In the 1930s, Gillian Lynne was an underperforming student. Her teacher thought she had a learning disorder because she was constantly submitting late work, disturbing other students, and moving around. So her mother took her to a doctor to see what, if anything, could be done.
As her mother told the doctor about Gillian’s struggles at school, Gillian sat on her hands so she would not fidget. After 20 minutes, the doctor told Gillian that he needed to talk privately with her mother for a moment. As the two adults left the room, the doctor turned on the radio and told Mrs. Lynne to watch her daughter. The minute they left, Gillian got up and began moving to the music. “Mrs. Lynne,” he said, “Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer.”
Gillian went on to dance with the Royal Ballet and launch her own company. She has brought joy to millions through her choreography of Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and several other productions. “Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down,” Sir Ken Robinson in his über popular TED talk notes. Gillian’s doctor, though, valued a diversity of gifts and a multiplicity of intelligences.
False Hierarchy in Culture
Public school districts in the United States do not prioritize dance over, say, math. This is not, however, a mere accident of history. The current education system arose out of the industrial revolution as a means to supply factories with a skilled and literate workforce. Since this economy did not value all talents equally, though, subjects useful to industrial work were prioritized over “less important” work. Today, this hierarchy remains. “At the top are mathematics and languages,” Robinson says, “then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts.”
This is a false hierarchy because the arts and math—though obviously different in their economic contributions—are equally valuable in God’s oikonomia. They engage different parts of who we are—math engages our scientific, analytical, and logical reason, while the arts help us to socially, emotionally, and morally connect with others, including God. See the psalms and David’s use of poetry and music, for example, to awaken his heart to God.
Can the arts be misused and abused in our fallen world? Of course. As Abraham Kuyper—a lover of beauty and art—warns, “One can become inebriated with art, and thus lose control over one’s self. People lose their balance, and art becomes a toy they idolize.” The same can be said, though, of every other industry. People have used math, for example, to build bombs and justify murder. There is no “pure” industry to elevate above the others, because all industries are made up of people, and all people are fallen.
False Hierarchy in Church
It is not just schools, though, that have a false hierarchy; some churches do, too. Influenced by the Middle Ages, when calling and vocation were terms used exclusively for “sacred” work, some churches still assume that the “more important” work is done in the counseling session or from the pulpit. To the extent that they celebrate “faith and work” integration, churches often emphasize non-profit over for-profit work. If a lawyer really wants to glorify God with her work, they reason, then she should focus on ending the trafficking of persons, not on drafting contracts or conducting negotiations.
This, too, is a false hierarchy. When God became incarnate, he chose to come as a carpenter, not as a philosopher-king or as a just and noble statesman—even though the ancient Greeks and Romans put philosophy and politics at the top of their hierarchies. In first-century Palestine, no one put carpentry at the top of any hierarchy. It was the artisan class—lower than farmers and just steps above destitution, historian Scott Korb says. And those in Jesus’s hometown knew this: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:54-55; cf. Mark 6:2-3).
Moreover, Jesus most likely worked as a for-profit carpenter. Like other boys in his day, he probably began apprenticing with his father at the age of 12, which means he likely spent 18 years working at his father’s shop, “completing projects and handling finances—negotiating bids, securing supplies, and contributing to family living expenses,” professor Klaus Issler says.
He did this, of course, without elevating the for-profit sector in which he worked as “more important” than the public or non-profit sectors. In fact, he acknowledged the legitimacy of the government (Matt. 22:20-22; cf. Luke 19:2-10) and received private donations from others, as many pastors do, during his public ministry (Luke 8:3). In all things, his mission was always the same—to accomplish the Father’s will by serving his people. When Peter failed to grasp the glory of this self-giving love, he told Jesus, “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). But Jesus would have none of it. “If I do not wash you, you have no share of me” (John 13:8). Unlike all other kings, Jesus came to serve, not be served.
Not Sameness, But Self-Giving Love
The problem with these false hierarchies is not that they highlight our differences. In fact, celebrating our various roles and callings as expressions of God’s work in the world is a glorious thing. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).
The problem is that we often base our hierarchies on systemic hostility, enmity, jealousy, and pride. Sigmund Freud said that our inborn aggression toward others stems from our “narcissism of minor differences.” As fallen people, we constantly compare ourselves to one another, feuding with each other in our hearts in an effort to set ourselves apart and legitimize our own choices and careers.
Since our problem is not difference, therefore, but hostility, then our solution is not sameness, but self-giving love. In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes,
The cross is the self-giving of the one for many. Unity here is not the result of “sacred violence” which obliterates the particularity of “bodies,” but a fruit of Christ’s self-sacrifice, which breaks down the enmity between them. From a Pauline perspective, the wall that divides is not so much “the difference” as enmity (Eph. 2:14). Hence the solution cannot be “the One.” Neither the imposition of a single will nor the rule of a single law removes enmity. Hostility can be “put to death” only through self-giving. Peace is achieved “through the cross” and “by the blood” (Eph. 2:13-17).
The more precious the cross becomes to us, the less we feel the need to exalt our work over the work of others. For the cross celebrates the role of the Son, who obeyed the will of the Father—even unto death (Phil. 2:8). He did not think that his work was “less important” because he was not the one calling the shots (Phil. 2:6-7). Instead, he gave himself to the Father, even as the Father gave himself to the Son (John 17:1-26).
In the same way, our unity is not based on a sameness of our vocations, but on a celebration of our differences, as we give ourselves to one another in love. As Jesus told the disciples while washing their feet, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:14-16).