The Westminster Doctrine of Inequality

Doctrines of inequality are far from in vogue in the modern world. Everywhere modernity much prefers to hear about equality. We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal has become something of a catch-all phrase that supposedly solves man’s ills.

To be fair a theory of equality is a necessary element in the sciences of philosophy, anthropology, and civics. In what ways are all men equal? What does equality really mean? The problem comes in when equality is simply turned into a slogan or buzzword and emptied of any real meaning. To paraphrase George Orwell’s famous quip, “In a world of equals some equals become more equal than other equals.” Put bluntly: any theory of human equality must also be capable of credibly accounting for the very real fact of human inequality.

Attempting to clearly define the ways in which men are equal and unequal often invites resentment and condemnation. Nevertheless without a philosophy of inequality theories of equality become cheap and worthless. It is simply not possible to treat one and ignore the other.

There are ways in which all men do stand equal. A good example is that all men share the same essence. The essence or substance of a thing are the attributes which cannot be removed from it without redefining it.  When considering man as such it is striking how few of his attributes are truly essential. His place of birth, his skin color, his family history, his income, and the number of children he has are all accidental qualities; that is to say, they are nonessential. Inequality amongst men is the norm in considering these accidental attributes. All of the factors listed above could be altered and he would still belong to the human race.

Without a philosophy of inequality theories of equality become cheap and worthless.

Boiled down to his bare essentials (essence) man is a creature possessing the powers of animation, will, reason, conscience, and intellect. These latter qualifiers are the things which belong to the essence of man and although some men seem to possess greater force of will or intellect than others there is an equality amongst men when considered in their “essence.”

But what does all this mean? What really is inequality? How can we define it? How can we speak about it? Is it ever legitimate? Is it ever illegitimate? The questions could go on. What answers do we have? Attempted solutions could be drawn from many corners but that which I propose today is drawn from the Westminster Larger Catechism.[1]

The 126th question in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC going forward) asks, What is the general scope of the fifth commandment. The given answer is as follows:

The general scope of the fifth commandment is, the performance of those duties which we mutually owe in our several relations, as inferiors superiors, or equals.

The catechism’s reference to the fifth commandment is to the Bible’s famous Ten Commandments; the fifth of which commands us to honor our father and mother. The catechism, in dealing with this divine commandment, applies it to all human relations; stating that,

By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts, and especially such as, by God’s ordinances, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

By building upon God’s Word in this way the WLC is developing a theory of inequality. Question 126 posits that men relate to other men as inferior, superior, or equal. What is of the utmost importance is the prior qualifications it made by stating that the grounds for inferiority or superiority (inequality) are age, gifts, and places of authority; in other words, nonessential (accidental) attributes. This list is not exhaustive but it is indicative of what the WLC has in mind when speaking on the topic of inequality.

Let us not be hasty in forming a conclusionthough. The WLC has an extensive amount of material on the duties which superiors, inferiors, and equals owe to one another. Although too long to reproduce in full this material provides even more insight into the doctrine of inequality which is being set forward.

When asking “what is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors” the given answer states,

the honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior… willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels… fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places, etc….

The entirety of the answer is much longer than this but the segments reproduced here are sufficient to form a conclusion. When the Westminster Standards speak of human inequality it is speaking of man’s economic relations. When I say “economic relations” I mean something roughly equivalent to the already mentioned “accidental attributes.” However this may not be immediately clear to the modern reader. This is largely due to the improper way in which the term “economy” is commonly employed today.

Economy, in its true meaning, has to do with ordering of affairs or literally “structure of the house.” The economy of human affairs is far more than mere financial transaction (although that is how it is now used in the vernacular). In totality, economy encompasses all of our earthly affairs and relations. The working of civil government, your membership in the local 4H club, the way you parent your children, the types of art on display in the local courthouse, etc… are all a part of “the human economy.” All of the factors previously listed as accidental which could be used to define a man (e.g. his age, his skin color, his yearly income, the number of children he has, etc…) belong to the realm of economy.

Economy, as a historic term, is used in contradistinction from ontology. Ontology is a concise way to speak of the nature or essence of a thing. Relating this to the topic of man and inequality we can speak of man in two senses: the economic and the ontological. These two terms distill and consolidate the earlier points made about essential and accidental attributes.

Speaking of man in the economic sense is to speak of him “according to his several relations” as the WLC puts it or in accordance with his accidental attributes as we have stated. To speak of man in the ontological sense is to speak of man in his essential being, as created by God, divorced from all accidental (non-essential) factors.

Understanding that some of these terms are unfamiliar to the average reader I don’t want to move too fast here. This is a very important concept to grasp properly. By way of illustration let us look back at the answer to the catechism’s 126th question. It said that men relate to one another as inferior or superior by virtue of age, gift (natural ability), or place of authority. None of these qualifications are ontological in nature. The WLC’s philosophy of inequality accounts for the fact that men, “in accordance with their several relations,” are often unequal while carefully guarding against making ontological statements.

