There are growing trends and attitudes in society towards authority, and I began to explore how it might be affecting the young adults within the Christian community. Besides the fact that authority is increasingly disregarded and disrespected, it’s still expected to provide some semblance of justice. We can lament the fact that any kind of standard on which to base justice is quickly being dismantled. But regardless, people in general want justice, whatever that means to them. They expect authorities of various kinds to be put in place to provide that.
Along with justice comes the concepts of equity and equality. Authority is expected to provide this. If it doesn’t, then it’s considered corrupt and in need of being removed. If someone has been wronged according to a particular law, then that authority is supposed to bring equity to the case. Correct the problem. Bring balance. Make things right.
When it comes to people dealing with each other, equity is typically defined today as treating everyone the same and giving everyone access to the same opportunities. Equity refers to proportional representation in those same opportunities. Equity, then, may result in the unequal distribution of resources. So, it is more helpful to think about equality and equity as distinguishing between treatment and outcomes. Treatment and outcomes. In treatment, equality refers to treating everyone the same regardless of circumstances, whereas equity takes a person’s circumstances and needs into consideration.
Regarding outcomes in today’s dramatic culture shift, to have an equitable outcome is more and more coming to be defined as having equal outcomes. Or as one prominent authority figure in the United States recently put it, “equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.” Is that true?
The Bible addresses both equity and equality as aspects of true justice and righteousness and righteous authority. The word equity is used in several times in the Old Testament: “So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people” (2 Samuel 8:15 ESV) and “The King (the authority) in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Psalm 99.4 ESV).
Equity is clearly an important part of justice. The main Hebrew word for equity conveys ideas such as uprightness, straightness, and levelness, fairness, truth, order, and integrity. These are broad concepts, but they are also the core principles of justice and how we would expect God to judge a situation.
One commentator, M.O. Evans, defines equity as “The spirit of the law behind the letter. Justice is the application of the spirit of equity.” In other words, equity looks toward what the law was intended to do, and it seeks to judge on that basis and not judge solely on what the letter says.
When equality appears in the Bible, it usually denotes equal amounts of something. Something measurable, like money or goods or maybe even time. It refers to using the same standard for everyone such as weights and measures used in trade. Or it can refer to comparing the attributes of people or things such as status or even beauty.
Several places in the Bible show that humans are fundamentally equal with one another in that they’re all created in God’s image. Likewise, all except Jesus Christ committed sin (Romans 3:23) and all equally need redemption through Jesus Christ.
In Leviticus 19:15 (ESV) when discussing authority, justice, and the laws given to Israel, there are instances where equality was required, and everyone was to be treated similarly: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” However, when it came to sin offerings, what was required as an offering varied depending on a person’s ability to afford the offering (Leviticus 5 and Leviticus 14).
Here is a more modern example to illustrate some of the differences between equity and equality: Imagine a situation where you have two individuals standing in a courtroom because they each got a parking ticket. Due to financial hardship, they are fighting that ticket, pleading their case as to why they can’t pay it.
The first person parked in that place to help a friend move and it’s the first time he has gotten an offense and he insisted he didn’t see the sign that said he couldn’t park there. However, the second individual had three previous tickets dismissed and this is the fourth time he received a ticket in that same location.
Now if you were the judge, the one in authority, would you dismiss the ticket for both individuals, or for just one, or neither. If you were to apply the law equally, both individuals would have to pay the fine because those are the rules. They apply equally to everyone. There is inequality about either individual as to why you might want to treat them differently.
However, if you were to look at their unique situations and there are circumstances to take that into consideration, well that would be the principle of equity at work. The first individual didn’t have any previous offenses and he seemed to violate the law without intending to do so. While the second individual had already violated it three times. This would seem to indicate that they might not obey the law again in the future if that ticket were to be dismissed again. You might want to dismiss the ticket for the first person but uphold it for the second in hopes that it would deter them from future violations.
Then, lastly, one could also argue from a principle of equality that if you’re going to let the first person off the hook, you should let the second off the hook as well because mercy should apply equally to all.
In this example, we see the principles of equity and equality at work. Equity and equality are not at odds against each other, but they have different weight. Both are integral to God’s vision of justice. It takes a lot of wisdom to weigh those various considerations.
