Science in Christian Perspective



Toward the Development of a Christian Psychology: Social Psychology
Asbury College
Wilmore, Kentucky 40390

From: JASA 32 (December1980): 224-230.

Social psychology is placed in a Christian perspective where some human social behaviors resemble that of animals and some are seen as a result of the image of God in humans. Implications of this are discussed in the dyad, the family, and the larger group as well as in the contemporary topics of attitude, aggression, and altruism.

Human beings are social beings. They spend most of their lives in the presence of other humans. Although a few
hermits may spend much of their lives alone, most people experience great loneliness and a strong desire for human companionship when undergoing prolonged periods of social isolation. Social psychology studies the behavior of individuals in society. In previous papers (Koteskey, 1973; Koteskey, 1975) 1 have developed a basic Christian perspective into which all areas of psychology can be placed. This perspective is that humans are simultaneously created beings (similar to animals, different from God) and personal  beings created in God's image (thus resembling him, and different from animals) (Schaeffer, 1968). Let us now place social psychology in this perspective.

In his text on social psychology, Berkowitz (1975) discusses the question of the uniqueness of humans and concludes that they have some characteristics not possessed by animals, but in other respects they have a number of animal-like qualities. From the perspective taken here we agree with Berkowitz and say that human social needs are similar to those found in animals in some respects and yet in some respects are different due to the fact that humans are created in God's image.

Some human social behavior resembles that found in animals. In colonial groups of animals, for instance, a division of labor is found where individual animals are specialized for certain tasks. Caste systems are often found among insects where the members are not morphologically linked but are independent and have a good system of communication. Social hierarchies in which one animal is dominant over others and receives certain privileges are found in many species. Some species show territoriality, where an animal is aggressive toward, dominant over, other animals of the same species when they invade the area he is defending.

There are obvious similar patterns of social behavior among humans. Many writers have pointed to parallels between different types of human and animal social behaviors. These parallels to animals do exist so that we can certainly find some insights to help us understand human social behavior, but we must not forget that differences exist as well. T. C. Schneirla used the comparative study of behavior, but when Tobach and Schneirla (1968/1972) present some fundamental concepts for the comparative study of social behavior, they emphasize the concept of "levels of integration." Any one level of integration of behavior, although similar to lower levels, is different enough to require separate categorization. For instance, the analysis of physiological and behavioral interactions in a hive of bees is not an adequate base for studying human societies. Human societies are not only more complex than bee hives, but they present new aspects. We must not only beware of an anthropomorphic interpretation of the social organization of the beehive but we must also guard against a zoomorphic representation of human social behavior.

While humans are similar to animals, we must not overlook the fact that they are also similar to God. God himself is a social being in that he is a Trinity of Persons, the Three-in-One. This social aspect of God is revealed in the first chapter of the Bible where, before creating humans, God was a social being communing with himself. He then created humans, male and female in his own image. Maleness and femaleness are intrinsic to the image of God in humans. Five times in the first chapter of Genesis God looked at some new aspect of his creation and saw that it was good. After creating humanity he noted that it was very good. The first thing in all of creation that was not good was that it was not good that "man should be alone." God brought birds and animals to Adam who named them, but none were adequate to satisfy his loneliness. Only another person, also made in God's image, can satisfy this loneliness.

Evidence that it is not good for humans to be alone can be found by reading accounts of people who have spent extended periods of time in social isolation, such as prisoners in solitary confinement, explorers, or survivors of shipwrecks. Isolated subjects in experiments indicate that loneliness impairs psychological functioning. Subjects become less efficient in their thought processes and become more preoccupied with their own thoughts, dreams, and memories.

The need to affiliate is a basic social need reflecting a similarity to both animals and God. Let us now look at

The need to affiliate is a basic social need reflecting a similarity to both animals and God.

some of the specific relationships in which humans function: the dyad, the family, and the larger group.

The Dyad

The dyad, or two-person group, is a good place to begin since it is the simplest case of social interaction. Further, most of our social interaction takes place in the dyad and our most intensive and influential interactions also occur in dyads. Since there are so many potential dyadic relationships, let us concentrate on the one most familiar to all of us: the marriage relationship.

Ethologists have studied the pair-bond in a number of species. Lorenz (1963/1966) has an entire chapter on "the bond" in which he discusses Cichlids (fish), dabbling ducks, and finally Greylag Geese. He discusses "normal" goose-gander bonds, "homosexual" gander-gander bonds, triangle relationships, adolescent crushes, promiscuity, infidelity, and so forth. He says that it is superfluous for him to point out the analogy between the social behavior patterns of geese and those of humans. From the Christian perspective taken here, it does not surprise us to find humans similar to animals in some ways.

