Equity vs. Equality

Much of the current news cycle involves social justice, racism, equality, and discrimination. A term being used in some of those discussions is "equity." That's led many to ask what, if anything, the Bible says about this idea. As with many political and social ideas, the answer is balanced. Scripture upholds ideals of fairness and nondiscrimination but doesn't support every modern political preference.

When a question revolves around definitions, it makes sense to start with biblical words and meanings. There are two ways to do this. One is to look at Hebrew or Greek terms translators rendered into English as "equity." The other is to examine historic definitions of the English word "equity" to see how the Bible presents related ideas. As applied to social issues, intermingled concepts of justice, equality, equity, and fairness are promoted in biblical teachings. Scripture supports equality and equity as those concepts have been traditionally understood. Yet the Bible does not suggest society ought to rig every game such that everyone gets the same end results.

So far as it's relevant to social issues, "equity" has historically meant the opposite of "discrimination" or "bias." It includes that which is reasonable and moral, excluding favoritism and prejudice. It could be said that "justice" means doing according to the letter of the law, but "equity" means doing according to the spirit of the law. That is, "justice" stops where legal terminology ends; "equity" continues to further include that which is fair and right.

Modern discussions of social issues frequently re-define "equity," by shifting emphasis. Recent views suggest persons are not being treated fairly unless they arrive at the exact same outcomes as others. Per critical theory-influenced rhetoric, "equality" means giving people the same starting points or resources, but "equity" means giving individuals whatever is required to obtain identical end results. This goes well beyond translating good-faith efforts, despite disadvantages, into minimum standards. In practice, new attitudes about equity mandate absolute sameness in the end results. That might be disputed by a modern critical theory advocate, but, in practice, this is exactly where the conversations lead.

One area where modern "social justice" deviates from Scripture is insisting that different outcomes—in and of themselves—are evidence of inequity. In other words, modern social justice movements, especially those influenced by dominant forms of Critical Race Theory, suggest the only possible explanation for any difference in outcome is racism, prejudice, or discrimination: a lack of equity, as so defined.

Common social justice analogies for equity are giving people shoes that fit, rather than giving everyone the same size shoes. Or, giving children different-sized boxes to stand on to see over a fence instead of giving each child the same-sized platform. Those are, indeed, concepts that seem fair and sensible. However, those are examples of traditional "equity," not the version sought by critical theorists. It's equitable to give runners shoes that fit; but how they then place in the race should be up to them. Manipulating shoes and starting lines such that everyone crosses the finish at the same moment is not "fair," it's artificial same-ness.

Giving each child an appropriate-sized boost so they can see a baseball game is equitable; but if a child isn't paying attention and misses catching a foul ball, he's not being discriminated against. He's been given the "fair chance" just as much as the others. Following a modern social justice-driven view of equity would mean that less-attentive children should be given a net to catch balls with, or especially sharp children should be forced to wear eyepatches.

The Bible has much to say about equality and prejudice, but those ideals don't support modern re-definitions of terms like "equity." Let's look directly at some of the terms found in the Bible:

New Testament perspectives on equity include Ephesians 6:9James 2:1, and James 2:9. Those condemn something framed with the root word prosopolepsia, which refers to partiality between persons. 1 Timothy 5:21 also forbids this, as well as the concept of prokrima, which means a literal pre-judging, or to form a decision before considering the facts. In English, the terms we'd say are being denounced are "prejudice," and "discrimination."

The spiritual concepts found in Revelation 7:9 and Galatians 3:28 apply to issues like racial prejudice, not literally to social justice. Still, the idea of being impartial and fair—as opposed to racially biased—is an inescapable outworking of those concepts.

There's a temptation to think the Old Testament would emphasize justice more than equity. However, the two concepts are not easily separated, either in the New or Old Testaments. This is because of God's own nature; that which is "legally required" and that which is "morally right" are only different in the human sphere. In God's attributes and character, they converge. Since the Old Testament includes civil laws for Israel, it deals with these ideas frequently. These references obligate those who honor God to concepts like equality and equity—but not in the way those terms are being re-defined.

Leviticus 19:15; condemns any judgment which includes 'avel, meaning "injustice," or hadar, meaning "partiality," whether in favor of the rich or the poor.

Isaiah 10:1–2 speaks against unjust decisions and those who would deprive the needy of justice. The term for "justice" in verse 2 is literally used for concepts such as "judgment," "government," and "cause." It also speaks of protecting the poor people's mishpat, which refers to their legal rights.

Exodus 23:2–3, interestingly, starts off by forbidding Israel from participating in "mob justice." It denounces a phrase literally meaning "to follow the many in doing evil." It then forbids giving testimony meant to "follow the crowd to what is crooked." Verse 3 then condemns partiality towards the poor—using the same root word found in Leviticus 19:15, which covers bias of all kinds. The same passage in Exodus continues to forbid warping judgment in favor of someone "needy" (Exodus 23:6), in the same sense as it forbids oppressing travelers—literally meaning non-resident aliens—and taking bribes.

Proverbs 1:3 and 2:9 "equity" is from meyshar, also seen in Psalm 9:9, where it's used to describe how God judges.

Proverbs 29:14 is interesting in that it commends a king for using shaphat for the poor. That word literally means "judgment" and is closely related to the word used for "legal rights" in Isaiah 10:2. The term is modified by the word 'emeth which implies truth and trustworthiness.

In short, the Bible supports those who say a godly society is fair, just, and equitable. At the same time, it indicates that "rigging the game" to ensure identical results is none of those things. Difference in outcome is not de facto evidence of discrimination, nor is always a situation contrary to Scripture.