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.
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.