Of course, humans do form pair-bonds, but the marriage relationship is more than a pair-bond. After God had noted that it was not good for man to be alone and brought the animals before Adam without finding anyone to fill this void, he created woman. This then explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife so that the two become one flesh. The two becoming one in the marriage relationship is a reflection of the three-in-one of the Trinity. The scriptural reason for limiting sexual intercourse (the one-flesh relationship) to marriage is this image of God in humans, the very nature of humans themselves. The Scriptures never mention the negative reasons we often give, such as the possibility of pregnancy, venereal disease, or mental illness.

Since the marriage relationship is a reflection of the Trinity, let us explore some of the implications. First, the three persons of the Trinity are equal. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all God. Although they have differences, they are all God. Human beings were created male and female in the image of God, different but equal. Even the apostle Paul, so often quoted in terms of women submitting to their husbands, points out that male and female are equal in Christ, Before he speaks of wives submitting to their husbands, he mentions submitting to one another.

Equality does not mean that there are no differences. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal, but they differ, and authority and submission exist here, too. As Jesus approached his death on the cross, he prayed three times that if it were possible, he would like to avoid it. However, he wanted the Father's will and not his own. Jesus also showed his submission to the Father's authority when he told the mother of James and John that he did not have the right to say who would sit on the thrones next to him in his kingdom. In the same way men and women, although equal in status, have different roles. Women are not inferior to men in general, nor are they to be subservient to all men, but a wife is to be under her own husband's leadership. This does not mean that she is to become a doormat to be walked over, but that her husband is the head of the home. Yet while wives are to be subordinate in the home, husbands are not to be ruling tyrants. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. They are to love their wives as they love their own bodies, to'nourish them, cherish them, and to give honor to them.

The Family

The next larger social unit is the family. In our culture at the present time that usually means the nuclear family in which mother, father, and dependent children live together. Family relationships among animals have been widely studied. Birds build nests, incubate the eggs, and care for the young. This behavior seems to be mainly under the control of hormones and the presence of certain environmental stimuli, such as eggs, a mate, or the young. Likewise, in mammals the building of nests and retrieval of young that stray from the nest is often under hormonal control.

Harlow (1971) discusses in detail family relationships among monkeys. He found that there were sex differences specifically related to maternal behavior in preadolescent monkeys with females responding to infants by caressing and cuddling while the males responded by threatening and aggressive behavior. Similar sex differences were found in the way humans respond to baby monkeys. Maternal care of infant monkeys is in many ways parallel to maternal care of infant humans. Harlow also discusses behavior between age-mates or peers. Play in infant monkeys is surprisingly similar to that in human children. Harlow's observers were totally unprepared for the enormous differences between male and female monkey babies in rough-and-tumble play. Males consistently engage in about three times as much rough-and-tumble play after two months of age and about twice as much before that. Harlow concludes that males and females are innately different in their approaches to play and that this serves as the biological basis for later cultural learning of appropriate sex roles in monkeys as well as humans.

Obvious parallels exist -between the primate family and the human family but humans are also made in the image of God. The basic pattern for the human family is found in God himself. God is the Father. Since humans are made in the image of God, we share his parenthood, and we are to deal with our children as he deals with us. Just as God teaches, loves, and disciplines us, we are to teach, love, and discipline our children. We are to teach our children both by giving instruction and setting the proper example.

We are to discipline our children as God disciplines us. The question is, what does discipline include? Psychology has emphasized reward while Christianity has traditionally emphasized punishment. Both psychoanalysis and behaviorism have opposed the use of punishment, but for different reasons. Psychoanalysis has proposed that people become neurotic because their basic instinctual drives are not allowed expression. Thus, to prevent neurosis, such drives should not be repressed. Behaviorists have emphasized that punishment only suppresses behavior rather than bringing about a lasting change in behavior. Furthermore, punishment also has numerous negative side effects which should be avoided if possible. As typified by Christenson (1970) the church has too often emphasized punishment. His subheadings under discipline are (a) The Rod: The Way of Love; (b) The Rod: The First Response, Not the Last Resort; (c) The Rod: It Works; and (d) The Rod: God's Appointed Means of Discipline. Christenson states that the scriptural method of discipline is simple and unequivocal-it is the rod. Rather than using only punishment, what we need is a balanced approach to discipline. The parents who only punish their child are doing only half the job of discipline; the other half is to reward and praise the child. We need a balance between reward and punishment.

