Monday, March 23, 2009

Equal in Essence, Distinct In Function: A Response to Gordon Fee's Exegesis of Galatians 3:26-28

The following is an article I wrote last month in response to Gordon Fee's chapter entitled "Male and Female in the New Creation," which appeared in the collaborative work "Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy." My hope is that reader interaction would result in a humble and Scripture-centered examination of this crucial issue.

Gordon D. Fee is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College. He is a prolific author and articulate theologian, whose exegetical skills have been frequently utilized, most notably in his contributions to the New International Commentary on the New Testament. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God, and received his Ph.D. from the University of California.
The classic exegetical argument for egalitarians who believe all ecclesiastical offices and functions should be open to women has its foundation in Galatians 3:26-29. Based on this text, evangelical egalitarians contend that Paul is eliminating all social and ceremonial distinction within the body of Christ and therefore, is eliminating any barrier to service based on the criteria listed in the text. Since the distinction between “male and female” (v. 28) is among the barriers Paul seeks to remove, the classical egalitarian argument has been that to prohibit women from serving as pastors is tantamount to replacing the very wall of separation in Christ’s body that Paul himself sought to tear down.
Evangelical complementarians have historically responded to this rationale by affirming the soteriological implications of gender equality delineated in this passage, while simultaneously contending that the Pauline rationale behind the Galatian correspondence does not address the particular gender functions within the body of Christ. In short, the complementarian hermeneutic of this passage is that while the soteriological principles contained therein require the elimination of distinctions, Biblical principles of ecclesiology place both genders, equal in essence, into distinct functions within Christ’s body. These functions are not described in detail in Galatians because, say complementarians, the primary focus of this letter is not ecclesiological. To discover gender role distinctions in the church, the appropriate place to look is the Pastoral Epistles, which deal more particularly with church order. In short, complementarians contend that while the Galatians passage indeed makes all of humanity equal in Christ, this equality is only truly realized when men and women work within the church, within their Biblically defined roles. More succinctly, Galatians teaches equality in salvation, while the Pastoral Epistiles teach complementarity within the church.
Yet in his article entitled Male and Female in the New Creation, Fee seeks to overturn the classic complementarian argument by asserting that Galatians is in fact a primarily ecclesiological work. His own egalitarian views are in fact informed by his view that “the specifics of this passage itself indicate that this text has to do with Paul’s ecclesiology” (184). The process by which Fee arrives at this conclusion, and an exegetical response to his contentions, are the subject of the rest of this paper.
Fee begins his chapter by introducing the crux of the exegetical debate; namely whether the Galatians passage is “limited to the justifying work of Christ alone, or does it include other aspects of life in the believing community as well?” (172). With this question in view, he proceeds with an isogogical analysis of the surrounding texts as a way of making the case for his view of the primary issue Paul addressed in the letter. Galatians, according to Fee, is Paul’s response to the crisis of “Christian ‘agitators’” who “had infiltrated these Gentile churches insisting that men be circumcised . . .the crucial item of a larger agenda of Torah observance that would have included the Sabbath and food laws as well” (173). On this point evangelicals of both the complemetarian and egalitarian viewpoints agree.
The first point of contention, as Fee sees it, is the particular historical lens through which this text is received. “Traditionally,” he states, “it [the strategy for reading Paul’s response] has been to read it through the eyes of Martin Luther” (173). Fee of course is referring to Luther’s monolithic understanding of Galatians 2:16 as applied to his own 16th century historical context. To view the Galatian correspondence only in this light is, according to Fee, “a slightly skewed reading strategy” (173). While Fee sees the theological concept of justification by faith as a primary theme of the letter, he views this theme alone as insufficient to procure a correct reading of the entire epistle.
As Fee sees it, the larger issue pressed in the letter is that of bringing together Jew and Gentile as one people of God. According to Fee, the bigger crisis in Paul’s mind “has to do with whether Gentiles get in on the promise to Abraham . . .without also taking on Jewish identity; especially those marks of identity that specifically distinguished Jews from Gentiles in the Diaspora (circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws)” (174). In other words, the issue of Justification by Faith is to be viewed within the larger framework of the inclusion of non-“God-fearing” Gentiles among the people of God. To make his case, Paul argues in a two-fold way for the “temporary, thus secondary, nature of the law” (175), and then concludes his argument with the passage currently under consideration, contending that the true heirs of the Abrahamic promise are those who have become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28b).
