The Freedom Baptism Brings

Describing the new community of the baptized, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free”—and then you’d expect him to follow it up with “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). But he doesn’t. He breaks the rhythm of the sentence and writes, “there is no longer male and female” (ouk eni arsen kai thelu). He trades in the “neither/nor” structure and substitutes instead the simple conjunction “and” (kai), which is puzzling.

Numerous readers have noticed that Paul is here alluding to the Greek version of Genesis 1:27, which reads: “God made man; according to the image of God, he made him; male and female he made them.” The implication, then, of Paul’s words would seem to be that there is something about the structure of creation itself that is now being altered or reconfigured by the work of Christ. As the great biblical scholar J. Louis Martyn has put it, there seems to be in view here a “new creation in which the building blocks of the old creation are said to be nonexistent.”

Because of that apparent implication, many advocates of same-sex marriage in the Church today would appeal to Galatians 3:28 in support of their position. Since Paul pictures the demolition of the original creation of sexual difference—sexual difference is, in Christ, “no longer” present!—then we are free to practice a form of marriage that need not be determined by sexual difference at all. Men can marry men, and women can marry women, because “there is no longer male and female.”

But in context, of course, that’s not the conclusion Paul himself draws. The argument of Galatians 3 turns on the question of who counts as a true son—the masculine is important here, given the rights of firstborn males in ancient cultures—of Abraham, who will receive his promised inheritance.  The question is, how do Gentiles become heirs to a sonship that is not theirs, ethnically? Paul’s answer is not that ethnicity ceases to matter but that the Gentiles come to be included by faith in the offspring of Abraham, who is Christ. Therefore all who have faith are sons, equivalent to male heirs of Abraham. And it is after arriving at that conclusion that Paul says there is no male and female.

By referring to the irrelevance of sexual difference at this point in his argument, Paul seems to underscore that the “sonship” in which the Galatians share is not one that is limited to male believers, nor is it limited to freeborn persons or Jews. He says, in effect, “There are no baptized believers who are not sharers in the inheritance, none who are not grafted into Christ, the firstborn son. If you are a woman, it doesn’t matter; you’re still a ‘son’ of Abraham, along with all the males of the congregation.” And if we are inclined to read Paul’s affirmation as setting up new marital norms and allowing for same-sex partnerships, Paul immediately specifies his own interpretation of his gender-inclusive slogan in the very next sentence (3:29): “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” In other words, the argument is about salvation and Church, not about redefining marriage.

But lately, I have been wondering if there isn’t more to Paul’s argument here—or, at least, if there isn’t more to be drawn out of Paul’s argument. I don’t think Paul’s statement can be made to serve the cause of same-sex marriage (largely because I read Galatians in its canonical context alongside Ephesians 5 and Romans 1, about which I’ll say more in another post soon), but I also don’t think Paul’s statement can be easily co-opted to support an idealized, idolatrous elevation of romantic love and/or marriage as the be-all and end-all of human fulfillment. When you read Galatians 3:28 in light of 1 Corinthians 7, it’s possible, I think, to see Paul’s statement “there is no longer male and female” leading to a reconfiguration of what male and female responsibilities and “fulfillment” amount to—and a consequent questioning of certain cultural over-investments in eros, marriage, and family.

In the ancient world, and even in the Old Testament, to be a man is to be obligated to raise up offspring and guarantee one’s masculinity and lineage by marrying and fathering children. “Male,” in this understanding, is incomplete without “female.” To be masculine is to define oneself in relation to one’s wife. As later Jewish rabbinic teaching put it, “He who is twenty years old and not yet married spends all of his days in sin” (b. Qidd. 29b). Likewise, to be a woman is to be obligated to bear children and establish one’s femininity by marrying and devoting oneself to wifely duties. “Female,” in this understanding, is incomplete without “male.” One becomes a “whole” woman precisely by defining oneself in relation to one’s husband. Hence the numerous Old Testament laments of barren women (see, for instance, Genesis 11:27-30; 29:29-30; Judges 13:2-7; 1 Samuel 1:1-8; 2 Kings 4:14-16).

In the face of these cultural norms, Paul—shockingly—makes a place for singleness not as a temporary state on the way to marriage but as an honorable state that one could permanently accept, a vocation worthy of equal honor alongside marriage: “[H]e who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Corinthians 7:38). For the first time in the history of the God’s dealings with his people, celibacy is affirmed as a good state in and of itself.

And despite the fact that this might sound like a recipe for loneliness and misery to many of today’s singles, Paul’s original hearers likely heard this as a message of freedom. In a culture where marriage was a given, where Christian converts likely felt required by the language of Genesis 1:27 (“male and female”) to pursue it in order to be “complete” human beings, Paul endorsement of celibacy opened the door to contemplate marriage as optional, as a calling that one may or may not receive as one’s own. Now, in light of Paul’s teaching, men and women alike could look at what Sarah Ruden has called “the tyranny of traditional arranged unions or the cruelty of sexual exploitation, or (in the case of married men exploiting the double standard) both,” and opt out of it. That was the freedom Paul’s gospel brought, and it probably felt like just that—freedom.

We moderns tend to assume, as Ruden goes on to say, that “erotic, mutually nurturing marriage was a ready option for Paul’s followers” and, consequently, that Paul’s preference for celibacy was “grim and negative, urging people to give up the greatest human joys for a chilly, lonely religious life,” but such was not the case. On the contrary, when Paul assured female virgins and the men who considered marrying them that they were both complete and whole in Christ, not needing marriage in order to become more human or holy, we can imagine their sighs of relief. We can imagine their sense of liberation at being able to give up the romantic rat race if they so decided.