Children are to obey their parents. Unfortunately, many people carry this tendency toward obedience with them into adulthood and generalize from obeying parents to obeying any authority. Milgrarn (1974) has run a series of experiments in which obedience to authority is pitted against a person's moral imperatives against hurting others. Even with the screams of the victims ringing in their ears, people still submitted to authority about two-thirds of the time when told to give electric shocks to the subjects. While we are to submit to those in authority, we must put away this childish type of obedience that is so often displayed.

The Larger Group

Outside the family most people belong to a variety of groups within which most of their social behavior occurs. Animals also have groups larger than the family in which they interact, some in organized societies. Let us look from a Christian perspective at roles, status and leadership, and norms and conformity in both animal societies and in human society.

Of course, much of what was discussed above in terms of husbands, wives, parents, and children has been a description of their roles, what is expected of people occupying that position. Attempts to analyze animal social behavior in terms of role theory have not proven successful if one wants to go beyond talking about age and sex roles. Beyond the role of leader or dominant male it is difficult to distinguish specific roles.

Within the church we are to play a variety of complementary roles. The church is repeatedly referred to as the body of Christ, with different members playing various roles forming a complex organism. Just as the different parts of the human body have different functions and are all needed and useful, so it is with members of the church, the body of Christ. The most important thing about these different roles is that they all make up the one body of Christ. Whenever these different roles are discussed, the emphasis is on unity, not division.

Although some have recently questioned the concept of hierarchy in animal societies, most still consider it basic in the animal social order. It has been questioned because initially we had an over-simplified concept of hierarchy. While the peck-order of chickens is simple and obvious, the hierarchy among primates is complex. The status of a male baboon depends not only on his personal attributes, but on his relationships with other males. Among monkeys the standing of young is complicated by the 'fact that when a high-ranking mother is present, her young are allowed to feed in advance of many adult males.

Similar status hierarchies are easily observed among humans. Along with attaining a given status in human hierarchies come various status symbols. There are also differences in social status among roles Christians play. Although passages of Scripture point out that some parts of the body of Christ which seem weakest and of least importance are really the most necessary, Christians tend to give status to those parts of the body which occupy the most prestigious positions. Pastors are rated high while janitors and ushers are rated low.

The concept of status or greatness should be quite different from a Christian perspective. The question came up during Jesus' ministry when his disciples were arguing about which of them would be greatest in his kingdom. Jesus then laid down the principle that the one who serves and cares for others is the greatest of all. The lesson obviously did not sink in because he had to repeat it several more times during his ministry, the final time at the Last Supper when he insisted on washing the disciples' feet. Of course, the basic idea is that humans are created in God's image. When we serve them, we are really serving him. Just because all roles are necessary and important does not mean that there are no differences and no hierarchy in the church. Qualifications and duties of ministers, bishops, and deacons are given throughout the New Testament.

Animal groups have their norms, to which individual members conform. Kawamura (1959/1%3) reviews the process by which subcultural traits originate and are transmitted in macaque monkeys. Each troop has a food list of its own. Kawamura tells how candy-eating, wheat-eating, and even sweet-potato-washing became a part of the tradition of the troop. He found that special social (family) relationships were important in the propagation of habits. New habits, such as sweet-potato-washing, start among the young, whose behavior is more "free floating," and spread upward to others rather than in the normal downward direction in which the original culture of the group is transmitted.

One has only to look at changes in style and behavior in our human cultures to see parallels. Any group of people

Although the message of Christianity is against prejudice, the church has often only rationalized existing prejudices.

establish a set of norms, accepted and expected patterns of behavior and belief. Norms are likely to become traditions which remain even when the membership of the group changes. Such traditions can be very useful and contribute to the smooth functioning of the group, or they can become nonsensical as the situation changes. Whether or not they make sense, they tend to persist through several generations of a particular group. Jesus severely reproved the religious leaders of his day for making their traditions more important than God's commandments. We must periodically reevaluate our traditions to see how they measure up to the Word of God and make sure that they have not become too important to us.

As norms and traditions develop, great social pressures come upon individuals to conform to them. During the 1950's Solomon Asch (see Asch, 1955) conducted a classic series of studies on conformity. Even in such a simple task as judging the length of a line, subjects conformed to the judgment of the group about one-third of the time. Knowing our tendency to conform, in both the Old and New Testaments God warned against being conformed to the world around us. It is not conformity itself which is wrong, but conforming to something inadequate or inappropriate. We are to be conformed to the image of Christ. Since we are likely to conform, we must carefully choose to what we will conform.