After making his case for the primary purpose of Galatians, Fee then proceeds to cast what he sees as the primary issue of this letter within the larger theological motif of the “new creation.” If Jew and Gentile now relate to God on the same terms, then this reality is grounded in Paul’s own conviction “that Christ and the Spirit have ushered in God’s promised ‘new creation,’ which is now awaiting its final eschatological consummation (Gal 6:15)” (177). Fee proceeds from this point to describe new creation theology, and then moves to draw implications of this theological method for the gender issue under consideration in his article. Primarily, Fee contends that new creation theology implies that “equality” not only applies to salvation, but to the entire created order. Thus, “one must begin by taking Paul seriously with regard to ethnicity, status and gender no longer being relevant for constituting value and social identity in the new creation” (179). Furthermore, Fee asserts that this new order has a strong eschatological tone, which would have been “the primary way the earliest believers understood their existence” (179). Such thinking, Fee contends, is largely foreign to the Western mind, which is mostly accustomed to a culture of equality and thus, unfamiliar to a large extent with how radically counter-cultural Paul’s statements would have been to first-century readers. Fee states that the “nature of this affirmation, its counter-cultural significance, the fact that it equally disadvantages all by equally advantaging all—these stab at the very heart of a culture sustained by people’s maintaining the right position and status. But in Christ Jesus . . .all things have become new; the new era has dawned” (180) Fee then spends the next several paragraphs extrapolating from “new creation” texts (such as that found in 1 Corinthians 7) how these implications affected the Christian culture of the first century. Within the body of Christ for example, no preference is to be given for kosher meals, and no disadvantage placed because of one’s status as a slave. Such distinctions “mean nothing in the new creation” (182).
Fee then applies the aforementioned new creation principles to the relationship of male and female, and in so doing, begins moving back toward the text under consideration with this assumption. In the newly created and Christ-centered home, the wife is no longer merely a member of the husband’s home, but is “in relationship to him” (184). Because they are both members of the one body without distinction, Fee contends that husband and wife are, “first of all brother and sister in Christ” (184). Fee’s conclusion on this basis is that “either may prophesy or teach (1 cor. 14:26)—which are matters of Spirit gifting, not gender—as long as some cultural norms that distinguish male and female were maintained (1 Cor. 11:2-16)” (184). In short, Fee’s logic is that if one is not disqualified from certain church offices and functions because he is a Gentile, or because he is a slave, then neither should a woman be disqualified based merely on her gender. He concludes this chapter by asserting that “to give continuing significance to a male-authority viewpoint for men and women, whether at home or in the church, is to reject the new creation in favor of the norms of a fallen world” (185).
Critical Analysis of Fee’s Exegesis
Before noting the many points of disagreement with Fee, it serves to point out the many places where Fee and other egalitarians find much common ground with their complementarian counterparts. First of all, there is general agreement regarding the overall theme of the Galatian correspondence; namely, the call for understanding that the people of God, Jew or Gentile, are all “one” in Christ. Though it is an oversimplification to claim this as the central theme, Fee will find no complementarian in disagreement with the notion that because of Christ, all distinctions, social and otherwise, become of no advantage or disadvantage. Paul’s declaration that “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v.28) emphasizes a truth found in both didactic and narrative literature throughout the entire New Testament corpus; all ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross.
Second, Fee is to be commended for his strong emphasis regarding the essential equality of male and female. In Christ, gender is “no longer . . .relevant for constituting value and social identity in the new creation” (179). Though the Scriptures clearly delineate functional distinctions between male and female in the home and church—distinctions which will be defined and discussed later—Fee emphasizes well that because of the Gospel, one’s gender does not add or take away dignity or value, nor is one gender rendered inferior to the other. Contrary to Fee’s assumptions, complementarian theologians gladly stand with him in this contention.
