Perhaps you’ve seen these bumper stickers around in the past few weeks/months. I recently just figured out what they meant. Don’t ask me to clarify how I got this notion, but for some reason I was associating these with Sweden (probably because of the colors).
Only with a little reflection did I realize, “Oh wait. That’s an equal sign!” Once again proof that a masters degree does not correlate to every day common sense in reading bumper stickers.
As evidenced by the mileage these bumper stickers are getting, “equality” is quite the buzz word. Certainly an emphasis on true equality comes from our Christian heritage in some respects as the Bible teaches we are equally image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-27).
The emphasis on “rights” found in our Constitution though is probably owing a bit more to Enlightenment thinking of man as the measure of all things rather than a more God-centered understanding of man centrality and his supposed “rights.” After all, in the conversation on rights, whose rights are normally ignored?
Well, God’s of course.
Into this discussion of rights and equality comes John Frame. In his Doctrine of the Christian Life, he highlights something I hadn’t quite thought of, but I think is important to keep in mind as a Christian considering the concept of equality.
He notes that God, in the Bible, does treat people equally in some respects. But then he describes how God is really the great divider:
He separates the righteous from the wicked in his terrible judgments. He sets the non-relative moral boundaries for creatures by revealing his law. He has no interest in abolishing economic differences between people in this world. He establishes institutions of family, state, church, and gives different people different roles within these institutions: husband/wife/child, magistrate/citizen, elder/member. (DCL, 899)
In other words, we are all equal in some sense, but in terms of sociological functions we are not. God does not treat all people completely equally, not even among his people in the church. Equality has a place in the conversation, but it is never an unqualified equality. Institutions and even churches have the right to discriminate on legitimate grounds. The key word being legitimate.
It would be wrong for an organization to discriminate on random or capricious grounds, but there is a place for legitimate divides to be placed into social institutions. For a controversial one, consider the policy for membership at my church, The Village.
If you are actively practicing a homosexual lifestyle, you cannot become a member of our church. But before this gets branded “discrimination” it should be noted that a heterosexual living in adultery cannot become a member either. In both cases, it is the behavior that disqualifies from membership, not an effort to discriminate against the individual. In both cases, the individual people are welcome to attend the church and participate in worship and community, so there is no hateful discrimination involved. But, based the teachings of Scripture on proper Christian behavior, individuals who are not living in line with are not welcome to become members of the church. Membership is reserved for people who are attempting as best they can to live in obedience to Scripture.
Similarly, once a member, the church does not afford equal opportunities to all members. I play in the praise band, but I had to try out to demonstrate musical ability before I could do so. The same would be true of someone who tried to lead a small group but evidenced by their behavior that they did not have the competencies to do so. Church members who do not evidence the criteria of 1 Timothy 3 cannot become elders, no matter how much they may desire to do so. All of this is merely setting out a dividing line in terms of behavior, ability, and ultimately character.
What gets lost in our soceity’s conversation on equality is that there are many, many cases where equality is undesirable. Sometimes we do run across wrongful discrimination in both churches and other social institutions. The key is not to enforce universal equality, but rather, to know when real equality is being attacked (against the person, or for inconsistent grounds) or whether it is merely healthy inequality (concerning abilities, competencies, or based on Scriptural distinctions).
Wisdom is certainly needed to pursue this and to be able to determine whether real equality is at stake, or whether a helpful distinction or dividing line is being drawn. Most of our society would collapse into anarchy if we truly practiced equality across the board. On the flip-side, all people are equal in terms of their humanity and status of images of God. We should certainly treat them all such.
Tonight on Fox, there is an episode of Glee devoted to speaking out against wrongful bullying of people who practice homosexuality. As Christians, we should definitely join in making that stand and in showing love to all people. But it is a fallacy to assume that loving all people is synonymous with equality. I will never love another person in the same way I love my wife, nor should I. I am in a covenant with her before God to love her in a way that is different than the type of love I show anyone else.
Jesus is usually the example we look to of someone who loved everybody. He even commanded us to love our enemies. But at the same time, Jesus certainly didn’t love everyone equally. He loved John in a way different than any of the rest of the disciples. He loved the disciples in a different way than the crowds of people. And Jesus loves the Father in way that is not equal to the way in which he loves us.
God so loved the world, yes. But God so loved his Son much more and much differently than the world. And that particular love involved a crucifixion. God does not love everyone equally. No passage in Scripture, taken in context, and in relation to the whole of Scripture can support that point. But God certainly does love all humanity in some way. He does not treat human capriciously and indifferently, and he shows his common grace to all.
But God loves his children, those he has adopted to be his own in a much more significant way. A way that is not equal to his love for humanity as a whole. In this way, his love actually leads to an inequality. If we are to follow his example, we can champion love, and we can champion equality, but we cannot champion unqualified equality under the banner of “love.” The issue is much more complex than that and we need the Spirit to guide us to a correct understanding. He will do that through His word, and in responding to our culture, we need to be tied to Scripture rather than the opinions of man.