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What is casteism?

casteism, caste system

Casteism is a system in which society is divided into classes, or castes, based on differences of inherited rank, wealth, occupation, or race. In Hinduism in India, castes are strictly observed social classes based solely on heredity. Members of each caste are restricted in their occupation and their association with other castes.

Casteism of some type exists in most other societies, if not all of them. In the Bible, the term caste does not appear, but the idea behind it does. Samaritans were considered a “lower caste” of sorts by the Jews, who generally saw them as half-breeds, neither fully Jewish nor fully Gentile.

The casteism involving the Jews and the Samaritans was also due to two other factors: the Samaritans had historically opposed the Jewish rebuilding of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:17), and the Samaritans observed a different religion (John 4:20). In New Testament times, the Jews would have nothing to do with the Samaritans (John 4:9), avoiding the whole region where they lived, when possible.

Importantly, the Jews’ treatment of the Samaritans is not condoned in the Bible. In fact, Jesus went completely against the common Jewish perception of Samaritans as lower caste half-breeds. Jesus made a point of visiting Samaria (John 4:4), and one of His most famous parables features a Samaritan as the hero (Luke 10:30–37). In these ways, Jesus plainly taught against casteism. According to Jesus, our neighbors include everyone, even those we might look down on as inferior.

To the Jews of Jesus’ time, everyone was of a “lower caste” than they. Only the Jews were chosen by God, after all. But rather than striving to be a blessing to every nation on earth (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:7–9), they became proud of their heritage (see John 8:33, 39). They had forgotten that God’s choosing was not based on any quality in them but solely on His nature of love (Deuteronomy 7:7–8).

Similarly, Christians today should not see themselves as superior to anyone else. The Bible forbids thinking along the lines of caste: “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9; cf. Titus 3:5). God chooses His people not because of anything we do to deserve it, but because of His own love and purpose for us. We have nothing to boast of except the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14), and we definitely have no reason to stratify people in our minds.

The tendency toward casteism is strong. Even Peter, who knew better, fell into the trap of treating one group of believers differently than another. In Galatians 2:11–13, Paul describes the situation: in Antioch, Peter had been used to eating with Gentile Christians, as was absolutely right to do. But when some Jews came from Jerusalem, Peter acted hypocritically and stopped eating with the Gentiles and ate only with his fellow Jews. This was a sin, showing the fear of man and an unrighteous partitioning of God’s people. Paul had to confront Peter about it, “because he stood condemned” (verse 11).

Galatians 3:28 deals a fatal blow to casteism within the church: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Here, Paul takes three common ways of dividing people—according to culture, according to social standing, and according to gender—and he destroys that way of thinking. In Christ, we are all on equal footing. We all have the same spiritual need, and we are all saved the same way: by grace through faith in Jesus. Castes do not exist in Christ; we are unified as His body (1 Corinthians 12:13, 27).

James addresses another form of casteism that is still prevalent today: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor” (James 2:1–6). The “special attention” given to the rich man and the neglect of the poor man are indications of casteism. Christians are not to treat one another differently. Secular society naturally loves to divide and categorize, but not “believers in our glorious Lord.” Such discrimination is sin.

Biblically, there is no reason for casteism to exist. Casteism is the product of the worldly thinking of fallen mankind. Christians should eschew castes, because the thinking behind casteism is made obsolete in Christ.

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What is casteism? What does the Bible say about the caste system?
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This page last updated: October 26, 2022