By Regis Nicoll
A truly Christian ethic cannot follow … the architects of Western political tradition, who view the precepts of natural law as concerned mostly with individual rights rather than with individual responsibilities within society. â Stanley J. Grenz
The proposition that “all men are created equal” is the cornerstone of the American justice system. The great social movements of our nation: abolition, emancipation, women’s suffrage and civil rights can all be attributed to the moral force of this founding principle.
However, within the last few decades “equality” claims have been used for everything from the legalization of abortion and homosexual sodomy to arguments for same-sex marriage and dismantling the gender wall of male affiliations, such as the Boy Scouts or varsity football teams. This “artificial equality” has made “civil rights” anything a person feels necessary in their pursuit of happiness without regard to social responsibility or real physiological differences.
This has been particularly evident in our educational system.
In the interest of making sure no one feels uncomfortable about himself, an increasing number of schools have eliminated class standings, “exceptional” curricula, and honorary distinctions, like valedictorian and salutatorian. They call this, “inclusion.”
Notwithstanding the noble intent, such practices do anything but make people feel comfortable because they quash a fundamental longing of the human spirit–confirmation that our work is meaningful and that true achievement, valued to our community. A recent movie about a family of superheroes illustrates the point.
In The Incredibles (2004), Dash is a young boy with superhuman speed. When he asks permission to use his special ability in school sports, his mother demurs, “The world just wants us to fit in, and to fit in, we’ve just got to be like everyone one else.”
“But Dad says our powers are nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers make us special.”
Parroting the groupthink of the day, his mother sighs,Â “Everyone is special, Dash.”
In defeated frustration Dash turns and shrugs,Â “Which is another way of saying, ‘No one is.'”
The scene brings out some important truths about human nature. First, contrary to the founding document of our country, equality is not something that is “self-evident.” Physically and intellectually, we each have different abilities and skills. In whatever aspect “men are created equal,” it is beyond what is evident.
Next, “fitting in” is not a matter of leveling our talents and abilities; but of being responsible citizens, using whatever gifts we have for the betterment of the wider culture.Â It is through our unique giftedness, not artificial equality, that each of us contribute in a vital way to our communities.
Challenging the notion
Over two decades before the evolution of modern-day egalitarianism, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay in The Weight of Glory called, “Membership.” There Lewis argues, “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.”
If that doesn’t singe our modern ears, what Lewis writes a few paragraphs later will set them ablaze: “The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine.”
Before you commit all of your C.S. Lewis works to the flames, Lewis goes on to explain that in the divine calculus, equality is about God’s love not our value. Despite our inequalities, God, who is no respecter of persons, loves all equally. Indeed, as the apostle Paul reveals,
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic standing or sex, entry into the Kingdom of God is on an equal opportunity basis.
A shift in emphasis
At the same time, there is no affirmative action program to ensure that all segments of society are equally represented. God may love all equally, but it’s individual response, not corporate “targets” that will determine the final mix.
Instead of the popular trend toward flat, more egalitarian organizations, the Kingdom of God is hierarchal and differentiated. Paul likens it to a body with a central command center (a head) and individual members having distinctive abilities and functions, all designed to work together for the well-being of the whole.
It may come as a shock to some, but in the Body of Christ as in the human body, each member is neither equally gifted nor equally important. I could live to a ripe old age without an appendix, wisdom teeth or even two legs, but I wouldn’t survive a moment without a heart or lungs. Similarly, the Kingdom could advance without tongue interpreters and miracle workers, but without apostles and preachers, it would atrophy.Â
Yet Paul exhorts us to the divine standard of having “equal concern for each other.” After 40 years of rights-centric rhetoric, Paul’s instruction sounds strange and foreign.
In an abrupt shift from our culturally-tuned mindset, Paul invokes responsibility toward others not rights of self. Rather than making demands on our community, we are to treat others with loving concern, even giving “special honor” to those whose appearance is unsightly or whose contribution, minor.
At the same time, having “equal concern” does not mean treating everyone the same. Eyes need glasses, not a hearing aid. Similarly, a person gifted in teaching needs a lectern and a class, not a parking lot and pair of white gloves.
Neither does it mean that every person should be brought down to the level of the poorest performer. A body with poor eyes needs ears that perform optimally, not at a level commiserate with its vision. In the same way, a student with learning difficulties needs to be mentored, encouraged and challenged by those with greater abilities.
Lastly, equal concern does not mean that no one should ever feel uncomfortable.Â A foot with a lesion needs an operation, not a French pedicure. Likewise, a person involved in an immoral relationship needs to be spiritually counseled, not affirmed.
A kingdom parable
In the well-known “Parable of the Talents,” a master entrusts three servants with five talents, two talents and one talent, respectively, as he sets out on a journey. Upon his return, he learns that one servant earned five talents, another earned two, while the last merely held onto the one he was given.
In response, the master rewards the first two servants, while the third is summarily dismissed and his solitary talent given to the servant with ten.
This parable conveys several things that cross popular sensibilities.
First, the master doesn’t invite all of his servants or those of other masters to oversee his estate. Rather, he entrusts his property to three specific servants in his household.
Second, instead of dividing his estate in equal measures, he splits it, in all likelihood, based on the servants’ abilities to manage.
Lastly, his response to each is based on their execution of responsibility, not because of their entitlements as staff members.Â Note that even the two faithful servants receive different rewards â the servant with ten talents is given an extra one.
The modern reaction
Falling on modern ears, this story sounds all wrong. Not only should the master have given his trustees equal portions, he should have extended the opportunity to every person in his community and divided it up his estate accordingly.
As to the master’s response, appalling! Has he no feelings, no concern for their fragile self-esteem?
While the invitation to dine at his banquet table is universal â as Jesus disclosed in an earlier discourse â service in his household is based on calling and gifting, and rewards based on faithfulness in service.Â
A necessity, but…
Although rights and equality are not a part of God’s original design or Kingdom, in the kingdom of man they are essential.
In the long shadow of the Fall, no person can be trusted with absolute power over any other. Because of man’s cruel and coercive bent, certain rights, such as equal voice and equal protection have become necessary defenses.
At the same time, artificial equality and the notion that personal happiness and individual expression are inviolable rights unencumbered by personal responsibility should be as foreign in the kingdom of man as they are in the Kingdom of God.
A person’s primary relationship to the various communities of which he is a member is one of service, and not first of all of making demands upon them. â Stanley Grenz quoting Paul Ramsey
Scripture references: Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12, Matthew 25:14-30 (New International Version)
Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship Ministries Wilberforce Forum. In addition to writing Thinking Christianly, Regis is a columnist for BreakPoint and Crosswalk, and a contributor to Prison Fellowship’s worldview blog, The Point. To receive his free “All Things Examined” weekly commentary by e-mail, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.