Louis Markos on the Inegalitarian Leadership of Jesus
We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the United States’ Declaration of Independence boldly asserts, “that all men are created equal.” This noble sentiment declares unapologetically that all human beings—no matter their age or sex, culture or religion, race or ethnicity, social class or educational achievement—possess intrinsic dignity and worth. Unfortunately, over the last century, America—and even more Western Europe—has increasingly shifted its focus from political liberty to social engineering, from equal protection before the law to sameness mandated by law, from equality to egalitarianism. The focus today is not on equal creation but on creating equality.
This almost obsessive urge to create equality has spread even to the Church herself. The last several decades in America have witnessed many Christians’ slow surrender to egalitarian values and the projection of those values back onto Jesus, the Bible, and church doctrine and discipline.
To be sure, certain facets of the church have at times adopted a partly egalitarian vision. The early Church described in Acts 2:42–47 engaged in a voluntary sharing of goods and properties. Catholic monastic orders, past and present, have lived communally, their members taking vows of poverty. In the centuries since the Reformation, Protestant sects from the Anabaptists to the Amish have, in keeping with the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Pet. 2:4–5), broken down much of the hierarchical structure between clergy and laity.
Still, even the most radical of Protestant sects or the most severe of monastic orders retain high respect for the authority of the Bible and for the moral wisdom of spiritual leaders (abbot, elder, pastor). In the egalitarianism of today, however, the Bible is treated as a malleable text and church doctrines and disciplines subject to constant revision.
Thus, if the phrasing of the Bible stands in the way of an egalitarian view of the sexes, you simply change the phrasing of the Bible—along with hymns, creeds, and prayer books—to fit your gender-neutral vision of church, marriage, and society. Likewise, if you decide that original sin or substitutionary atonement or eternal damnation might “damage” the self-esteem of the more sensitive in the congregation, you simply find new ways to “understand” these cornerstones of biblical doctrine. Or, to come to the defining egalitarian issue of our day: If you think no distinctions should be made between heterosexual and homosexual “lifestyles,” then you simply jettison the Church’s (and humanity’s!) age-old understanding of marriage and human sexuality so as to embrace same-sex “marriage.”
The Heresy of Inclusivism
Note that Christians who insist on the sanction and blessing of same-sex “marriage” are not saying: “Well, society’s changing, and if the Church doesn’t keep up with the change, she will be looked upon as old-fashioned and irrelevant to the concerns of today.” No, they are saying something far more radical and troubling: “ Because we are Christians, we should be in the forefront of those who are currently fighting for gay ‘marriage.’”
How could those who call themselves Christians take such a position? The answer is that many have accepted what I must call, without apology, the heresy of inclusivism. Though rarely stated so baldly, this heresy posits that at the core of Jesus’ life and teachings is a simple, non-negotiable message of absolute love, tolerance, and inclusivism that should determine every aspect of the faith. Any belief or practice that jeopardizes this message is to be rejected, even if it is stated clearly in the Bible, accepted by the historic Church, and believed by nearly all Christians since the founding of the faith. Any statements or doctrines that portray Jesus as exclusivist or intolerant, even if spoken by Jesus himself, must either be rejected or reinterpreted to fit in with his “true” message of inclusivism and tolerance.
Love is to be “expanded”—that is, reduced—to a nonjudgmental attitude that desires only that people find and experience happiness in their own way. But what of that bold, Christ-like love that will do what it must to rescue a friend from a self-destructive lifestyle, that would rather see a family member suffer pain than live in bondage to sin? Well, if by self-destructive lifestyle and sin you mean that he does not recycle his garbage or support affirmative action or that he votes Republican, I guess it would be okay to set him straight in a loving way. But if you mean that a Christian might be impelled by love to disagree with the lifestyle “preferences” of a brother in Christ and help guide him back to the road of biblical morality, then you simply don’t understand Jesus’ message.
Egalitarian or Not?
