In 1516, the Dutch scholar Erasmus wrote a book called The Education of a Christian Prince. He wrote it for the Spanish Prince Charles, advising him about how to rule. It contains this line:
“it is not equality for everyone to have the same rewards, the same rights, the same status; indeed this often results in extreme inequality”p.72, Education of a Christian Prince.
Erasmus’ vision of equality is very different to the vision offered us by secularism today, where statistics of inequality in education, income, and health automatically represent injustice. I think Erasmus’ vision is much closer to the Bible’s.
The Bible’s vision of “equality” is glorious. The doctrine of man taught in Genesis chapter 1 dignifies every human being (Gen 1:27). Many in the Ancient Near East believed that only kings and princes were the “image of God”. But God’s word democratises the concept – from the drunk in the gutter, the embryo in the womb, the enemy in combat, through to the rich and powerful (James 3:9). Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan taps into this same truth, as he instructs us that even my enemy is included in the list of neighbours I am to love (Luke 10:29ff).
Clearly, the true religion of Israel and the coming of Jesus Christ has unleashed powerful equalising forces into this world. Paul uses the concept of “fairness” to argue for redistributing goods within the Christian church (2 Cor 8:13-14). He argued masters are to treat their slaves “justly” and “fairly” (Col 4:1), profound concepts that still underlie ideas of a minimum wage and workers’ rights today. Jesus causes goods to flow between people in a very different way to both feudal and capitalist economies (Acts 4:32, 34).
There’s no doubt that the secular vision of “equality” draws deeply from these Christian roots. After all, it’s not obvious that being committed to Darwinism and the “survival of the fittest” gives any real grounds for a vision of “equality”. You won’t find equality touted in ancient paganism. But secularism is offering us a distorted, somewhat grotesque, vision of the Bible’s equality. It’s an atomised, statistical version of humanity, as opposed to a corporate and organic vision.
A key thing missing in this vision is family. Between individuals and society there is this mysterious thing called “family”. No two families are equal. Families have histories and exist through time. No two mothers or fathers are the same. They have different grandparents and different great grandparents. Their geography is different – growing up in the countryside is not an equal experience to growing up in a big city. No two children born to those parents are the same. They have different physiology, and DNA, with the specific opportunities and disadvantages those particular bodies create. Childhood experiences differ between families – attitudes towards cooking and diet, health and hygiene are different. No amount of social engineering can erase that family history.
What’s more, families accumulate things over time, and they pass these things on to the next generation. This is called “inheritance”. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see a celebrity like Daniel Craig say “inheritance is distasteful”. In an interview, he’s stated that he doesn’t intend for his children to get his Bond millions. If we’re all inherently independent individuals, then why should one child stand to gain from what an adult has done? Families introduce inequality!
If we really want social equality, the government will need to remove children from parents at birth, and bring them up in dormitories, feeding them identical diets. But even that wouldn’t erase the differences. Experiences in the womb shape us. So, like in the Matrix, children would need to be gestated in pods.
a Christian vision
But the Christian vision of equality has never been the pursuit of statistical equality:
– There isn’t social equality in our earthly callings. Jesus didn’t reveal a specific political order that has God’s endorsement. He recognised the Roman Emperor as installed by God (Mark 12:17), with all its complicated power relations. Peter and Paul did the same (1 Peter 2:13-15; Rom 13:1). Paul told the Corinthians: “in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). In the context, those callings include marriage and singleness (v.15) and slave and freedman (v.22). When Jesus said: “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7), he’s clear that achieving income equality isn’t his goal.
– There isn’t social equality in the church – 1 Cor 12 says that God has arranged the church body with “less honourable” church members and “more presentable” members. Some are more prominent, others are less prominent. Now, in an ironic twist, Paul says, thanks to the gospel, the “less honourable” actually receive “greater honour”, but the point is there is real difference in the body. This must not morph into making worldly distinctions between the rich and poor at church (James 2:1-7); we are to care for the “least of these, my brothers” (Matt 25:40). But some long, deep meditation on the nature of our bodies might go a long way to counter-acting secular versions of equality. Quite simply, the foot is not a hand.
– There won’t be social equality in heaven. “Star differs from star in glory” (1 Cor 15:41). Ask junior angels whether they are content with their rank, or whether they secretly wish they could be an archangel. George Whitefield didn’t think he’d see John Wesley in heaven, because Wesley would be so much nearer the front! Some will have authority over ten cities and others over five (Luke 19:17-18). Each glorified saint will have a different glory to everyone else, without any sense injustice.
The secular vision of equality is fighting against the reality of God’s world. It will be forced to try and smash the family, because that’s the source of inequality and difference. So, as Christians, we have to take the family seriously, now more than ever.
a new family
The gospel is all about a new family, chosen by God (no equality there!) to whom God has promised an inheritance (Gal 3:8). The Bible says that the gospel is all about who gets “the inheritance” (Gal 3:18). In Christ, you can become the “heir” of this vast family inheritance (Gal 3:29; 4:7). The trouble is certain people want to cheat you out of your inheritance (Gal 4:30). In fact, a lot of the modern church is like Daniel Craig; it doesn’t want to pass on any inheritance! It’s infatuated with its “relevance” rather than its “inheritance”. But Jesus Christ is rebuilding a family, an organic, inter-connected, inter-dependent humanity, where all are welcome, all have a place, and where great glory and honour is to be found, not by merit, but by grace. This is a great opportunity for the church to showcase and invite people into a very different vision of humanity.