Here’s a confession – I’m not always too fond of change. Not too long ago, I bought a new drink bottle that caused me a bit of trouble to start with. It sucks the water up through a straw. It took me a while to get it into my head that I had to hold the bottle upright, instead of tipping it up when I want to drink the water at the bottom. It just didn’t feel natural!
That’s a rather natural human instinct, isn’t it? When something is new, and particularly if it is counter-intuitive as well, we struggle to adapt. When you move into a new house, and find that in one room, the light switch for the room to your right is on the left and vice versa, it takes a bit of effort before you can find the correct switch without hitting all the wrong ones first. When you get into a new car, the radio volume knob is in the wrong place, the lever for the rear windscreen wiper is presumably located somewhere, and as for the location of the lever to open the little flap so you can put some petrol in…meh. Likewise, when someone decides that flat bit of ground your feet are planted on is really round…well, there are apparently still folks out there who believe in a flat earth, and we’ve had centuries to wrap our heads around that one.
It’s so easy to assume that what is familiar is always right, and anything new is clearly wrong.
“This is the Wrong Kind of Change, Jesus!”
The disciples had a hard time grasping some of Jesus’ views, which sometimes seemed to turn everything they thought they knew backwards and inside out. If Jesus was the Messiah, then clearly He was going to rule Israel and sweep out those Roman invaders, and they wanted to be his right-hand men, sharing the power and the glory. Unimportant people like children would clearly be beneath the Messiah’s concern, and infidels like Samaritans clearly wouldn’t be on his Christmas card list. (Yeah, I know…have fun contemplating what the cards would have looked like and who Jesus would have sent them to if they had existed before Victorian Britain and if Christmas had actually been a “thing” back in Jesus’ day!) The disciples wanted change…but the change Jesus came to bring wasn’t what they expected or thought they needed.
New Reality of Life in Christ – Galatians 3:28
It wasn’t just during Jesus’ lifetime that His followers have struggled to understand the changes that resulted from his life, death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament, followers of the Way (as the Christian life was called at the beginning) were trying to figure out just how this new life in Christ would play out. Paul was the theological architect of much of that change.
Paul wrote about how the reality of being accepted by Christ would change the status of both the privileged and underdogs in Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Some commentators claim that this only speaks of our status in salvation – a position that doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you look at it carefully. There was never any suggestion in the Old Testament that slaves or women were not able to achieve salvation. While Judaism has never been a missionary religion in the manner of Christianity, there does not appear to have been a time when it did not accept converts. So if this verse is only talking about salvation, it seems almost redundant.
Let’s take a look at how being “in Christ” affected these three groups of people – Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free and men and women.
Changes for Jews and Gentiles
In Acts 10, a starving Peter fell into a trance while waiting for his lunch to be prepared, and was given the vision of a sheet lowered down, containing all kinds of animals – some of which were “unclean” and therefore unfit for human consumption according to Jewish law – with the message, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was scandalised at the thought of breaking this important dietary Law, but the voice in his vision rebuked him: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Immediately afterwards, three men sent by a Gentile centurion called Cornelius arrived at the door of the house where Peter was staying, with a request for Peter to come and tell him about Jesus. This was the beginning of the realisation that what God did for us through Jesus was for all people, not just Jews, and the breaking down of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles in the church began. (Note that the context of Acts 2, where people of many language groups hear the Gospel spoken in their own tongue, is of “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven,” not Gentiles.) It wasn’t an easy path, and there continued to be questions about how this would pan out for some decades as people tried to get their heads around questions like, “is circumcision still important?” There must have been so many more issues and disagreements over this than we hear about in the New Testament (and we hear about this issue really quite a lot!). I’m sure that there would have been some folks who would try to insist that they wouldn’t share a dish with those people in the love feast or who might have tried to make sure that Gentile believers applied all the rabbinic laws about the Sabbath to the new day of worship on Sundays.
