Science in Christian Perspective



Assumptions in Studying Social Problems and a
Christian Response

Donald E. Ratcliff, M.A.
Toccoa Falls College
Toccoa Falls, GA. 30598

From: JASA 36 (June 1984): 113-116.

The Sociology of Social Problems by Horton and Leslie is now one of the most established textbooks in its area, having recently been released in its seventh edition. In its introductory chapter the text outlines a definition of social problems, several common fallacies regarding this area of study, and attitudes which prevail in society regarding its problems. This communication will briefly survey these areas, offering a Christian response weighing both the contributions and deficits of this well-known introduction.

Horton and Leslie begin by suggesting that any definition of social problems is difficult, since different people will identify different social problems depending upon their biases. The definition given by the text reads: "A condition affecting a significant number of people in ways considered undesirable, about which it is felt something can be done through collective social action."

The authors are right in suggesting that their definition, as is any definition, is biased. The presuppositions brought to any study, but particularly that of the social sciences, will affect the presentation made. The assumptions made will affect the designation of what problems are to be considered, the analysis of those problems, and the prospective solutions to those problems. This is the principal reason for the present response-to identify the assumptions commonly made by those in the present discipline, and to compare those assumptions with a Christian world-view.

The first phrase of the definition suggests that the number of people affected by a problem must reach the level of significance. The text suggests that they might be a minority, but must include more than a handful of people. A guideline suggested is the number of magazine articles published on a given topic. A problem is felt not to be a social problem unless a large number are affected.

This first delimitation to the area of social problems may be accepted by the Christian, since it is a means of distinguishing the particular discipline at hand. Yet, in doing so, the Christian must avoid the tendency of some in the social sciences of overlooking or being unconcerned about problems of those near us which technically would not meet this criterion. There is a need to limit the subject area for the purposes of adequate analysis.

The second phrase states that social problems must affect people in a manner which is undesirable. This implies a value judgment made by a large number of people in a given society. No matter how bad a condition is, say the authors of the text, it is not a social problem until the values of those within the society define it as a problem.

The concern with values is an important one to the Christian, yet many Christian writers point out that the prevailing value in our society (and most of social science) is that of relativism, indeed this value seems implicit in this second phrase of the definition. Francis Schaeffer states that such thinking quickly deteriorates to what he calls "sociological law," the desires of the majority or a vocal minority becoming normative without any reference to lasting transcendent values. Here is the potential for disagreement with the Christian world-view, which suggests absolute values in at least some areas of life as determined by the nature and commandments of God. Fortunately, as Schaeffer describes it, there is still a memory of biblical values among many in our society, thus certain value judgments made in the area of social problems may coincide with the Christian viewpoint. This potential for common values might also be due to the "law of God written on the heart," described in the opening chapters of Romans. The Christian should consider the fact that some matters are relative (there are moral areas of life in which there seem to be no specific absolutes found in the Bible, or in which Christians may differ regarding which absolutes are applicable), but that in areas where the Bible speaks it should be the basis for judgment.

The third phrase of the definition indicates that a social problem must be an area of concern which is thought to be rectifiable. Horton and Leslie believe that one must accept what cannot be changed. It is the possibility of doing something about the problem that causes society to become concerned. They cite famine as an example of a problem thought to be inevitable until recent years, thus it would not have been considered a social problem.

The Christian needs to consider the importance of belief in the attempt to rectify problems. Yet one must not be overly optimistic about social change; the exuberance about social action during the 1960's brought only a few advances (most notably in the area of racial matters), the era did not produce the hoped-for utopia.

Yet, in contrast, the greatest social improvements in history have been associated with the spread of, or revival of, Christianity. Both the early Christians in the Roman Empire and the Christians in Wesley's England were influential in reforming their respective societies. Anthony Campolo, in Ideas for Social Action, indicates that the belief in the possibility of improvement is linked with one's eschatological views. Both of the above historical eras were marked by an optimistic viewpoint about future things among Christians, a marked contrast to the fatalistic eschatology prevalent today. Campolo offers a corrective by suggesting that Christians are called to begin acting as the Kingdom of God on this earth, developing a more Christ-like society which will be completed at the second coming of Christ.

