Christianity today is often portrayed as a religion of non-discrimination, whose adherents are not supposed to recognize or act upon distinctions between groups on the basis of race, sex, etc. But the arguments typically put forward are insufficient to establish non-discrimination as a matter of doctrine. A few of the more common viewpoints will be addressed here, namely that non-discrimination is demanded by some sort of equality of men in the eyes of God, by the supposed unimportance of biological differences, by man’s creation in the image of God, and by man’s common ancestry.
The Church Of (Selective) Non-Discrimination
It should first be noted that today’s teaching of non-discrimination is not without limits. There are exceptions — which just so happen to align closely with the exceptions found in today’s dominant secular ideology of non-discrimination.
For example, we are told that racial discrimination is wrong, but also that racial discrimination against white people is acceptable, and even to be encouraged. Thus, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — by far the largest Protestant denomination in the United States — opposes racial discrimination, claiming that it is false “to believe that racial prejudice and discrimination are compatible with the Gospel”; but it also encourages racial discrimination through “seek[ing] out ethnic and black leadership […] to serve on boards, committees, commissions, and programs.”
In 2015, the SBC under president Ronnie Floyd encouraged “racial and ethnic diversity” among the staff, leadership, and membership of churches, having earlier appointed “an African American Council” to seek opinions from “African American leaders” regarding “African American Southern Baptist Churches” — whose non-white leadership and membership are seemingly not a problem at all, and in no need of increased “racial and ethnic diversity” from white people. That same year, Floyd contended that there is really only one race, thereby inadvertently denying the possibility of racial diversity, which requires multiple races.
Those who defend the idea that Christianity demands non-discrimination tend to do so selectively, employing inclusive, universalist rhetoric depending on whether they want to encourage non-discrimination in a particular circumstance (hence the seemingly contradictory SBC positions noted above). The present essay will thus deal with common rhetorical justifications of non-discrimination, rather than non-discrimination itself as if it were a coherent ideological position.
Equal In The Eyes Of God?
The advocates of selective non-discrimination in Christianity often claim that all men are equal in the eyes of God, and thus that all men should be equal in the eyes of Christians, or of everyone. But even if it is true that men are equal in God’s eyes (whatever one might mean by that), still Christianity does not require that Christians emulate God totally, except perhaps in a very broad, analogous way. True, Jesus did say, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 KJV), but being a perfect man does not entail the same things as being a perfect God. Just because God knows the number of hairs on a man’s head (Matthew 10:30 & Luke 12:7) doesn’t mean that Christians should seek to be all-knowing by counting the hairs on their heads. Moreover, God is powerful, but disapproved of man’s newfound power in the construction of Babel, saying, “Now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do,” and scattering them (Genesis 11:1-9 KJV).
Even if one were to emulate God with regard to the particular trait posited by the egalitarians, there remains the difficulty of determining how that is supposed to work in practice. Total non-discrimination certainly wouldn’t be required, since God Himself has discriminated. For example, He loved Jacob and hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3) and decided that the one would be served by the other — not because of anything either one of them did (as they were not yet born), but by His will (Romans 9:9-24).
Equal Because Biological Differences Are Unimportant?
Asserting that biological differences are unimportant (or otherwise ought to be ignored) is another popular angle for advocates of selective non-discrimination in Christianity.
The most common method is to cite the verse Galatians 3:28 (KJV): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Some claim that this verse means that Christians shouldn’t notice or act upon differences between groups, especially biological differences such as race and sex. But the sort of limited equality described here and in similar verses (I Corinthians 12:13, Romans 10:12, and Colossians 3:11) concerns a sort of unity of Christians in salvation, not a general sameness of all people that somehow demands non-discrimination. Such is evident by the immediate context of each verse.
A less common method, but also less obviously erroneous, is to cite the passage beginning at James 2:1 (KJV): “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” As with Galatians 3:28, some claim that this verse (and James 2:1-9 as a whole) means that Christians shouldn’t discriminate, whether in general or on the basis of certain factors such as race. But the passage does not actually say this, and is more plausibly a condemnation of inequity in judicial proceedings.
Equal Due To Creation In The Image Of God?
Some claim that Christianity demands non-discrimination because it posits that all men are created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27 KJV). One example of this view can be found in an article by Don Dunavant, a professor of Christian Studies, in the official journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, SBC Life:
Inherent in imago Dei [image of God] is the dignity or worth of each individual. This has a profound impact on how we see, relate to and treat others. […] Clearly, the image of God in man condemns any type of bias toward, discrimination against, or exploitation of anyone on the basis of skin color (racism), gender (sexism), economic status (classism), ethnic origin (ethnocentrism), or age (ageism) as sin.