In Paul’s day, “God-fearers” hovered on the edge of Judaism. While they followed Jewish beliefs and some practices, these Gentiles did not undertake full, formal conversion to Judaism. One particular obstacle to conversion for Greek men was the need to be circumcised, particularly because of the custom of exercising daily in the gymnasium completely naked – to be seen in public with no foreskin was not socially acceptable. So some very practical obstacles existed to whether a God-fearer could be considered truly righteous and fully accepted in religious observance. Paul’s understanding of the revolutionary change Christ brought through his death and resurrection led him to fully accept Gentiles – whether circumcised or not – into the church.
Change is difficult. (Sometimes really difficult.)
But in time, both Jews and Gentiles would not just be part of the body of Christ, but would take active roles in the leadership of the church and the spread of the Gospel.
Changes for Masters and Slaves
Some decades later in Colossae, Philemon – a wealthy Christian man, house church leader and possibly the first bishop of that city – had a problem in his household. One of his slaves, Onesimus, had run away. Onesimus had somehow found his way to Paul, who was at that time in prison. Here was a dilemma, because to be a runaway slave was a serious matter. If caught, Onesimus could have been branded on his forehead “fugitivus” (fugitive – a runaway slave), be returned to his master and have his bones or joints broken as a punishment. Paul did not have the legal right to keep the slave from his master, but he clearly didn’t want Onesimus to suffer. On the other hand, neither did he have the legal right to tell Philemon what to do with his property.
So on the basis of their shared faith, Paul pleaded with Philemon in an epistle to not only accept the fugitive back into the household, but to welcome him back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (1:16). Just as the Gospel had changed the status of Gentiles within the community of faith, Paul was clearly signalling that in the Lord, the status of a slave was to be considered differently to how society and the law of the land viewed the matter.
We don’t know how Philemon responded to Paul’s plea, but perhaps the preservation and distribution of this very personal letter shows that it was treasured not just by Philemon but by the Colossian church for changing their view of people of lower social and legal status. One hint as to how it turned out may be in the early church tradition that says that Onesimus became the bishop of the church at Ephesus and possibly also of Borea in Macedonia. The early church father Ignatius describes Onesimus in an epistle to the Ephesians as “a man of inexpressible love” and an “excellent bishop.”
Despite this glowing recommendation from Ignatius, I wonder what snubs Onesimus might have received from time to time in his role as bishop by those who couldn’t get over being expected to look up to a man who had previously been very much their social inferior. (If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, think of the many snubs directed toward Branson – the chauffeur – after he married Lady Sybil, even though his status was officially changed from servant to one of the “household”.) It is often in circumstances which go against the grain of our social expectations that we find it hardest to leave aside the “ways of the flesh” to live out what it means to be “in Christ.”
Change is difficult. (Sometimes, really difficult.)
For slaves in Christian households, while Paul could not expect to change the legal and economic structures of his society, the letter to Philemon makes it clear that Paul expects that the shared relationship of faith in Christ changes the status of the owner and slave in profound ways.
Slavery continued to be an accepted part of life for many centuries. But in time, Christians would lead the way in the abolition of slavery, and even today, many anti-slavery/anti-trafficking initiatives are led by Christian ministries which also seek to lift up former slaves by giving them education and employment to create a new life.
What About Changes for Men and Women?
So what about the third group Paul listed in this verse – men and women? If being “in Christ” changed the status or relationships of Jews and Gentiles and slaves and free persons, how did it change the status of the sexes?
In our contemporary Australian context (and more broadly, within the Western world), despite two centuries of feminism, and living in a society which regards the equality of men and women as a given (at least in theory), we frequently see evidence that demonstrates that women are not truly accepted as equals. This ranges from such ordinary situations as the “women – salads, men – BBQ” divide in social gatherings or the prevalence of sexist banter, to professional contexts where we see few women on conference platforms or in CEO roles.
