Science in Christian Perspective



A Sociological Analysis of the Gospel of Lake
Lowell Noble
Spring Arbor College
Spring Arbor, Michigan 49283

From: JASA 35 September 1983): 177-180.

There has been a continuing discussion among evangelical Christians who are sociologists about the issue of a distinctive Christian sociology. Recently (June 1982), George W. Barger discussed the issue again in Journal ASA1 The consensus seems to be that there is not a distinctive Christian sociology. I would like to enter this debate by asserting there can and should be a biblically based sociology.

While obviously not a complete modern empirical sociology, biblical sociology does cover crucial concepts such as power, authority, social stratification, social order, social conflict and social change. And biblical sociology provides a value context for the operation of these concepts in life. Biblical sociology does not allow one to maintain an objective neutral value stance. Commitment to change unjust social conditions is a part of biblical sociology.

The following is a first attempt to make an analysis of basic sociological concepts in the gospel of Luke. Brief definitions of these concepts are:

1 . Power-"the ability of an individual or group to realize its goals and impose its will despite the opposition of others."2 
2. Authority-the socially legitimate exercise of power. 
3. Social Stratification-"the differential distribution of power, prestige, and property."3 In lay terms, the rich and poor in a society, with the rich usually engaging in exploitation of the poor.
4. "Racism"-for the Jews, a religio-cultural ethnocentrism because they were chosen of God; Gentile and Samaritans were inferior to Jews.
5. Social Order-the relatively harmonious functioning of a social system based on established structures and norms of conduct.
6. Social Conflict-a person or group challenges the status quo functioning of a society and attempts to introduce new sources of power and authority, new rules for the distribution of resources.

From a Christian perspective social order may reflect creation design: God created humans as social beings and established social institutions, such as marriage and family, to provide structure and order for society. Since the Fall, however, one might argue that sin has been institutionalized into the social order resulting in rather stable patterns of exploitation in a social system. Now social order may reflect both creation design and institutionalized sin.

From a Christian perspective social conflict may reflect the Fall: sin disturbed the social order established by God and introduced alienation and exploitation. But since sin has been institutionalized into the social order, social conflict may be necessary to bring about change in the patterns of exploitation that exist in a social system.

One can understand the biblical position on social order and social conflict only if one understands the New Testament use of cosmos or "the world." Stephen Mott asserts that "this word refers to the order of society and indicates that evil has a social and political character beyond isolated actions of individuals . . . Whereas for classical Greece cosmos protected values and life.... in the New Testament, cosmos represents the twisted values which threatened genuine human life."4

Mott's biblical analysis of the social dimension of evil and the social dimension of the Kingdom of God is superb in my judgment. It is must reading for anyone who wishes to develop a biblical sociology.

The Kingdom of God represents a new religio-socio-political order based on new norms to replace the old social order based on institutionalized sin and legalism. Its introduction inevitably conflicts with the existing social order. The Jewish social order is characterized as follows by Juan Mateos:

The high priests were the official representatives of religion and worship who had charge of the temple, the religious and political center of Israel. All Jews over twelve years of age, including those who had lived abroad (and they were many), had to pay an annual temple tax equivalent to two days' work (Matthew 17:24). For the maintenance of the clergy they also had to pay ten percent of the harvest (Mt. 23:23). Besides this, the temple received gifts (Mark 7:11) and abundant alms, above all from the rich (Mk. 12:41), not to mention the livestock market for the sacrifices and the currency exchange (Mk. 11:15). All this turned the temple into a great commercial racket administered by the high priests. They represented the political and religious power, and were at the same time an important financial group to be reckoned with.

The city of Jerusalem was practically supported by the large temple revenues, especially at seasons of pilgrimage-three times a year-when besides the Palestinians came Jews from the diaspora and foreigners as well (John 12:30). The second group in the Council was made up of Senators (elders) who were laymen chosen from among the aristocratic families. For the most part they were the great landowners and were the backbone of the Sadducee Party, to which the high priests belonged ...

