After a hiatus of several years, in 2013 I began actively attending church. I was inspired to return while reading Joanna Brook’s “Book of Mormon Girl” and while attending the Ordain Women Launch Event in April of that year. As I sat listening to the speakers at the launch event, my heart soared. These people clearly understood that equality is morality.
Shortly after returning to church activity, a friend in my ward pushed back against my view of morality. His challenge came in the form of an angry comment to a pro-Ordain Women post on my Facebook wall. His charge was that my lack of obedience to authority demonstrated a lack of morality. My response: Matthew 7:12.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
In this simple statement Jesus explained the foundation of true morality. It is a rule of aspirational reciprocity. Because we all desire to be valued by others, we violate this Golden Rule, whenever we treat others as “less than.” In this way, the Golden Rule is a radical call for equality. It is born of the idea that we are all God’s children, and that we all have the same inherent worth before God.
Paul imbued this idea with universality when he said: “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.” Galatians 3:28
As I sparred back and forth with my friend on Facebook, I realized that the source of our conflict sprang from two very different ideas about morality. My friend’s view of morality had a familiar ring. I teach law, and during the first night of each class, I discuss the origins of “government.” Traditionally, governments have been ruled by the elites of a society. The elites historically fall in to three groups: 1) violence specialists, 2) technocrats, and 3) religious specialists. While the relative position of each group in the power structure may vary from government to government, each group plays a vital role in maintaining rule by the elites. In particular, religious specialists develop and spread myths throughout a society, which explain why the elites should rule, and why the rest of the society must follow. Normally, this involves some explanation of why the gods have given the elites special powers and positions in society, along with a warning that challenging the elites is equivalent to challenging the gods. Thus this traditional form of morality warns that questioning elites is the same as questioning the gods, and thus questioning comes with eternal consequences. “If you challenge the King, your loss will not be limited to your head, but also your eternal soul.”
In the middle of our Facebook encounter, I realized that this was my friend’s morality paradigm. It is based on obedience to authority. Compliance with authority is good. Challenges to authority are bad.
I love the New Testament, because it is a radical departure from traditional obedience morality. Jesus was a radical. His teachings were subversive. He challenged the Roman and Jewish power structures under which he lived, and paid with his life. His teachings were subversive, because the called for equality.
The Jewish power structure insisted that Jews were above Samaritans, but Jesus told the story of a Samaritan hero, how helped an injured Jew and put Jews to shame.
The Jewish system of hierarchy insisted on male supremacy, but Jesus insisted on interacting with women in forbidden ways, and upon his resurrection he appeared to women first.
Jesus explained his ideal in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he turned the world upside down. In this new world, the traditional elites would be at the bottom. Matthew 5: 1-11.
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
True morality must be based on equality, because inequality fundamentally involves one person being able to compel another to act. This becomes a form of coercion, whereby the dominant person can force the subordinate person to act as the dominant person wills. Masters compel slaves. Husbands compel wives. Males compel females. Straights compel gays. The documented compel the undocumented. The rich compel the poor, etc.
Thus, white slave owners in the south used obedience morality to convince the their slaves to submit, and to relinquish control over their own bodies to the will of their masters. Masters would read to their slaves: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Ephesians 6:5.
Likewise, men have long used obedience morality to compel women to submit, and relinquish control over their bodies to their husbands. “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5:22-24.
As an aside, most Biblical scholars believe that Ephesians is pseudepigrapha. In other words, Paul did not write it, it was forged in his name. See, Bart Ehrman’s “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics.”
Unfortunately examples of obedience morality are without end. Inequality always compels one person to submit their body to the will of another. This is theft of the worst kind, and cannot form the basis of true morality. After two years of work with Ordain Women, I have learned that the work of Ordain Women is sacred. By asking for ordination and equality in the church, Ordain Women is move us all toward a higher form of morality, where we all are recognized as equal before God.
Honoring our past,
Envisioning our Future.
Mark Barnes, the author of this post, is on the Ordain Women Executive Board and the Chair of the Male Allies Committee.