But condemnation of such discrimination does not follow from the text. Genesis 1:27 indicates that all men have some sort of divine quality in common, exclusive to them among every other creature. This suggests that there are ways in which it is inappropriate to treat men, an implication discussed elsewhere in the Bible: Several chapters later, death is specified as the punishment for murder, since man is made in the image of God (Genesis 9:5-6); and in the New Testament, it is written that one ought not to curse “men, which are made after the similitude of God” (James 3:8-10 KJV). But none of this implies that discrimination is therefore a sin — whether all forms of discrimination or, as in the article cited above, an arbitrary list of forms of discrimination, which just so happens to align with contemporary egalitarian rhetoric.
Just because men share one thing in common does not mean that it is immoral to recognize the ways in which they are different, or to behave differently toward them due in part to such differences. Surely Dunavant doesn’t think it sinful for a man to seek a wife among women and not among men, even though doing so constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex.
Equal On Account Of Common Ancestry?
Some claim that Christianity is a religion of non-discrimination because of its assertion of a common ancestry for man. An example of this is found in the book One Race One Blood: A Biblical Answer to Racism, which contends that Christianity opposes not only discrimination on the basis of race, but even the acknowledgment of race and racial differences. Authors Ken Ham and A. Charles Ware write,
The Bible does not even use the word “race” in reference to people but it does describe all human beings as being of “one blood” (Acts 17:26; KJV). Terms such as these emphasize that we are all related, from one family, the descendents of the first man and woman. […] All human beings are descendents of Adam; […]
We all need to treat every human being as our relative. We are of one blood.
The broader biblical passage concerns Paul telling the Athenian men on Mars’ hill about God, who “hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:22-28 KJV). Incidentally, the phrase “one blood” does not actually appear in the original Greek; instead, one finds just the adjective “one.” Other translations supply the noun “man,” referring to Adam. Paul is explaining to the Greeks that God is a god of all nations (or peoples), having made all of them out of one man.
But sharing a common ancestry doesn’t entail that men ought to treat everyone the same way — nor is that entailed by sharing a common sinful state, or sharing a common prospect of salvation, other aspects of humanity to which Ham and Ware also call attention.
Besides, some people share more ancestry with each other than they do with other groups of people. Thus, according to the semblance of reasoning here, why should they not treat one another differently than they treat others, due to having more in common with each other? It just so happens that, in the Bible, some discrimination on the basis of kinship is encouraged, as well as discrimination on other bases.
Counterexamples: Discrimination Commanded In Scripture
The primary difficulty with many of the common arguments in favor of a non-discriminatory Christianity is that the verses employed do not actually say what people suppose them to say. But there is a further difficulty, namely that the Bible actually encourages some instances of discrimination.
In the Old Testament, God commands the Hebrews to discriminate when he tells them to wipe out other tribes: “When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, […] thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2 KJV) This is “discrimination on the basis of […] ethnic origin” (to borrow Dunavant’s phrasing) against Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Or maybe this is discrimination on the basis of culture or religion. In any case, God tells one group to commit genocide against other groups.
Moreover, God commands the Hebrews to discriminate on the basis of kinship — that is, to treat people differently based on familial relationships. For example, they are commanded to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12) and to refrain from incest (Leviticus 20:19-21).
Even if one wishes to dismiss the tribalism encouraged by God in the Old Testament, still one must contend with the New Testament. Discrimination on the basis of kinship is encouraged: Men must take care of their own, especially those of their own households (I Timothy 5:8); and children ought to obey and honor their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3). So too is discrimination on the basis of religion encouraged, as men are told to do good especially to their fellow Christians (Galatians 6:10).
Furthermore, discrimination is promoted on the very bases that the aforementioned SBC article claims to be forbidden — namely, on the basis of age (“ageism”) when the young are told to respect the elderly (I Timothy 5:1-2); on the basis of economic status (“classism”) when slaves are commanded to obey masters (Ephesians 6:5-9); on the basis of sex (“sexism”) when women are forbidden to speak in church (I Corinthians 14:34-35); and on the basis of ethnic origin (“ethnocentrism”) when the claim that Cretans “are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies,” is affirmed, and thus Titus is commanded, “Wherefore rebuke them sharply” (Titus 1:10-14 KJV). This last example is interesting, because Titus is instructed to behave in a particular way toward a group on the basis of a generalization about that group, which is practically the definition of discrimination as it is understood at present by the average person.
Disputed above are versions of today’s most common arguments in favor of the notion that Christianity is a religion of “non-discrimination,” as that term is typically understood. Granted, there are particular senses in which Christianity has been understood to be a religion that does not “discriminate” (for example, in the sense that salvation is available to all who have faith in Christ). But it is something else entirely to contend that discrimination, in the sense of perceiving men differently and even behaving toward them differently on account of biological, social, political, or other sorts of differences, is in itself sinful, and even then only when regarded so by contemporary society.