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What the Bible says about discrimination

social justice
Unsplash/Logan Weaver

I was involved in a recent discussion with many other church representatives about how churches should deal with discrimination against groups that are often considered marginalized. I mentioned the following passage from James 2 as a biblical directive against discrimination within the church. In this case James calls it showing favoritism:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?... If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.

The situation James references deals with economic class. Anti-discrimination laws today, however, commonly include many categories: sex, age, race, ethnicity, nationalitydisability, mental illness or abilitygendergender identity/expressionsex characteristicsreligioncreed, or individual political opinions. Certainly, many Evangelicals would include the unborn as being the most marginalized group.

In Matthew 25 Jesus emphasizes ministering to “these brothers of mine” in the marginalized categories of strangers, naked, sick, hungry, thirsty, or incarcerated. According to Jesus, failure to do so justifies eternal punishment. Although the expression “brothers of mine” may only apply to believers in Jesus, as Matthew 12:50 seems to imply, the parable of the Good Samaritan extends our responsibility to anyone in need for whom we have the power to aid.  

Acts 6 is the perfect example of identifying discrimination within the church and then moving quickly to address it. The Hellenistic Jewish believers complained that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The resolution of the situation was fascinating and instructive. All the disciples consulted together, acknowledged the need, considered ministry priorities, delegated the distribution of food to qualified Hellenistic believers who would not ignore their own widows, and commissioned them for service through the laying on of hands. It is extremely important to note, though, that the twelve did not distract themselves from their first priorities of prayer and ministry of the word.

Being tethered to prayer and the word is especially necessary when considering helping the wide array of possible marginalized groups commonly identified today. Otherwise, addressing discrimination issues can and has become the major focus, or even the only one. Bart Campolo is one well-known example of an ultimate commitment to social activism that moved him from progressive Christianity to secular humanism.

Also problematic is the tendency to label those not part of or sympathetic to a certain group as an enemy. (This tendency is not just a progressive church problem of course.) Additional complexity is that individuals often fit into two or more of the discrimination categories listed above. This multiple-group identity can pull individuals or churches in conflicting directions if our primary identity is not rooted in Jesus. Practically speaking it also makes it difficult to understand who or how many people are really impacted by discrimination.

Using a crude and certainly inaccurate method of combining the percentages taken from the U.S. Census, CDC, and Gallup of those identifying as non-white, women, and non-heterosexual along with those qualifying as having a disability, are at least 65, and fall below the poverty line, 99.2% of Americans are at risk for discrimination. Although this percentage is clearly too high, the truth behind this wrong number is that almost all of us at some point can legitimately claim to be marginalized by society.

If we are all victims, who is the oppressive power to whom truth needs to be spoken, beyond that small group of wealthy, healthy, not yet old, white, male heterosexuals?  In Gulag ArchipelagoAleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote the following: 

“If only there were evilpeople somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Solzhenitsyn suggests rather than only considering ourselves as victims and viewing others only as oppressors, we should also address the evil within our own hearts.  Similarly, when the crowds flocked to hear John the Baptist in the wilderness, he welcomed them by calling these beleaguered seekers of truth vipers who need to produce the fruit of repentance. When asked specifically what that meant, he stated that those with excess need to give to those in need; those collaborating with the Romans by collecting taxes should do so fairly, and those enforcing Roman rule should not abuse their position nor complain about their salaries.  Nothing was said about being liberated from Roman control. Rather he charged each of them to act with justice within their present spheres of activity. 

John’s response about the people’s need to repent suggested they were not behaving in the generous and fair way illustrated by his examples. Lest they think they could just change their behavior and earn God’s approval in their own strength, John warned the crowd to get ready for Jesus’ coming. Only He can baptize with the Holy Spirit, who alone changes the heart leading to acts of justice.  As the quotation from Isaiah used in this story affirms, Jesus the Messiah, not John or the people themselves, is the Lord and God’s salvation.

Given that we are all fallen, we are all current or potential oppressors who need to repent and place our faith in Jesus before we can perform works of justice for others out of a supernaturally changed heart. Pastor Tim Keller states it this way: 

“Because it is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity neither eliminates nor merely reverses the ruler/ruled binary—rather, it subverts it.  When Jesus saves us through his use of power only for service, he changes our attitude toward and our use of power.”

This is a concern I have with churches tempted to emphasize social justice to the exclusion of evangelism and holiness. They may quote the wonderful Micah 6:8 passage about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God as their rationale to focus on redressing all social wrongs. My interpretation of that passage, though, is that, after Jesus’ atoning work and resurrection, we only walk humbly with God by receiving Jesus as Savior and following Him as Lord (Romans 10:9). Then we are indwelt by the Spirit (Romans 8:9) and, as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), begin to love mercy (Galatians 5:22). Finally, we are empowered by the Spirit to do justice for others (Ephesians 3:16).

Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples in Matthew 28 seem to support the emphasis John the Baptist and the early disciples had regarding building a foundation of faith and obedience from which to redress social wrongs. According to Bill Heth, a colleague of mine at Taylor University,

“There is only one command in [the Great Commission, Matt 28:19-20], ‘make disciples,’ and the other three verbals are participles related to and supportive of the main verb ‘make disciples.’ The ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ participles… indicate how one is to make disciples, namely by baptizing and by teaching.

Win Corduan, another colleague from Taylor, tells the story of reading a recipe for oatmeal cookies in his local small-town newspaper. I don’t recall all the ingredients, but it likely included items such as flour, butter, cinnamon, baking soda, sugar, and eggs. He then said that, in the subsequent issue, the newspaper offered a correction and apologized for inadvertently leaving out oatmeal.

Helping those who are in need and supporting those experiencing discrimination are wonderful and necessary activities. Woe to those churches who do not demonstrate Christian faith by their works (James 2:18). But, based on the Bible and the entire history of the Christian movement, doing so without addressing our root problem of sin by placing total faith in the redemptive work of Jesus as Savior and following Him as Lord is akin to baking oatmeal cookies without oatmeal. The difference is that the consequences are far more eternal.

Ronald Sloan is a retired academic administrator who served at both public and Christian institutions of higher education. He currently teaches as an adjunct music instructor at Taylor University, volunteers at his church, and serves as a court-appointed advocate for children needing special services. 

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