Furthermore, though he apparently (and wrongly) believes that the complementarian viewpoint is one which generically places men above women, Fee is to be commended for reminding the body of Christ that the Biblical “chain of authority” is never to be understood as all women being subject to all men. Such a contention should serve as a solemn reminder to complementarian thinkers that maleness in and of itself does not warrant authority in the church or in the home. The insipid chauvinism this writer has witnessed in a few evangelical churches is a by-product of this misunderstanding, and those within Christ’s body who subscribe to and apply such a faulty hermeneutic should be strongly rebuked.
Third, complementarians can applaud Fee’s emphasis of the first-century, counter-cultural nature of Pauline thought. “It is difficult,” states Fee, “for us to imagine the effect of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 in a culture where position and status preserved order through basically uncrossable boundaries, and where attempting to cross those boundaries brought shame instead of honor” (180). Indeed, even in the Pastoral Epistles, in the very texts where complementarians make their case for male headship, Paul insists that women “learn” and establishes a discipleship paradigm in which younger women turn to older, seasoned, and theologically-inclined women for instruction. The Gospel injected into a “male-only” culture like that of the first century gives the due respect and honor to being female, and Fee is to be commended for reminding us of this Pauline value.

Finally, Fee’s emphasis on the “new creation theology” of the New Testament and its place in the Galatian correspondence is a necessary reminder that the Gospel brings the male-female roles and relationships into the appropriate balance by redeeming each and setting it back in its intended place. The final application between Fee and complementarian thinkers is very different. Still, Fee’s emphasis on this truth reminds complementarians that the very male authority Fee rejects is given so that men can better fulfill the responsibilities he affirms, and not for the sake of male authority alone.
At the same time, an honest evaluation of Fee’s work on this passage must deal straightforwardly with several inconsistencies and errors. Primarily, Fee’s assumption that the soteriology of Galatians is secondary to its ecclesiology is simply without basis in the text, and when this hermeneutic is expanded, it leads to more error, such as the assumption that the essential equality of male and female in 3:28 predicates the inclusion of women at all levels of service to the church. To be sure, the soteriological themes of the letter naturally have application in the life of the church. At the same time, the letter is written with an almost exclusive emphasis on the restoration of the Gospel at Galatia. How this emphasis informs other issues such as social distinctions and church life are ancillary, if valid, concerns.
Beginning with verse 6 of the first chapter, Paul sets the most serious tone established in any of his letters. In observing the theme of these verses, MacArthur points out the great danger of Jews who had made only a superficial profession of faith, then quickly reverted to Judaism “and sought to make Christianity an extension of their traditional system of works righteousness” (MacArthur 1987, 13). This Judaizing contention that Gentiles must be circumcised was the worst of heresies in the mind of Paul, who cursed those who would promote such a message because it was “another Gospel” (1:6). Thus, the theme of Galatians “is that true freedom comes only through Jesus Christ” (MacArthur, 14). Likewise, the late F.F. Bruce contends that Paul’s aim in Galatians is to denounce the teaching of the Judaizers “as a perversion of the true gospel of Christ” (Bruce 1982, 19). These observations, along with a straightforward reading of the text itself, demonstrate that the main focus of the Galatian correspondence is salvation. Thus, Fee’s belief that a supposed ecclesiastical emphasis grants equal access to all offices and functions of the church to both male and female is without textual foundation.
Secondly, Fee contends that the complementarian approach to the gender issue is tantamount to full capitulation to the reality of the fall. To accept male leadership “in the home or in the church is to reject the new creation in favor of the norms of a fallen world” (185). This assumption is shared by other egalitarian authors like Richard Hess, who dedicates an entire chapter to the view that God’s ultimate aim is for equality in function as well as essence, and that any hierarchy is the direct result of the fall.
More specifically, Hess believes that “God’s judgment included for the woman hard work alongside her husband in addition to bearing children. She would also have a desire to rule him, though he would end up ruling her” (94). Fee shares this sentiment, believing that male leadership “usurps the work of the Spirit not only in the wife and her relationship to God but also in the church—the expression of the new order and new humanity that is already present, even while it is yet to be” (185).