God is able to treat all humanity with perfect equality and similarity at the same time because God knows our hearts, our intentions. He takes people’s specific circumstances into consideration perfectly. Because of that combination, He can render perfect justice. “…He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:9 ESV).
An interesting parable spoken by Jesus stems from a question that Peter asks Jesus directly. “Then Peter said in reply, ‘See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’” (Matthew 19:27 ESV). In other words, since we have sacrificed so much, what’s my cut of the action? In the next verse, Jesus does answer Peter telling him about a great reward of rulership over Israel. These were unique thrones or offices of authority that would be given. These are rewards that are different from what other people will receive. But He also goes on to explain something else.
Matthew 20:1-2 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
To make this a bit more relatable to modern labor situations, we’ll say that this landowner is very generous, and he signs a contract with these workers for $200 for a 10-hour day of work. Twenty dollars an hour, a bit more than minimum wage. Not only that, but he also provides a training regimen to keep his workers safe. He provides health insurance and even a 401K program. Sign me up.
Paraphrasing the rest of the story, he’s got a lot of work that needs to get done and those that he has hired are not able to complete this work for some reason. To get the work done, he keeps hiring more and more laborers throughout the day, who are willing to work even up until near the end of the day. What’s interesting here is that for these workers he says whatever is right, I will pay you.
The landowner promised the earliest workers a specific wage, but the other workers hired throughout the day were not told an amount but just the promise that he would pay them all fairly. The evening comes and the owner of the vineyard pays them the wages, beginning with the last to the first. And those who were hired near the end of the day each received $200. The first who were hired saw what the owner gave to the last ones hired, and they came thinking that they would receive even more. Because that would only be fair, but they also only received $200.
These workers were troubled by this development, and they grumbled at the landowner, pointing out that they had to work harder and longer than the other workers and therefore, they’re considering joining a union and picketing the landowner about his unfair labor practices.
The landowner pulls out his contract that they signed to remind them of their original agreement. He reminds them that he can do whatever he wants with his money. He can just give it away if he wants to. It’s his. Nobody else has the right to question his generosity. He turns it around and questions those workers’ attitudes.
Besides the fact that there is a promise of reward, there are a couple of other takeaways from this story. The first is that this parable illustrates the principle that God’s manner of rewarding is not like man’s ways of rewarding. This landowner did not treat anyone unfairly. Though the story reads as if there is unequal treatment for equal outcome. Interesting. This is all from a God who is completely equitable in His dealings. God will never ever be unfair though He may for His own purposes choose to give of His differently than what we as humans might think is equitable. He will never be less than fair, but He reserves the right to be more than fair with what is His as it pleases Him.
The second aspect of this parable is that God’s distribution of rewards is not necessarily the manner of humans. It says here He paid the last before the first. Why? Many who were first will be last and the last, first. Interesting. This is an aspect of God’s grace in that He rewards and blesses mankind according to His will and pleasure. Not necessarily according to what mankind thinks he deserves. Or by some manmade system of rank and order.
One of the things that we all need to realize is that no matter how long we have been around, there is no entitlement in God’s Church. He is the landowner. He determines when He brings in the laborers. He determines the wage and what the reward will be. We are called to bear fruit. Our occupation is to be fellow workers in the vineyard.
What we see being heavily pushed by the world and the forces behind it all is that you and I are entitled. We deserve to be elevated to the highest levels. We deserve to be blessed beyond measure because we are special. We deserve to have our voice heard too. My opinions are just as right as the next person’s. That’s frequently what equity and equality mean to this world. If we’re not careful, we can bring those attitudes right into the Church.
Just about anytime we hear this terminology, equity and equality, being tossed around in our world, we should know that it’s usually a trap. It’s not about that at all. It’s about trying to get you to believe a lie so that you can be ruled over. They’re just smooth sounding words in which to deceive and eventually, dominate. Which is, of course, a tactic used by Satan continually.
As the people of God who are learning how godly authority is to operate, we over time come to see that His family operates not only in complete fairness and truthfulness but also in abounding generosity. Their authority provides true justice based on both equity and equality. Followers of God are called to live by the spirit of the law in order to learn and apply these principles using the power of His Spirit to judge situations that arise as He would do.