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Home > Home Articles > Features > Prejudice in the Church

Prejudice in the Church


In 1968 Jane Elliot, a school teacher in Iowa, conducted an experiment. She separated the children in her class into two groups, one of which was made up of the blue eyed children and the other of the brown eyed children. She then went on to treat the two groups unfairly; discriminating in favour of one of the groups. Consequently the “lower” group did less well in lessons, their self-esteem dropped, and insults about eye colour started to appear in the playground. In a very short period of time the children had learned a whole new prejudice.


Essentially though, they had learned nothing new. Prejudice is as old as humanity, it can come in almost every conceivable form and is found in all societies and yet it is so hard to pin down. Like a virus it can remain dormant for many years, there, but hard to detect, and its only under the right external conditions that it suddenly flares up. We are all prejudiced, it’s the force behind our desire to be beautiful, rich, slim…


1950’s American society was built on the premise of white power. Whilst many would have been uncomfortable with the idea of white supremacy, there was certainly a state of white dominance. All this, however, started to change when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man (as the law stated she should) and America was flung into an often violent and protracted conflict between blacks and whites. And although we, from our standpoint in history, can look back at the situation and see how unjust it was for the blacks, at the time large numbers couldn’t see (blacks included) and many pillars of society fought tooth and nail to keep things as they were. Because in the context of their society it was a well known fact that blacks were better off at the bottom, they were like children and needed looking after and controlling.


In 1905 Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians (Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey) if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither of them answered. As a result, the two women pulled out a banner which had on it "Votes for Women" and shouted at the two politicians to answer their questions. They were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction.


Many suffragettes, as they became known, were sent to prison, where they often went on hunger strike. Some died, many were beaten up, or force fed with a tube, most were socially ostracised.


To us, it’s hard to understand how society did this to its own wives, mothers or sisters, when all they wanted were the same rights as men - which they did not achieve until 1928. But again the injustice made sense to the people of the day. It was a commonly held belief that women just didn’t understand politics in the same way as men did and so it was irresponsible to give women the vote. They were being refused what they wanted for their own good; their men were looking after them.



The prejudice of a class riddled European society where the few lived in luxury whilst the many lived short and brutal lives is re-enforced by a fairy tale, and although fairytales are stories for children they are also a way of expressing social norms. The Princess and the Pea suggests that the Princess’s royal lineage lay in her ability to feel a pea through several mattresses. She is obviously royalty because she is more sensitive to pain than normal people. Or, put another way, normal people were less sensitive to suffering than her, which was handy, it meant that they could be mistreated because to them it was normal, they did not feel pain.


The eugenics movement in the early 20th century sterilised many thousands of people in order to ensure that only the best people procreated. America sterilised 65,000. The Nazi’s decided to cut to the chase and just kill those deemed undesirable. And all this because humanity decided that prejudice was justifiable. You see these people weren’t like you and I.


In all of these scenarios, according to the mindsets of the societies of their time, prejudice seemed to be a natural, and right, reaction to the perceived shortcomings of various people groups. Not only that, but these same prejudices served to re-enforce the status-quo of the time. I would like to suggest that this form of prejudice is very much alive in the church. Specifically in our attitudes to those in leadership compared with those who are regular church attenders. We have developed a mindset where there is a clear distinction in the mentality of the church between those in leadership and those who are not. The relationship is not dissimilar to the 1950’s nuclear family; the father (leader) makes the important decisions and cares about the material needs of the family, whilst the wife (attender) makes the tea, looks after the children and is obedient to him. Which is fine, if that’s the way people want it, but the point is that the 1950’s adult male patronised the ‘little woman’ and simply couldn’t believe that she was up to doing his job, or was his equal. It could be argued that the same is true of the church.


As Mark Green said:

All Christians are born equal but full-time Christians are more equal than others.’



Consequently we don’t seem to pick up on the abuses that go on. Family members of leaders are promoted to leadership and no one calls it nepotism. Christian tv celebrities are fated as something special, and no one notices that it’s mirroring the celebrity cult of the secular world. Church leaders are encouraged to wear a facade rather than be real and no one calls it hypocrisy.


