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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Better Than Equal

I note that Tim Bayly and seven pastor-or-elder friends have taken their best shot at “fortifying” the same Nashville Statement we’ve been mulling over on our Friday morning Too Hot to Handle series (the first installment of which may be found here).

Like Bayly and crew, IC and I would probably have drafted a modestly different document (assuming we agreed to write it at all), so I was curious to see what the revisers decided needed changing.

To my surprise, I find myself more interested in what they didn’t change. Maybe I’ve got a log in my eye or something.

Obsessed With “Equality”

So let me just throw this out there for your consideration: I don’t get their obsession with the concept of equality. I just don’t.

Here’s the original language of Article 3, where this fixation seems most evident:

WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth. 
[italics mine]
The “fortified” Statement changes nothing about the “equality” language of the original, so whatever differences I have, I have with both declarations, er ... equally. Here are the three things being affirmed in both statements:
  • Men and women were created equal before God as persons
  • Men and women were created equal in dignity
  • Men and women were created equal in worth
The Bayly group adds a fourth “equal” in its explanation, perhaps as an umbrella for the first three, calling them confessions about the “ontological equality of man”. (“Ontology” is just a high-falutin’ philosophical way of referring to the nature of being, which is to say that we’re talking about the intrinsic value of the sexes here, not earned merit that might be ascribed to individuals.)

I take issue with the language of both statements on several levels, and it’s not because I necessarily disagree that men and women were created equal. I simply don’t know, and neither do you. I don’t think the Bible tells us. Further, I don’t think it matters.

Why So Excited?

But, boy, everybody else sure seems to think it does.

The fact that “equality” does matter so much to so many Christians is something I even find a little disturbing. The more it matters, the more I’d say we have a major problem. Why? Because nobody ever says, “Hey, we’re equal, sit down and let me bring you a coffee.” It’s not a commitment to the concept of intrinsic human equality that provides the impetus for Christian service. It might be spiritual gift, or kindness, or humility, or gratitude, or duty, or love, or all kinds of other things, but it ain’t equality.

No, when equality is appealed to these days, it’s usually something more like this: “Hey, we’re equal, so I should get to do exactly what you’re doing,” or “Hey, we’re equal, so I should be served by you exactly as much as you are served by me or else you are failing to reflect God’s original design.” That’s the language of envy, not the language of love.

Grasping and Not Grasping

About the Lord Jesus it is said, “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

In short, the only person ever who really WAS intrinsically equal to God was spectacularly and uniquely unconcerned about demonstrating it. Instead, he served those who were not remotely his equals by any and all measures, and who never will be his equals no matter how many eternities pass. I’d suggest that if we are indeed imitators of Jesus Christ, we will be as unconcerned about our own status relative to others as he was.

It’s Not About ME!

The obvious objection arises: “I’m not worried about MY equality. I’m worried that others receive their due.” Fair enough, and certainly preferable by orders of magnitude to sentiments like “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High,” which most Christians recognize as epically poor form.

But bear in mind I’m not talking here at all about how we ought to treat one another in our churches, or about how we are to view our fellow believers, or our wives and families. The standard for that is way beyond mere “equality”, however we may define that. Rather, it is “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That attitude derives its authority not from creation but from the conduct and mindset of Jesus Christ.

If we have concerns about how particular groups or individuals (or even sexes) are viewed and treated, maybe the best thing we can do for them is start serving them eagerly to demonstrate the proper Christian approach; then, having established by our conduct that we are not hypocrites, encourage others to do the same by appealing to the appropriate passages of scripture. Invoking the poorly-defined and even more poorly-understood concept of “equality” is both unnecessary and insufficient to that purpose.

We need something better than “equal”.

Where Does This Come From?

What amazes me about the “fortified” Article 3 is that the Bayly group seems to have clued in to where this language is really coming from. They say:
“In an egalitarian age it is not faithful to confess the equality of Adam and Eve without also confessing Adam’s headship.”
Ah yes, the spirit of the age. So they acknowledge there’s a serious (and presumably not entirely healthy) movement toward egalitarianism out there in the world, and then promptly fall for it by affirming things the word of God simply doesn’t say, uncritically accepting the world’s frame. Maybe the idea comes from Thomas Jefferson’s venerable assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men [and presumably women] are created equal”. Jefferson claimed this was “self-evident”, which only means he didn’t offer any evidence in support of it.

Too bad. I hope it’s not too late to ask for some.

Genesis doesn’t say Adam and Eve were “equal”. The word simply isn’t there. To the best of my knowledge, neither the Lord nor his apostles make that case either. We are importing the concepts and language of our culture into scripture and attempting to pass them off as inspired truth.

