A very good day to you. My name is Jacob Theunisz. I wrote this article (with video) to share with you my passion about equality in all areas of life. The Bible teaches us that we were all created in God’s image and that God loves each one of us without any partiality. Romans 2:11 – “For there is no partiality with God.” And this is repeated many, many times in the Old Testament and the New.
So if there is one place where we should set an example of such equality, it is in our churches. Unfortunately, even Christians seem to have forgotten that total equality has to be central to the Kingdom of God. I wonder how we ever lost sight of this important theme. Nowadays we have many discussions about women ordination, about LGBT rights and about social justice in general. These are all very important discussions and I am actively involved in some of them.
But when you think about it, these issues are only examples of one fundamental issue. That issue is a stubborn kind of discrimination on the most basic level. We know that we are meant to love one another, but when we do not consider others as equals, all we can give is a kind of charity. We usually manage to project an image of ourselves as humble and impartial. We may even seem to promote impartiality and tolerance. But all this will take a lot of effort, because it does not necessarily come from within. So then, at crucial moments, we will allow ourselves certain exceptions, sometimes very big exceptions. This is, of course, what we call hypocrisy.
What a difference it would make if we would fully understand and feel our fundamental unity as equal children of God. Then we would be able to see everyone as equally worthy of our attention, love and respect.
The role of leaders
Now it would help if everyone in a position of leadership, especially in churches, would grab every opportunity to educate us in this respect, firmly discourage hypocrisy, or at least take a stand. But few leaders are good at conflict resolution and participation issues, even when it is part of their job description. This results in a lack of direction in their team or community. I think there are at least two possible reasons:
- First of all: Leaders have their own social biases and prejudices. This may include subtle or less subtle discrimination. For instance: choosing the side of the most influential of two parties, protecting friends. Or defending certain exceptions to equal treatment, usually with impressive justifications and sophisticated platitudes. Let’s not fall for them.
- Secondly: they may genuinely mistake impartiality for neutrality. When a specific equality issue comes up, there is often a kind of resigned neutrality or a cheap call for reconciliation. But in order to be truly impartial, it is necessary to side with the weakest party, the poorest people, those less influential. God gave us an example when helping the people of Israel when they were a group of slaves in Egypt. God did not stay neutral, telling Israel to pray or seek a compromise. God saved them. So if we want to be shepherds we must also be prepared to literally save people or groups of people from all sorts of unfair treatment.
- A third reason could be that there is no conflict yet. Remember, though, that inequality is conflict waiting to happen. It still requires intervention. And prevention is always better.
If you find it difficult to be impartial, the Bible has a lot of helpful advice. One of the remedies is simply to regard each other as brothers and sisters. But please do not use that analogy to end all discussion. Used in the wrong way, it will sound like “We should all behave like good little boys and girls, be more Christlike, forgive each other, be quiet and listen to so and so, someone, (usually male) with unquestionable authority who knows what is good for us”. This is little more than the tactic of polite withdrawal and non-intervention in the guise of conflict resolution. Still, this method is very popular. Why? Perhaps because a failed attempt at reconciliation may actually make things worse. And to prevent that, we don’t even try.
On the other end of the spectrum we want to avoid drama and sentimentality, such as when we all have to confess our inner secrets to each other. Then we are somehow expected to have become better people. These things usually don’t work. Maybe they can give us a good feeling about ourselves and each other for a little while. Our pastor will be pleased that we took at least some action, but the next conflict will be around the corner, and will be all the more unexpected and painful. Because the root problem has not been addressed.
The root problem
What, then, is the root problem? Calling it sin would be too easy. Before we know it, confessions become excuses, explanations why we cannot change. Or we may think, “God is so merciful, he will forgive a little discrimination, right? Especially if other people discriminate in other ways.” But then we seriously misunderstand the gospel. The gospel is not only about liberation from the guilt of sin, but also about (as much as possible) kicking the habit, about transformation, starting in this life.
The analogy of brothers and sisters in a family still applies, but shouldn’t be used in a sickly sweet and sentimental way. Unity is not just about cosiness or polite socialising or forcing ourselves to sit together in a church pew. The Bible doesn’t speak of just any family or group, but of the family of God. That means we are not only brothers and sisters of each other, but also brothers and sisters of Jesus. Hebrews 2:11 – “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are one of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers or sisters”.
