The Christian Moral Code, Part 3: Humility

Mark Rubinstein

Humility is the twelfth commandment of Christianity: Thou shalt not forget thy subservience to God nor place thyself above others. The first half of this commandment (humility toward the divine) is empha sized in the Hebrew Bible. Despite some difficulty separating divine from interpersonal humility, the second half of the commandment only comes into its own in the New Testament, where it is taught in the words of and modeled by the behavior of Jesus. For example, Luke’s Parable of the Places of Honor concludes with “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (14:7–11).

In one of the most touching episodes in John’s Gospel (13:12–16), Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, saying that he is illustrating how they should regard one another. In the episode of the punishment of the adulteress, the onlookers admit that they are disqualified to throw the first stone, since they too have sinned (John 8:1–11). We are warned not to judge lest we be judged (Matthew 7:11). In Matthew 6:1–6, we are asked to give alms anonymously and to pray in private, not advertise our generosity and piousness. Otherwise, we shall have “no reward of your Father which is in heaven.”

But Christian humility does not trump status. In the long-established traditions of the Hebrew Bible, the master still rules the slave: “The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant [slave] above his lord… . Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant [slave]? care not for it… . Servants [slaves] be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Matthew 10:24; 1 Corinthians 7:20–21; Ephesians 6:5).

Likewise, the husband rules over the wife: “But would I have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of every woman is the man. . . . Neither was man created for the woman; but the woman for the man [from his rib]… . Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak… . And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 11:3, 9 and 14:34–35).

The very being who teaches humility can show the most disregard for it. In the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly reveals himself as virtually God, if not God himself! For example, he asserts: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. … I am the way, the truth and the life… . I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved… .” and so on.

Should we be surprised that the original structured instantiation of Christian belief, the Roman Catholic Church, is one of the most hierarchical civilian organizations in history? While the Church teaches humility to others, it arrogates special powers to itself. By its power of excommunication, it does not have to wait until God’s judgment; for centuries, it has damned heretics or apostates to hell after their natural deaths (by refusing communion) or immediately (by burning them at the stake). By anathema, like a witch from a medieval nightmare, it lays curses on unbelievers. By virtue of the powers passed down to him from Jesus and Peter, when the pontiff speaks “out of his chair,” his pronouncements are declared infallible. As confirmed by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870): “The Church of Christ is not a community of equals in which all the faithful have the same rights. It is a society of unequals, not only because among the faithful some are clergy and some are laity, but because there is in the church the power from God by which it is given to some to sanctify, teach and govern, and to others it is not.”

Status and its implicit arrogance are further linked since status can be seen as confirming goodness. Protestants, in particular, tend to see status (or success) as an indication that one is among the few elect whom God has preselected to attain salvation.

What is more, Christian humility becomes illogical, as the Gospels let slip in paradoxical language: “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). If the last are last because they are humble, how can they be humble when they become first? Once formed by making the last first, the Catholic Church then became dedicated to keeping the first first. Do humble people believe that they are humble? If they do not, then they do not know themselves; and if they do, how can they be humble? In an extreme version of this “humility paradox,” can people who believe that they have been called by God to preach humility be humble? If it weren’t such a serious matter, it would have been hard not to be amused during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries when Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry each justified their individual runs and exhibited their “humility” by claiming they were called by God to become the next president! Ironically, in trying to flee arrogance, the religious Christian runs right into fake humility.

While Christian interpersonal humil­ity can seem opposed to arrogance, it is a slippery and cloying virtue (see table at right). It can easily become submissiveness, self-effacement, or acquiescence. It encourages you, as in the Parable of the Places of Honor and the foot-washing lesson, to put yourself last because you should presume falsely that you deserve no better. Paul seconds: “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves” (Philippians 2:2–3).

In the early Gospels, Jesus models this downside type of humility, most vividly during his betrayal, capture, trial, and execution. As Paul describes it: “Who [Jesus], being in the form of god, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).

For Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, Christianity inculcates a kind of slave mentality. But not to worry; our faith in God and Jesus will redeem us. Being meek is actually meritorious, since, as Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). This pattern is so pervasive that we cannot fault C. Dennis McKinsey for concluding: “Almost never does the New Testament advise followers to object when unjustly treated, seek equality instead of subservience, seek justice instead of submission, seek involvement rather than escape, seek improvement rather than acceptance, seek self-respect rather than self-debasement” (The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy).

On the upside from Christian interpersonal humility, we do not want to go too far and become boastful, overbearing, conceited, grandiose, vain, and self-righteous. Taking us beyond the thinking in the New Testament, neither do we want the silent show of seeming humility with respect to ourselves to be overlaid with boastful speech about our children, sports team, state, or country. Conceit is often disguised by wrapping it in patriotism or praise of others.

So, both Christian humility and arrogance are ill-advised. Our challenge is to find a middle ground, an Aristotelian golden mean, between them: that is, to be forthright, assertive, unpretentious, pragmatic, objective, self-confident, and self-reliant. Also, in between Christian humility and arrogance is a sort of natural humility that comes from realizing that because of luck, you are not 100 percent responsible for your success—much is due to the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. (The New Testament gets this part way. In 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul also mentions that sometimes people will take unearned personal credit for what God has given them.)

To conclude, humility, so strongly emphasized in the Christian moral code, is in practice linked paradoxically with statuws and power, requires self-contradiction, borders on submissiveness and self-effacement, and is often a cover for arrogance.

From the editors: The next installment of this series on the Christian moral code, which began with the April/May 2016 issue, will appear in the August/September FI.

Mark Rubinstein

Mark Rubinstein is a retired professor of finance who taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He now writes on early Christianity and humanism.


“Once formed by
making the last first, the Catholic Church then became dedicated to keeping the first first.”

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