Equality

The ongoing process of subverting our culture partly involves inventing a wholly new set of deadly sins in which the old culture (including all of us) is implicated. Some are exaggerations of old sins (“racism” being the uniquely Christian “Love your neighbour as yourself” restricted to the realm of skin colour and then deprived of its moral content by making it institutional), and others are new-minted to outlaw any criticism of what were formerly considered evils (such as “homophobia,” “cis-normalism” etc) or of alien ideologies (such as “islamophobia,” or in its current usage “fascist” (meaning non-Marxist).

But for the churches, it seems to me, the Achilles heel to subversion of its gospel is the weasel word “equality,” which really does sound as if it is central to Christianity, and so is taken to mean the same thing when used by advocates of “progressive” ideology.

Now, it doesn’t really mean the same thing as most Christians mean. For example, the UN’s slogan “nobody must be left behind” seems, in the context of its COVID policy, to mean “Everybody must get compulsorily vaccinated,” which was never part of Christ’s sermon on the mount.

There has been some serious debate (for example, much by Jordan Peterson) on the difference between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcome,” but many Christians do not seem to consider the difference between the two enough to see the problems. In the case of Black Lives Matter, for example, it seems to be sufficient for Christian leaders to observe that, overall, there are poorer economic outcomes for black Americans, note that they are proportionately in more conflict with the police, and conclude that institutional racism must be to blame. Defund the police, and give more places at Harvard or in social media companies (though that last inequality isn’t well-publicized, for some reason!), and get white people to “take the knee” and we’ll be well on the road to “equality.”

Yet even “equality of opportunity” is an impossibility. There was never a chance that I would become King of England, and I am OK with that because in the providence of God there is someone who will, for better or worse. In any case, Pauline ecclesiology in 1 Corinthians is all about valuing each member as a part of Christ’s body, whether equipped and chosen as an apostle or prophet by the Spirit, or as an organ of meaner gifts but, perhaps, greater honour. There is nothing in the Bible about giving equal opportunities to everyone to become the hands, ears, or eyes of the Church. It is all “as the Spirit wills.”

Nevertheless, confusing opportunities with outcomes is not the real problem in the Church, for that is the fact that there is very little in the Bible, especially the New Testament, about “equality” at all. And when the Bible is silent on something, there is usually a reason. For the most part the “equality” case has to be constructed from other principles, such as those of brotherhood and love, but that is seldom done carefully enough.

The word for equality, isotes, and its adjectival form isos, only occur five times in the New Testament. Isotes also occurs twice in the Septuagint, but those texts add nothing to our understanding.

Two, in John 5:18 and Phil 2:6, refer to Jesus’s equality with God. It doesn’t help the “equality at all costs” case that the second is how Jesus was willing to jettison his equality with God by humbling himself as man, which is how the Pharisees got to see and criticize him in the first place. Apart from his Incarnation, though, it is clear that the Son’s “equality” with the Father is not something you can check off on a comprehensive list. Trinitarian theology stresses the divine essence that the Son shares equally with the Father and the Spirit, but it is equally emphatic that the Son is not the Father, because begotten, and not the Spirit, who proceeds.

Without going into the complexities and errors of subordinationism, it remains clear that there are differences within the Godhead, ineffable as those may be. The Father initiates the Covenant of salvation with the Son, and the Son cheerfully complies. The Father creates the world through and for the Son, and not vice versa. At very least, this shows that we have to be discriminating in understanding the scope of “equality with God” in these passages.

The only two instances of isotes that give rise to a kind of generic idea of “equality for all” are Paul’s twofold use of the word in 2 Corinthians 8:14. In this passage he is discussing the appropriateness of the Corinthians sharing their material affluence with the impoverished Judaean church during the famine, and the principle he invokes is that of “equality.” Help them now, as they may help you later – that’s Christian equality.

