The Apostle Paul clearly expressed the fundamental equality of men and women in Christ. Through baptism.
Put yourself back into Paul’s Graeco-Roman world, two thousand years ago. Deep and fundamental divisions split society. Greeks and Romans were convinced that some people were made to be free, others made to be slaves. Women were by nature inferior to men in general, and made to serve their husbands. Even the Jews agreed to these divisions, believing they were willed by God. They even added their own: the distinction between the chosen children of Abraham and the Gentiles.
In the Old Testament, inequality began at birth.
- Every first-born male ‘who opened his mother’s womb’ had to be redeemed with a special sacrifice. A girl did not count (Ex 13, 11-16).
- All male children had to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. This was an essential condition for belonging to the Covenant, more or less parallel to our baptism for belonging to the Church. However, there was no equivalent rite of initiation for women (Gen 17, 9-14).
- All this was tantamount to meaning that God had concluded his covenant with the men, the ‘sons of Israel‘. The women participated in the Covenant only indirectly, through their fathers and husbands.
Again, in Old Testament times, a woman could not act as a full person, independently, in her own right within religion.
- A religious vow made by a woman was only valid if it was ratified by her father or husband (Num 40, 2-17).
- Women could not present sacrifices. Their going up to the temple for worship was voluntary, not obligatory, ‘Three times a year all your menfolk must present themselves before the Lord’ (Ex 23, 17).
- The arrangements in the temple of Jerusalem even limited the access of women to an outside court. Whereas men were allowed to proceed to the ‘court of Israel’ which faced the sacred precincts containing the altar of holocausts, women had to stay behind in the ‘court of women’.
These age-old prejudices had their roots deeply embedded in social structures and contemporary culture. They could not be eradicated at once. But a man like Paul clearly saw that Christ had established a totally new reality in which such distinctions were no longer valid. In Christ people are ‘re-created’.
Paul who was a trained scribe, was very much aware of the revolutionary changes brought about by Christ’s baptism, a sacrament whose effect he describes at length (Romans 6,1-23). It is significant, therefore, that he ascribes the fundamental equality between men and women precisely to their equal participation in that sacrament. Both men and women ‘put on Christ’.
Notice that for Paul the new principle is based on baptism. For here Jesus Christ had introduced a radically new departure. In the Old Testament time only men were the direct carriers of the Covenant through circumcision. In Jesus’ Kingdom men and women are equal members because they share in Christ through the same baptism.
This is what Paul wrote:
You have put off your old nature with its practices.
You have put on a new nature
which is being renewed in knowledge
in the image of its Creator.
In that image there is no room for distinctions
between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised,
between barbarian and Scythian,
slave and free.
But Christ is all, Christ is in all.
Neither circumcision matters, nor uncircumcision,
but whether you are a new creature . . . .
For all of you who have been baptised in Christ,
have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
neither free nor slave,
neither male nor female.
For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 6,15; 3,27-28