For some reason, change seems incredibly difficult when it comes to gender even in our supposedly “progressive” and “enlightened” society. So what symbolic and practical changes signalled a new status for women in God’s Kingdom, and what effect did they have?
New Covenant, New Symbols
The symbols and milestones of the New Covenant and the underlying ideas of what it would mean to belong to God’s family would be equally applicable to men and women.
- Jesus chose women to be the first witnesses of the resurrection and commissioned them to be the first to proclaim the Gospel message. In a society which did not even credit women as valid witnesses, choosing women to communicate the unprecedented way in which God had stepped into salvation history to announce victory over death itself sent a strong message about how women would be regarded in the New Covenant. The work of spreading the Gospel and declaring the resurrected Christ would be a task for men and women alike.
2. Under the Old Covenant, the chief symbolic act signifying belonging to God’s covenant people was circumcision – a rite which by definition only encompassed men. In the New Covenant community, belonging was symbolised by undergoing baptism and partaking in communion – two rites which are equally for men and women.
3. On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came equally on men and women (the “all” in Acts 2:1 refers back to the gathered believers of Acts 1:12ff – a group which explicitly included women). Peter went on to use the words of the prophet Joel to explain that in God’s New Covenant, the Holy Spirit would indwell both men and women, and they would both exercise gifts given to them by the Spirit, such as the gift of prophecy:
‘“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”
(Note that “young men…old men” could also be simply be translated as “your young will see visions, your old will dream dreams.”)
4. In the Old Covenant, only men were priests, acting as mediators between people and God. As Peter explained in his first epistle, the New Covenant would be a priesthood of all believers (male and female), with only one mediator between God and humans – Jesus Christ.
Women on the Frontlines of Ministry
Just as Jesus had welcomed women as disciples and commissioned them to declare the Gospel, women would also play some key roles in the early church, particularly as associates of Paul.
The first known church in Europe, Philippi in Macedonia, was founded on the conversion of a woman called Lydia and her household.
Paul chose a woman deacon, Phoebe, to deliver his letter to the Romans. She would have been the first to teach the message of this key epistle to a local church.
In the Roman church, Paul greets more women than men in the context of their ministry roles, including an outstanding female apostle, Junia.
Paul’s associate, Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, exercised ministry in local churches as a house church leader, instructed Apollos – who would become a key leader in the church of Paul’s time – in essential Christian doctrine. The couple seems to have had a roving ministry in churches from Ephesus to Rome.
Chloe and Priscilla in Corinth – Phoebe in Cenchreae (and sent by Paul to Rome) – Lydia, Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi – Apphia and Nympha in Colossae – Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis in Rome – Priscilla (yet again) in Ephesus – all women whose leadership was vital in the apostolic church. Paul established at least one church (Philippi) with a woman, left a husband-wife team in the leadership of another (Ephesus), worked alongside women in a broad range of ministry roles (including co-workers, house church leaders, a deacon and an apostle), wrote greetings to women leaders, and sent a woman deacon to deliver and teach on at least one epistle. The evidence from Paul’s ministry shows that this man who many consider a misogynist was possibly the chief advocate of women’s new status in Christ. A well-known book by F.F Bruce called Paul the “apostle of the heart set free” – perhaps it is equally possible for us to call him the “apostle of women set free in Christ.”
Change is difficult, but Paul fully embraced the changed status of women in Christ, and so should we.
A Galatians 3:28 Vision
Paul envisioned a church where Jews and Gentiles would worship and serve God together equally; where slaves and free persons would have equal value and place their relationship in Christ ahead of their social and economic status; and in which women would be valued as equal partners in ministry. Being “in Christ” would eclipse all other social, legal and religious divisions. As we seek to live faithfully to God and His Word in this era, it is time that we put Paul’s vision of an “in Christ” community in Galatians 3:28 into practice in every aspect of our churches.
Change is difficult, but it is what God calls us to as we strive to fully live “in Christ.”
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