On Winthrop and Leading with Love
A common attitude in America was well represented by Martha Plimpton when she said that “The word ‘equality’ shows up too much in our founding documents for anyone to pretend it’s not the American way.” Contemporary America’s outward commitment to equality can hardly be called into question. But the popular insistence upon equality raises the question; how should Christians view equality?
Rejecting contemporary views of inequality is a good start. Knowing that inequality, defined either as legal or social distinction, is not outrightly condemned by Scripture is a solid starting point for a Christian view of the matter. “Inequality” – unequal positions of power – is not, in itself, a problem to be solved.
Abuses of power and of the law are tragedies that loom large in our social imagination. More often than not, a Hollywood villain is a king, CEO, or crime boss using their power to hurt those weaker than themselves. History is hardly lacking in tyrannical figures, many of whom are responsible for the greatest atrocities the world has ever seen.
Such figures and their atrocities give good reason to believe inequality is a problem. Examples of abuse within unequal power relationships abound in today’s America, manifesting as the manipulation and abuse of a congregation by a pastor or of a workplace by a CEO. History bears even more egregious instances of chattel slavery, genocide, and numerous other forms of exploitation by the ‘haves’ of the ‘have nots.’
On its face, the evidence against inequality seems damning. As I have argued previously, Scripture does not condemn unequal relationships in themselves and often suggests their legitimacy. Romans 13 tells us that power is given to those who possess it by God and the Ten Commandments condemn the seizure of another property. Scripture commends the obedience of children to parents and of citizens to rulers. It also praises the positions of rulers and parents as good and gives instructions for their proper execution.
How then do Christians reconcile the horrors that often accompany inequality with the legitimacy of unequal power relationships? Our solution must somehow refuse to dismiss the sins of the powerful as being anything less than they are and avoid condemning the existence of unequal power dynamics—no easy task. How can we maintain that an abusive father is nothing less than wicked and yet that the leadership role held by fathers at large is nothing less than Scriptural – that a deceitful pastor is decidedly wrong but the leadership role held by pastors at large remains?
John Winthrop, a sixteenth century Puritan theologian, suggests an excellent solution to this problem of power in his essay A Model of Christian Charity. The content of the essay as a whole is mixed: Winthrop was no freer of his context than we are of ours, and several of his arguments are seriously flawed. For example, Winthrop attempts to explain God’s purpose in creating inequality, an impious and oddly presumptuous move for a Puritan. However, the crux of his argument, and the meat of the first half of his essay, identifies love as the vital feature of a healthy and unified society.
Winthrop argues that the strong must serve the weak. A key feature of love, benevolence, or concern for the good of the other, must be held by each member of society for those above and below him. Those with wealth or power have been given those things as gifts from God so that they may better serve his Greatest Commandment: to love God and neighbor. Rather than having a license to exploit and destroy, the mighty have a greater responsibility than the lowly to serve their fellow man.
Winthrop recognizes the primacy of love in interpersonal relationships, no matter what form those relationships take. No matter where you find yourself in society’s hierarchy of wealth and power your obligation is clear‒love thy neighbor.
Our culture is right to recognize the great evils those with power can inflict on others. Where we fail is in thinking power is the problem.The unequal relationship between father and child, pastor and congregation, civic leader and his people, is not the problem. Failure to love one’s neighbor is. Instead of condemning wealth and power, we should consider how both things ought to be used for the service of men and the glory of God.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of Cogitare Magazine, nor of Grove City College.