The Pharisees had immense authority over the people ... In spite of all their observance of religious rules, the Pharisees loved money and exploited the simple folk under the pretext of piety (Mt. 23:25-28; mk. 12:40; Lk. 11:39, 16:14).5 (Emphasis added)

Sociological Themes

The main themes of the gospel of Luke were revealed to Mary by God at the time of her conception and during her pregnancy.

I . Jesus' Kingly power and authority: "the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his Kingdom there will be no end" (1:32-3).6

2. Disruption of the pattern of social stratification and abuse of power and authority: "He has scattered the proud. . . , he has put down the mightly from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (1:51-53).

John the Baptist states similar concern about the misuse of power and authority to engage in economic exploitation. John proclaims: "Bear fruits that befit repentance.... and the multitudes asked him, 'What then shall we do? And he answered them, 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do? And he said to them, 'Collect no more than is appointed you.' Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do? And he said to them, 'Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages' " (3:3-14).

In regard to the three temptations of Jesus, I interpret the essence of the temptations to be the misuse of legitimate power and authority.

I . The temptation to turn stone to bread: use His power to meet His
own personal needs (4:2-4).

2. The temptation to allow Satan to give Jesus the "authority and glory" of the "kingdoms of the world:" gain power and authority the easy way, avoid the cross (4:5-7).

3. The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple: demonstrate His power in a spectacular public relations effort to gain popularity with the people (4:9-12).

"And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee . . ." (4:14). What would be a legitimate use of His power? Jesus had refused to use His power to meet His own needs, to gain the authority of the world's kingdoms the easy way, to demonstrate His power in spectacular fashion. Now hear this:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has annointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed." (4:18-19).

Sociological Analysis

Early in His ministry Jesus directly challenged Jewish religious ethnocentrism. He said, "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Na'aman the Syrian" (4:28). What! The Gentiles-recipients of the grace of God? The Jews got the point. "When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath" (4:28). The Jews took Jesus to a cliff outside the city to throw him over. Jesus had directly challenged their false sense of religious-cultural superiority, a courageous proclaimer of truth no matter what the cost.

Soon the people recognized Jesus as one who spoke and acted with authority. As He ministered in the synagogue. "And they were astonished at his teaching, for his word was with authority" (4:32). "For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out" (4:36).

The pattern has already been set early in the gospel of Luke. The issues of power and authority, social stratification, "racism," and even Jesus' impending death have been sharply focused in the first four chapters. The rest of Luke is really unnecessary to a sociologist. One should be able to "predict" what will happen on the basis of what has already happened.

From Luke 4 through 10:20 Jesus'power and authority were main themes. When Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven, the scribes and Pharisees asked, "Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only? (5:22). Jesus replied, "But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (5:24).

Again and again Jesus demonstrated His power as He healed people and even raised a widow's son from the dead. After Jesus had demonstrated His power and authority numerous times, He "called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal" (9:1-2). This they did.

But soon they were faced with the temptation to misuse their power and authority as Christ was when Satan tempted Him. "And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest" (9:46). When they entered a Samaritan village that did not receive them, James and John said, "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them? But he turned and rebuked them" (9:54-55).

Then Jesus sends the seventy out with the same power and authority He gave the twelve. They, too, became intoxicated with their power. "The seventy returned with joy saying, 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" Jesus replied, "do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (10:17-20). From this point on in Luke, little is said about power and authority. Instead the focus is on sin, forgiveness, love, serving, etc.

However, the power-authority confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders continues without let up. In nearly every chapter after the fourth, the Pharisees or scribes are mentioned. The confrontation comes to a climax shortly before the crucifixion. As Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem, He wept over it for he foresaw the judgment about to fall on the people. Then in anger he entered the temple (the seat and center of Jewish religio-politicoeconomic power) and drove out those who sold. Then daily he returned to the temple to teach (19:41-47). The chief priests "sought to destroy him," but did not dare to act, "for all the people hung upon his words" (19:47-48).