This level of care is warranted because all human inequality is economic, never ontological. On the ontological level, considering man in his essential being, all men are equal. All men are created by God and all men have certain inalienable rights. The trick is to properly define these rights and to correctly discern where they come from.

In the economic realm men rarely relate to each other as equals. Even at birth inequality is present amongst men in the economic sense. One man is born in the northern hemisphere and another man in the southern hemisphere. The result? Economic inequality. One man experiences summer at the same time the other experiences winter. Their “several relations” are not equal. My next door neighbor is a better auto mechanic than me. In this he is my superior. But I am older than he is and in this I am his superior. None of these things have to do with ontology. They all belong to the realm of economy.

Back to the Scriptures, the book of Job says in the 31st chapter,

If I have rejected the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, how am I to answer Him? Did He who made me in the womb not make him, and the same one create us in the womb?

Underscoring our point Job affirms the reality of both man’s economy and man’s ontology in these three verses. His servant is plainly his inferior in the economic realm. But Job freely admits that there is ontological parity betwixt them as the servant has equal claims to the justice of God. Just because Job is economic superior to his servant does not give him a preeminence before God or make him somehow “more human.”

It is necessary that fathers be recognized as superiors to sons and the man unskilled in medicinal arts as inferior to his doctor.

Commenting on this passage with the WLC in mind, Presbyterian minister, theologian, and philosopher, Robert Dabney comments,

This is the equality of the golden rule; the equality of that Bible which ordained the constitution of human society out of superiors, inferiors, and equals. It is the equality of the inspired Job (ch. 31:13-15) who in the very act of asserting his right to his slave, added: “Did not he that made me make him? If I did despise the cause of my man-servant or my maid-servant when they contended with me, what then shall I do when God riseth up?” This is the equality which is thoroughly consistent with that wide diversity of natural capacities, virtues, station, sex, and inherited possessions. A very real inequality which inexorable fact discloses everywhere and by means of which social organization is possible.

Dabney points up the fact that social organization is only possible through recognition of and respect for inequality. This inequality is never a thing which is to be degrading or disrespectful towards men as such. Do not Job and his slave both stand equally before God? Nevertheless it is necessary that fathers be recognized as superiors to sons and the man unskilled in medicinal arts as inferior to his doctor. Anything less implies the dissolution of civilization and the cessation of order within human affairs (literally the corruption of man’s economy).

Men generally relate to one another economically on the grounds of inequality. Men who are strictly equals (a very rare thing indeed) hardly need anything from one another. It is inequality of possessions and skillsets which force men to cooperate with one another. This inequality is inherent to the created order and it is neither illegitimate nor wrong but it can never be used to justify the degradation or deprivation of men. As Proverbs 22 says in verses 2 and 7,

The rich and the poor have a common bond, The LORD is the Maker of them all…

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.

Inequality of station does not eliminate the common bond which all men have. The equality which all men know is that they are all the offspring of Adam, all lost in sin, and all have access to God through the mediatorial priesthood of Christ. No economic inequality can grant preference or deny entrance when it is time to stand before God. 

In conclusion I hope it has been demonstrated how important it is to account for equality and inequality amongst men in a way that does not deny the natural order of things but also does not degrade or take away from man’s dignity as a creature made in the image of God. It is my belief that the doctrine of inequality set forward by the Westminster Larger Catechism is very careful to draw its distinctions in a way that addresses both concerns; equipping the student to then competently extrapolate in other relevant fields such as anthropology, ethics, and human rights. The body of relevant material to be found in the WLC is much larger and more rich than what was reproduced here and further study is highly recommended. False theories of equality lead many astray in our day. It is only by careful investigation and responsible use of terms that the would-be reformer can lay foundations which will endure.

Citations & References [1] Just in case any readers are unfamiliar with the document I just brought up allow me to add a word or two in explanation. As a Christian I believe the highest standard of authority by which men may evaluate the rightness or wrongness of any given thing is the Word of God. God’s Word is truth, it is unchangeable, and it is one in all ages. God’s Word remains the same, it never changes; but men do. Men are sinful creatures prone to error and mistake. This leads men to often misunderstand or improperly interpret God’s Word. As a help against this error God moves His Church to frequently codify their beliefs and methods of reading His Word. These testimonies on the part of the Church as to the contents of their beliefs we call creeds or confessions. They are declarations regarding the faith of the Church. They are not the infallible Word of God and may not be treated as such. They are however the productions of large groups of learned men and should not be ignored lightly. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms is one such statement of faith. It claims to be a coherent and truthful reading of God’s Word to man. I do not always agree with it but I find it to be very useful. Composed in the 17th century it has nearly four hundred years of history as a positive help to Christians all across the globe. It is to this document’s Larger Catechism that we will now turn.

Robert Hoyle

View More Essays

Robert Hoyle is a Southern Presbyterian who resides on the family farm in Dinwiddie Virginia. He and his wife Rachel currently have four sons and a daughter.

read more: