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I recently wrote about how God’s kindness is directed to those considered vulnerable or oppressed in society, such as widows, the fatherless, and those in bondage. As a result, in our efforts to imitate God’s kindness, Christians’ kindness should also be specifically directed to these groups.

Yet, another theme in the Bible is that the special status that the powerful are supposed to show to the vulnerable never means we avoid holding vulnerable groups morally accountable. Indeed, one of the ways the Bible bestows dignity on the vulnerable is to recognize their moral agency. They may even be given their own unique moral instructions in addition to the general moral commands given to the people of God or humans as a whole. As anyone who works with vulnerable groups knows, vulnerability does not and should not excuse failing to meet moral responsibilities, although, at times, it certainly makes it harder to do so.

Before writing about the moral agency of the vulnerable, I want to restate what I mentioned in my posts last month. The Bible routinely insists the powerful and resource-rich of God’s people have a moral obligation to pay attention to and show kindness to the vulnerable, such as widows, the fatherless/orphans, and the poor (e.g., Dt. 11:28-29; 15:7-11; James 1:27). Indeed, this element is one of the core features of God’s kindness.

This Christian moral norm is why I always fume when I hear about the powerful who do not treat low-level workers generously. My dad recently recounted a story of how poorly some of the most powerful people in the world rewarded those serving them. One Valentine’s Day, my parents went to a restaurant near Denver at which the G7 had recently been hosted for a meal. Their waiter was someone who served at the G7 meeting, and when asked about the experience, he noted that he only received $50 although he worked the whole evening. Government contracts for meals for the most powerful exploit the lowest workers. Not surprisingly, despite a seemingly higher status, even the owner of the establishment was not paid for hosting the G7 meal for nine months. Instead of being the most generous and kind, the most powerful in the world demonstrated profound moral insensitivity.

Christians or Christian institutions with resources ought to be characterized differently. We should be the best at paying attention to the vulnerable, such as workers at the lowest levels. I believe one of the best ways to evaluate the ethos of a Christian company or organization is to look at how well they treat their lowest-level employees and not whether they have a Christian mission or Bible verses posted somewhere. If I could create a measure that accurately evaluated how well each Christian university treated its lower-level staff, I would add it to the other measures I use to evaluate how an institution operationalizes its Christian identity.

The Widow as Moral Agent

That being said, these special moral imperatives for the resource or power-rich do not reduce the moral agency of the vulnerable in these situations. I will use one of the biblical groups considered most vulnerable: widows. In Scripture, the widow is not presented as someone who is simply a morally powerless victim of their identity status.1 Indeed, when widows demonstrate moral agency in particular ways they are upheld as exemplars of excellence by OT writers (Ruth) or Jesus for their sacrificial generosity (Mark 12:42-43) and their persistence (Luke 18:1-5). They cannot be considered exemplars if they are not acknowledged as having moral agency (something not always acknowledged of widows and other marginalized groups by certain traditions of thought in the ancient world).

On the opposite side though, widows are still held to the moral responsibilities of the people of God. Indeed, Isaiah 9:17 noted that God’s coming judgment in that situation meant God would not “pity the fatherless and widows,” God’s usual stance (Jer. 49:11), since in this case “everyone is ungodly and wicked, every mouth speaks folly.” Widows and orphans had a common moral responsibility under the law along with other Israelites and were included in God’s judgment if they failed to meet it.

A New Testament passage, I Timothy 5:3-16, provides an interesting combination of both these points about the special status and moral agency of widows, in that it also sets forth special moral expectations to widows within the church. The chapter starts with this moral admonition to Timothy, “Give proper recognition to widows who are really in need.” Yet, Paul later also specifies that widows have a unique moral responsibility, “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” Just as the powerful have special responsibilities to vulnerable widows and will be “punished most severely” for failing to uphold them (Mark 12:40), widows are here given their own special moral duties.

