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. Today we look at economic and educational equality.
#4 ECONOMIC EQUALITY
Christians were also pioneers for economic equality. The Bible from beginning to end describes God’s heart for the poor and commands His people to be generous toward those who possess little or nothing. Jesus Christ understood this life firsthand. He was born poor. He lived poor. He did miracles for the poor, including feeding thousands to set an example for Christians to follow. And the poor found that same welcome in early Christian congregations. Historian Wayne Meeks concludes that churches connected to the apostle Paul’s ministry drew people from a wide array of social classes. “A Pauline congregation,” he says, “generally reflected a fair cross-section of urban society.”1
Christianity does not allow us to equate net worth with self-worth. Efforts like soup kitchens, food banks, and homeless shelters funded and staffed by Christians find their origins with Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia.2
It is believed he piloted the first versions of these ministries to the poor and established the first social service support network.3
While Western critics of Christianity often forget the Christian roots of economic opportunities in their own nations, outsiders sometimes have a less clouded perspective. Historian Rodney Stark quotes one of China’s leading scholars:
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre- eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.4
#5 EDUCATIONAL EQUALITY
Educational equality is a hot topic in politics these days, and once again, history shows Christians to be at the forefront of this campaign. Jesus Himself was well taught. He was called Rabbi (“Teacher”). And His followers have shared His commitment to learning:
- Didymus the Blind essentially invented Braille in the 4th century.43 The Christian Emperor Charlemagne ordered monasteries to open schools to educate children.5 In AD 797, priests were sent to open schools in every community so that the poor could be educated. School was priced according to what parents could pay and offered for free if necessary.6
- During the so-called Dark Ages, Christian monks hand-copied books to save them from being lost. Oxford University started in a church.7 The University of Paris had a strong theology department that graduated one of the world’s greatest thinkers, Thomas Aquinas.8 Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits pioneered education that continues in many schools today.9
- In the 1500s, John Calvin opened one of the first tuition-free schools, which eventually grew into a university. He helped start other universities that worked together to form the first free and integrated educational system.10
- The first society known to achieve full literacy was educated by the Jesuits in the 1600s.11
The entire Protestant Reformation was made possible in large part by the invention of the printing press, by language formation and translation, and by systematic education. Christians want everyone to be able to read the Bible for themselves in their language, so they have spent countless dollars and hours creating written languages in cultures where a written system does not exist and translating the Bible into languages spoken around the world.
Education in America was made possible in large part by Christians and churches. From the landing of the Puritans in 1637, virtually all education was private and Christian, often housed in churches for more than 200 years. Literacy rates were high, and nearly every one of the first 123 American colleges and universities founded in the United States were of Christian origins, including Yale, William and Mary, Brown, Princeton, NYU, and Northwestern. Harvard was started by a donation of money and books by Rev. John Harvard. Dartmouth was founded to train missionaries to the Indians. Many schools in the United States and around the world remain Christian by heritage, including schools Nelson Mandela attended.12
- Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 73.
- Ibid., 158–159.
- Ibid. Stark, The Victory of Reason, 235.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 97.
- Ibid., 98–99.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 101–102.