Discrimination is itself the neutral act of perceiving differences. A music aficionado, for example, who recognizes the influence of Chopin in the études of Debussy may be said to have a “discriminating ear”; that is, the music lover is a person of refined perception. In most contexts, however, discrimination is a negative term referring to the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people, and this is the sense we will assign the word in this article. Discrimination can be based on disabilities, race, ethnicity, intelligence, or any number of factors that make human beings different.
Discrimination is not the same as discernment. Discernment is proper discrimination based on truth and fact. For example, discernment may not choose to hire someone because he showed up fifteen minutes late for an interview reeking of alcohol. Discernment rightly assesses that person as an unsuitable candidate for a responsible job. Discrimination, on the other hand, may choose to not hire someone simply because he is of a different race or did not wear expensive clothing to the interview. Discrimination wrongly judges a person based only on external factors or personal preference.
One of the first problems that arose in the early church was due to discrimination: “But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1, NLT). The Jerusalem church was multi-ethnic, and some racial prejudice crept into their practices and caused trouble. This squabble pulled the apostles away from teaching and preaching, so the church elected the first deacons to deal with the problem and make sure no one was being discriminated against (Acts 6:2–3).
Discrimination was also a problem for the first Jewish believers in Jesus. Because God’s Messiah had come through the line of David and to the Jews first (Romans 1:16), they assumed He was their Messiah only. Disagreement arose then as Gentiles were added to the church. Some Jewish leaders wanted to know how “Jewish” the Gentile believers must become (Acts 14:27; 15:5). Many Jews could not believe that mere faith in their Messiah was enough to justify Gentiles as it had them. Surely the Gentiles should have to do something “Jewish,” such as observe the Sabbath or be circumcised, to be saved (see Acts 15:1 and Galatians 5:1–12). This clash of cultures, with its theological implications, necessitated the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:2–35). The modern church often wrestles with similar problems. Christians can discriminate against certain people groups or lifestyles, unsure if the same faith that saved us is enough to save “those people,” too (Ephesians 2:8–9).
No human being is fully free of prejudice or discrimination. It’s part of our selfish nature to prefer those of our own kind, whatever that represents to us. Races tend to congregate in their own neighborhoods and churches, preferring their way of doing things to that of other races or nationalities. Preferences are fine as long as they don’t turn into legalistic discrimination against believers who differ on non-essential aspects of faith. Without realizing it, we can all be guilty of discrimination. Legalists discriminate against those they judge as rebels, while rebels discriminate against traditionalists. The goal should be to disagree without discriminating.
We can overcome our tendency toward discrimination by modeling Jesus’ attitude of humble service (Matthew 20:28). He washed the feet of Judas, knowing that Judas was a traitor (John 13:27). He ministered in Gentile regions and in Samaria (Mark 7:24, 31; John 4:4). Rather than incite discrimination between “us and them,” Jesus’ coming to earth broke down the barriers that separated people: “He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). We can practice the instruction of Philippians 2:3, which says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”
God has made all who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior one. Jews and Greeks, rich and poor, every nation, and every ethnicity—Jesus has formed His church from all groups (Galatians 3:28; Revelation 5:9). There should be no discrimination within the Body of Christ because there is no discrimination with God (Acts 10:34).