The final phrase of the definition states that social action needs to be collective, implying that society should solve its problems through the organizing of groups. This is a sociological distinctive generally found in the study of social problems.

This aspect of the definition is a concern to Christians because of the often-made assumption that power is the means of corrective measures. Campolo persuasively confronts this assumption in The Power Delusion. Citing Lord Acton, he notes that power does indeed tend to corrupt, and unfortunately Christians who have power are not an exception to that principle (as a study of the medieval papacy clearly indicates).

Some Christians are beginning to realize that government action is not always the best solution, since calling upon government to solve social or other kinds of problems inevitably increases the size and power of government (also tending to increase corruption and waste). The Christian understanding of the sin nature of humanity is avoided in nearly all considerations of social action. The Christian world view would balance the call for social action with the need for individual change of those contributing to social problems, particularly changes in basic orientation (through personal salvation) and a continued quest for a biblical world-view (through subsequent growth). A change in world view, combined with a dynamism of the Holy Spirit, will result in changed attitudes, actions, and social conditions.

Commonly-Held Fallacies

Horton and Leslie identify a number of widely accepted fallacies about social problems, which they discount from the perspective of social science. Many of these also can be approached from a distinctly Christian viewpoint, assessing both strengths and weaknesses of the authors' conclusions.

One assumption many hold is that problems are natural and inevitable. Horton and Leslie state that this assumption is based upon "social Darwinism," which implies that the fittest (i.e. the rich and powerful) tend to survive. In contrast, the authors believe that society should take a sympathetic view of the unfortunate and underprivileged.

Without much question the Christian perspective should indicate agreement with the text authors; the Bible is full of references to the responsibility to help the poor, the widows, the orphans, and others who are in need. Yet, we need to ask what the philosophical base for such concern is for the secularist. Are benevolence and sympathy compatible with secular evolutionary theory? Francis Schaeffer states that the secular person cannot live consistently with his or her assumptions, and this is a good example. The moral conviction behind the social scientist's desire to help the unfortunate, says Schaeffer, are a holdover from the past, and incongruent with a non-theistic perspective.

Regarding the matter of the inevitability of social problems, the Christian would agree that problems, even social problems of some kind, are probably inevitable in the present age because of the fallenness of humanity. Yet, in spite of the sin nature, many social problems can be overcome and the Christian must work to overcome them, as the early church and John Wesley illustrate.

Another fallacy held by many is that social problems are abnormal. The text authors counter this fallacy by asserting that many social problems are the consequences of normal behavior. Horton and Leslie point out that acceptable behavior by decent people contributes as much to problems as does the behavior of deviants. If the average person is to blame for society's problems, then it follows that society in general must be held responsible. An illustration of this (not mentioned by the authors) would be that crime is best minimized not by punishment, but rather by changing the social forces within society which are related to increased criminal activity.

In contrast to the authors, the Christian would also emphasize the impact of personal sin, without denying the deleterius effects of social influences ("social sin"). Normal behavior can be sinful behavior, since the Christian makes reference to a transcendent system of values ("absolutes") rather than normative values. A thorough biblical analysis reveals that the Bible speaks of both social influences and personal responsibility in relationships. Thus in one sense social problems can be the result of normal behavior. But in another sense, social problems are abnormal in that they were not intended by God; they are by-products of the fall into sin by Adam.

A third misconception mentioned by the text authors is that social problems are caused by bad people. Instead, they state that they may be caused by good, nice people who tolerate and thereby perpetuate evil conditions. Horton and Leslie charge religion with teaching us to impute evil motives to those who do wrong, thereby causing us to overlook social conditions that aggravate the problem, and thus oversimplifying our analysis. The assumption of the text is that "each problem is a product of existing social institutions and practices, not primarily a product of willful wickedness." They see evil as a symptom of social problems, rather than the cause.