Perhaps most striking in this passage is the severity of judgment placed on the widow and others who do not engage in this particular moral responsibility. “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” As this verse illustrates, the early church still treated widows as moral agents with important moral responsibilities.

Furthermore, Paul tells Timothy later, “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.” This instruction was clearly not meant to prohibit differentiating moral responsibility among groups by identity. After all, Timothy was told to treat God’s people according to certain identity classes in this whole chapter (e.g., older men, younger men, widows, elders, etc.). Thus, the favoritism prohibited referred to favoritism within those groups (i.e., not confronting certain widows or certain elders who are sinning) and between the groups (showing favoritism to widows or elders in ways they should not be shown favoritism).

This point merely reiterated earlier Old Testament teaching, which seems to have special relevance today in our mob-guided society that often wants to pervert justice for vulnerable groups, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit” (Ex 23:2). It is biblically problematic to maintain that identity membership in a particularly vulnerable group allows one to avoid moral accountability or pervert justice.

Contemporary Corruption in Higher Education

I see this problem at times in Western higher education. I have personally observed and also read repeatedly about a tendency to excuse the failure of historically marginalized groups to adhere to basic academic standards, regarding plagiarism, teaching quality, or other matters, simply because one can claim a particular oppressed identity or vulnerable population status.

As one can guess, I have the recent events at Harvard University foremost in mind. When I first saw some of the evidence for the plagiarism accusations against Claudine Gay, I thought the person making the accusations was just being uncharitable and had a political ax to grind. Yet, when the second and third rounds of evidence were revealed, I thought it should be obvious to anyone in higher education that this matter was a clear case of plagiarism (see here for the progression and The New York Times summary article here). In fact, unlike some of the cases I faced when serving on our honor council, this case was not even a hard or borderline one. I thought if academics would agree on anything, it would be the need to hold the president of Harvard to basic standards of scholarship and academic integrity. They did not.

I tend to be a biblical realist when it comes to human nature. After all, I once had a student deny to my face that she had plagiarized when the work she copied was one of my own online essays (without my name attached). Yet, I must admit that I did not expect a certain kind of identity ideology to trump adherence to academic integrity to the degree that it did (and still does) regarding Claudine Gay and other ongoing plagiarism cases (see also here). Certain academics and pundits have become so consumed with a concern for historically vulnerable or oppressed groups, that they are willing to excuse cheating (and it has been well-documented that Gay came from a wealthy family in Haiti where she was not even a minority, so even the assumption of historical vulnerability in her case is empirically problematic). Christians in particular should not show favoritism regarding these types of moral matters.

Granted in some cases, such as with plagiarism, education about the proper standards needs to take place if the group is ignorant. Having served on our honor council and written about academic dishonesty,2 I realize international students and first-generation college students in particular need this education concerning Western academic standards. Yet, once that education has been given, we should not excuse the violation of these standards. Students who identify as members of marginalized groups are still moral agents made in God’s image. Grant them the human dignity and moral responsibility that God grants widows.


  1. One of the reasons I emphasize using the word “identity” versus “role” is that we choose roles, whereas being a widow or fatherless are identities we do not choose.
  2. Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022), chapter 5; See also Hongwei Yu, Perry L. Glanzer, Rishi Sriram, Byron Johnson and Brandon Moore, “Why College Students Cheat: A Conceptual Model of Five Factors,” Review of Higher Education 41, 4 (2018): 549-76; Hongwei Yu, Perry L. Glanzer, Byron Johnson, Rishi Sriram, & Brandon Moore, “What Contributes to College Students’ Cheating? A Study of Individual Factors,” Ethics and Behavior 27, 5 (2016): 1-22.  DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2016.1169535; Hongwei Yu, Perry L. Glanzer, Byron R. Johnson, Rishi Sriram & Brandon Moore. “The Association between Religion and Self-Reported Academic Honesty among College Students,” Journal of Beliefs & Values 38, 1 (2016): 63-76. DOI: 10.1080/13617672.2016.1207410; Hongwei Yu, Perry Glanzer & Byron Johnson. “Do the Ends Strengthen the Means? An Examination of the Link Between Purpose in Life and Academic Misconduct Among College Students,” Journal of College and Character17, 4 (2016): 255-270, DOI: 10.1080/2194587X.2016.1230762