Well, then, let us boldly ask the question: Was Jesus an egalitarian or not? To the Christian advocate of same-sex “marriage,” the answer is as obvious as the incident that proves it. Didn’t Jesus, just before celebrating the Last Supper, wash his disciples’ feet? And wasn’t foot-washing a task performed by household slaves? Surely in humbling himself like this, Jesus was clearly demonstrating to posterity that the distinctions between teacher and student, master and servant, leader and follower were no longer valid. Surely this was his way of leveling the old hierarchies and ushering in the egalitarian Age of Aquarius.
It was not.
Right before giving the account of the foot-washing, John says the following: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist” (John 13:3–4). Notice that Jesus performs the humble act of washing his disciples’ feet from a position of strength and authority. He does not do it because he suddenly realizes that he is the same as everyone else and has no right to claim special authority, but because he knows fully and uniquely who he is.
But the real key to the meaning of the passage comes afterward, when Jesus returns to his seat and explains carefully to his disciples the meaning of the action he has just performed:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (vv. 12–17)
Had Jesus wanted to announce the tearing down of all distinctions and ranks, this would have been the ideal time to do it. Instead, he pointedly reiterates that servants are not greater than their masters and messengers are not greater than those who sent them. Indeed, he informs the disciples in no uncertain terms that they are absolutely correct to refer to him as Teacher and Lord. He even, two chapters later, exhorts his disciples to remember that “no servant is greater than his master” (15:20).
Jesus’ deliberate retention of social relationships that embody an inequality of power and status is not confined to John’s Gospel; it is also given voice in the synoptic Gospels: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24); “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
A New Type of Leadership
What is Jesus “doing” if he is not abolishing all hierarchy and ushering in a new egalitarian order? He is instituting a new type of leadership, one that loves and serves those over whom it has power and authority. Luke records a saying of Jesus that, like the foot-washing episode in John, balances an endorsement of distinctions with a call to servant leadership:
Jesus said to [his disciples], “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25–27)
Again, the servant is not greater than his master, yet the true Christian master will manifest his authority through service. Once we accept this, we can see how Jesus’ “intolerant” condemnation of sin and his “tolerant” love for the sinner go hand-in-hand. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus forgive sins; we never see him condone or endorse the sinful choices and lifestyle that placed the sinner in need of forgiveness. His word to the sinful woman caught in adultery is not “Continue as you are,” but “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). The very fact that he forgives her sin is a clear indication that he considers her actions to be sinful.
Christ offers salvation freely to all who repent and follow him, yet he does not cease condemning the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and hardness of heart (Matt. 23). When asked if only a few people are going to be saved, he answers: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to” (Luke 13:24).
The Divine Perspective
No figure in the Bible speaks more about hell and punishment than the meek and loving Jesus; his very presence in a town tends to polarize people. Images of sifting, judging, and separating abound in his parables; indeed, though we are taught in Sunday school that he spoke in parables so that everyone could understand him, Jesus himself says that he spoke in parables so that “those on the outside” would not understand (Mark 4:10–12). “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he proclaims. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
All this is not to say that Jesus is “unfair” or that he is a harsh taskmaster who is unaware that we all struggle under different weights and have different gifts and resources. In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), he tells of three servants who are entrusted with five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The third, lazy servant buries his talent in the ground and receives both “exclusivist” scorn and “intolerant” condemnation from his master.
But what of the first two? According to the parable, the first makes five more talents, while the second makes only two. We might therefore expect the first servant to be praised more highly than the second. But this, unexpectedly, does not occur. Instead, the master bestows upon both servants the exact same blessing: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.”
God is just and merciful. He judges us not by what we begin with, but by what we do with what we have been given. He pays us the compliment of treating us as unique individuals, and does not seek to press us all into the same mold.
In a magisterial passage from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the divine perspective of God:
The deity does not regard the human race collectively. He surveys at one glance and severally all the beings of whom mankind is composed; and He discerns in each man the resemblances that assimilate him to all his fellows, and the differences that distinguish him from them.
God is not like those modern humanitarians who love humanity but care little for human beings. To God, each of us has not only a “corporate” value as a member of the human race but also an individual value that distinguishes us from every other human being who has ever lived or will live on this earth. Neither on earth nor in heaven does God desire to collapse that distinctiveness.
For he who created us knows that we are not all equal!
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), and Literature: A Student's Guide (Crossway). His On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis was released by Moody in October 2012.
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