There are times when all of a sudden a familiar Scripture is seen in new light. This happened to me when reading Stephen Cottrell’s latest book, Dear England: Finding Hope, Taking Heart and Changing the World. For in the context of Stephen Cottrell draws attention to “the slight, but significant difference in language” the Apostle Paul used about relationships between on the one hand Jew and Greek, and slave and free; and on the other hand between men and women. I confess that I had never noticed that in the NRSV (similarly the NIV & ESV) Gal 3.28 reads (emphasis mine):
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ”
By contrast the Revised New Jerusalem Bible & the old RSV translate the Greek conjunction “and” as “or”; while the GNB & REB, as also The Message, translate all the conjunctions as “and”. According to F.F. Bruce, who started his academic career as a Classicist and only later became a New Testament scholar, there is “no substantial change in meaning” and that Paul’s change of language is caused by a reference to Gen 1.27 where we read that God created “male and female”. Some conservatives have argued that because “male” precedes “female” Paul was inferring that men are superior to women, but this is certainly not the case in Genesis where men and women are to exercise “dominion” over creation but not over one another (Gen 1.28): patriarchy is the result of the Fall (Gen 3.16). Nor is male superiority supported by Paul’s argument in Gal 3.28.
Stephen Cottrell has a slightly different approach. He suggests that the differences between Jew and Greek and slave and free were “a consequence of religious and political difference”, which now in Christ could find a unity. By contrast:
Man and woman speak of an existing unity that was part of the way humanity had been created, but also confronts the cultural hegemony that had arisen in gender relationships. However, in Christ male and female will be given a greater unity. These words, therefore, affirm, and at the same time transcend, the very earliest descriptions of humanity where we are made in the image of God with our complementarity and difference. One is not superior, or above the other, though we have made it that way. Therefore, in Christ there is a new abundant and strengthened unity.
I find that an attractive interpretation. However, whether or not Stephen Cottrell is right, one thing is clear. Paul is saying that despite our differences, whether in today’s terms they be of race or colour, or gender or of social background, in Christ all are equal. As John Stott commented: “When we say that Christ has abolished these distinctions, we mean not that they do not exist, but they do not mater. They are still there, but they no longer create any barriers of fellowship. We recognise each other as equals”. Or in the challenging words of F.F. Bruce: “Superiority and inferiority of status or esteem could have no place in the society whose Founder laid it down that among his followers ‘whoever would be first… must be slave of all’ (Mark 10.44)”.
Unfortunately when it comes to gender the church of Christ has often been slower to give equal opportunities. In the Church of England, for instance, women could not be ordained until 1994; while the first woman bishop was not consecrated until 2015. Other denominations may have ordained women much earlier, but nonetheless many Free Churches also often have their own glass ceilings. The same is often true of equal opportunities in church life for ‘people of colour’. My experience is that in many white majority churches whites are slow to share positions of ‘power’ with others. By God’s grace we are “all one in Christ Jesus”. Yet all of us still need to work hard to become what by God’s grace we are!