All are equal. This belief is the bedrock of democracy—the philosophy that powers modern society and governments.
Historians of philosophy would attribute the origin of the idea of democracy to the ancient Greeks. There is a tendency to credit all the advancements in human social conduct to some human philosophy or the other, ignoring the biblical roots of some practices.
It is true that the Greeks practised a form of democracy wherein every citizen got to vote on issues. However, apart from universal voting, there was no notion of equality. They did believe in the existence of classes and the privileges of aristocracy.
Only with the advent of Jesus did the world get introduced to the idea that all are equally under the rule of God (or, in the kingdom of God, to use biblical terminology) and therefore are to maintain absolute and total equality. The Lord Jesus said, “You have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt.23:8 NLT). He ruled against hierarchy among His followers. There would be no stratification, no classes, because all would be just brothers and sisters.
Divisions And Ranks
It is sad that within two centuries of His time on earth ending, the church embraced all the pomp and trappings of the Roman Empire and countenanced the idea of having divisions and ranks among the followers of Christ.
First, there was the acceptance of the divide between clergy and laity. When Jesus called people to follow Him, they were all to be disciples equally. Jesus didn’t build a temple, or institute a sacrificial system. That is why He didn’t constitute a priestly class of disciples. All His disciples were lay people—the people (Gk: laos) of God.
Scripture designates all the people of God as priests (1Pet.2:9;Rev.1:6), because they don’t need anyone other than Jesus to mediate for them (1Tim.2:5). They don’t need others to function as their priests.
The ‘priesthood of all believers’ is an essential tenet of our faith. It is definitely not a manmade doctrine. Every religion, because they are the products of human minds, has a priestly class essential to its existence and practice. It is impossible for humans to conceive of a religion without a clergy, without the existence of mediators between devotees and their deity.
Once the notion of a priestly class found acceptance, I suppose it was inevitable that a notion of hierarchy would follow. But that was not how Christ Jesus started His community of faith.
Even though there were people with different functions among the people of God, there was to be no hierarchy at all (Matt.23:8). Everyone would, of course, not be alike in personality, gift or function. Some would serve as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastor-teachers (Eph.4:11). Some would have the gift of prophecy, some the gift of healing, some the gift of miracle-working (1Cor.12:8-10), some the gift of governance or administration (v.28), and some the gift of hospitality (1Pet.4:9-11). But there would be no hierarchy—definitely not in terms of privileges and perks. Everybody would be on equal footing.
There would of course be a difference in terms of the authority that different members of the community of believers would exercise. Scripture says that the apostles and prophets had a foundational status (Eph.2:20). That is why the early church devoted itself to ‘apostolic teaching’ (Acts.2:42). Their teaching was to be the standard or index to determine the rightness or the wrongness of everyone else’s teaching. A canon of doctrine was formulated. The preaching and writings of other godly persons of other ages would not have the same authority. That is why the canon of Scripture is closed. No matter how godly someone is (whether Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Billy Graham, or Mother Teresa), their proclamations and writings cannot add to Scripture.
Other than the authority of apostles and prophets, Scripture says that there is the hierarchy of authority that elders have over those younger (1Pet.5:5). While this must be understood as being elder in faith (not a recent convert—1Tim.3:6), it was also about the age factor as Peter contrasted elders with younger persons (1Pet.5:5).
What this means is that there is a place for subordination among believers, even though all are equal. While all are equal, some do have the role of exercising authority and consequently some others have to practise subordination.
Aaron And Miriam
The Bible has two stories of people who did not submit to the authority of those who were set over them. Though Moses was the youngest of the three, he was the one chosen by God to be the leader of the exodus and therefore over Aaron and Miriam. They grew jealous of the role of Moses as the leader, though younger than them. They overlooked the fact that Moses was actually a reluctant leader and had asked instead that God should choose someone else for the task (Exo.4:10-13).