And with the announcement and description of this relational freedom in 1 Corinthians 7 ringing in our ears, we may turn back to Galatians 3:28 and see that freedom as an implication of what Paul says there. If marriage is now one faithful option alongside celibacy, then the statement “there is no longer male and female” may be understood to mean that one could be a perfectly good male or a perfectly good female and celibate at the same time. One’s worth as a male wasn’t to be measured any more in relation to the female; one could be a man without any wife or children and still hold one’s head high in the Church, unashamed of one’s celibacy. And one’s status as a female wasn’t to be measured any more in relation to the male; one could be a woman without a husband or children and still count as fully human, fully Christian, in the Church.

Ruden again:

Say that a fictional woman in Greek or Roman literature—Cydippe, for example—were a Christian, and her fate were not marshaled along by gods representing nature and state authority. Acontius is in love with her, ties notes to little gifts and throws them through her window, talks to her parents, who like him but are not going to pressure her. She is drawn to him in turn, but she is attracted to praying in the ekklesia. She sees her mother kept at home by the younger children, while her father can go to any meetings he likes. Her parents struggle to be friends. They care for each other, but different things interest them.

She asks God what she should do, and he does not answer except to say that he loves her enough to have handed his son to murderers for her sake. She is really going to have to make this decision, and she will never be able to blame anyone else for it. Nothing is made up about her life, nothing is written: no fate, no dynasty, no adventures she must produce heroes for but cannot come along on. She has life more abundantly than women before her have ever had it, the shock of it, the glaring light of it. This is what God gave her: all hers, and eternal.

That is what baptism opens up when it severs any necessary link between “male and female.” “There is no male and female” implies the freedom to choose marriage or celibacy, and enjoy the honor that comes with one or the other. It’s not a charter for same-sex marriage, but it’s not a celebration of opposite-sex marriage as the compulsory pinnacle of human love either.

8 thoughts on “The Freedom Baptism Brings

  1. Wes, one of the great lies to which we are all accountable is that somehow we are free from cultural expectations. In spite of the wide-spread spoken assumption that we know the importance of social constructs, we insist we make up our own life. In terms of sex, marriage, and relationships, we forget that our culture sets up certain tracks or offers distinct scripts. Here you display that one of the truly wonderful aspects of the Christian life: Its power as a lens that refracts societal tracks posing as freedom (“freedom to marry” as fulfillment) and re-imagines what our relationships can be about beyond and, yes, even apart from common offerings. As a feminist, I keep reminding myself and my students that this statement radically alters everything (including some of feminism) by unchaining us for a new way of being a woman in the ekklesia. And of course we are never totally free of “culture,” as this is the nature of our embodiment. But the Spirit remains among us to foster personal and social life as new creation, a place to practice living in the abundance made possible by our friendship with one another and with Christ.

  2. Thanks, Wes. This is the best exegesis of Galatians 3 I have ever seen. I am thinking of the virgin martyrs, who I imagine to be women very much like those that Ruden describes. Like all martyrs they died for Christ, but they also died for their *choice* to remain celibate. From a historical perspective, this choice seems to have come out of nowhere, it being almost completely unknown in either Jewish or Roman society. Yet very early in the Church we see a remarkably developed theology of virginity. The Church was seen as the Bride of Christ and those who chose to live celibacy bore fruit in the Spirit in the same way as a wife bears her husband’s children. Jesus and his choice of celibacy is, of course the model and inspiration for this spiritual vision and we shouldn’t forget that he, like so many of us who hang around SF, was a single layperson.

  3. Great post, Wes. Thank you. One small nuance I’d like to suggest: when you write “Paul—shockingly—makes a place for singleness” and use “single” as a category a few other times in the post, is that “single” quite the right word? You know the Greek far better than me and whether Paul would have had the concept of a “single” person. My hunch is that “celibate” or “continent” or “virginity” or “widowhood” are more likely the concepts Paul had for unmarried folk, and that for all of these words implied for Paul membership in some sort of household, extended family, or community cohort of some variety. I just remain wary of exporting our concept of “single, unattached, one’s own abbot” into the tradition, and I think colloquial use of “single” is in danger of that a little. Paul is always interested in building up the community, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s how he would have read the telos of being unmarried, and I guess I’m worried that “single” doesn’t quite carry that connotation sufficiently. But maybe I’m being over scrupulous; apologies if so.

  4. I’m catching up on these posts – so am a bit delayed in responding to this one.

    I agree that this is a good post, but it does raise a question for me: When you write, Wes, ““There is no male and female” implies the freedom to choose marriage or celibacy, and enjoy the honor that comes with one or the other.” you note ‘the freedom to choose’. If the expected Christian norm is celibacy for one who is gay, what choice is there in that expectation?

  5. Wes, thank you for highlighting that “Paul… makes a place for singleness not as a temporary state on the way to marriage but as an honorable state that one could permanently accept, a vocation worthy of equal honor alongside marriage.” It does sometimes seem our culture believes that you must be married to live a happy, fulfilled life. It doesn’t make being gay and single easy, but I’m growing to believe Christ helps us experience that happy, fulfilled life in Him and through the love of those He puts in our lives.

  6. Pingback: Coakley, The Trinity & Gender, and the Nature of Redemption – Thou Art Lightning and Love

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