I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “equality” lately. You can’t do even a cursory study of the gender debate without running across this word a lot. There are so many arguments about it — what groups are actually equal with each other; what groups need to be; what groups claim to not have equality, but really do; and, “well, what is your group to tell me that my group doesn’t need it anymore?” etc. etc. There are tons of ideas of how to achieve equality, countless articles searching for the cause of its absence, and lots and lots of finger-pointing and/or self-pity regarding those who get the short end of the stick. It is such a dicey subject.
On one hand, I definitely agree with the overall concept of equality. We in the church are supposed to love, honor, and submit to one another in Christ, so we really should not be seeing vast swaths of people who are being systematically oppressed. We need to treat even unbelievers with kindness. Defending the oppressed is biblical, and it’s a great thing.
But on the other hand, it’s hard to justify by the Sermon on the Mount how it’s okay for any of us to stand up and demand our fair and equal rights. Although it’s right for us to be treated well, it’s not our job to fight tooth-and-nail to make sure that happens. The Bible actually seems to assume that we’ll be mistreated (Matt 24:9; John 16:33; 2Cor 4:8-11; 2Tim 3:12; 1Pet 4:12…just to list a few)! And then it tells us to do ridiculous things like turn the other cheek! But shouldn’t we stand up for what’s right?
Holy ideological minefield, Batman! What do we do now?
As I was mulling over this topic the other day, it struck me how I was coming at it from completely the wrong angle. The Bible actually gives us a really clear picture of what Christ-centered equality looks like. And it looks something like this:
If you know your way around woodworking tools, you might recognize this as an awl. And if you were in a life of servitude in ancient Israel, it would have some particular significance as well:
And if it happens that [your servant] says to you, “I will not go away from you,” because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise. (Deuteronomy 15:16-17)
The awl was instrumental in taking a servant (“I have to work for you for seven years, so I’m putting in my time, and then I’m outta here”) and making him/her a bondservant (“You’re wonderful and I want to be with you forever”). Bondservice was, in a very real way, voluntary slavery. It meant that the master was kind enough, generous enough, and worthwhile enough, that the servant wanted to continue in their service forever. That’s saying something pretty significant — only in part about the servant’s loyalty, and almost entirely about the awesome qualities of the master.
We usually think of equality as trying to elevate everyone to the same level. I propose we find it instead when we all humble ourselves to the depths of servanthood. I’m provoked by how Paul, one of the most unquestionably influential apostolic fathers of Christianity, described Himself:
Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God… (Romans 1:1)
Paul. As in, the Paul. As in the open-vision-of-Jesus, went-to-the-third-heaven, wrote-most-of-the-New-Testament, rebuked-Peter-to-his-face, PAUL. This is a man with a lot of authority in the church, with a lot of people being trained by him and looking up to him. And his view of himself was that of a bondservant. Or to put it in less noble, less familiar terms: a slave for life, forever consigned to the lowest level of the social strata, because he loved his Lord that much.
We could also look at James. James was another significant church leader, and, like Paul, wrote a book of the Bible. He was also the brother of Jesus. I mean, if there was ever someone who had good cause to name-drop in the introduction, it was James. And here’s his intro to his book:
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ… (James 1:1)
No pedigree, no badge, and not even a winking, “Hey, my bro says to tell you all hi for Him.” Just, “bondservant”.
If we begin to live like bondservants, and view ourselves that way, suddenly arguing about who gets what rights, and in what form, looks really, really silly. It’s worth noting that none of the apostles who went on to write books penned any passages quibbling about who was the greatest. And these were some of the same men who got caught doing just that in Mark 9:34 and Luke 9:36, 22:24.
Really, how ludicrous is it for one to say to another, “Okay, so maybe we’re both slaves-for-life, but I’m a way more important and elite slave-for-life than you are!” Although fallen human nature might still incline us to such absurdities, it fails the common sense test pretty spectacularly. Two people with no rights are simply two people with no rights. There’s not any up or down to be had on that spectrum. This also means we don’t even need to protest, “But I’m just as important of a slave-for-life as you!”, because who really feels a need to prove that they are a totally and eternally rights-less, non-self-determined person? What sort of mark of honor is that?
It isn’t. Not by earthly standards, anyway, which are the standards that give place to all the bickering.
Seeing ourselves as bondservants also drastically changes why we do what we do. Because we love our Lord deeply, we are committed to doing what He says to do. It is not just our duty (although it is certainly that); it is a deep-seated desire and drive to walk fully pleasing to Him.
I can’t help but think of another ego-upsetting statement Paul made:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)
If Paul had wanted to, he could have gotten a bit defensive about his right to preach the gospel. After all, he was like one who was “born out of due time” (1Cor 15:8), not having really met Jesus until after His resurrection. We see that his ministry got off to a bit of a rocky start (Acts 9:26), as almost nobody was ready to believe that he could actually be trusted. But he did not start a Paulinist movement to prove that ex-persecutors could be just as legitimate of preachers as the old-school disciples. He didn’t talk about his right to preach, but his burning compulsion to do so.
I think this is incredibly important for anyone in the gender debate. All too often, the argument basically devolves into, “But it’s my pulpit, too!” “Is not!” “Is too!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!” “Dad says that only boys can use the pulpit!” “Well, Dad told me that you’re supposed to share!”
But what if the conversation went more like: “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” “I know what you mean! Woe is me, too, if I don’t preach the gospel!” Platforms, college degrees, and authority structure don’t even register on the radar. There’s nothing really to argue about. All that’s left to do is rejoice that Christ is being preached (Philippians 1:8).
Or, even if the other person is arguing about it, that’s not enough to topple a real, honest-to-goodness “woe is me”. If I am living like a bondservant, my life signed away to the One I’m deeply in love with, I can’t be turned aside from doing His will because my neighbor doesn’t think I’m right for the job. That may not dull the sting of rejection, but it will keep me from a) retaliating, and b) throwing in the towel. If I’m a bondservant, it’s not my right to get praised, appreciated, or recognized for my labor of love (Luke 17:7-10). However, because my Lord is amazing and humble, I know that He sees it all and will reward me Himself (Luke 12:37), so I’m still driven by love, not mere duty alone.
But back to the point at hand: Everyone is on equal footing when they’ve had an awl through their ear. We have nothing to boast in and nothing to revile each other for. Biblical equality is not about elevating everyone to the same high level of prestige and privilege, but it comes from each one of us embracing the lowest place, forfeiting our rights to the only One who can steward them well, and seeking His glory above our own. Equality comes when when we are burdened to preach (1Cor 9:16), compelled by love (2Cor 5:14), poured out like a drink offering (Php 2:17), and following in the footsteps of our own Lord who made Himself of no reputation (Phil 2:5-11). We are not called to ministry to have our deeds trumpeted in the streets; we, in our various expressions and outworkings of it, are called to be bondservants. And it seems like that settles quite a lot.