A gentleman is one who treats his inferiors with the greatest courtesy, justice and consideration, and who exacts the same treatment from his superiors. — New York Daily News. (H/T: Quote Investigator)
The true measure of a man’s character is how he treats his inferiors. This ethical principle has a long pedigree but why is it so important, especially from an Orthodox Christian perspective?
First, let me make the usual disclaimer when it comes to theological posts: Although I consider myself well-studied and my opinions well-thought-out, I am neither a hierarch nor a priest and I do not speak for my Church in any official capacity. None of what I say is dogma, unless it’s quoting an official source, etc., etc.
That being said: I think the key thing to bear in mind here is that man is made in the image, and ought to be conformed to the likeness, of God. As such, it would behoove us, when considering how we ought to treat our inferiors, to consider how God, Whose ikons we are, treats His.
To a Christian audience, or an audience familiar with Christian mythology (in the proper sense), I need not belabour this point too much. Our Lord gave His life for those in His charge, and those of us who are called by God to a position of authority are also called by Him to imitate the sacrificial nature of Christ’s rule.
An aside here: The notion of ‘servant leadership’ is heavily promoted among Christian leaders, especially evangelicals, in our modern, egalitarian time. The concept is not entirely without merit; certainly, Our Lord did say ‘He who would be great among you, let him be your servant.’ However, in our time this idea is perverted into a negation of authority per se. The idea often seems to be juxtaposed with Biblical commands for, for example, servants to obey their masters, or wives to submit to their husbands, and although it’s not explicitly said, the implied addendum is ‘but that’s not really what it means.’ ‘Yes, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, but the husband is called to be a servant [so none of that really applies and the wife is still fundamentally in charge].’
However, this is not how Our Lord operated, it is not how the Apostles operated, and it is not how Christians in positions of authority today, whether they be husbands, fathers, kings, or priests, are called to operate. Christ washed the feet of his apostles, to be sure, but at the same time He never hesitated to give them orders, nor did He beat around the bush when it came to the condemnation of the wicked. The Apostles too wrote in clear consciousness of their own authority; even at their most humble they brooked neither disobedience nor disrespect from the faithful. When it is said that the ruler must be a servant, this is true, but it must not be taken in such a sense as to negate the proper hierarchical relationship between the ruler and the subject.
With that aside complete, let us return to the question of how those who are called to positions of authority should deal with those who are placed below them. As Christians, we ought first of all to honour the image of God in which we are created, and second of all to attempt to conform ourselves to His likeness. As such, His treatment of His inferiors ought to be the model for how we treat our own.
And to me, anyway, That there is a Being of infinite power Who created and transcends the universe may be on some level a hard concept to grasp, but on the other hand it is on some level intuitive that there must be such a Being. But that He would become a man, that he would suffer, not just pain, which to a being of His magnitude must be a rather small and petty thing, but the infinite humiliation of being tortured to death by His own creatures; this is the truly shocking thing. This is the thing which we must, in our own small way, imitate if we are to be conformed to the likeness of God.
St. Paul writes:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
But this does not apply only to husbands and wives directly. One of the points I like to hammer on is that authority is of one nature. There is not a fundamental difference between the authority of the husband/father and that of the king or the priest.
The reason that a man is measured by the way he treats his inferiors is that there is a mutual exchange in the right cosmic order: respect and obedience flow up, while love and self-sacrifice flow down.
What does not flow down, by the way, is submission or compliance, and what does not flow up is judgment. A woman does not get to say ‘I dont have to submit because I dont feel like my husband is loving me well enough’, for example. This is a side note because I know if I dont throw this in I’ll be accused of making excuses for wives who dont submit, etc. That’s not the point. We’re not talking about them now.
The point here is simply that wherever there is a hierarchy, it is the duty of those who occupy a higher place in the hierarchy to see to the welfare of those under them, even at the expense of their own. The superior man treats his inferiors with compassion; the inferior man, insecure in his position of authority, abuses them to prove to himself that he is in charge, or disregards them because he is concerned only with his own pleasure.
That’s why the treatment of inferiors, not equals, is the measure of a man.