I have been thinking about Kathy Ehrensperger’s (see my post last week) juxtaposition of Galatians 3:28 and I Corinthians 1:31.
The Galatians verse says that Gentile and Jew, male and female and slave and free do not exist in Christ. This is a problem if you take it literally. Paul seems to believe in the special election of Israel and in the creation of the human race as male and female. Neither election nor creation has been revoked. And even if they were you would still have to deal with the history of the distinctions as they apply to, say, politics and marriage.
As for the slave and free dichotomy, that one is easier for us to take literally because we, at our place in history, have legally abolished slavery. But a reading of Paul’s letter to Philemon shows that Paul dealt with the distinction in a more complicated way.
Anyway, 1 Corinthians 1:31 says
so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (NET Bible)
It is in quotes although it is not an exact quote. It is more an allusion to Jeremiah 9:24.
If people want to boast, they should boast about this:
They should boast that they understand and know me.
They should boast that they know and understand
that I, the Lord, act out of faithfulness, fairness, and justice in the earth (NET Bible).
This follows Jeremiah 9:23 which says that you should not boast about being wise or strong or rich.
My understanding of the context in Jeremiah is that the enemy is coming and your wisdom, strength and wealth will not save you, but a true devotion to YHWH might save you.
Paul uses the idea more broadly against people who boast about circumcision (Galatians 6:14 ff.), about a connection to Paul, Apollos or Cephus (1 Corinthians 1:31), or about their authority and mission (2 Corinthians 10:17).
Ehrensperger takes this as Paul’s endorsement of egalitarianism. No human status puts you above someone else. So this is what Paul means when he says there is no male or female in Christ. Neither of these puts one above the other so that one bases more upon his or her gender status than upon Christian discipleship. This does not, however, abolish all biological and social distinctions. That you cannot boast about being a Jew, or a male or a freeman means that all are equal.
This is helpful, although I am not sure Paul thought of male or female as something anyone might boast about. Gender pride is more a modern thing.
Today gender equality often gets built upon the idea that the distinctions are just socially constructed stereotypes with little actual force. If we can just free ourselves of the social stereotypes, we will have abolished the oppressive distinctions and hierarchical roles.
For Paul, though, the central thing he got from Jeremiah was that in the face of death the one thing that mattered was a bond with the Lord. There were human distinctions that arose from creation or the will of God in choosing Israel. But the destiny of all, without distinction, was to die. And the potential of all, without distinction, was resurrection in Christ and life in the age to come.
So he dealt with human distinctions in this world not as fictions or social constructions, but as realities that were futile as sources of meaning and hope. He dealt with the realities of ethnicity, gender, and social status with diplomacy and tact. The distinctions paled in the face of human mortality. But they were realities that needed to be navigated carefully in church life.
I think this means that Paul would expect future generations to negotiate these realities according to changed circumstances–like that child rearing no longer demands so much of one’s life as it did in his day. So he would be disappointed with attempts to develop an ironclad, enduring set of rules from his writings..