Inequality: the key to flourishing Christian community

Inequality: the key to flourishing Christian community

More than 175 years ago the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville published his two-volume work Democracy in America.  Based on his nine-month visit to the States in 1831, it offers lively and incredibly penetrating reflections on political theory and the American cultural landscape.

Still highly regarded today, Democracy in America continues to astonish modern readers by its relevance.

Not least is Tocqueville’s discussion of equality as it relates to “individualism,” where he warns of the incredible dangers of equality.

What?  Wait–the dangers of equality?  How could equality ever be a bad thing?  What’s he talking about?

Noting that “individualism” is “a word recently coined to express a new idea” (!), Tocqueville contrasts individualism with egoism:  whereas egoism is (as one would expect) self-absorption, individualism is . . .

“a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (506).

Such individualism, he says, is “of democratic [vs. aristocratic] origin and threatens to grow as conditions get more equal” (italics mine).

Wait, wait. Did you get that?  As equality spreads, individualism grows.

Why does he think that?

The answer is found in Tocqueville’s contrast of “aristocratic” and “democratic” societies.

In an “aristocratic,” or hierarchical, society each person has a “fixed station, one above another, so that there is always someone above him whose protection he needs and someone below him whose help he may require” (507).

By contrast, in flatter, more egalitarian democratic societies “the duties of all are much clearer, but devoted service to any particular individual much rarer” (again, my italics).  He then ominously explains:

Alexis de Tocqueville

“As social equality spreads there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such people owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

He then concludes:

“Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart” (508).

In short, the more hierarchical relations there are between persons, the more intertwined their lives will be via specific social obligations.  Conversely, the flatter (or more “egalitarian”) social relations are among persons, the more persons are isolated from one another by the absence (or general dispersion) of obligations.

Think about it:

Why would I serve another, if I am equal to them?  Doesn’t service imply inferiority?

And why would I let someone equal to me serve me, if their equality means that I am now indebted to them–i.e., that I must repay them?  (Better to do it myself, or simply to hire someone, no?)

Given Tocqueville’s reflections on the dangerous relationship between individualism and equality, perhaps it comes as less of a surprise to learn that nowhere in the New Testament’s teaching on community is there a celebration of, or even a summons to, equality.

Overwhelmingly, in the heated discussions in the church over gender relations and roles (with proponents of various forms of egalitarianism lining up against proponents of various forms of hierarchalism), the focus on all sides has been on texts like Ephesians 5.22-33 (on marriage) or 1 Timothy 2.8-15 (on Paul’s prohibition of women teaching / having authority over a man).

In our first post in this series (“Is Christianity hierarchical or egalitarian?”), we explored these very texts (and others like them) and concluded that, right or wrong, good or bad, they are undeniably hierarchical (more so than most so-called “complementarian” proponents concede–and concede they often do).  Then, in a second post, we explored the hope (and appeal) of egalitarianism as an alternative (“Hierarchy and the hope of egalitarianism”), only to discover the hollowness of this hope in a third post, concluding that due to an incredible naiveté with respect to the complexity of power relations egalitarianism, far from evenly distributing power (much less dispersing it or destroying it), actually, and inevitably, disguises it (“Why egalitarianism = inequality. Always”).

But if egalitarianism only and ever disguises agendas of power and re-creates hidden hierarchies, what is to be done?  Hierarchies may be inevitable, but that hardly makes them good, or desirable.  On the other hand, if equality (as Tocqueville argues) isolates, perhaps it’s not all it’s cracked up to be either.

Huh.  Confusing.

How, then, shall we live?

As we saw in a previous post, both Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault deny the possibility of non-hierarchical relations.  In the face of this impossibility, they then offer the following straightforward advice:

Always be on the lookout for hierarchies (they are, after all, inevitable), and whenever you see one, topple it.

Statue of Lenin toppled in Bucharest, March 5th, 1990

In other words (and to return to our car analogy), if it’s true that there can be only one person in the driver’s seat (i.e., one person who enjoys a disproportionate amount of influence), whenever anyone does hop into that seat, Derrida and Foucault recommend shooting him.

Or her.  (But perhaps especially if it’s a him?)

Now shooting the driver certainly has its benefits, perhaps the chief of which is that you won’t be taken for a ride.

That’s an incredibly enticing benefit.

But shooting the driver also has serious drawbacks–Derrida and Foucault’s proposal is utterly impractical, truly “ivory tower.”  For one, it would (literally) get you nowhere fast, unless you jump in the driver’s seat yourself and risk getting shot.  (And, alas, if you were shot, it would only be . . . fair; that is, it would be equal treatment!)

Not only does shooting the driver fail to get anyone to a desired destination, it also fails to establish order or enable expertise, apart from which civilization would quite probably not function (see Cecilia Ridgeway, Framed by Gender, Oxford University Press:  21-22, who notes that the assignment of gender-specific tasks is a phenomenon found in every pre-industrial society ever studied, for a number of reasons but, primarily, specialization, which is the only route to expertise).