Yet the history of the fall in Genesis 3 is precisely the reason for Paul’s prohibition of women from holding a position of church authority in 1 Timothy 2. Though Paul’s later comments in 2 Timothy and Titus seem to negate the possibility that he was seeking to prevent women from any and all teaching roles, Thomas Lea well notes that the “normative principle behind Paul’s directive is that the woman should not carry out the role of senior pastor” (Lea 1992, 100). Furthermore, Paul’s invocation of Jewish primogeniture to establish male leadership in the home appeals to the created order prior to the fall. Therefore, Fee’s contention that asserting male leadership is equivalent to accepting the “norms” of a fallen world is actually found to be inverse to the very logic Paul uses elsewhere in the New Testament to establish male headship in the home and church.
Similarly, Fee’s view that Paul’s instructions regarding male headship were grounded in the culture of the first century is also suspect upon closer examination. As regards male headship in the home, Fee contends that Paul’s ideal is total equality without hierarchy, yet in the same breath states that Paul was willing to concede on certain cultural issues. If indeed Paul intends to eliminate hierarchical roles in the body of Christ, one might ask why he would be willing, as Fee suggests, to “yield on certain cultural matters so as not to predicate the shame on lesser things” (181)? Furthermore, Fee’s belief that Paul capitulates in certain areas on this issue is to suggest, even if unintentionally, that Paul himself is “settling” for the norms of a fallen world rather than embracing the new creation that God intended.
In fact, the preferred and more consistent way to view texts like Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and 1 Timothy 2 is to see them as their author sees them. Although Fee rightly points out that Paul “radicalizes” the household norms of the first century, he mistakenly views Paul’s establishment of household hierarchy as instruction grounded in the culture of that day. In fact, Paul’s own words put this notion to rest, and clarify that the reason for his emphasis on male headship is that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13). Thus, Paul’s insistence on male headship in the home and church is not grounded in the culture of the first century, or even in the fall. Instead, male headship is grounded in the created order itself, and understood best through the lens of Jewish primogeniture.
Evangelical egalitarianism, unlike liberal feminism, deserves recognition for seeking to make its case under the authority of Scripture. Egalitarians of an evangelical bent have no desire to capitulate to culture merely for the sake of culture. Instead, they sincerely believe their position to be grounded in a sound hermeneutic of God’s inerrant Word. Egalitarian theologians such as Gordon Fee strongly affirm Scriptural inerrancy, the deity of Jesus Christ, the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation, the necessity of the new birth, and the promise of the life to come. And like their complementarian counterparts, they care much about the church as God’s vehicle of redemption in the world, and forward their arguments because they firmly believe such arguments will help mold the church into a genuine “new creation” community.
With this in view, there is much on which complementarians can agree with their egalitarian counterparts. There is much that can be accomplished when these two groups work together on issues of common concern. At the same time, this debate cannot simply be treated as a tertiary theological issue tantamount to one’s eschatology or view of spiritual gifts. The issues under discussion in the gender role debate go right to the heart of the created order, and color one’s view of a wide variety of issues crucial to the life and health of God’s church. Those representing the egalitarian viewpoint in Discovering Biblical Equality, including Gordon Fee, also understand the gravity of this discussion. Hence, the forcefulness with which they each make their arguments. This writer considers it a privilege to interact with a brilliant and dedicated brother in Christ. Yet even more important is that a Biblically-sound response be given so that the church can be led as God intends, and consequently, become the community of “new creation” to which Fee aspires.

Bruce, F.F. 1982. “The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians.” The New International Greek Testament Commentary. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Garque, eds. Exeter: Paternoster Press.
Fee, Gordon D. 2005. “Male and Female in the New Creation.” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, eds. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Lea, Thomas D. and Hayne Griffin. 1992. “1, 2 Timothy and Titus.” The New American Commentary. David Dockery, ed. Nashville: Broadman Press.
Longenecker, Richard N. 1990. “Galatians.” Word Biblical Commentary. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds. Dallas: Word Publishing.
MacArthur, John. 1987. “Galatians.” The MacArtuhur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody Bible Institute.