Equality and Faith

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We are having a short series these Sunday mornings on modern issues. It is entitled How Do You View The World? And this morning our subject is Equality and Faith. And who can deny that the concepts of "Equality" and "Faith" aren't 21st century issues – big issues? For some are saying there's been an 'Equality Revolution'. But what are we talking about?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission tells us (I quote from its website):

"Equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents."

That's OK. If we believe God gives us life and talents, who can object to that? But it then goes on like this …

"It is also the belief that no one should have poorer life chances because of the way they were born, where they come from, what they believe, or whether they have a disability."

And that begins to raise questions, such as "What does 'belief' mean?" What if some "beliefs" are calculated to produce "poor life chances"? Certainly some post-1960s beliefs say you create your own truth and that there is now no normal; for you choose you own normality. But this legitimizes all sorts of behaviours, including unhealthy and socially degrading behaviours that clearly reduce "life chances"!

Take the teaching of the philosopher Michael Foucault and his followers. They've had a huge influence on the sexual revolution following the 1960s and on the extreme radical feminism which in turn saw the lesbian as the true feminist and so was a major contributor to the new sexual culture in the Western World. But many see all this as destabilizing the normal married family thus reducing "life chances" for children.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission then says …

"Equality recognises that historically certain groups of people with protected characteristics such as race, disability, sex and sexual orientation have experienced discrimination."

So – how do you view this world and the issue of Equality and your Faith as a Christian believer in 2019? To help our thinking I want us to address three questions in the time that we have together this morning: first, Why Did This Equality Revolution Come About? secondly, What Does The Bible Teach About It? and, thirdly, How Should Christians Respond?

First, Why Did This Equality Revolution Come About?

Well, it starts with what some call "Natural Law". That is part of God's 'common grace' and demands appropriate equality and fairness. Paul refers to this when he writes in Romans 2.14-15:

"when the Gentiles, who do not have the law [the Old Testament] by nature do what the law requires … they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts".

Jesus referred to the matter of such fairness in the Sermon on the Mount when he said:

"You have heard that it was said [in the Old Testament], 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt 5.38-39).

The principle was 'one eye for one eye' and not 'two eyes for one eye'. But jump the centuries to the 16th and 17th century Reformation in Europe and the establishment of Nation States. For following the Wars of Religion there was a justifiable new concern for freedom of belief. People realized you couldn't be made to believe certain teachings by being burnt at the stake! So that led to a debate about 'God-given rights' and not least in America. And then there was a concern, not least in France, for a politics that ensured three essentials - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

But those essentials had come from the recovery, at the Reformation, of the Christian worldview of creation, the fall of mankind, the redemption by Jesus Christ and final judgment. For that ensured a true 'humanism' where Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were not free-standing absolutes but qualified in a number of ways. However, the pursuit of these ideals over the 19th and 20th centuries, without reference to God and his nature and purpose for the world, has been disastrous, if not demonic. To save time, I will quote what I wrote elsewhere:

"Fraternity pursued in defiance of God produced a nationalistic cult based on a racial-blood brotherhood in the form of Nazism, which was defeated in 1945. Equality pursued in defiance of God produced an utterly ruthless Marxist mission for the proletariat in the form of Stalinism, which was finally defeated in 1989. And liberty pursued in defiance of God is with us today in the form of selfish libertarianism, uncontrolled behaviour and creeping totalitarianism.

But the Christian doctrine of the Fatherhood of God ensures a true brotherhood of man world-wide. The doctrine of humankind created in the image of God and so worthy of respect ensures a true equality for all. And the doctrine of final judgment, presupposing the human freedom even to choose hell, ensures a true liberty now but with heavenly hope for the future for believers. That is because of forgiveness through the Cross of Christ, the triumph of his Resurrection, his Reign and his gift of the Holy Spirit to enable an ordered liberty."

So "equality", of course, is essential but not always as it is being enforced today.

And that brings us to our second question and What Does The Bible Teach About Equality?

The Bible actually teaches very little about 'equality'. If you have an ESV (English Standard Version) of the Bible on your smartphone, and you have a search facility and type in the noun 'equality', the only place in the whole Bible where the word occurs is in our reading for this morning. So will you turn now to that reading and Philippians 2.3-8:

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

So equality is defined there in terms of the Divine Trinity. And as we shall see, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches equality of being between the persons of the Trinity, but difference of function. That shows that genuine equality may not be a simple equal division – something the modern world needs to learn.

The Athanasian Creed, one of the three main Christian Creeds, expresses the considered teaching of the Church on the Trinity. It is long, but key for us are these excerpts:

"we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons: nor dividing the being. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is all one: their glory equal, their majesty co-eternal … Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods but one God."

And later it says this:

"and in this Trinity there is no before or after, no greater or less, but all three Persons are co-eternal with each other and co-equal … [and] we should believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and man equally. He is God from the Being of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and he is man from the being of his mother, born in the world; perfect God and perfect man, having both man's rational soul and human flesh; [listen] equal to the Father as regards his divinity and inferior to the Father as regards his humanity; who, although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ … "

So, importantly, there was an equality and subordination to his Father that went hand in hand. And as the Bible says the one who

" was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."

Do you believe that? Now this may be beyond your imagination and understanding how all this is so. But we can believe that it is so – because our God, as the Creed says, is alone "uncreated" and alone "infinite" - so necessarily beyond our imagination.