So perhaps not too surprisingly, the so-called “deconstructionist” masters of suspicion like Derrida or Foucault aren’t the best at reconstructing social relations.

Scripture takes a very different route.

Scripture fully recognizes (along with egalitarianism) the horrors that hierarchy can occasion.  But against egalitarianism (and along with, say, Derrida and Foucault) Scripture nowhere pretends that non-hierarchical relations are a possibility.  As such, the Bible calls not for hierarchy’s permanent rejection (so egalitarianism, ever so naively), nor for hierarchy’s perennial deconstruction (so Derrida, ever so impractically) but rather for hierarchy’s redemption.

Similarly, when it comes to power Scripture speaks neither of its disappearance nor of its even redistribution but its radical redeployment.

And this radical redeployment begins not with the institution of marriage and family nor with ecclesial leadership, where, as we’ve said, most of the debate has raged.

It begins, rather, with how the New Testament conceives of community.

By focusing exclusively on the marital and clerical / pastoral relations rather than on the more prior and fundamental matter of community relations, proponents of both the various forms of egalitarianism and hierarchalism have conducted the debate in a way that puts the cart before the horse.

When we step back to consider how the New Testament conceives of community, we are confronted by something that is at first altogether shocking and disturbing but, upon further consideration, is altogether realistic and absolutely beautiful, the key to true Christian (indeed, all human) community:  relationships among the people of God are to be explicitly and intentionally hierarchical.

African Christians in worship and fellowship

That is, at the heart of flourishing Christian community is–what child of Western liberalism could have guessed it?–inequality.

Repeatedly we hear from both Jesus and Paul a summons to (what I will call) a dynamic selfless inequality among the people of God:

– When the disciples ask Jesus about “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”, shocking our Western liberalist sensibilities, he doesn’t say, “Wrong question. You’re all equally great.”  (Wow, that would be so lame–and arguably meaningless.)  Rather, he scandalously and enthusiastically endorses his disciples’ pursuit of greatness, calling them to be the least valuable persons in a community:  “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (see Matt. 18.1-4).  Indeed, without becoming “little,” one cannot enter the kingdom.

Let’s pause here to marvel at the sheer brilliance of what Jesus says.  Rather than denying and depriving our God-created thirst for greatness as egalitarianism does (and it is a God-given thirst—-see Rom. 2.7, 10; cf. Cicero, Tusc. 2.24.58), Jesus redirects it in a way that invigorates (vs. exploits) other members of one’s community and honors them, instead of disgracing them.  How does Jesus do this?  By completely redefining and reducing the criteria for greatness:  the myriad expressions of human capability or pedigree (e.g., beauty, brilliance, brawn, bank accounts, etc.) that countless societies have perversely adopted as their criteria for greatness are replaced by the sole criterion of service, something so simple and “doable” that, says Jesus, even that a child could do it.

In one fell swoop Jesus gives humanity the key that both democratizes greatness and drives community in a symbiotic way.  Hierarchalism remains but is utterly redefined and redeemed; egalitarianism is utterly ignored, but its hopes are actually achievable.

The Apostle Paul, that master of genuine community development, summons his churches in like manner:

– To the glory-hungry Christians in Roman Philippi he writes, “in humility regard others as more important than yourselves” (2.3).  The “humility” of which Paul speaks here isn’t a moral self-suspicion (“I am the worst sinner here!”) but rather a voluntary self-disregard that considers other members of the Christian community as having greater social value, such that we prioritize their interests before our own (v. 4).  Of course, in the verses that follow Paul will set forth a ‘hymn’ celebrating the One whose “equality with God” gave him no hesitation about taking the form of a slave.  If ever there were a rejection of egalitarian values, this is surely it:  the One who was God’s equal emptied himself.

– To the Christians in Rome he writes (though the Greek is admittedly somewhat difficult), “Outdo one another in [showing] honor [to each other]” (12.10).  Here Paul turns Roman cultural norms on their head:  rather than outdoing one another in the pursuit of one’s own honor (like any good Roman would, given their vehemently agonistic honor/shame culture), Christians were to outdo one another in giving greater “honor”–that is, greater social value or worth–to one another.  This is no mild-mannered, gentle egalitarianism; it is, rather, a deliberate, even competitive form of hierarchy that has been utterly subverted.

– To the Galatian churches Paul writes (and, I’m sorry, I’ve got to interrupt here and say that our English translations, or versions, are overwhelmingly incredibly good, but here I really think they do fail us), “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to freedom–but not a freedom that becomes an occasion for the flesh!  Rather, in love become slaves to one another” (5.13).  One cannot miss the seemingly conflicting, even contradictory, status-charged language here:  “Siblings, you were called to freedom, so become slaves!”  That is, freely choose to put yourself at the disposal of another.  As John Barclay (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University, UK), one of the most astute students of Paul in our day, observes:  in this verse Paul “adjusts an inherently hierarchical relationship (slavery) not by canceling it, in the name of ‘equality,’ but by making it reciprocal, a hierarchy that turns both ways.”