"One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority" (20:1-2).

Jewish religious authority was the basis for social order. Jesus was perceived as a dangerous threat to that authority. The people recognized Jesus as a religious leader with great power and authority. Jesus fearlessly told parables against the Jewish religious leaders.

"The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people" (20:19).

The temple incident (Chapters 19-20) provides the first mention of the chief priests in Luke. The chief priests represent the pinnacle of Jewish religio-political authority. Jesus' invasion and occupation of the temple was the crowning insult to Jewish authority. The chief priests would have acted immediately to silence Christ, but Jesus was so popular with the people, they could not touch Him in public. The die was cast, however; the death of Christ was just a matter of time.

Jesus takes full advantage of the impotence of the chief priests. He returns to the temple daily to teach; "And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him" (21:37-38). In Matthew the "Woe to the Pharisees" chapter is given during this time period; in Luke it comes earlier in Chapter 11.

Jesus was an aggressive social activist who often took the initiative in confronting the Jewish religious establishment. He was not content just to do good to the common people though He obviously did much of this. Exploitation sanctioned by religious authority had to be exposed publicly. Jesus was relatively kind when dealing with the personal sin of the prostitute, the woman caught in adultery, etc., but He was almost vicious when dealing with groups associated with sin which had been institutionalized in the social structure. He forthrightly introduced conflict in order to expose and challenge this patterned exploitation.

What about social stratification? How did Jesus deal with the inequality associated with power, prestige and property? Of course, the term social stratification is not used in Luke, but the closely related topic of the rich and the poor is treated at some length. Some reference to this theme was made earlier in the essay.

The early perspective of the rich and poor in Luke continues throughout. There is never a clear cut statement of approval of the rich or riches. Riches are the result of covetousness. In Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount the theme is "Woe to the rich" (6:24), "Blessed are the poor." The rich end up in hell (16:19-31).
You cannot serve God and mammon (16:1-13). For those who are ' (8:22-34), " rich, they are exhorted to "sell their possessions' contribute to the poor" (18:18-25). Some riches are due to exploitation (3:10-14; 19:8).

By contrast the poor are always spoken of positively; they have the gospel preached to them (4:18; 7:22); the poor are blessed (6:20,21); the poor are to be ministered to (14:13).

Jesus is not neutral on the inequality that flows from social stratification; He clearly and unequivocally takes sides.


Jesus was a social activist in two ways: negative condemnation and positive vision. He confronted and exposed evil, especially social evil or institutionalized or structural sin: He cleansed the temple. He lived and preached the Kingdom of God-a new social order; He took over the temple and taught this new truth to the people daily.

In our day Martin Luther King also did both. He confronted and exposed institutional racism, and he had a dream of racial harmony for American society.

There is a similar spiritual and social agenda for all of us no matter what the time or place. Hear H. Richard Niebuhr:

Not only Jews but also Greeks and Romans, medievalists and moderns, Westerners and Orientals have rejected Christ because they saw in him a threat of their culture ... ancient spiritualists and modern materialists, pious Romans who charge Christianity with atheism, and nineteenth century atheists who condemn its theistic faith, nationalists and humanists, all seem to be offended by the same elements in the gospel and employ similar arguments in defending their culture against it.11


1Barger, George W. "A Christian Sociology?" Journal of the American Scientific Affiltation, 34:101-104-

2Hess, Beth, Sociology, Macmillan, New York, (1982), p. 600. 

31bid., p. 603.

4Mott, Stephen C. "Biblical Faith and the Reality of Social Evil." Christian Scholars Review, 10:225-240.

5Mateos, Juan, "The Message of Jesus," Sojourners, (:July, 1977), pp. 8-16. The Mateos article is an introduction to a new Spanish edition of the New Testament. Mateos is a Jesuit scholar in biblical studies.

6All Scripture references are from The Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Luke.

7Niebuhr, H. Richard, Christ and Culture, Harper and Row, New York, (1951), pp. 4,5.