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.
Christians were pioneers for legal equality. In most places throughout human history, the dictum that might is right has prevailed. Those in charge made, enforced, bent, flouted, and changed laws to their advantage. But the kings and peasants of ancient Israel lived under the rule of law given by God. The Bible begins with five books referred to as “the Law” because they contain 613 rules governing God’s Old Testament people. Both the Old and New Testament contain other laws that grow out of God’s unchanging character. It’s important to note that Scripture holds these laws to be binding on all people—no matter who they are or where they rank in society.
We may assume that equality for all people under the law is normative, but it is in fact not so. In much of the world (past and present), those with power and money live completely above the law as a law unto themselves. The influence of the biblical concept of law ruling over all people equally has forever altered Western culture.
Christianity began as an unwanted and outlawed fringe ministry group that was often persecuted. With the Roman Emperor Constantine, things changed as Christianity found itself as the official religion of the famed Roman Empire. As a patchwork of previous political groups, there was no such thing as consistent laws across the empire. Making matters even worse, only the richest people could afford the professional help to navigate the complex legal system. As Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, spiritual leaders called bishops were given oversight of various geographic areas, and this included the legal right bestowed by the government to decide legal cases. Eventually, there was a Christian named Justinian who became Emperor, and he was largely responsible for establishing a more organized and formalized version of Roman law that helped pave the way for the legal systems in America and Europe today. As Rodney Stark notes, “Documents as important as the American Declaration of Independence or the European Charter of Human Rights can therefore be traced back to the ideas of the Christian legal system of Justinian.”3
Because all people equally bear God’s image, heterosexuals and homosexuals stand eye-to-eye as human beings and deserve equal protection under the law. For this reason, most Christian leaders I know agree that legal protection should be given to gay couples on issues like inheritance rights, hospital visitation, and end-of-life decisions. While many of us disagree with the gay community over the definition of marriage, we believe that all people—gay, straight, and otherwise, deserve legal equality.
Christians also took strides toward social equality—especially when it came to unwanted children. Children in the time of Jesus often lacked legal protection or parental affection. Sacrificing and abandoning children was common. Discarded children often died from exposure or were taken as slaves, prostitutes, or gladiators. This was especially true for children from the bottom rungs of society. But that’s just where Jesus came from. He was the King of the Universe come as a baby to a poor rural family. And in a society that dismissed and abused children regularly, Jesus loved kids and kids loved Him. They flocked to Jesus, and He welcomed, embraced, and prayed over them, as we learn from some of the fondest Bible stories ever. Because of His example, Christians began to treat children differently, including adopting discarded children. That work still continues with orphanages, foster care, and adoptions around the world developed and operated by Christians who have God’s heart for the value of all children from all backgrounds.
That same heart was extended to the way Christians cared for the needy. Hospitals in the Roman Empire were not open to the poor. But Jesus the Great Physician (Luke 4:23, 5:31) and healer inspired Christians to care for people’s physical as well as spiritual well-being. Luke the medical doctor and author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts wrote more of the New Testament by volume than anyone, attentively recording the healing ministries of Jesus and the early church. Later, the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) decreed that hospitals should be established wherever there was a Christian church. Many modern hospitals and senior care facilities trace their roots to Christian denominations. Even the Red Cross began as a medical ministry founded by a Christian businessman and activist, Henri Dunant.
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.”4
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.5
It is believed he piloted the first versions of these ministries to the poor and established the first social service support network.6
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.7
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.8
- The Christian Emperor Charlemagne ordered monasteries to open schools to educate children.9
- 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.10
- During the so-called Dark Ages, Christian monks hand-copied books to save them from being lost.
- Oxford University started in a church.11
- The University of Paris had a strong theology department that graduated one of the world’s greatest thinkers, Thomas Aquinas.12
- Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits pioneered education that continues in many schools today.13
- 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.14
- The first society known to achieve full literacy was educated by the Jesuits in the 1600s.15
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.16
People outside the church might be willing to consider the historical fact that biblical Christianity originated the ideal of equality that inspires Western values and continues to take hold throughout the world. They might even acknowledge that Jesus’ followers have boldly led the way toward racial, legal, social, economic, and educational equality. But many nevertheless flatly reject the idea that Christians believe in gender equality because of inequities they perceive among us. Here is a sample of statements we heard in our focus groups:
Austin woman: “I think that the overbearing patriarchy of the Bible has inadvertently put women in the position that they’re not respected as much and that they don’t have as much equality.”
