphatically not “There is no American nor Russian in Christ so Russians should worship like Americans!”  Instead, every culture, every race can find its own equally valuable voice in worship.  Those are distinctions that we should preserve.

The same holds true for men and women.  Lurking underneath the argument that women should assume male roles in worship is the conviction that male roles are somehow better, that the woman who serves God privately is less important than the man who serves God conspicuously.  Thus, the only way for her to become valuable and important is for her to start doing public things.  If that’s not true, if the woman is doing equally valuable and important things in the kingdom right now, then why the big push for change?

The problem is, though, that if we don’t place equal value and importance on the traditional service of women, we are no better than the American preachers who didn’t place equal value on the traditional worship of Russians.  It’s nothing but worldliness.  As Jesus points out in Luke 22:25-27, greatness in the kingdom does not come from authority and prominence.  It comes from humility in service. 

Because of our different gifts and different positions, not all of us can serve the same way.  However, every one of us can imitate, and indeed must imitate, the servant’s heart of Jesus.  Here at Jackson Heights, that servant’s heart is evident in so many of our women.  In no way are the female members here inferior in their gifts, their skills, or their education to the men here, and they wholeheartedly use all of those things to build up the church.

The sisters here are active in teaching other women, girls, and children.  They organize and prep for classes, in addition to carrying out a host of other vital administrative functions.  They prepare the Lord’s Supper.  They clean the church building.  They visit the sick and the shut-ins.  They call, text, and send cards to brethren they’re concerned about.  They invite outsiders to our assemblies.  They fix meals for brethren who are dealing with the loss of a loved one or otherwise going through a rough patch.  All that’s just off the top of my head; there’s probably a bunch of stuff that I’m forgetting!

In order for this congregation to fall apart, all those women wouldn’t have to leave.  They would just have to stop doing what they’re doing.  As Paul says in his discussion of the body of the local church in 1 Corinthians 12, all of us have been given a necessary role in the body by God, and the health of the whole depends on each part doing its part. The women of this congregation don’t have to take on male roles to become valuable, important, and God-pleasing.  They are valuable, important, and God-pleasing already.