The preceding section has given an overall Christian perspective on social psychology. Let us now turn to a few selected topics that have been of much interest in recent years.


The most widely discussed attitudes today are our prejudices toward people of other races and nationalities. As we examine the origin and maintenance of both our culturewide and our personal prejudices we find that the church has been involved in originating and perpetuating some of these prejudices. For example, the church was involved in originating the concept of Jews as rich, grasping, and shrewd. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, the development of cities led to a demand for capital in the form of money. The church prohibited Christians from loaning money at interest, but allowed them to borrow money and pay interest. Jews, who had no rules against collecting interest from Gentiles, became bankers at a time when it was very profitable. Whenever people borrow money, they nearly always feel that they are paying too much interest. They believe that the lender is getting rich from their interest payments. Thus, this part of our prejudice toward Jews came as a direct result of Christian prohibitions.

The church is also involved in maintaining prejudices. Although the message of Christianity is against prejudice, the church has often only rationalized existing prejudices. For example, Blacks in some way became the descendants of Ham, the youngest son Noah who was cursed by his father as he (Noah) awakened from a drunken stupor. In the curse Noah said that Ham's descendants would be servants of the descendants of the other sons. The rationale then goes that they turned black because of the curse and moved south to Africa. When whites made slaves of the blacks, they were only making Scripture come true. During the years of slavery in our country many could quote selected scriptural references on slavery to justify it.

With their emphasis on exclusivity, Christians are prone to prejudice. Old Testament references to God's "chosen people" and New Testament references to "the elect" make it easy for superficial Christians to see themselves as superior to others. Prejudice was prevalent in Jesus' time also. When he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink,she was surprised that he, a Jewish man, would ask her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink. When his disciples returned and found Jesus talking with her, they were no less astonished. When Peter first preached to the Gentiles, the church back home reproved Peter. However, when he explained what had happened, the church officials changed their mind and glorified God that even the Gentiles had eternal life.

Such prejudice is not a God-like trait. God is no respecter of persons. Our racial, sexual, and other prejudices must be discarded. Although we are not to be prejudiced, it is very difficult to avoid acquiring our culture's prejudices. As an example, the apostle Paul had left Titus on the island of Crete to strengthen the church. When writing to Titus, Paul noted that one of the Cretans had said that the people of Crete were all liars, evil beasts, and idle gluttons. Paul went on to say that it was all true. If the apostle Paul still held these prejudices late in his life, we must examine our own prejudices frequently because we may have similar ones.

We must also examine our attitudes toward God. Some people think of God as a remote force, or as cosmic energy, or as eternal values, or as the absolute. Others think of God in the father image. This may be a father as a kindly old man with a long grey beard who reclines on a cloud somewhere in the sky or as a ruling tyrant in the sky who is just waiting for the person to do something wrong so that he can be punished. Still others have a more biblical conception of God.

If people think of God as an impersonal force or in the tyrannical father image, he may inspire fear or anger in them. On the other hand, if God is seen as the loving father or friend, the most likely emotion is that of love. Of course, a person's relationship with God will affect the emotion experienced. The person who is living in sin may well experience fear rather than love.

Actions, as well as cognitions and emotions, are a part of one's attitude. The person who views God as an inpersond force or as a tyrant, the person who has feelings of fear, and the person who has sinned against God, are all likely w move away from him. This was the first response of Adam and Eve after they had sinned. If we view God as the loving father, love him, and are "in Christ" so that we are under no condemnation, our response should be to move toward him.

We are not only animal-like in our aggression, we are worse.


During the mid-1960's several popularized books appeared relating aggression in animals to aggression in humans. These primarily concentrated on relating aggression to territory, dominance hierarchies, and sexual behavior. Lorenz' (1963/1966) book On Aggression was published first. In it he argued that aggression is not always bad, but has many important functions which help preserve the species. It spaces the animals over adequate territory, chooses the best mother and father to reproduce, and protects the offspring through a stable, organized community. The aggression is innate, but certain species-specific rituals have evolved to inhibit the full expression of aggression. Thus full-blown aggressive behavior seldom occurs. Lorenz has made popularized generalizations of these behaviors to humans, but many scientists question these generalizations.