The way Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses’ authority was to find a legitimate cause for blame. So often, people pick on what appears to be a genuine complaint to attack a person’s authority in an area of administration that would not be affected by the matter that they complain about. Aaron and Miriam picked on the fact that Moses, during the days of his exile from the community of God’s people, had married outside the community. Scripture suggests that Aaron and Miriam cast doubts on his integrity and his loyalty to the nation.
Aaron and Miriam took advantage of the fact that Moses had given up his old ways, and had given up fighting for his rights. Have you noticed that often the congeniality of a person arouses the aggression of some of those who interact with him?
Once, when I wrote about the need to be gentle and kind in dealing with subordinates, a leader objected that domestic servants take advantage of such employers while enduring all kinds of abuse from others. Of course, this sort of negative outcome is a possibility in any relationship when the person in authority adopts the stance of gentleness. However, the person in authority must not allow himself or herself to be manipulated into being aggressive, oppressive and tyrannical and doing wrong because he or she has been wronged. We are to always embrace the stance of the servant in a relationship (Matt.20:26-28), even when we fear that we will suffer disadvantage. A Christian must take the cue for his conduct from the Master, not his attacker.
Korah And Company
The second biblical case of people bucking authority is that of Korah, Dathan, Abiram and On (Num.16:1-3). Korah was a Levite, while the others were of the tribe of Reuben. Being a Levite, Korah already had a special status among God’s people, as Levites were divinely ordained to temple duties. He was a cousin of Moses and Aaron, and was obviously jealous of the fact that his relatives were higher than him. The others were Reubenites, the tribe of Jacob’s firstborn son. Reuben had forfeited his position because of immorality. Generations later there were obviously men of this tribe for whom this loss of position was still a sore point. Korah took advantage of their feelings to join forces with him in rebelling against Moses and Aaron. These men said, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (v.3). Their argument sounds so true. Again, we see people who take something legitimate to serve their unholy purpose.
The first time, the attack had been on Moses as a person, and he was willing to not fight about it. But the second time, the attack was on the divine office of the priesthood, and so we find Moses pleading with God for vindication (vv.4-7,28-30).
We must learn to distinguish between personal attacks and opposition to what is ordained of God. When an attack is personal, only one person’s status or privileges are attacked. But opposition to what God has established puts the very future of God’s work at stake. No doubt, God will save His work, but we do have a duty to oppose those whose machinations would adversely affect the work of the Lord by setting it back somewhat.
I once saw a fellow-worker who was at variance with me closeted with a person for quite some time. I felt threatened and thought that my colleague was backbiting against me, so I decided to counteract the perceived threat by going around to different people and telling them the other side of the story. It was the biggest mistake I made in my ministry, because the fallout from what I did was worse than if I had ignored what I thought was wrong. It is always a mistake to rise to one’s own defence.
Discerning God’s Sovereignty
When we do the Lord’s work, we have no business defending ourselves. We have to leave it to the Lord. This is why Scripture says that believers cannot go to court against believers (1Cor.6:1-6). The apostle goes so far as to say that we should rather allow ourselves to be wronged and cheated (v.7). Often, we have to wait for a long time to experience the vindication of the Lord. Sometimes people die waiting for the promise to be fulfilled (Heb.11:13).
Even when there is a case for subordination of some to others, there is always the overriding rule that all are to be subject to one another (1Pet.5:5). In the context, doesn’t that mean that sometimes the elder has to be subject to the younger? There are things young people in every generation can teach older people; we must recognise that and submit to their leading.
Similarly, there are situations in which husbands must submit to wives (1Cor.7:4). Even though Peter talked of Sarah obeying Abraham calling him ‘lord’ (1Pet.3:6), it is remarkable that for the most part the biblical record shows Abraham listening to Sarah and doing what she told him to do. Scripture even says that on one occasion Abraham was directed by God to follow Sarah’s lead (Gen.21:12).
In the final analysis, submitting to authority is a matter of discerning the ordination of God. “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves” (Rom.13:1-2).
Celebrate equality. But you don’t have to guard it in the face of authority that is divinely ordained. Being a Christian isn’t about your own status. It’s all about discerning the sovereignty of God in your life.