Church at its heart is a community of equals. Christian egalitarianism is grounded in the view of creation as reflecting the image of God and culminating in Jesus’ mission and ministry for all. The church as the embodiment of Christ has a call to continue Jesus’ egalitarian ministry. As an Asian-American immigrant and female clergy person in The United Methodist Church, I will explore the meaning of the church as an egalitarian community that actively rejects racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all other forms of discrimination, and that purposefully seeks ways to create a community of equals.
God’s Creation of Equality
Creation of humanity in the image of God is narrated in Genesis: “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them” (Gen. 1:27).1 What is the image of God? There are various ways to understand God’s image, but in this article, I would like to turn to Trinity.
As Karen Baker-Fletcher writes, Trinity powerfully communicates to us that God is a community. As a community, the three persons in God share a supportive and collaborative relationship. Each of the three persons in Trinity has a unique role and collaborates with the others to lead the world to greater peace, justice, and love. In God’s peaceful, egalitarian community, there is no room for hierarchy and discrimination. The dynamic collaboration among Trinity has been expressed as “perichoresis,” a Greek term that can be translated as “dance,” as Baker-Fletcher writes.2
Korean theologian Jung Young Lee also has explained such dynamics within Trinity utilizing the Eastern philosophy of I Ching. The relationship between yin and yang in the I Ching is not dualistic. They do not indicate two separate entities. Rather, yin and yang form a dynamic community, as yin exists in yang and yang exists in yin. It is a living community full of life. This is the perichoresis!3
Similarly, human beings have been created in the image of God as an egalitarian community in which all members care for one another and coexist. When people hurt each other with discrimination and injustice, the image of God in humanity gets broken, marred, and lost. Whenever the marginalized suffer due to injustice, God’s image is broken. Jesus’ ministry of equality restored the broken image of God. Today’s church must continue the same mission.
Jesus’ Ministry of Equality
Jesus reached out to the marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. Politically, the Jewish people were under the colonial occupation of the Roman Empire. Their own leader was a puppet king, existing to serve the empire more than the Jewish people. Culturally, a strong emphasis on learning existed in both Greek and Hebrew
heritages. Yet, education was mostly for the elite, free males. Women could teach and learn at home, but not in public. Women’s leadership was limited to domestic life.4 Women, slaves, and non-citizens were excluded from public opportunities to learn and participate in political processes.
The Jewish law of religious purity functioned to separate the clean/pure from the unclean/impure. The purity law was developed in the historical suffering of exile, dislocation, and relocation of the Israelites. In the midst of such historical suffering, the purity law could have been developed as an effort to maintain the Hebrew identity. Yet, centuries later, this historical need of the purity law gradually was lost and became increasingly ritualized. At the heart of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders were his critical approaches to the purity law, which recognized that this law had become a means to discriminate against certain groups of people. Jesus acted against the purity law by eating with those who have been labeled as “others” or “sinners,” such as tax collectors and prostitutes. He practiced an open table fellowship. He resisted any law that dehumanized.
Jesus’ community was a fully inclusive one where people of all ages and backgrounds gathered together. In his inclusive community, children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants in the same educational community. Gospel stories such as Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman illustrate that Jesus’ ministry reached beyond his own ethnic circles. Jesus practiced a radical hospitality.
Jesus’ ministry was a religious resistance to the discrimination that was commonplace within Judaism at that time, and it was an effort to take down the walls of discrimination in society, culture, education, and economics. Jesus practiced an egalitarian ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God, where all God’s people are valued as the bearers of God’s image.
Rosemary Radford Ruether said that Jesus himself was “liberated” from all the privileges he could have had in a patriarchal culture as a learned, Jewish man. At the same time, Jesus liberated all from unjust discriminations. He was a liberated liberator.5 Considering the social circumstances of his time, Jesus’ egalitarian ministry was revolutionary.
Jhe Church as an Egalitarian Community
The church is a continuation of the egalitarian community that Jesus started. As the body of Christ, the church is called upon to be a trailblazer in creating a world without discrimination. The church, however, has not always been faithful in living out the image of God.
First of all, far from leading our societies and world to stand against discrimination, discrimination exists in the church in general and in The United Methodist Church in particular. Sexism within the church discredits women’s leadership. In The United Methodist Church, many women have been ordained since women’s ordination was officially allowed in 1956.6 Women make up 25% of the total United Methodist clergy population.7 Yet, female pastors have not been considered equal partners in ministry with male pastors. For example, clergywomen’s salary in 2015 was 16% less than that of male clergy in The United Methodist Church.8
Racism exists in the church. Audrey Lorde writes that preferences favoring white people stem from the mythical norm.9 The ideal image of a leader in the United States is a “financially stable, young, healthy, heterosexual, Christian white man.”10 The mythical norm is at play in The United Methodist Church. As an Asian woman who speaks English as a second language, I have experienced how my identity itself could be considered my weakness. How long will our churches consider it to be a weakness when a pastor is non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, and does not have a spouse who can support ministry?
Heterosexism is at the heart of the current chaos we witness in The United Methodist Church. For decades, the church has struggled to remove the discriminatory language against non-heterosexual persons from the Book of Discipline. It might seem that all our efforts have been unsuccessful so far. Yet, despite the discrimination in the church and society, I find power in the voices that challenge intersectional racism, sexism, and heterosexism. I am encouraged by the intentional efforts to break away from the mythical norm. I am strengthened by the commitments to continue Jesus’ egalitarian ministry. I hope for an anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-heterosexist ecclesiology.
Created in the image of God, we are to celebrate—not discriminate against—our differences. The three persons in God can be a community of collaboration because each is different. If the three were all the same, our God would not be triune but unitarian. The Christian communities will become stronger when we resist a monochromatic theology and celebrate a rainbow theology.11
I would like to end this article with the image of an open table as an image of the church. Our communion table continues the radical table fellowship of Jesus. Our open table expresses the banquet table in the kin-dom of God where all people gather without discrimination. I hope for a new day when all walls of discrimination are broken down and the church becomes a true body of Christ—an egalitarian community in God.
—The Rev. Dr. Chong is an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference and Lead Pastor at Community United Methodist Church in Naperville. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.
Content originally published June 15, 2020 by Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism, an online forum sponsored by the Connectional Table.
1 Patrick Chang, Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), 86-95.
2 Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective (St. Louis: Chalice
Press, 2006), 24.
3 Jung Young Lee, The Trinity in Asian Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 58
4 Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 111-128.
5 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beason Press, 1983), 137-138.
6 For more details on the history of women’s leadership in Methodist traditions
in the United States, see Women Called to Ministry: Appendix. Accessed May 15, 2020.
7 Clergy women numbers increase. Accessed May 29, 2020.
8 United Methodist clergywomen still receive substantially less compensation. Accessed May 29, 2020.
9 Audrey Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing, 1984), 116.
11 Patrick Chang, Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), 86-95.