The Kingdom Revolution #4
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28
Women in the Roman World
During much of the first century Roman world, which is the context of the New Testament, women were in no way considered equal to men and were regulated to certain well-defined roles. There were variations within this system due to social standing, wealth and other factors, but for the most part in the Roman culture the woman’s main role was to marry (usually very young), have numerous children (due to the high infant mortality rate), and take care of the home. Women from lower classes quite frequently held jobs outside of the home (in such areas as agriculture, markets, crafts; as midwives and as wet-nurses, etc.), but were otherwise still very limited within the Roman culture.
Perhaps the best way to frame the existing gender gap is to understand the established Roman family system. Family units—wives, children, slaves—were headed by the most senior male within the family (the paterfamilias). He had all legal rights over his daughters until they were married (again often at an early age and often in an arranged marriage). Girls growing up in this system (among the more elite) would be given an education, but were always under the control of a male. After she married the control shifted to her husband. A proper Roman woman would busy herself with the details of her home, her children, spend her time weaving clothes for the family and taking care of the family needs. Even her name indicated her unequal status to men. It was the common practice that a daughter took her father’s name and feminized it. While legally should could inherit property, she would have to always have a male representing her interests in it. It was truly a heavily male-oriented culture. One writer bluntly states:
Roman women didn’t get equal rights with men. Roman law continued to insist that women could not be emperors, or be in the Roman Senate, or govern a province, or join the army. Men could beat or rape their wives, just as they beat and raped their slaves. A Roman woman could divorce her husband, but generally he kept the children. Women who were Slaves were frequently physically and sexually abused, and often saw their children killed or sold away from them. (From Women in Ancient Rome by K.E. Carr)
Another historian notes:
A dichotomy existed within the lives of Roman women. They did have some personal freedoms, but they had little chance for individuality or personal choice. They were under the constant supervision of their fathers, male relatives, and husbands, who regularly kissed them on the mouth to find out if they had drunk wine. Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and they could be punished by death. In Memorable Deeds and Sayings from the first century AD, Maximus tells us how Egnatius Metellus beat his wife to death for drinking wine. It was believed that wine caused women to have adulterous relationships, which were very common since so many marriages took place for political or economic reasons, not for love or passion. Women found to have committed adultery could be put to death by their fathers or guardians. Women often married men who were much older than themselves. They married whoever they were told to. (from Ancient Roman Women: A Look at their Lives by Moya K. Mason)
These two quotes, then demonstrate how, in general, women were viewed and treated in Paul’s context when he wrote the Galatian letter. To be fair there were exceptions to this (women with three children and freedwomen with four children had expanded legal rights for instance) and at the close of the first century a notable change within the empire occurred granting women heretofore unprecedented rights (coincidence?)
All One in Christ Jesus
So to those who first heard these words of Paul, they had to sound quite radical and revolutionary. Nowhere else within that context would they had been spoken. Religiously, women within Rome did participate and occasionally even lead certain rites and rituals (Vestal Virgins for instance—serving the Roman goddess, Vesta), but in no way were they considered equal with men. Jewish women, in general, enjoyed a slightly more elevated position within their culture, but again, theirs was also a male-dominated existence. The idea then that there is neither male nor female was then quite shocking!
Meaning and Practice
Obviously Paul was not suggesting some type of absence or denial of gender or gender roles. Just as with the other relationships he addresses in our Galatian text, the idea put forth is that in the kingdom everyone is elevated equally through Christ and by the grace of God. Male and female, therefore, in God’s kingdom all have equal status; equal access to the blessings and rewards of the kingdom; they are equally valued and needed within the kingdom; and they should be treated with mutual respect and honor. In God’s kingdom women are in no way inferior to men and should not be treated as such. Jesus died to make it so.
This high value of women is noted throughout the New Testament and within the church. Note Paul’s specific mention of many women within the churches in his letters (in Romans 16 for instance). This kind of recognition and praise was most uncommon.
Gifted women are named throughout the New Testament (Phoebe, who was a deaconess—Romans 16:1-2; Phillip’s prophetic daughters—Acts 21:9; Dorcas the dressmaker—Acts 9:36-43; Priscilla, co-teacher of the gospel with her husband—Acts 18; Eunice and Lois, Timothy’s mother and grandmother—2 Timothy 1:5). And while men were given the overall headship and spiritual leadership within the home and the church (Ephesians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 11:3), along with that is a rather revolutionary idea that within the home there is a mutual submission also practiced (Ephesians 5:21); that men are to love their wives just as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25) and as he loves himself, showing her respect (Ephesians 5:33). Beyond the home, Paul also indicates that women used their giftedness within the church—women praying and prophesying within the assembly (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
As we process this teaching—at a point and place in which women have historically unprecedented rights and equality—they likely do not resonate as strongly as they did within the first century. Women then hearing a message of equality; of respectful treatment; of a place that valued her gifts; had to wonder if it were true. For men hearing the message it was nothing short of scandal. But it was a message flowing directly out of the grace, love and mercy of God; a message of how different his kingdom was from any other; a message, again, that eventually changed an empire.
For anyone paying attention though, it is not that shocking. Look no further than Christ’s incredible treatment and acceptance of women within his ministry. He truly is the great equalizer. Only through him could this happen—neither male nor female. Remember the overarching goal is unity in him. He bridges the gap between slave and free; he overcomes the hostility between Jew and Greek. He closes the gender gap. In his kingdom all are welcome and all are equal. Everyone has a place. Everyone has a gift. Everyone is needed. It is the revolution of the kingdom—a revolution still ongoing.
Let’s just be sure we are among the revolutionaries in advancing the kingdom in every way and all of the blessings within it available to everyone.