The Apostle Paul, think about community (obviously)

In so doing Paul (like Jesus) preserves the relationship-reinforcing, community-cultivating power of hierarchy, with its social obligations (of which Tocqueville spoke), while curbing the oppression that hierarchy can encourage.  But at the same time he avoids the community-corrosive “individualism” that equality inevitably creates.

This is sheer brilliance.

(We could also talk about this selfless “inequality” in the Christian community’s relationship to persons outside of it, using 1 Peter’s status-lowering description of believers as “foreigners and exiles”–see 1.1, 17; 2.11–but this takes us too far afield).

The communal consequences of this “dynamic selfless inequality” are vast–and beautiful.  Rather than having a community that is consumed with equal status–i.e., in making sure the functional org chart is a flat line, Jesus and Paul both envision a community that is consumed with being of lower status than the “other” (drawing such an org chart would be impossible, since everyone is striving to be lower than everybody else).

In an egalitarian framework, because service always implies inferiority (and lesser influence), a community’s social bonds remain very weak:  a group consumed with fair treatment will be an altogether superficial, lonely one (and in time either a divided or an indifferent one)–look no further than the declining mainline churches in America.  But in the community envisioned by Jesus and Paul social bonds would become uncommonly, even uniquely strong.

The egalitarian framework (unintentionally, I think) undermines, then, the pursuit of greater status through service.  This is true both for the body of Christ as a whole and for marriage (to which we will devote a separate post).  In considering marriage a woman, egalitarianism insists, should never lower herself to do what Paul and Peter explicitly tell her to do–viz., to choose to place the wealth of her God-given character and capacity at the disposal of a husband, a man who may well be, at least at first, her inferior in terms of moral character and/or intellectual, emotional capacity.

Even this very brief sketch of the New Testament’s teaching concerning community relations (we have completely ignored the central passage–namely, 1 Cor. 12.12-31) should give pause to all parties in the traditional “egalitarianism vs. hierarchicalism” debate.  On the one hand, egalitarianism’s call to an equality of influence in both marital and pastoral spheres is undermined by the complete absence of any call to equality anywhere in the body of Christ.  On the other hand, one of the great evils committed by many proponents of hierarchalism is the completely unsubstantiated and often subtle elevation and prioritization of men over women in congregational life and in arenas outside of the marital and clerical spheres; men, listen up:  other women are your sisters, whom you are to regard as more important than yourselves; freely choose to be their slaves, just as you are treat any other man in a congregation.

Proponents of both hierarchicalism and egalitarianism have yet to grasp that, at bottom, neither marital nor clerical relations are somehow fundamentally different from those relations among the rest of the community:  all can be characterized by a redeemed hierarchy that serves as an incredible engine for congregational and marital (and, thus, familial) intimacy and achievement.

This same dynamic selfless inequality within the community of faith manifests itself in the community’s leadership (the subject of our next post), the difference being not qualitative but quantitative:  if, as Galatians 5.13 says, community members are to use their freedom to “in love become slaves to one another,” community leaders are to use their authority to be “the slave of all” (Matt. 20.25-27; cf. 2 Cor. 4.5).  As we’ll see, this quantitative difference helps to create an incredibly important and tragically neglected distinction between leadership and laity–the distinction between ministry execution and ministry responsibility.

This is love. And beauty. And power.

Of course, “behind” this dynamic selfless inequality, as expressed in both the community at large and by the community’s leaders, is One who completely redefines power.  Hierarchalists are greatly tempted to minimize the potential for power to be formally and overtly misused (authoritarianism).  Egalitarians are no less tempted to minimize the potential for power to be informally and covertly misused (covert manipulation).  Like the world, proponents on all sides have conceived of power in a way that is completely wrong.

When Jesus said, “The Son of man did not come to serve but to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many,” he was not primarily announcing his own selflessness (as astonishing as it is).  He was rather redefining power.  While the meaning of the phrase “Son of man” is contested, I understand it to be a rich, multifaceted (and perhaps deliberately ambiguous) phrase that entails a reference to the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7, who enjoys all authority and worldwide adoration.  Jesus, then, is saying that this powerful figure expresses his incomparable power and glory not (as the world would expect) in having a myriad of servants but precisely in the fact that he needs no servants.

He needs no servants, no glory, no affirmation, no vindication, no assistance.  He is able to stand alone.

And to serve. In the form of a slave.

And to lose absolutely everything.  To give it all away in the name of love, a love that willingly obeys his Father and willingly atones for his followers.

This is true power.  It is unlike any conception of power the world has ever known.

We must ask ourselves:  who is weaker –the one who needs to “be served” or the one who “serves”?  The one who needs a suitable “helper” or the one who is a suitable helper?


In our next post we’ll ask:  how does this concept of dynamic selfless inequality inform both (1) the governance of the church and, related to this, (2) the use of the various gifts that each member of the community has been given?  We’ll consider what is probably the most controversial of these gifts, posing the question:  who can teach in the church and why?

The answer to this will truly surprise proponents of both egalitarianism and hierarchalism in their various forms.

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