We must always distinguish what is 'unimaginable' from what is 'believable'. I'm sure it was unimaginable to the 5th century Church Fathers who finally agreed at the Council of Chalcedon the substance of this creed – it was unimaginable that a man could ever walk on the moon. But we know it is believable, for yesterday we were celebrating the fact that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both did so 50 years ago. Yes, the Trinity is a mystery but is not therefore absurd!

So, as Dorothy Sayers well says, referring to Jesus:

"the Christian formula is not: 'humanity manifests certain adumbrations of the divine', but: 'This man was very God.'"

Do you really believe that? You should – for by really rising from the dead he proved he was very God. Such a rising to life was so congruous with the fact of Jesus being God the Son, who was and is always existent and through whom this vast universe was created and through whom it is kept going. But that immediately means two other things beside it being true.

First, is that at the heart of the universe – the ultimate reality – is fundamental equality and but also difference. And also there is equality together with unequal roles and subordination but all characterised by love and perfection. So in John 5 you read, verses 18-19, that …

"The Jews were seeking to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.'"

And Paul echoes that in 1 Corinthians 11.3 where he writes about relationships in marriage:

"I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God."

However, difficult that may be for the modern world, it is fully in line with the relationship of perfect self-giving love within the Trinity and actual service and no selfish dominance.

Secondly, all that being true shows that other faiths and philosophies, while they must be respected, as Paul respected other faiths and philosophies in Athens, are in no way equal to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For he is unique in his incarnation (as the second person of the divine Trinity, as we've just thought); in his atonement (dying for our sins); in his resurrection (conquering death); and in his gift of the Spirit (to be in us and transforming us).

And that brings us to our third question How Should Christians Respond to the current situation?

Time doesn't allow us to discuss issues relating to equality before the law, political equality (who can vote for whom), economic equality, or equality of opportunity. But I must say something about the key issues of the moment, namely equality issues around, sex, gender, marriage and the family. There are three ways to respond, surely.

First, we should use our minds and biblically informed common sense.

The Bible is so clear that humankind is divided into men and women. The only human distinction before the Fall is that of the man, Adam, and the woman, Eve. As is well said,

"to be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex."

The division of the sexes is not subsequent to creation but part of it. So sex is not just an incidental matter of the human plumbing system! No the Bible is clear, and Jesus underlines the Genesis narrative and so does St Paul. The precise wording of Genesis 1.27 is vital:

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Yes, the Fall came and resulted in pain for the woman and pain for the man. And clearly, for a range of reasons, women have in the last two centuries suffered greatly and Christians need to help make life better for women. But be careful. For there is an argument that in the West there needed to be radical changes up to the second World War in an equalizing direction for women in the West. But from then on the pendulum has often been swinging to the disadvantage of women but under the banner of equality.

For example and a personal example – I don't often talk about myself, much less my wife, but she's away in London this morning! But when Joy was training to be a doctor in the 60s and early 70s the equality debate was raging. In those days she was one of 5 women with 95 men in her year at Guy's hospital in London. But she and others like her wanted not equality but "inequality" with men. For when they got married and had children they wanted to look after their children but keep their hand in with medicine. For it was often all or nothing then.

But when we were back in Oxford before coming here, she was one of Rosemary Rue's "babies" - so called. Dame Rosemary, as she became, was a woman doctor and health administrator. And she uniquely organized for many women doctors (with children and with husbands out all hours teaching in the colleges) to keep their hands in by doing even as little as two sessions a week. This scheme was so successful it became a national Women Doctor's Retainer Scheme under Ted Heath's government. Of course, that was when heterosexual monogamous marriage for life and the family was still a primary value. Sadly, that now is no longer the case. But the need was for inequality not equality. So first respond with biblically-informed Christian common sense; and work for inequality if sometimes necessary.

Secondly, remember our Old Testament reading and Leviticus 19.17-18:

"You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord."

This is an important part of the Bible and 18 is such an important verse:

"you shall love your neighbour as yourself."

But Leviticus chapter 19 is sandwiched between Leviticus 18 and 20, the two chapters which outlaw same-sex behaviour. Leviticus 18.22 says:

"You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination."

And Leviticus 20.13 says:

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committee an abomination."

That, sadly, is what is being celebrated this weekend in Newcastle with Gay Pride! So how should we respond?

Well, as the first part of Leviticus 19.17-18a says:

"You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people"

And Jesus says our "neighbour is everyone". So "love" – ("but you shall love your neighbour as yourself", verse 18b) – love involves, when necessary, "reasoning frankly" with those with whom we disagree and "not hating" or "bearing a grudge".

I recently wrote a friendly but clear letter to the Cathedral about its apparent support of Gay Pride; and, thank God, some things were changed. And parents are writing now to head-teachers before plans are made about the new Relationship Education programme for primary schools which seems so reasonable but is very subversive in reality. And so-called rights to a range of activities surely need to be challenged. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey wrote:

"A Christian principle is the equal right of every person created in God's image to the full realization of his powers of mind and body, and this includes full and free citizenship with democracy as a corollary. [However] we should always distinguish carefully a non-Christian conception of the rights of people to do what they like, and a Christian conception of their right to become by God's grace their own truest selves …"

… which of course is discovered by being more like Jesus Christ the truly perfect man. So, first, Christian Common sense. Secondly, reason frankly with your neighbour.

But, thirdly, above all be humble. Realize that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Make judgements but don't be judgmental. We're all sinners in need of God's forgiveness; and there's forgiveness at the Cross for all sin. Philippians 2.3-8 are so clear:

"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

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