Science in Christian Perspective
Towards Consistent Christian Social Involvement
Jack O. Balswick
Department of Sociology,
The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30601
From: JASA 23 (June 1971): 64-66.
Consistent Christian social involvement is one of the greatest needs of contemporary Christianity. It is common for persons in the various branches of Christiandom to level charges of inconsistency at each other, thus making the task even more difficult. Much of the confusion and disagreement over Christian social involvement today may be the result of inconsistent usages of concepts which prevent real communication. As an example, the concept "social action" can mean a religious organization passing and establishing social resolutions or the sponsoring of social welfare agencies, or attempting to change the institutional structure of society. Further misunderstanding arises when social involvement is discussed without clear indications as to whether the involved unit is meant to be the individual, the local church, the denomination, or the interdenominational organization. The purpose of this paper is not to attempt to determine the hounds of legitimate Christian social involvement, but rather to present possible guidelines whereby such bounds can systematically and Biblically be determined.
It is proposed that the following paradigm can serve as a systematic classification scheme within which all potential types of Christian social involvement can he placed. The structure of the paradigm is based on the concommitant considerations of two dimensions. At left from top to bottom the acting agent in social involvement can be: (A) the individual Christian; (B) the local church; or (C) the denomination or inter
denominational organization. At the individual level, Christian conscience should be quite clear as the individual Christian seeks to gain a knowledge of God's directive in his own life. With increased collectivization of social involvement there is a parallel decrease in the clarity of Christian conscience, The larger the involved group, the less the likelihood' of consensus concerning the desirability of the social involvement. Across the top from left to right the type of Christian social involvement can be: (1) ministering to an individual's spiritual needs; (2) ministering to an individual's social needs; (3) taking a position on an existing social issue; and (4) engaging in social action in an attempt to change existing social structure. Biblical verification is quite clear commanding our attention towards individual spiritual and social needs, but becomes less clear as the Christian seeks for guidance in taking stands on social issues and engaging in social action.
Examples of behavior given within each cell of the paradigm are for illustrative purposes only and should not be interpreted as examples of what this writer considers legitimate social involvement. The legitimacy of the behavior in each cell is directly dependent upon Biblical support. Biblical support must be of both the type of Christian activity (legitimacy of the cell itself) and the specific issue (within the cell). Explicit Biblical support, such as the application of the parable of the good Samaritan for love towards a minority group member, constitutes the most legitimizing kind of support. Implicit support, such as using Paul's appeal to Philemon in regards to Onesimus as an injunction against slavery, is subject to differences in
CHRISTIAN SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT
Type of Christian Activity
Fig 1. of Balswick
exegetical interpretation. Many types of social institutions such as
definitely against the norms and ideals of Christianity, but such conclusions
must often be implied and may not be based upon the "proof
The real issues facing the church today center upon the legitimacy of the type of social involvement which falls within cells 3B, 3C, 4B, and 4C. A legitimate question can be raised as to whether a religious organization, be it a local church, denomination, or interdenominational organization, should take positions on social issues or attempt to change the social structure through collective social action. It is the duty of the church to make its members knowledgeable and aware of social issues and problems which clearly have a moral basis. Discussion of social problems such as racial prejudice and discrimination, law and order, poverty, justice, war, and alcoholism is not "getting involved in politics" but rather is the rightful duty of the church concerning itself with moral problems of society. The church's entrance into the-realm of "politics" takes place only when it goes beyond a discussion of the goals or ends of a social problem and starts concerning itself with the means to desired ends.
One very real function which the paradigm may serve is to force religious organizations to examine the consistency of their own beliefs about social involvement. A religious organization which takes the position that the church should never be involved in an attempt to change the existing structure of society most also behave according to this injunction. As an example, a religious organization which lobbies for greater law and order would be inconsistent if it at the same time criticized another religious organization for lobbying for social justice. Such a situation would be an example of a religious organization seeing the speck in another's eye and not the beam in it's own. It is possible for a religious organization to argue for the legitimacy of the church's participation in social action and distinguish between the legitimacy of the issues. However, the groups which are lobbying the hardest for law and order seem to ignore the Biblical injunctions for justice, and the groups which lobby for social justice often tend to slight Biblical teachings concerning law and order. If religious organizations were a little more introspective, they might be a little more consistent in their social involvement, as well as reduce the often unjustified name-calling that exists between themselves. An attempt at consistent Christian social involvement is of course futile where Biblical teachings are rejected as the basis for legitimate social involvement. Where Biblical authority is rejected as a normative guide, a religious organization's social involvement is likely to he largely a reflection of present day societal norms.
A common phenomenon is for denominations to pass resolutions on social issues when only a very few of the local churches have done so and for interdenominational organizations to pass even stronger social resolutions than the denominations which it represents. Thus there develops the very interesting ease where the social concern committee of a denomination recommends to its general conference the adoption of social resolutions which were adopted by the interdenominational organization of which that denomination is a member. Too often there is a filtering down process where the local church, instead of originating social resolutions, is the last collectivity of Christians to take stands on social issues. If the larger the group, the less the likelihood of consensus, then this method is the exact reverse of the ideal and is, in fact, an example of bureaucracy at its worst since the members of the religious power hierarchy are making the decisions. Whereas there is greater ease with which social resolutions can be passed at the higher echelon level, the dangers and inconsistencies in this method with the democratic process should also be realized.
An important question, but one beyond the scope of this paper, is the alternatives available in attempting to change the social structure. It appears that social ethics based on Biblical authority will produce definite priorities which a Christian must attempt to utilize in producing change. The most elementary suggestions would be that needed societal change must be attempted first within the law and only secondly against the law.
The time is past (if it ever was here) when Christians can fail to engage either individually or collectively in constructive social concern and action. However, because the church is in the constant danger of being reshaped by society and because each of us like to think that the problem is not ours but those who differ from us, the task in maintaining a consistent social involvement is often a difficult one.