Moderns in the West often take the inherent dignity and worth of human beings for granted. We assume that recognizing the value of another person is intrinsic to humanity—or believe that it should be. We are shocked and outraged by human rights violations in nations around the world and crusade for fundamental rights for every individual. After all, the Founding Fathers enshrined the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America’s consciousness through the Declaration of Independence. Not everyone realizes that this perspective is largely the product of a Christian worldview.
Before the emergence of Christianity, recognition of human dignity was incredibly uncommon. The devaluation of foreigners, women, and different ethnic groups occurred with a frequency that might surprise many moderns. Even in the 20th century, some groups living in nations whose governments were mostly non-Christian or anti-Christian enjoyed far fewer rights than those living in nations influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The value of human life in Scripture stems from mankind’s creation by God. Not only is humanity the apex of God’s creative activities, but we are also the only creations who bear his image (Gen. 1:27). Elsewhere, Scripture states that humanity was created with status only slightly lower than that of angels (Ps. 8:5). Unsurprisingly, the Bible’s view of humanity is often quite higher than that of other worldviews both ancient and modern.
Partiality and Favoritism
Using unequal standards in the treatment of others is nearly as old as time itself. In the ancient world, social status was often a determining factor in punishments for criminal behavior. In the ancient Near East, various law codes prescribed different consequences for the offender based on the social status of the victim. To commit a crime against someone of high-ranking status brought more severe penalties than one committed against a slave. Elsewhere in history, the creation of ranks of nobility and aristocracy have often led to the differing treatment of individuals under the law. Money and power have long been used to either purchase or avoid justice.
In Christ, God revealed himself to mankind in the form of a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was present in the Roman world. He took the form of someone of relatively low social standing, instead of the triumphant monarchial figure his contemporaries expected. He served not as a ruler but as a slave, washing feet when his disciples refused to do so (John 13:1-17) and setting the standard for service for all who would follow him (Matt. 23:11).
Early church history continued the same focus. For example, the third-century work Didascalia Apostolorum forbade a bishop to interrupt the service to greet a person of high social standing, yet also commanded him to see that a pauper would not have to sit on the floor. This echoes the insistence of James that favoritism due to social or economic status is forbidden (Jas. 2:1-13).
Infants were considered expendable under certain conditions in the Roman Empire. After its birth, a midwife would lay the child at the feet of its father. By picking up the child, the father signaled its acceptance into the family. If he did not—likely because it had some visible deformity or was female—the child would be left outside in a remote place or on a trash heap. The child would either die from exposure or wild animals or be taken by slavers for sale. Roman writers such as Cicero and Seneca noted physical weakness or deformity as the deciding factor in whether to keep a child (De Legibus 3.8 and De Ira 1.15, respectively).
Jesus taught the value of children. When the disciples tried to wave away children wanting to see Jesus, he told them, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). In a time where children had secondary status, Jesus uses them as a model of faith.
The early church viewed abortion as murder. The Didache instructed Christians not to procure an abortion or kill a newborn child (2.2). Justin Martyr also prohibited the exposure of children (Apology 1.27). Minucius Felix also forbade infanticide, stating that some exposed children to wild animals, while others strangled newborn infants or took abortifacients to kill them in the womb (Octavius 30.1-3).
The Greco-Roman world did not have a monopoly on infanticide. It appears throughout history in many cultures. The modern form of this is, of course, abortion. Countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and other nations throughout the Middle and Far East, have an extremely high male-to-female ratio in the population, with sex-selective abortion thought to play a significant role in this discrepancy (the same spirit was common in antiquity, where families typically kept only one female child). Some estimate that there are more than 100 million “missing” women from the combined populations of these areas today due to female infanticide. Nearly 60 million babies have been aborted in the United States since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Although it is fashionable among critics to claim that Christianity is an inherently misogynistic religion, a comparison with the Greco-Roman culture of the first century shows clear differences between the two. Roman writings often refer to the infirmity of the female sex (infirmitas sexus) and the fickleness of the female mind (levitas animi). It seems that women’s testimony in court was viewed as unreliable, and Roman society held wives to a double standard concerning marital fidelity (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). The culture expected unflagging faithfulness from wives. While philandering husbands could have mistresses and hire the services of prostitutes, women in the time of emperor Augustus could be banished for marital infidelity.
In contrast, the Bible view women as having a worth equal to men. Paul eliminates cultural/racial, socio-economic, and gender qualifications concerning who may be a follower of Christ (Gal. 3:28), which may have been prompted by a particular Jewish blessing that possibly dates to the first century AD. This prayer thanked God that the one praying was not made a Gentile, ignorant, or a woman (Tosefta Berakoth 7:18). We cannot miss the fact, however, that many Christian men have not been as quick to adopt a biblical view of women in history.
Later religions, such as Islam, hold a far dimmer view of women than people in ancient Rome. The Qur’an states, “Allah permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain, they have the right to food and clothing. Treat women well for they are like domestic animals and they possess nothing themselves. Allah has made the enjoyment of their bodies lawful in his Qur’an” (Sura 9:113). No matter how we interpret this passage, we cannot come away with much that is positive by comparing women to livestock who may be beaten into submission and whose existence is to serve the pleasures of their husbands.
Unbelievers and Outsiders
Humanity has always struggled with “the other.” Historically, the division between races has been a significant problem for various religions. Particularly noteworthy is Islam’s historic call for the destruction of Jews (Sahih Al-Muslim Book 41, Number 6985; cf. Sura 5:51, 54), a mantra often repeated in the Middle East today. It is not difficult to find examples of Muslim authorities teaching that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs—a charge which does not appear in the Qur’an but can be found in Muslim writings dating back to the Medieval Period.
Other faiths have also espoused less enlightened views. After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., the Mormon church barred anyone of African descent from the Mormon priesthood. This decision was reversed — conveniently enough — at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement. The Nation of Islam makes it clear that anyone of Jewish or Caucasian ancestry is a wicked creation of an evil scientist named Yakub just over 6,000 years ago. Some smaller fringe religious traditions and cultic movements sometimes have similar beliefs, such as identifying the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15) or curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:25-27) as darker-colored skin.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus’ willingness to seek out individuals such as the Samaritan woman and Zacchaeus the tax collector (John 4:1-26; Luke 19:1-10), and his willingness to make the same kinds of individuals into righteous figures worthy of imitation in some of his parables (Luke 10:30-37; 18:9-14). Other examples appear in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-14). Jesus’ ministry involved calling not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:32), which included no qualifications regarding culture or ethnicity.
For Christians, one of the distinctive features of the gospel is its availability to all. The Bible recognizes no inferior human beings based on criteria commonly employed in discrimination against others. While this may have been an evil from the beginning of civilization, it has no place among God’s people. We celebrate the church’s rich diversity and see every human being as a unique living sculpture crafted by the Master Artist.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.