A Case for Christian Egalitarianism

The past two posts in this series on Ephesians have explored the controversial household codes from Ephesians 5.21-6.9. I’ve made the argument that, while Paul — in his relatable struggle to manage the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ of Christian life — left the structures of ancient Mediterranean society intact, he sought to improve the lives of those without power by demanding that the powerful radically change how they understood and enacted their power over others. At the same time, I have also recognized that Paul’s compromise here still leaves those without power at the mercy of their husbands, parents, and masters, and is therefore deeply unsatisfying and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Today I’d like to make a biblical and theological case for Christian egalitarianism, in terms of gender dymamics, culture, ethnicity, race, and socio-economic status.

There can be no question that the New Testament teaches a fundamental equality among humanity. This is most famously expressed in Galatians 3.28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” A similar formula (though not including references to gender) is found in Colossians 3.11: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, enslaved and free, but Christ is all and in all!” (cf., 1 Corinthians 12.13). This was a theological consequence of the early Christians’ belief that what God had done in Jesus had undone the divisions caused by the Fall.

In the beginning, all humanity — male and female together — was created in the image and likeness of God; the power differential between the sexes did not come in until Adam and Eve broke faith with God and each other (Genesis 3.16). Patriarchy was not, according to the biblical record, something in God’s original intention, but a consequence of sin. If we believe that God’s actions in and through Jesus restored humanity to the possibility of right relationships with God and each other, then it stands to reason that this consequence of sin would similarly be righted. Jesus’ own example lives this out: In direct opposition to the mores of his day, he did not shy away from speaking with women in public or private spaces, whether strangers like the Samaritan woman or the bleeding woman, or close friends like Mary and Martha.

A similar dynamic plays out in terms of ethnicity and culture. We are told too that cultural divisions were a result of sin (Genesis 11). These divisions were put into even starker relief in the biblical narrative when God chose one nation to be a special representative on earth of God’s ways. But, as Ephesians itself argues, it had always been God’s plan, though hidden for centuries in mystery, for all of the word’s peoples to be blessed and incorporated, without assimilation, into the people of God. Again, we see this play out in Jesus’ life. Despite some initial (possibly tongue-in-cheek) reservations, he extended his ministry to those outside the Jewish community, healing the daughter of a Phoenician woman and the slave of a Roman centurion, and even making a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables.

On a social level, the Epistle of James insists that the poor and rich be treated with equal honour in the community (James 2.1-6), and Paul requests the slave-owner Philemon receive his escaped slave Onesimus as a brother (Philemon 8-17). And, of course, there is the famous claim in Acts 4.32 that “no one [among the Christians] claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” All of this, we must add, is built on top of a strong Hebrew and Jewish tradition of challenging the institution of slavery. The founding narrative of the Hebrew people involves God freeing an enslaved people from bondage and establishing them as a free and independent nation of their own. This inherited Jewish idea of salvation as emancipation was a very real one for the early Christians and continues to inspire to this day.

While the incorporation of non-Jewish Christians, and Christians of low socio-economic status into Christian leadership became so widespread so quickly as not be worth comment, there also is evidence that this was at least at first true for women as well. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes that the very household codes that argue against this movement speak to its existence:

Ephesians 5:22-33 is not a descriptive but a “should” or prescriptive statement. It does not state that [women] are willingly subjecting themselves to their men. Rather, it is an imperative statement: [Women] should submit themselves to their own men in everything.*

This implies that at least some women in the Church understood their freedom in Christ to permit them a status as full members and participants in the life and leadership of the community. To this we must add figures like Prisca, a leading missionary in the earliest days of Christian witness in Asia Minor, and Nympha, who hosted the Christian gatherings in her home, the deacon Phoebe, and Junia, whom Paul calls “honored among the apostles.” Other women whose leadership in the Church is mentioned and commended in the New Testament include: Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16), Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4.2-3), Apphia (Philemon 2), and Lydia (Acts 16.4). Beyond the Bible itself, ancient Christian legends have women like Mary Magdalene, already known as the Apostle to the Apostles for being the first witness of the resurrection, and the Samaritan woman (called in the tradition ‘St. Photine’) undertake impressive apostolic endeavours of their own, and were memorialized with the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

There is also evidence that at least some early Christian communities would use their common funds to emancipate enslaved converts among them. While he advocates against it, the practice is mentioned by St. Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to Polycarp).

So there is quite a bit of evidence that many early Christians understood themselves to represent a radically new way of life, in which all of the old divisions and power structures were dismantled in the name of a new-found equality as adopted siblings in the household of God.

At the same time, we also do have to acknowledge that there are alternate ways of reading the story. It’s striking that Galatians’ triumphant claim that there is no longer ‘male or female’ in Christ is missing from its parallel passages. Schüssler Fiorenza argues this, along with the conservative aspects of the household codes and the command in 1 Timothy 2.12 for women to be silent during worship, is evidence of an intentional stifling of early Christian egalitarianism by leaders of the Church in the late- or post-apostolic age. It is an intriguing hypothesis and we certainly see a more kyriarchically-structured Church emerge in the second century to what we might expect from reading Acts and the early Pauline writings.

But, as I like to say, when looking at texts from other time periods or cultures, what should jump out to us is not the ways they go along with their cultural norms, but the ways they break with them. Change is hard, and legitimate social change is even harder. There is so much inertia working in favour of the status quo. So it doesn’t surprise me, even as it disappoints me, to see Christianity’s initial egalitarian impulses quelled as time went on and the joy, excitement, and anticipation of the new faith was muted by understandable-but-dispiriting concerns about governance, order, propriety, and reputation. But this should not silence the original revolutionary excitement of verses like Galatians 3.28.

Moreover, our Scriptures are diverse by their very nature. The Bible is a library, not a book. It contains different perspectives and ideas. For every Amos, who minimizes Israel’s self-understanding as uniquely ‘chosen’ by God, or Isaiah, who imagines a day when the whole world would participate in Judah’s pilgrimage festivals, there is an Ezra who insists that exiles wanting to return to Judah divorce their foreign wives. For every Deuteronomy 23.1, which excludes eunuchs from participating in the community of faith, there is an Isaiah 56, which happily welcomes faithful eunuchs in a place of a honour. The point is, when faced with a diversity of stories in our sacred Scriptures, we have the freedom to choose which one we will highlight, which thread we will follow, which story we will tell as our own. And, when presented with a legitimate choice of a story in which God’s grace destroys every consequence of our sin, including unequal gender and racial relations, why wouldn’t we take it? (And if we choose not to, we should really ask ourselves why we prefer the smaller story.)

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

“There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28)


* For more information, please see the Bibliography for this series.

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