A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 40

Equality in the Perfect Church (Gal 3:26-29)

In Gal 3:25 Paul changes almost unconsciously from the use of “we,” as “we Jews,” to the wider sense, in which it embraces also the Galatians (and all Gentiles who come to the Faith). Then he explains in Gal 3:26-29 why he ranks Galatians and Jews together. “The working of the Faith which you feel in Christ Jesus makes you sons of God, for all who are baptised to Christ have clothed themselves with Christ, and put His nature and person round them in becoming His people. Christ is the sum of all who believe in Him; He takes them all into Himself; He admits no distinction of nationality, or of rank, or of sex; all are placed on an equality and made one in Him. And if you are part of Christ and partake His nature, then you are the seed of Abraham (for Christ is the true seed of Abraham, Gal 3:16), and therefore you are heirs according to God’s promise.”

Comparing this passage with Paul’s writings as a whole, we see that this obliteration of distinctions in Christ is the end, but not the beginning, of the life in Christ. Beyond all doubt Paul considered that, practically, to become a part of Christ implied membership of the Church of Christ: that was the actual fact, as the world was constituted. But the Church was not to begin by abolishing all distinctions in social life or in nationality: that abolition would be the result of the gradual working of Faith in the individual, and of the gradual lessening of the distance that separated the actual state of these struggling and imperfect congregations from the perfect realisation of their true nature in Christ.1

Paul rather accepted the existing political system and the state of society, with its distinctions and usages, except in so far as they were positively idolatrous. He bade the slave continue as a slave, the woman stand in the same relation to the man as was the rule of society. The realisation by each individual of his or her true life in Christ was to be sought in accepting, not in rebelling against, the present facts of life in the world: their present situation was of small consequence in comparison with the state to which Faith would bring them.

But the words, which Paul here uses, necessarily and inevitably imply that the Church, as it disengages itself from and rises above the existing state of society, and as it remakes the facts of the world in the course of its growth, must rise above those distinctions which have no reality in Christ.

How far the Apostle was conscious, at the moment, of the full meaning that lay in his words, is doubtful. He uttered the truth as he saw it dimly revealed to him: he was not interested in speculation as to its future effect on society: he lived in the present crisis. An observant and thoughtful citizen of Rome might perhaps have been able to see — as the modern scholar can now look back and see — how the diffusion of Roman civilisation and government was tending to obliterate the distinctions of nation and race, and to unite alien peoples in a wider patriotism. The philosophic mind might perhaps see — as some philosophers then actually saw; at least dimly and faintly — that the subjection of one man as a slave to another was unnatural, and must pass away. We can now see that, though not very clearly: nominally we have abolished slavery, but really slavery is far from abolished in any country.

But what is implied as to the relation of man and woman by these words of Paul’s we still cannot discern.2 We can indeed see with certainty, in comparing nation with nation and religion with religion, that one of the most important forces in the progress of society lies in the education which the mother conveys to her children, and that where a religion (as, for example, Mohammedanism) does not tend to raise the standard of thought and feeling, knowledge and character, among its women, no amount of excellence in abstract principles and truths will make that religion a practical power for steadily elevating the race which clings to it. From the contemplation of such facts we may guess as to the future, but we can only guess.

In considering the history of Mohammedanism — the contrast between the earlier glories and the later impotence and stagnation of the peoples whom it first affected — the marvellously rapid educating power that it exerts on a savage race, raising it at the first moment of conversion to a distinctly higher level of spiritual and intellectual life, and yet the following acquiescence in that level or even the sinking again below it — even the least thoughtful observer must seek for some explanation of so remarkable a history and so extraordinary a contrast. The traveller who studies a Mohammedan people in its actual state has no difficulty in finding the explanation; he is struck with the utter want of education inside the home, and he sees that the position of the women, their utter ignorance (which is so complete that they have no subject to converse or think about except the most elementary facts of physical and family life), their general inability to entertain for themselves or to impress on their children any ideas of duty, any principles of good conduct, any desire for a higher level of life, any aspirations after any object except the most gross and vulgar, any habits of regularity, of work, of thought and meditation.3 He realises that a nation cannot permanently remain on a level above the level of its women, that if it rises, under the immediate stimulus of a great moral idea (such as Mohammedanism was to the brutalised Arab tribes among whom it was first preached) to a higher plane of thought and life, it cannot long maintain itself on that plane, unless its women rise to it and kindle and foster similar ideas in the minds of succeeding generations when young. He will see that the progress of the Christian nations is founded on the keeping alive of education and thought and conscious moral purpose among their women, and that the opening to them in the Christian religion from the first of suitable opportunities for growing morally and intellectually is one of the necessary and primary conditions of national health. He will be slow to set in his thought any limits to the possible future development of a nation in which the women are always on the highest level of the existing generation.

The one occasion on which Paul has touched this great truth is in the sentence that lies now before us. There is no other. In the Epistle in which his nature is most deeply moved, he speaks with the truest prevision of what shall come in the future of the Church. Where he pleads most passionately for freedom, he speaks most like the prophet, and least like the legislator and moralist intent on what can be achieved in the present. See LIV.

The remarkable expression used here is one of the many little touches throughout this Epistle which place the reader in the Graeco-Phrygian cities of Asia Minor. Among them the position of women was unusually high and important, and they were often entrusted with offices and duties which elsewhere were denied them.4 Hence, the allusion to the equality of the sexes in the perfect form which the Church must ultimately attain, would not seem to the people of these Graeco-Phrygian cities to be so entirely revolutionary and destructive of existing social conditions as it must have seemed to the Greeks. The Greeks secluded respectable women, and granted education to them only at the price of shame; but few Phrygian cities were fully Hellenised in this respect.

Moreover, the duty of obedience had to be urged on the Greeks, but what most impressed itself on Paul was the need of encouraging the Galatians to freedom; LIV.

Accordingly, in writing to the Corinthians, 11, he seems to have been so much impressed with the danger that women were already going too far in throwing off the trammels of existing social rules, that he had to inculcate on them submission and recognition of present custom as the first duty. The same practical necessity was on him in writing to other Greek communities as in Crete or Asia:5 the existing congregations of Asia were all in the most thoroughly Hellenised parts of the Province.

But it is beyond doubt that Paul’s frequent insistence on the duty of women to comply with existing social restraints and the uniqueness of this reference to the ideal of the future tended to lead the “Orthodox” Church too far in the direction of the subjection of women. Moreover, the importance of women in Phrygia stood in close relation with the native Phrygian religion,6 the great foe of Christianity in its earliest steps in the country,7 and the Church was therefore liable to be thrown to the opposite side. The fact is certain that in Asia Minor it was usually the “heretics” who placed women in the most honourable position, and the “Orthodox” who least saw the true spirit of Christianity in relation to women and their true place in society.

 

[1] The difference in tone and spirit of the Pastoral from the rest of the Pauline Epistles is greatly due to the fact that the former are concerned chiefly with the practical steps in an early congregation.

[2] The change of form, “bond nor free, male and female,” springs from the feeling that the two cases are not precisely analogous.

[3] This is merely a condensation of one main subject in the writer’s Impressions of Turkey, especially ch. II, where the thought is worked out as the details of life came before his mind.

[4] Church in the Roman Empire, pp. 67 f., 161, 345, 375, 398, 403, 452-9, 480.

[5] The letters to Timothy and Titus are of course to be interpreted with reference to the people among whom they were at work.

[6] See p. 40 f.

[7] St. Paul the, Trav., ch. VI.

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