All this happens because the prejudice in the church has made one group superior and the other inferior. And consequently our humanity is devalued, because prejudice is the opposite of justice. Jesus said, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this sums up the law and the prophets. Prejudice, on the other hand, works on the premise that we are unequal. And so we don’t treat a leader in the same way as we would treat a church attender. This situation is exacerbated in the church by the idea that followers need to follow, and not complain, in order to do the will of God. And leaders need to lead, and care for the sheep; in order to do the will of God. But we are not sheep and a shepherd. Biblically we are all sheep and Christ is our shepherd. Biblically, we are all equal. We are all a royal priesthood.


What this inequality actually produces in the church is a patrician attitude amongst those in leadership, which on the surface seems a good thing. It is a caring attitude, it reaches out to those less fortunate, or socially disadvantaged and offers them a helping hand. It is the attitude of one from a higher social class reaching down to help those in a lower social class. However, it is significant, that those who are given a helping hand are never drawn level, they are helped up, but are not allowed an equal footing. A patrician attitude is inherent in any class system. It legitimises those who have, whilst re-enforcing the legitimacy of the system. It says; I am here to help you, and you are here to be helped by me, that’s the way the system works. (that’s why kind people get sucked into the prejudices mentioned above. You don’t have to be evil to oppress people, you just have to believe that they are different to you) The trouble is, if someone no longer wants, or needs, to be helped , then they have inadvertently become a threat to the status-quo and will become an outcast. In a patrician system the self-worth of those in leadership demands the acquiescence of those below them, otherwise they start to feel insecure. Where is the humility in that?


The flip side of this prejudice is a feeling of inferiority amongst the attenders. Consequently they feel unable to trust their own abilities and need the leaders to help and advise them. It’s a community of a sort, but it’s not one where people can grow to their full potential.


It is for this reason that change in the church community happens so slowly and it is why nearly every new move of God has had to step outside of whichever church system it finds itself in. The leadership systems we have cannot let people change the system they find themselves under.



So what should leadership look like?


Good leadership allows people to grow above them. Let me take an example from families. After all Jesus described himself as the son and, God the father. Not God the senior pastor and Jesus the junior pastor.

Families exist in order to promote growth through the medium of loving, caring and honesty. And it is an environment that encourages every member to grow, even the parents. When a child is young it thinks its parents are perfect. A teenager thinks it parents aren’t so perfect and so must be parented differently. A twenty-something needs a different type of parenting, as does an adult in their forties or fifties. In fact there will come a point when the parent will become the child and needs to be cared for by the child who is now themselves possibly a parent. As a child grows into adulthood a responsible and loving parent must also face the challenges to grow until they are no longer needed. If the parent stops growing and maintains that they are the parent and therefore are the voice of authority, then the parent has trapped them self in a role which abuses their children. Henceforth their children must always be children, or must escape from their parent. This is what static authority does.


It is like a parent teaching a child to ride a bike. At some point the parent must let go of the wobbling child and this child will eventually ride off without the parent. Although the process might be painful for the parent (and the child’s knees) it needs to happen. If this doesn’t happen we end up in the ridiculous scenario of having an adult on a child’s bike, afraid of being let go, and a parent, worn out and put upon, still pushing twenty years later, and no one achieving anything. Such a relationship is a co-dependent relationship, which is the general state which the church is in. According to the ‘Leaders under pressure” report, 7 in 10 church leaders feel heavily overworked. Whilst Mark Greens research revealed ‘not only that Christians did not feel confident to share the Gospel, but that they didn’t know how to live it.’ (Green, 2005). It seems to be this unhealthy co-dependency that can happen with authority, which Jesus is trying to guard against when he said:


mat 23: 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called `teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.


Jesus understood the dangers of unhealthy authority. Natural authority is flexible and allows itself to be surpassed whilst unhealthy authority traps people underneath it. Jesus - who understood the nature of authority, told us that we would do even greater things than him.


Jon Middleton