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • Once again, Dr. Glanzer provides a Biblical, logical, and thoughtful outline for how we should apply God’s will to the complexity of human life. This guidance needs to be heard by academics who are paid by parents to guide the development of their young adults through higher education. The same guidance calls all of us to pay attention to how the public discourse, and our complicity in it, affects our willingness to follow God’s moral expectations, and others’ understanding of God. I appreciate how the essay outlines the moral dignity that is critical for and due to vulnerable persons. Consider the contrast between the morality we know in the Bible and that which is promoted in the world. We can be honest and clear about our daily failures, in thoughts and actions, because we receive God’s graceful forgiveness, love, and restoration, and see teh power of lasting re-creation. The world’s shaping of morality is superficial and symbolic, based on envy and condemnation. It is a means of shaping power and justifying the use and abuse of vulnerable persons, or the creation of vulnerable persons. The contrast between God’s moral gift and the world’s moral-like propaganda must be well recognized by Christian if they are going to be able to speak to the differences. As such, there is a moral imperative on the Christian colleges and universities to teach this difference, and prepare students to understand and respond to the world with God-guided grace. Jesus did not tell Peter to pay the tax to Rome so that the poor would be cared for through a bureaucratic welfare system. No, Jesus healed vulnerable individuals, one at a time, face-to-face, addressing their suffering and moral responsibility, reconciling them to God.

  • Joseph 'Rocky' Wallace says:

    And, such double standards send a confusing message to our youth. As they form their value systems, no doubt many decide situational (and individual) ethics is the way to go–on everything.

  • Dr Glanzer’s post animates us all to reconsider how we treat “the other.” Certainly, certainly, Christians and especially Christian institutions of higher education ought to apply the moral codes of biblical Christianity to their work and treatment of their fellow workers. I’m now an emeritus professor who devoted 43 years teaching and researching at a Christian, denominationally affiliated institution. And it is within that matrix of experiences that I say, I wish Dr. Glanzer would have addressed the moral failures of Christian higher education leaderships when these place advancing campus build-outs over programs and personnel; who eviscerate, under the name of revisions, shared governance and generate leadership that permits top-down decision making. We say we are “family in Christ,” but we are far from it. To treat vulnerable personnel irreverently via the effects of such actions—cutting programs without regard to seniority or even tenure consideration to make up for budgetary fall-outs due to construction overspending; disabling voice through tough rhetoric—is to me evidence of the moral failure that occurs with apparent serendipity but which has deep and dark roots in the pride of those that lead. Please address the ongoing failures in moral temerity that are now commonplace in Christian universities: THAT would be a piece to remember. We are often much worse than Harvard in excusing leadership.

  • fred putnam says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful essay.
    I have one quibble: How do we know that Paul is demanding (he uses “parangelo” that widows provide for their “children and descendants” (1 Tim 5), rather than the other way around? How does a widow’s providing for her progeny “repay” her “ancestors”? It seems more reasonable to read this as an injunction against a family’s neglecting a widowed mother or grand-mother. The adjectives “anepilemptoi” (1 Tim 5.7) and “apistou” (1 Tim 5.8), “unbelieving”, are masculine plural and singular, respectively; if they referred to widows (or a widow), both would be feminine.
    Your point is well taken from the OT passages, which are far too often overlooked or set aside.
    Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.
    Pax Christi.

  • Michael Jindra says:

    Nice article. As MLK said, we should be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin (or I might add, any other identity group or status). Too many Christians (and others) on both the political left and right are forgetting that.