What Our Churches Can Teach Us About Human Dignity
As we demonstrate the kingdom of God by standing up for the dignity of the oppressed, we also embody the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God by displaying the full dignity of humanity within our churches themselves.
This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples in Matthew 20, when, overhearing some of their pitched jockeying for positions in what they thought would constitute Jesus’ new kingdom, the Lord reminded them that the kingdom of God is vastly different than the kingdoms of this world. The last, Jesus said, would be first. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (v 26)—for the King of this kingdom himself “came not to be served but to serve” even unto death (v 27).
God’s people are always tempted, in every age, to adopt the dignity-denying ethos of the surrounding culture. We always want to align ourselves with the norms of those around us rather than the counter-cultural ones of the kingdom to which we belong and whose King we name as our Lord. This is why it is always easier to spot the mistakes of the church in other cultures and times than ours. Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for hero worship of those with social status or rhetorical gifts by reminding them that when they were called into the kingdom, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). James challenged the churches he wrote to not to treat the wealthy better than the impoverished, as though they were in some way better, for “God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2:5).
President of the ERLC Russell Moore reminds us that, “It should not surprise us that the spirit of every age seeks to define human worth in terms of power and usefulness, while the gospel of the kingdom defines human dignity in strikingly different terms, as Christ himself identifies himself not with the powerful but with the vulnerable.”
To fully reflect the biblical view of human dignity in our churches means we not only extend ourselves on behalf of those whom the world has denied worth, but also that we embody an other-worldly view of dignity in the way we conduct ourselves as a body. It means we resist the world’s definitions of worth and power. It means we see the child with Down’s syndrome as a fully valuable member of our body. It means we resist the urge to only put on our platforms those who fit the cultural definition of beauty or masculinity. It means we are the one, and perhaps the only, place in society where you are accepted and loved not because of what you can contribute, but because of who you are in Christ.
Those who are disabled, those who are poor, those who might not neatly fit into our modern notions of success, should have a prominent place in our assemblies not simply because they have full human dignity as image-bearers of God, but because each one is a future king or queen of the universe, who will one day reign with Christ.
Our churches should be a collection of people that you would not normally see together. Just imagine congregations filled with people who have no business being together, other than the fact that they are redeemed people of God. Imagine rich and poor, conservatives and liberals, blue collars and white collars and no collars. Imagine a parking lot with hybrids and pickups, gun racks and whole foods stickers. Imagine a church lobby filled with walkers and strollers, canes and car seats, tattoos and bow ties. Imagine a church comprised of people whose primary, and sometimes only, commonality is their allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We should long for this in our churches, but more than that, we should each ask ourselves what we are doing to make it more of a reality. This begins with each of us accepting—no, celebrating—the upside-down nature of the kingdom. It begins with each of us applying the kingdom ethic of leadership in our own hearts—seeing others as made in God’s image, and so serving others because we wish to cultivate their humanity and promote their dignity rather than because we wish to cultivate our ambition and promote our reputation. It begins with treating others with the dignity that the Lord Jesus did, and does, and will.
It’s easy for me to advocate on behalf of the vulnerable outside my window, to be stirred by the images I see on social media, to fire off a tweet, to even write a check to a worthy organization. It’s much harder for me to love the person next to me in the pew on a Sunday. But it starts there. It’s much harder for me to embody servant leadership in the way I treat those who work under me and around me. It’s much harder for me to celebrate ordinary faithfulness rather than gravitate toward the famous and the beautiful and the talented.
We need a church that smells like Jesus. We need a church that communicates the gospel of the kingdom, and illuminates the ethics of the kingdom. We are not like the world. We need a church that rejects the tribalizing ethos of the culture around us. We are subjects of another king, and citizens of another kingdom—a kingdom of dignity and humanity
Adapted, with permission, from The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity