After preaching a late-night service in a very unchurched major American city, a group of young singles approached me in front of the stage to have what was a pointed but respectful conversation. None of them seemed to be Christians, but they have very strong criticisms of my faith. In the end, the gist of their view was that Christianity was immoral. They are not alone in their conclusion.
Across our phone surveys and focus groups for the project Christians Might Be Crazy, we often heard that Christianity is “unprogressive” and even “repressive.” Instead of supporting the ideals of the future it defends prejudices of the past. Nearly a third (29%) of our survey participants agreed that Christians don’t believe all people are created equal. There are at least six areas in which Christianity has brought equality.
#1 RACIAL EQUALITY
Christians broke ground on the battle for racial equality. Why? The Bible teaches that every person is created by God in His image and descended from one family. Each has the opportunity to be adopted into a spiritual family with God as Father and Jesus as Big Brother. Racial equality logically follows.
Jesus Himself broke harsh racial taboos by making friends with a Samaritan woman (John 4:27–42). The Samaritans were the next-door neighbors of Israel who were despised for their mixed-race heritage and false beliefs. The Jews had a habit of walking the long way around their land to avoid contact with its supposedly disgusting people. But Jesus strolled right into enemy turf and sat down for a chat with a Samaritan woman drawing water from a well.
The woman was alone, an outcast among outcasts. After five failed marriages, she was living with the latest guy. But God had come to earth to court this woman at a lonely well in the heat of the noon sun. Jesus revealed her sin, exposing the dirtiest and most scarred portion of her soul, the part that smelled like sin and death and hell. He cleaned it, healed it, forgave it, and replaced it with grace.
People ask why Jesus or His first followers didn’t overthrow slavery in the Roman Empire if they cared so much about equality. Besides overlooking the ridiculousness of a few hunted disciples hurling themselves against an immense social institution protected by the might of Rome, that dig ignores the radical steps Jesus and early Christians took that set the stage for widespread change centuries later.
Slavery was so pervasive in the days of Jesus that in some parts of the empire roughly half of the population were slaves.1
Jesus broke ranks with His religious and political peers by identifying closely with those in bondage, calling Himself a “servant” or “slave” and welcoming them as His friends (John 13:4–5; Mark 10:45; Phil. 2:7). The early church included many slaves who were attracted to a faith that treated them as equals. This reality explains why the New Testament contains instructions regarding slaves—many were church members, leaders, and pastors. The apostle Paul called himself a slave of Christ (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Philem. 10). He listed slave trading among the most heinous of sins (1 Tim. 1:10) and pleaded for the escaped slave Onesimus to be received as a brother (Philem. 10–19).
Following in Paul’s footsteps some 500 years later, the former slave Saint Patrick became a powerful Christian voice opposing slavery, one of the first public figures to take such a bold stand on the issue. Historian Rodney Stark argues that slavery in medieval Europe ended “only because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”2
The power and reach of the church over civil authority made that prohibition practically a decree of universal abolition.
Eric Metaxas describes similar Christian involvement in bringing down slavery in England and the British Empire in the early 1800s in the email interview we conducted for this project:
It was Christians who fought passionately to end the slave trade and slavery itself. William Wilberforce and other Christians stood against secularists and for African slaves precisely because they believed that all men are brothers and all human beings are created in the image of God. Those who did not believe the Bible thought that notion a joke, and thought the darker-skinned races to be as obviously inferior to the light-skinned races as dogs were superior to rats or bugs.
Scholar Wayne Grudem added in our interview for this project that fully two-thirds of the leaders of the American abolitionist movement were Christians preaching that slavery should end. In more recent years, it was Christians like Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. who used biblical imagery and language to move a nation to stand against racial injustice, as Metaxas pointed out in our interview.
Christians across time and geography have followed Jesus’ example of welcoming all peoples. Today, Jesus is worshiped among more races and cultures than any deity in history. There is simply no organization of any kind that has as much racial diversity as Christianity.
1.Walter A. Elwell and P. W. Comfort, P. W. eds. Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001) 1206.
- Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 28.