Equality and Hierarchy: Is God an Egalitarian?
All human beings are created in God’s image. Sin has marred and twisted that image in us all. All are called to repent and trust in Jesus Christ. And all who do so are accepted in Him without partiality.
This principle underlies Paul’s famous declaration in Galatians 3:
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:25-29)
This text has been used to rationalize everything from gay marriage to the consecration of female bishops. But note that Paul’s point is not that social/sexual/ethnic/ecclesial distinctions and hierarchies do not exist or should not exist but that all of the distinctions that in the fallen world become violent, oppressive divisions are discounted before the throne of Judgment. All human beings have fallen short of the glory of God. All are justified freely through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no distinction, no partiality, no special pleading. Male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free - all are justified through the work of the one Man, Jesus Christ, and through one instrument, faith.
Justification and Equality of Being
Justification by faith alone restores, re-affirms, God’s created equality of being - that all human beings are created equal. There is no intrinsic or natural superiority built into one class or race or sex. If being a man truly implies some intrinsic qualitative advantage over being a woman - some extra bit of human goodness that women do not have - then the standard by which and through which God justifies ought not to be the same. If being born a Jew rather than a Gentile conveys some inherent soteriological advantage by virtue of ethnicity, then why are both groups equally condemned and offered salvation on equal terms? Galatians 3:25-29 undermines the murderous calculus by which some are deemed intrinsically “less” than others.
This is why racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, the tyranny of one class over another is so horrific in the Church and in the World. Each of these sins is grounded in an assertion that social differentiation implies some kind of inherent superiority of being. And that, Paul teaches, is a betrayal of the gospel. And so he rebukes Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles in Antioch. He pressures Philemon to free Onesimus. He commends slaves and women as co-laborers in the gospel. He becomes all things to all people to win some. He refuses to let custom, culture, ethnicity, tradition, or fulfilled law dismember the body Jesus died to unite.
Equality and Hierarchy
And yet while strongly asserting equality of being the New Testament nowhere affirms uniform egalitarianism with regard to social roles. Instead there are a number of hierarchies affirmed: rulers lead people (Romans 13:1-7), parents lead children (Colossians 3:20), pastors lead congregations (1 Thessalonians 5:12 ), and husbands lead wives (Eph 5:22-33).* These hierarchical distinctions are made and affirmed by the same man who wrote Galatians 3:25-29 above.
Was Paul confused? Did the Holy Spirit walk off to do something else while Paul was composing these sections of the New Testament?
Not at all. Hierarchical differentiation within the context of equality of being in the human community perfectly aligns with the truth that all human beings are created in the image of God. Made in God’s image, we should not think it strange that our divinely ordered social relationships parallel God’s own divine community. Though Father Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal in nature/being - the relationship between the Persons is not egalitarian. The Son, for example, is subordinate to the Father not only in his humanity after the incarnation but beforehand. The Father’s sending of the Son and the Son’s willing obedience to the Father occur beyond the temporal realm (Ephesians 1:1-6). And the Son’s relational subordination to the Father will continue after his work of redemption has been fully consummated (1 Corinthians 15:28).
But within the Godhead subordination, leadership, sending, obeying, and giving are joyful acts of mutual self-outpouring grounded in perfect agape. There is no coercion or violence. The Son gives himself to his Father’s will and his Father’s will is, ultimately, to glorify and exalt the Son. Mutual self-emptying makes both leadership and obedience a gift to the beloved rather than an autocratic extraction.
And our Creator does not withhold this gift from his creatures. Although leadership and submission have become twisted and marred by sin, God redeems and restores both in Jesus Christ. Through the gospel, God recovers and transforms relationships that have become oppressive and offices that have fallen to tyranny. The Christian ruler is not to lord his authority over those he leads but to be the servant/brother. The husband is to empty himself for his wife as Jesus does for his Church. The pastor is to be an undershepherd tending, feeding, pouring himself out for Jesus’ flock (of which he too is a member). Whereas in the world, the office of father, husband, ruler, and pastor can easily turn to oppression and tyranny, in Christ they are burden bearing, self-emptying offices marked by loving sacrifice and servanthood (Col 3:21, Eph 5:25, 1 Peter 5:1-5). And whereas the subordinate in the world is encouraged to resent those in leadership, to covet their position, to undermine their authority, in Christ subordination is an honor. Those who are sent and who obey and who willingly give find themselves walking the path of the King of Glory who came to us as one who serves (Luke 22:27).
So how might this principle work out practically? Abstractly, we speak of leaders and subordinates but hardly anyone occupies just one of those roles. Most people are both leaders in some contexts and subordinates in others. I lead my family and the congregation I pastor but I have a bishop to whom I must answer, a vestry and a congregation to keep me accountable, laws I must obey. So I have the opportunity to reflect God’s image in both loving obedience and sacrificial leadership. I fail horribly at both leading and following but it helps to recognize the gift God gives in both roles.
1. Resist simple egalitarianism. Modern demagogues tell us that happiness comes only when we are free to meet all of our longings and desires. Authority figures are often portrayed as standing in the way - their power frustrating your happiness. To be happy one must therefore climb up the ladder and/or pull others down until there is nothing above but the sky. All authority is portrayed as an infringement on personal liberty. All hierarchies are portrayed as oppressive. This is a hellish lie. It is akin to the lie Satan told himself and passed on to our first parents. Beware of it. God has instituted a number of hierarchies to be fields of sanctification for his people. These are where we learn to lead like Jesus and to obey like Jesus and in so doing reflect the beauty of Christ and the Trinity into the world.
2. Resist godless hierarchies: A godless hierarchy is grounded in inequality of being. Those on top are considered qualitatively/biologically/genetically/socially superior to those on the bottom. Slavery, for example, dehumanizes the slave and divinizes the master. Apartheid, Sharia law, the porn industry and sex slavery - these hierarchies counterfeit the divinely instituted ones and the Christian ought to resist them and refuse to participate
3. Resist elitism: It is very easy to believe oneself qualitatively better than those one is called to lead. All the animals are equal of course, but you happen to be more equal than the others. Christian leaders must recognize, resist and confess this temptation and repent when it is acted upon. Belittling, berating, forehead-slapping, head shaking, “the idiots I have to work with” kind of thoughts and words serve to solidify our own false sense of superiority and dehumanize those we lead. “I’m leading because that’s just the sort I am…” ignores both the equal humanity of those you lead and the biblical truth that whatever wisdom, intelligence, or strength you have is a gracious gift to you from God despite who you are not because of who you are.
* I’ve purposefully omitted slavery from this list. While the New Testament does call slaves to obey their masters, unlike the forenamed institutions slavery is everywhere portrayed as an evil (1 Tim 1:10) to be endured and overcome (1 Cor 7:21) rather than an institution given by God to be celebrated. Moreover the Old Testament laws related to slavery have more in common with charitable voluntary anti-poverty work-programs than to the race-based chattel slavery characteristic of the American south.
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