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. However, before we can consider the topic of inequality accurately, we need to separate the concepts of naturally occurring inequalities from behavioral, voluntary inequalities. The Bible has specific words for each.
God established the equal value of all human beings with these words: “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 naturally occurring equality with every other human being because no one has been created more or less like God than any other. When God sent His only begotten Son into the world to take the punishment for our sin (John 3:16–18), He forever confirmed our value (2 Corinthians 5:21). For this reason alone, every human being has infinite and equal value in the sight of God. Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28 demolish man-made racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities and declare that all who believe in Christ for salvation are equal. We are different but equally valuable parts of His body (Ephesians 5:30; 1 Corinthians 12:27). So to disrespect or abuse another person based on physical, racial, mental, or socio-economic differences is always wrong (James 2:1–13).
Vertically, all humans are equal in value, and all believers are equal in Christ. But shoulder-to-shoulder we are clearly not equal. Physically, intellectually, emotionally, economically, and by every earthly comparison, human beings are unequal. Short, tall, thin, fat, weak, brilliant, rich, and poor—evidence of human inequality is everywhere. About this kind of inequality the Bible is strangely silent. God makes no apologies about creating us different from one another (see Exodus 4:11). It could be argued that He created some people superior in certain ways and others inferior in certain ways. When we consider that not everyone has singing or athletic talent, or when confronted by the stark contrast between the rich and healthy versus the poor and feeble, that argument appears to have merit. Inequalities that negatively impact human experience cause us to wonder why God doesn’t do more to level the playing field.
The Bible discusses slaves and beggars without passing moral judgment on either. Instead, God put boundaries around some systems already in place and gave guidelines about how His people were to behave. The Bible’s treatment of slavery is often derided by skeptics because its instruction is about kindness and respect between slaves and masters, not about abolishing 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 the wealth. So God is fully aware of the imbalances in human experience; yet the Bible rarely addresses these inequalities as subjects of divine concern, but as opportunities for His people to develop empathy and compassion. Inequalities in 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).
Much of mankind’s inequality is due to sin’s effects. Disease, racism, poverty, injury, 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 shows us 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).
Behavioral inequality is another matter. The Bible draws a distinct line between fools and wise people (Proverbs 10:8, 14; 17:28; Ecclesiastes 9:17). Many people suffer the negative effects of inequality because their decisions are consistently foolish. They live to please themselves, listen to bad counsel, and refuse to learn from their mistakes (Proverbs 26:11; Isaiah 32:6). They choose immediate gratification over long-term gain and then wonder why their lives are a mess. Like a rock dropped into a pond, the ripples of poor decisions continue long after the initial decisions are forgotten. “How did I get here?” fools often ask themselves, but would rather blame than discover life-giving answers. Sadly, those foolish people pass their behavioral flaws to their children who grow up believing themselves victims of life, society, or even God.
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?
This statement from God serves as a warning to foolish parents who run to addictions, money, illicit relationships, or popularity to meet their needs instead of running to God. If parents don’t repent of their own idolatry in their generation, their children will grow up to be idolaters as well, and their children after them. God’s blessings, or lack of them, may appear to be unequal, but we were warned of the cycle of sin.
Some inequalities are part of God’s design for us, and others are man-made, but all inequality will cease when Jesus comes again. His throne will be surrounded by people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. At that time, all our differences and inequalities will showcase His glory in unique and personal ways (Revelation 7:6; 14:9).