Austin woman: “Men are always supposed to be above women. Women can’t be above a man…. It’s basically almost this thing that worships men.”
Boston guy: “Women can’t be priests. Women can’t be in control of their body, even if it puts their lives at risk.”
Boston woman: “I would take it one step further and say not only is it exclusive, it also excludes women, making it a male-dominated religion. And the way that women are talked to and degraded under the guise of Christianity is unacceptable.”
Our group facilitator summed up a prevailing attitude among women:
“Women are so easily able to use the Bible as a reason not to be involved in the Christian faith because the stories involve women as chattel, women as owned…That was their biggest push away. They don’t believe they’re being good mothers if they are ‘enslaved’ to something written 2,000 years ago.”
I grieve when I hear these things. Besides the issues that women have with the Bible or what they see acted out at church, I know there are other unspoken issues. The real trouble in gender equality today is men—especially young men. Guys are waiting longer than ever to marry for the first time. Until they make that commitment, they are dating, relating, and fornicating. They are drinking, carousing, and pornifying. They objectify, sexually assault, and impregnate women with no intent of marrying or fathering. They get high and laugh away their days, not knowing that their life is the joke. They might have a degree and a condo, but they do not have a clue. They are anatomically men but functionally boys. They are boys who can shave. Perhaps ours is not an age of gender equality because men have so much catching up to do.
None of that reflects the ideal lived out by Jesus, who was a revolutionary in His relationships with women. He was unafraid to break manmade cultural taboos, although was careful never to transgress God’s law. Jesus talked with the woman at the well and the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12–13). He cast demons out of women and healed them (Matt. 9:20–22; Luke 8:40–56, 13:10–17). He lifted up women as examples as He preached (Matt. 25:1–10; Luke 4:26, 18:1–5, 21:1–4), and He taught women along with men, a highly controversial act in that day (Luke 10:38–42, 23:27–31; John 20:10–18).
Jesus did not flinch when a sinful woman anointed Him and scandalized the religious guys who witnessed her devotion (Luke 7:36–50). Jesus was close friends with Mary and Martha, women He loved like sisters who had Him over to eat in their home (Luke 10:38–39). Women were among the most generous financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1–3). And women were granted the great honor of being the first to discover Jesus had risen (Matt. 28:1–10).
Rodney Stark sums up the dynamics of Jesus’ ministry among women and the appeal of the new faith He founded:
In Roman as in Jewish society, women were regarded as inherently inferior to men. Husbands could divorce their wives, but wives could not divorce their husbands. In rabbinic circles, only males were allowed to study the Torah. Jesus challenged these arrangements.
Although he called only men to be apostles, Jesus readily accepted women into his circle of friends and disciples…Christianity’s appeal for women was a major reason that it grew so rapidly in competition with other religions of the Roman Empire. Then, as now, most Christians were women. The new religion offered women not only greater status and influence within the church but also more protection as wives and mothers.17
I have been to the Middle East, and to this day, their cultures treat women considerably different than those nations influenced by Christianity. Jesus elevated the status of women in a way that much of the world never has.
Christians since that time have indeed been pioneers for gender equality. They fought against cultures where women were relegated as second-class citizens and regarded as the property of their husband. India offers painful examples such as the practice of suttee, burning a wife alive with her dead husband since she had no point in living if not to serve him. Female infanticide was rampant. Little girls were made “child widows,” put to work as temple prostitutes for male pleasure. These evils were outlawed with the coming of Christian missionaries such as William Carey and Amy Carmichael. Elsewhere, Christians in China led efforts to ban the custom of binding women’s feet, and Christian activism in America helped secure voting and property rights for women.
Scripture teaches a fundamental equality of women and men. One of the best-known verses Christians cite to prove this point comes from the apostle Paul, who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
This is an excerpt from Pastor Mark’s Christians Might Be Crazy. You can get the free e-book here.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stark, The Victory of Reason, 235.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 93.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 97.
- Ibid., 98–99.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 101–102.