Storr (1968) points out that we describe human cruelty as brutal or bestial, implying that such behavior is characteristic of "brutes" or "beasts." Really, there is no parallel in nature to our savage treatment of each other. That is, from the perspective taken here, we are not only animal-like in our aggression, we are worse. Several writers have pointed out the similarity between Lorenz' concept of aggression and original sin or innate depravity. That is, the aggressive instinct was brought about by the Fall of humanity into sin. Since man was made in the image of God, this makes him capable of being even worse than animals, as is revealed by the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Of course, murder was forbidden by God because killing a person is killing one made in God's image. That is, we should be inhibited from killing others because we recognize the God-likeness in them. The greatest difference from a Christian perspective is in our response to aggression directed against us. The God-like response to aggression does not come easily. The first impulse in most people is retaliation, when God's response is reconciliation. We see this God-like response of the one hurt being the one to initiate reconciliation in the person of Joseph, sold by his own brothers as a slave. Even though they did not really believe it for many years, he forgave them and did not retaliate.

Jesus explained that we are not to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If someone slaps one cheek, turn the other. If someone takes your shirt, give him your coat too. Furthermore, he said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In doing this we will be acting as true sons of our Father in heaven. If we love only those who love us, we are like everyone else. Jesus demonstrated this response to aggression at the end of his life. Someone has said that to return evil for good is devillike, to return evil for evil is animal-like, to return good for good is man-like, but to return good for evil is God-like.

Some might note that God is a God of vengeance, avenging himself and punishing evildoers, and infer that we are to be God-like in this respect. The Crusades where Christians were trying to regain the Holy Land are ample evidence that religious aggression can be some of the most brutal of all. Fox's Book of Martyrs (Forbush, 1926) is concerned mainly with Christians being aggressive against each other, with hundreds of actual cases described. However, a closer look at Scripture reveals that this is an attribute of God that we are not to have. We are not to avenge ourselves. Vengeance belongs to God alone and he will repay those who deserve it.


While evidences of the non-God-like characteristic of aggression are easily found all around us, one must look harder for its opposite, the God-like trait of altruism. Attention was drawn to our reluctance to help others by the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese. The murder took a full 35 minutes and was witnessed by 38 people. None of these 38 came to her rescue or even so much as called the police from the safety of their apartments. This and similar incidents resulted in psychologists becoming interested in our lack of helping each other.

Many Christians are so involved in their own personal affairs or the internal affairs of their churches that they do not even notice lost individuals around them.

Aronson (1972) notes that the concept of "survival of the fittest" (aggression) has been so firmly rooted in our thinking that we tend to ignore or play down nonaggressive and noncompetitive behavior. He cites evidence beginning in 1902 showing that cooperative behavior and mutual aid may have great survival value itself in many forms of life. There is ample evidence for this even in insects and fish, to say nothing of species nearer humans. Aronson speculates that this line of research may not have been given much attention because it did not fit in with the temper of the times.

Food sharing has been reported among primates. This type of sharing has been known for some time and is not always done willingly. When chimps in captivity are put in the situation where one has food and one does not, the one without food begins to beg. The chimp with food gives away some of his food reluctantly. Aronson notes that this very reluctance makes the gift all the more significant. Since it indicates that the chimp likes the food and would like to keep it, it suggests that the urge to share may have very deep roots.

The two major forces in psychology during the first half of this century played down the role of altruism in human behavior. In addition to "thanatos" (the drive for aggression) psychoanalysis described "eros," which maintained that humans were primarily motivated by what brought pleasure to them. Behaviorism had a similarly hedonistic orientation with its reinforcement theory. However, humanistic psychology has come out with a more positive view of humanity, and many now maintain that altruistic behavior is possible.

Although norms that promote altruism exist in all cultures, such behavior is not always manifested. barley and Latan6 (1968) summarize some of the research on what has come to be called the "bystander effect." That is, even in emergency situations people fail to respond to those in distress. Darley and Latan6 point out that three thinp must happen before observers get involved. They must notice that something is happening, interpret the event as an emergency, and decide that they have a personal responsibility to get involved. The presence of other people is likely to result in the person not noticing or misinterpreting the event or not feeling responsible.

Altruism is an attribute of God which should be manifest in the lives of Christians. Also, the research on altruistic behavior (or lack of it) may give us some clues to our religious behaviors. For instance research on the bystander effect gives us some insight into why Christians seem to face a lost world so complacently. First, Christians must notice the lost world around them. Many Christians are so involved in their own personal affairs or the internal affairs of their churches that they do not even notice lost individuals around them. Second, Christians must interpret being lost as an emergency. Lost people are going to spend an eternity in hell, but few Christians see this as an emergency situation. Finally, Christians must feel a personal responsiblity to get involved with the lost to lead them to Christ. Many seem to look around and believe that there are plenty of others who could (and should) be doing the job.


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