Paul’s Understanding of Equality

Reading St. Paul’s letters can be very frustrating, even confusing. On the one hand he writes such beautiful things, as in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neighter slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all on in Christ Jesus.” On the other, he writes things that make me wince, as in Corinthians where he writes that “everyone should continue before God in the state in which he was born,” in suggesting that slaves ought not be concerned with gaining freedom from slavery, or in Ephesians which says that “wives should be subordinate to their husbands.”

I read a commentary on the Galatians passage which suggested that Paul’s assertion of egalitarianism referred “to the equliaty of all Christians in terms of their salvation, not necessarily as something to be enacted in the social structures of the day.”

Does that mean we should so limit Paul’s words about equality? I think not. As the author of the commentary pointed out, one of the reasons Paul was not interested in changing social structures is that he “believed the parousia, the Second Coming, was imminent.” If you think the present world is ending any day, you don’t really worry about changing status and social structures.

We, however, live in a different world. “Two millennia later, with a heightened sense of global human rights and a vast tradition of social justice in the church, the question of incorporating this baptismal vision of equal status in social and ecclesial structures takes on a different urgency.”

My motive in writing this in part is to encourage us to take seriously our responsibility to promote social structures that treat all beings as equal, as they are before God. But in part it is also a reminder that we need to be careful in pulling random statements out of scripture to justify our actions or inaction. We need to be ever mindful of the context, especially when reading Paul’s letters.