Question: "What does the Bible say about inequality?"
Answer: Equal rights has been a major theme in Western culture for the last century. Because this idea of human equality is so deeply ingrained in modern societal thinking, we often assume that the Bible fully supports it as well. First, we need a clear definition of equality, which can refer to sameness in measure; likeness in quality, status, or nature; or impartiality in treatment. We should also separate the concepts of naturally occurring inequalities from behavioral inequalities.
God created all human beings with equal value: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). By creating human beings in His own image, God set our value based upon our likeness to Him. Every human being has a natural equality with every other human being because all are created in God’s image. No one has been created more, or less, like God than anyone else.
Society at large often divides people along racial, ethnic, gender, and economic lines, allowing favoritism and partiality to creep in. When God sent His only begotten Son into the world to take the punishment for our sin (John 3:16–18), He showed great impartiality. All of us are equally sinners, and we all equally need a Savior. All people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or other distinctions, must be saved the same way, through faith in Christ, and once they are saved, they have the same rights and privileges of salvation, being equal members of the family of God (Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28). Unity in Christ removes all favoritism and bias in the church. In the matter of salvation, the playing field has been leveled, and we are all on equal footing. The Bible pictures the church as comprised of different but equally valuable parts of a body (Ephesians 5:30; 1 Corinthians 12:27). Christ teaches us that to disrespect or abuse another person based on physical, racial, mental, or socio-economic differences is wrong (James 2:1–13).
All humans are equal in value, and all believers have equal spiritual standing in Christ. But we are clearly not equal in every way. We are each a unique creation. Physically, intellectually, emotionally, economically—by most every earthly comparison—human beings are unequal. Short or tall, thin or fat, weak or strong, rich or poor—evidence of human inequality is everywhere. About this kind of inequality the Bible is strangely silent. God makes no apologies for creating us different from one another (see Exodus 4:11). Given that people tend to place more value on certain characteristics such as height and strength, such inequalities can negatively impact human experience, and this leads some people to wonder why God doesn’t do more to ensure equity.
Much inequality in the world is due to sin’s effects. Disease, racism, poverty, and deformity are all due to the curse this world is under because of sin (Genesis 3:16–19; Psalm 107:34; Romans 8:22–23). Even then, the Bible reveals that God takes note of the helpless, and He expects those with better circumstances to bear the burdens of those without (Exodus 22:21–23; Deuteronomy 10:18; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:10). God sees the plight of the widow and the fatherless and has given strict commandments to His people about caring for them. One of the first charitable acts carried out by the early church was to provide for the widows among them (Acts 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:3).
The Bible addresses class distinctions and discusses both slavery and mendicancy without passing moral judgment on either. Rather than removing all class distinctions, God put boundaries around the societal systems already in place and gave guidelines about how His people were to behave. The Bible’s treatment of slavery is often criticized because it instructs kindness and respect between slaves and masters and does not abolish the practice entirely (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Timothy 6:1; Colossians 3:22). Beggars were commonplace in Jesus’ day, yet He did not lead a political crusade to redistribute wealth. God is fully aware of the imbalances in human experience; yet the Bible usually addresses these inequalities as opportunities for His people to develop empathy and compassion. Inequalities in social rank, physical abilities, or financial resources are occasions for us to practice loving our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Romans 13:9; Mark 12:31). God often uses those very inequalities to teach and develop the character of Christ in us and in those we serve (John 9:1–3; Philippians 4:17; Luke 6:38).
Behavioral inequality is another matter, differing from natural inequality. Behavioral inequalities stem from choices we make and could be considered voluntary; our words and actions lead to certain inequalities. The Bible draws a line between fools and wise people (Proverbs 10:8, 14; 17:28; Ecclesiastes 9:17). The decisions made by a fool and a wise person are unequal, and the paths they take lead to inequality of outcome. To be consistently foolish, refuse sound counsel (Proverbs 1:24–26), and fail to learn from mistakes (Proverbs 26:11) will eventually result in negative effects. Like a rock dropped into a pond, poor decisions continue causing ripples long after the initial decisions are forgotten. “How did I get here?” fools often ask themselves, but would rather blame others than discover life-giving answers.
Exodus 20:5–6 shows how inequality can be handed down from generation to generation. In giving the command to forsake idols, the Lord said, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” We read that and wonder if God is cruel and unjust. Does He care about inequality? Why punish the great-grandchildren?
God’s statement in Exodus 20 has to do with patterns and cycles within a family. Patterns tend to repeat themselves, and we often adopt the sinful behavior of our parents. If our parents were idolaters, running to addictions, money, illicit relationships, or popularity to meet their needs instead of running to God, then God warns that they have begun (or are continuing) a cycle of sin. Fortunately, we can break the cycle by keeping God’s commandments. Just because you had a bad parent doesn't mean you have to repeat his or her mistakes; and just because you blow it with your kids doesn’t mean they are doomed to repeat your mistakes.
Some inequalities, such as talents, abilities, and spiritual gifts, are part of God’s design for us. Other inequalities are forced upon us by our fellow man who wrongly judges us as “superior” or “inferior” based on society’s faulty standard. Still other inequalities we choose for ourselves, as we determine our own course of action, wisely or foolishly. Jesus is the great equalizer. In Him, all iniquitous inequalities cease. There is no favoritism in Him (Acts 10:34). When Jesus comes again, it will be as the Just Judge:
“He will not judge by appearance
nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor
and make fair decisions for the exploited” (Isaiah 11:3–4, NLT).
God’s throne will be surrounded by people from every nation, tribe, and tongue, united in praise to His name (Revelation 7:9–10). At that time, all our differences and inequalities will showcase His glory in unique and personal ways.