But it’s clear that it has little to do with any socialistic policy of material equivalence, for the church is only asked to make a generous collection to relieve specific hardship. It is not ordered to sell off its assets and disperse them around the different economic situations of the young churches across the world.

The crude “equality” idea is often buttressed by passages like Galatians 3:26ff, in which Paul says there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Also cited is the passage in Acts in which nobody in the Jerusalem church “considered anything as his own property.” But it is erroneous to refer any of these passages to equality of wealth, or even, in fact, of any measurable standard except that of equal dignity and worth before God.

Consider, for example, the passage later in Acts where Peter is miraculously released from prison. He goes to the house of John Mark’s mother, where he knows the church will be praying. Why? Because it was a big, ie high-status, house. And indeed, Peter’s knock is answered by a maidservant – whom we may be sure neither shared the ownership of this house, nor owned an equally large one of her own.

But even before that, the passage about the generosity of rich Christians in selling lands for the benefit of the poor is matched by the story of Ananias and Sapphira, whose sin was lying to the Holy Spirit, and not either owning surplus land, nor even keeping all or part of the proceeds for their own use.

The reason should be obvious – in principle, personal possessions are seen in the Bible (as a general rule) as providences from God, and not the ill-gotten proceeds of institutional privilege. That is why the eighth commandment, not abrogated in the New Testament, is “Thou shalt not steal.” If property were an evil, God would not forbid its “liberation.”

But the last use of isotes is even more telling. In Col 4:1 Paul tells slave-owners to give their slaves “equality.” It is obvious from the context that by this he does not mean, “give them an equal share of all your wealth.” He is not even commanding them to give slaves the freedom they themselves have.

This is not the place to discuss the attitude of the New Testament to slavery. It is clear that in the Good News of Jesus there were bigger fish to fry than the social conventions of the day, unjust though they were (and Paul especially addresses that). When we condemn slavery unconditionally as an unmitigated evil, it might behove us to remember that we, like Paul in Rom 1:1 have freely offered ourselves as slaves to Jesus Christ (or if we have not, then our discipleship is lacking). There is a context to slavery as an evil.

The point here, though, is that Paul’s use of “equality,” which shows every sign of being of a piece with his usage in 2 Corinthians, has to do with “fairness” or “equity,” and not with mathematical equality of any sort. In that sense, inequality is built into the whole biblical revelation. Paul teaches that he who does not work should not eat: the implication is perhaps that not showing “equality” in earning your keep exempts you from the “equality” of being fed.

That has a strong bearing on contemporary events. There is very good evidence that social and economic inequality has much to do with inequality of parenting, and likewise that inequalities in police encounters are because of inequalities in keeping the law and complying with the authorities. Christians are not Bolsheviks, and ought to be wise in considering these things (as the Bolsheviks were, in that to them “equality” meant enriching themselves and impoverishing every one else down to an equal outcome of slavery).

It is sobering to remember that according to the teaching of Jesus, even the rewards of the age to come are not equal, but are in some way depend on our “talents” and how we have used them. I for one will not quibble if St Peter’s mansion, or even Jim Packer’s or Billy Graham’s, is of greater magnificence than my own. I have not been so consistently faithful with my investment.

Justice as “fairness” is a lot harder to sloganize than justice as “equality.” But we share a belief in a just Father who, nevertheless, distributes the blessings of life unequally to the sons of Adam. whether that be in natural endowments like strength, health or intelligence, in acquired wealth, status, or education, or even in the advantage or disadvantage of the nation or city you were born. God sees all people as creationally of equal worth, and expects our own acts of justice to include generosity, compassion and fairness towards those whom we can help in any way. There are even instances where restitution of unjustly acquired advantages is legitimate.

But God does not command us to guilt about our providential circumstances, nor to envy of those apparently better off (which is the content of the tenth commandment), nor to vain attempts to overturn God’s providence altogether by believing we can equalize everything in this world. And if he does not command it, then Christians who attempt it are not adding value to the Gospel, but diminishing it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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