In our world of recriminating hatreds—in which we desire more to label those we don’t like as sexist, imperialist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and, simultaneously, mark ourselves as victims—we often forget some important historical truths. Here’s one we conveniently ignore, dismiss, or mock: Nothing in the world has brought about more equality and justice than has the Christian religion.
To be sure, various paganisms—such as the Heraclitan Logos, Socratic ethics, and Stoic philosophy—had sought the universal as well. Each, however, hit understandable walls of resistance and fierce competition from non-egalitarian Gnostic systems.
Christianity, however, was the first to achieve a proper, just, and serious equality in any radical and meaningful way.
In roughly 50 AD, the Christian Church had reached its first crisis. Did one have to become a Jew prior to becoming a Christian? The Christians who had emerged from the Pharisaical schools said yes, promoting the letter of the Law wherever and whenever possible, no matter how many obstacles these might throw up against non-Jewish converts to the faith.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, verses 1-5; ESV)
To resolve the crisis, Peter, Paul, and other leaders met in Jerusalem and debated the matter. Though the story in Acts is only told in the barest detail, we can observe the sides that formed, with Peter and Paul on the side of no, arguing vehemently against the Pharisaical Christians. “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe,” Peter said with much passion, some heat, and depths of logic, especially given the cultural norms of antiquity. “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” After Paul and Barnabas told stories about the conversions of the gentiles, James, the patriarch of Jerusalem, rendered his judgment (and the judgment of the Church): “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, verses 19-21; ESV)
When writing to the Christians at Galatia, four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul again reiterated James’s judgment at Jerusalem.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verses 23-29; ESV)
In the current world, one might translate these verses as neither Black nor White, neither male nor female. . .
One can find an equally profound statement of equality in the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel and Jesus’ issuing of the Great Commission:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16-20).
Jesus did not say “convert all nations except those with skin tone x” or “convert all nations except for those few islands in the South Pacific.” He said, “make disciples of all nations.” No asterisk or caveat is included in His command. Thus, Christianity, is, by its very nature, an evangelical religion, always encountering that which it is not.
Until we Christians admit just how radical we are—how truly humane and universal our faith is—we will allow the secular forces of the world to confuse us and bewilder us. Yet, to be Christian has always been counter-cultural, antagonistic to the world, and, by its very nature and existence, it always must be.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.