Do Christians believe in equality? Should we?

In his classic work The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined Georges Duby describes the way in which the medieval church understood the inequality of earthly society as a divinely ordained reflection of the heavenly hierarchy. “The harmony of God’s creation results from a hierarchized exchange of respectful submission and condescending affection” (p. 34). Like the angels, divided into ordinary angels and archangels, so human beings are divided into those that submit and those that serve. In addition, human society is organized according to three functional orders: those who pray (the priests, at the top of the hierarchy); those who fight (the kings and princes); and those who labor (the peasants).

To be sure, medieval theologians recognized that God had created all people equal. But they insisted that he did not expect them to live in functional or hierarchical equality. Duby quotes one famous statement by Gerard, an 11th Century Bishop of Cambrai: “Although nature creates all men equal, error subordinates some to others in accordance with the variable order of merits; this diversity arising from vice is established by divine judgment so that, since man is not intended to live in equality, one may be ruled by another” (p. 35, emphasis added).

There were egalitarians in those days, Duby points out. For instance, in 1024 Gerard was confronted with one campaign by a bishop who claimed he had received a letter from heaven calling for the restoration of peace in the world in anticipation with the millennium, expected by many on the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s death. The letter called for human society to be renewed according to three forms of equality: equality in agreements (society should be grounded in egalitarian oaths); equality in grace (fasting as the only basis for the forgiveness of sins); and equality in peace (an end to vengeance and war).

For bishops like Gerard, of course, such a vision was horrifying, a heresy that threatened the equilibrium of the universe. Gerard argued, and his arguments were representative of the views of the church of his day, that the kingdom of heaven is not expressed or realized in terms of equality. God imposes certain rules and commands on some that he does not impose upon others.

There were distinctions between men, an essential inequality which could be compensated only by charity, mercy, and mutual service, service which everyone was obliged to give and entitled to expect from his fellow man…. This reciprocity was the source of peace on earth. Others spoke of heaven. Heaven was exactly the same. There were several abodes in the house of the Lord. It was God’s wish that even in paradise a certain inequalitas prevail, reduced to nought only by charity, collective communication in the glory of God, common participation in the ineffable joy of salvation. This is the cornerstone of Gerard’s ideology: a generous redistribution of the available wealth within an inevitable framework of inequality. (38)

Redistribution of wealth is the right way to think about it. The power and prestige of the church (those who pray) and of the magistracy (those who bear the sword) was built on the labor and taxation of the peasantry (those who grew the food). Life expectancy for a peasant throughout much of the middle ages was somewhere in the thirties. The peasants were expected neither to understand the teaching of their faith nor to rise out of their poverty to any sort of mobility or prosperity. For all the emphasis on the need for superiors to serve their inferiors (after the example of Christ), we all know what usually happened.

The Reformation was one of the great catalysts that destroyed this system. The reformers rejected the church’s claim that believers had to draw near to God through the sacramental system controlled by the clergy, replacing it with the priesthood of all believers in response to the preaching of the gospel. Although Calvin and others insisted that the liberty of the spiritual kingdom had no obvious implications for liberty in the political kingdom, the flow of history dictated otherwise. As Charles Taylor and others have demonstrated, the rejection of a hierarchical order in the church was gradually followed by the rejection of hierarchy in government (i.e., the divine right of kings), the prohibition of radical economic inequality (i.e., slavery), and eventually the abandonment of hierarchy in the family (i.e., male headship).

We American Christians now find ourselves in an interesting scenario. We would all affirm, with the medieval church, that God created human beings equal, but most of us would be terribly uneasy about the way in which the church assumed the legitimacy of a hierarchy of orders (and of hierarchy within orders) that permitted no mobility, no avenue of ascent for those of talent. We don’t like Calvin’s declarations that ordinary Christians shouldn’t concern themselves with changing their day-jobs or with judging political affairs. We are uneasy about the way in which many of our forbears described or treated women.

To be sure, we recognize that there is a need for leadership in the church and in society. Not everyone can hold the same vocation, nor should everyone possess the same wealth and the same honor. But we like being able to hold our leaders accountable to us through elections, and we have a strong, visceral reaction against those leaders who would claim the right to confiscate our property through taxation, even if that property is directed to the lower ranks of society rather than to the elites. We expect that if we are willing to study and work hard we should be able to pursue a vocation suitable to our interests and talents, and even to change vocations if we feel so inclined. Most of us, while rejecting radical feminism, have no desire to force women back under the social and legal constraints within which they have lived for most of western history.

The rhetoric of equality is thrown around loosely by politicians and believers on the left and right. For some equality is the reigning norm that trumps all norms in all circumstances. The only differences that should be tolerated are those that are consensual and absolutely necessary (i.e., that we cannot possibly eliminate). For others equality is a great evil, a Trojan Horse that enables ideologists to exercise their tyranny over the rest of us. But most of us recognize that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

In that sense we have a lot in common with the medieval church. We believe that God created human beings equal even though we don’t think human beings are made equal in all respects. But what do we affirm beyond that? Is there a Christian teaching on equality? Should the liberty and equality of the spiritual kingdom have any implications at all for life in the political kingdom? How do we evaluate various claims to equality: legal, political, economic, gender? How do we justify defending equality in one area but not in another?

I’m curious to hear how many of you would answer these questions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section or feel free to send me a reply through the contact page.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 1, 2012, in Christian liberty, Equality, Social Issues, The Reformation, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Do Christians believe in equality? Should we?.

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