Yes, it makes a difference whether we see each other as just “all in this together” as fallible human beings, or whether we actually recognise Christ in his brothers and sisters. We will have to look at each person as a fellow-heir of divine promises. If we really let that sink in, it becomes impossible to exclude or look down on anyone. I know this will be hard for those who think they have particular privileges, positions or wisdom, but none of that should make any difference. As Revd. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own”. Such leaders will tend to put others down, sometimes openly, sometimes by ignoring them. However, by so doing, they are denying the very family of God and actually exclude themselves!
Priesthood as a lesson in equality
Another analogy, at least as radical and powerful, is the priesthood of all believers. And this is actually connected to the idea of the divine family. After all, if you and Christ are brothers, and Christ is a high priest, you will be a member of the same priestly family, i.e. a priest. You cannot have a high priest without priests, anyway. The book of Hebrews also speaks of a new order of priests, namely the order of Melchizedek. And, again, you cannot have an order with only one priest. That’s why, right at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, it says that Christ has made the faithful “a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.” Wait a minute, did Christ make us, the faithful, priests? Why did no one tell us? And could this be one of the things the kingdom of God is all about? True equality and participation within God’s priestly family?
Well, yes, I believe that is the whole point. Paul writes in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Notice that these are obviously just examples. There are many possible distinctions Paul doesn’t mention, like being British or Dutch, young or old, clergy or a so called lay person. But that clearly doesn’t mean that inequality is OK in those unmentioned cases. The spirit of the message in Galatians is that differences are inevitable and manifold, but in Christ, that is to say, spiritually, all these differences mean nothing.
Let me try to answer two common objections. Someone might say, “that’s is a beautiful ideal, but it’s just a vision for the future, not something we can implement today. The Book of Revelation is full of visions about heaven, isn’t it, and this text about us all being priests, is a vision, too.” Actually, it is not. This text is part of the introduction to the visions. It clearly says that Christ has made us priests, full stop. This was written down almost 2000 years ago. And at that time it already applied.
The second objection says we can only have priesthood as a community, not as individuals. But I wonder if we can have real any community without equality on the level of the individual. So I would rather turn it around and say that prioritizing equality is a condition for a sound (Christian) community. Many of our problems in church do not arise from having particular views or customs, but from a fundamental refusal to see each other as priests. And of course also from not realising or daring to accept that we ourselves were made priests, answerable to God. All the other things are just symptoms of that refusal to see Christ represented in our brothers and sisters.
There is much more I could say about this, but I will have to refer you to my website, www.emendatio.nl, in particular to the article called “The revolution according to Hebrews”. There I explain the difference between earthly temples and the heavenly sanctuary. I also discuss how baptism symbolises dying with Christ and rising again on the other side of the temple veil, i.e. in the Most Holy part of the temple, in the presence of God. Under the old covenant, no ordinary priest was allowed to enter there, but now we are, with Christ! This imagery in the book of Hebrews confirms that we are to follow Christ even in his priesthood. Are we unworthy? Of course we are. Every priest is. But that has never stopped Jesus from calling his followers to serve under Him.
No more sacrifices
Let me finish with something that struck me in the story of Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. I asked myself what was being tested more, Abraham’s obedience or his faith. Then I remembered that in Hebrews, only his faith was mentioned. I checked it and it was true. Of course Abraham was obedient as well, but that obedience arose from a strong faith in the promise of God. He believed that, if necessary, God would raise his son from the dead. Did you know that’s literally what the text in Hebrews says he believed? Here. Hebrews 11:19 – “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead”.
Sometimes we come to God ready to sacrifice what is most dear to us, perhaps a career or being able to say what we really believe, only to find out that God does not require a sacrifice and does not even permit it. In my life this has happened several times. So I know what I am talking about, even though it took many years to learn this lesson: When we truly believe that God has provided all we need in the person of Jesus Christ, we can come before God empty handed. It will also help us to accept others who are empty handed.
This is our new test of faith. Are we afraid to be priests who have literally nothing to offer, except faith in God’s goodness, which faith was instilled by God’s love for us in the first place? We don’t have to be afraid. Like Abraham, we can go to that altar to serve God, trusting that God will provide. God doesn’t need any of our old ideas about priesthood. We can leave them behind right there. We may find it difficult to sacrifice old ideas and conditioning of being inadequate and unworthy. At the same time, we can be surprisingly indifferent about throwing away vocations and talents, visions and opportunities, our own or those of others. But we can leave all that behind. We are still invited to contribute to a better world without such unnecessary sacrifices. And without knowing precisely what to expect, we are called to serve as priests. All of us, that is.