Heresy of the Day

Here’s my heretical statement for the day. Brace yourselves.

Perhaps Eve had more “dignity” and “worth” than Adam. Perhaps Eve had greater ontological value. Perhaps God made something great with Adam, and something even greater in the woman he took from out of Adam’s body. Maybe a higher percentage of God’s character qualities are reflected in women than in men, or maybe those qualities are reflected in the female of the species with greater pellucidity.

Does that stir the pot? It should. But it’s just as biblically supportable as asserting the equality of Adam and Eve, or asserting Adam’s superiority.

Which is to say it isn’t.

The fact is that the Bible doesn’t say. God doesn’t use our cultural terms of reference. God is not interested in the Battle of the Sexes except maybe to say in effect, “Cut that out!” That’s something we’ve cooked up.

One More Problem

There’s a further intellectual problem with the concept of intrinsic human dignity and worth in whatever relative quantity, and I point it out for your consideration. The Nashville Statement concerns itself only with the creation order; with how things were when relations between God and mankind were perfect. It doesn’t tell us much about the effects of the Fall on equality, whether between men and women, between men and other men, or between women and other women.

Whatever intrinsic dignity and worth men and women once possessed, it is clear sin has the capacity to destroy it utterly. If not, and if dignity and worth remain in fallen, unregenerate beings when we die, we are forced to picture God throwing something that is both “dignified” and “worthy” into the fires of Hell for eternity.

Does that sound quite right to you?

On the other hand, if sin has affected our original value in the eyes of God — if, for instance, we have “all become like one who is unclean”, then it is idle to talk about comparing our relative dignity and worth. Zero and zero are technically equal, sure, but I’m thinking that’s not where the egalitarians are trying to get to.

A Challenge

I like the expression IC coined to describe what the Bible teaches about men and women as God created us: “different but valued”. I think that about nails it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong, but this sort of adjustment to our modern way of looking at the sexes may not be an easy pill to swallow for some folks. So here’s a task for anyone who feels up to it. If the intrinsic equality of men and women, whether in dignity, worth or “as persons”, is spelled out anywhere in scripture, I’d love to know that, not least because I’d hate to be clueless about something everybody else sees as patently obvious.

It’s not an unimportant issue. “Equality” is appealed to regularly to justify all sorts of twisting of scripture and all sorts of neat new church practices that are inconsistent with the teaching of the New Testament. I think it’s a frame we should not accept without solid biblical proof.

As for our churches and our marriages? Mere “equality” isn’t good enough to make those work. Equality is a man-made solution to the problem of envy that will let us down right when we need its help the most because the concept has no substance to it and no real authority behind it.

We need something better than equality, and the New Testament provides it.


  1. This should provide an answer about where dignity comes from.

    If you search for just one rather simple, clear reason why Catholic social teaching holds that dignity is a basic characteristic of every human person, you wont find it. Instead, you'll find two reasons, both rather simple and clear:
    First reason: God is our Creator; we are created in Gods image. A reflection of God is found in all those he created. Pope John Paul II spoke about this in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). . . . . . . He wrote: Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself ( EV 34. . . ).
    Second reason: In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ becomes one with the human family's members. All human persons are touched by the reality of the Incarnation, and by Christ's redemptive actions. Christ came for all. In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II explained this. He said that Jesus self-oblation on the Cross becomes the source of new life for all people ( No. 33. . . ). And, the pope said, Jesus has a unique relationship with every person, which enables us to see in every human face the face of Christ ( No. 81. . . ).

  2. I would argue that if the Christian has "dignity", it is a consequence of the new creation, not the old one. We see in every regenerate brother and sister the face of Christ; I hope to see him in my unsaved neighbours and co-workers one day, but he is not there now. That vital difference in family relationship and essential resemblance is what the new birth brings about.

    1. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A34-40&version=ESV

      Hmm, it's not exactly very dignified to be in prison and yet Christ identifies with even that person. So I don't think that dignity is conditional as you suggest and agree with the more general Catholic interpretation of dignity being present in the created person by virtue of who created them.

    2. Ah, but in the verse you're citing, the imprisoned person is "one of my brothers" (v40). So my question is: Who are Christ's "brothers"? Are they the saved or the unsaved? (Hint: check Matthew 12:48 before responding).

    3. I did check it out. I do not see any contradiction to what I suggested - 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

      There is no ambiguity there especially since it is clear that any teacher has to approach a topic from various perspectives to get the lesson across. The least of these in, this case, are in prison, and yes there are others he would refer to as brothers. It's exactly what I get from Christ' teaching that he considers even those on the outskirts of society imbued with dignity.