In response to these charges, the Christian might point out that such an analysis assumes the nature of people is basically good (a la Rousseau) or amoral (a la Locke), again overlooking the basic sin nature postulated by biblical theologians.

But we must be careful not to oversimplify in our analysis; perhaps we as Christians do too easily attribute behavior to personal sin and overlook important environmental influences. We must ask ourselves, why do some rob banks while others would be horrified at such activities yet are content to politely steal by cheating on income tax? Both are clearly sinful, yet why do people sin in different ways? The answer Horton and Leslie imply, the matter of social conditions, is perhaps the best answer. We may criticize the authors for their decision to overlook "willful wickedness," yet we must be careful not to move to the extreme Horton and Leslie accuse us of. Both a person's will and social influences are involved in behavior: influences help determine the exact form sinful behavior will take, while the fallenness of humanity assures that sin in some form will occur.

The Christian world-view realizes that good people, even Christians, can promote evil by doing nothing. In his conclusion to the chapters on the Reformation in How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer criticizes those of the Reformation for failing to use their accumulated wealth compassionately, and for not speaking out strongly enough on the evils of slavery (with several notable exceptions). Even today, says Schaeffer, we are combatting certain social problems because Christians failed to act decisively decades ago. Biblically, we are still responsible if we choose to do nothing (theologically the sin of omission-James 4:17).

A fourth misconception mentioned by the text authors is that problems are created by talking about them. Instead, the authors state that only by informing people will they be aroused to action.

The Christian can question why people are complacent and need to be aroused. Perhaps Schaeffer's conclusion best explains this tendency-we have accepted the false values of personal peace and affluence; as long as problems do not personally affect us, they are easy to ignore. The Christian might also suggest some support for the alleged misconception: the drug education program in the schools has been acknowledged by many to be a failure because the more drugs were talked about, the more they tended to be used. The same could be said about sex education in schools which is more widespread than ever before, yet there is an alarming increase in teenage pregnancies. Perhaps the best conclusion is not to avoid discussion of social problems, but rather to present them within a biblical moral base and with biblical moral contingencies.

Another fallacy considered by the text is that all people would like to see problems solved. This is clearly not the case, say Horton and Leslie, either because of personal differences in values or because suggested solutions are costly.

The Christian would easily agree with the authors' refutation of this fallacy. A biblical perspective would suggest that certain values should have priority regardless of personal preferences or the costliness of solutions, but clearly not all people want all problems solved. Anthony Campolo speaks of the need for those in corporate structures particularly to have an awakened conscience, which can occur with the help of socially active Christians. As an example, he describes his work in arousing the executives of a large multinational corporation to their responsibilities to third world countries in which the company operated. Campolo states that we must "expose the principalities and powers of this age."

A fifth fallacy is that problems solve themselves. While the authors admit that this is sometimes "descriptively true," in general, social progress is not natural. The belief in progress by doing nothing is based upon unfounded optimism and sure to circumvent any potential progress.

Horton and Leslie are consistent with a Christian view at this point. Historically, social progress requires hard work. It will be recalled that Wilberforce was defeated year after year in his attempt to eliminate slavery in Britain, yet he continued to press on until the task was completed. Belief in inevitable progress may be seen as an expression of post-millenial theology, a view thought to underemphasize the sinful nature of humanity.

Another misconception is that getting facts, in itself, solves problems. The authors assert that facts alone do not solve social problems because they must be interpreted to have meaning. One's interpretation, in turn, is based upon the values of the individual who does the interpreting.

The importance of values in relationship to social problems can be readily seen by surveying nearly any ethics textbook. For example, Norman Geisler's text, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, contains a lengthy section on various social problems. Clearly values are central to any discussion of social problems.

Because individuals can have different value systems, data may be interpreted differently by different persons---either as an unconscious process or to consciously defend ones values. But at least data can demolish rationalizations which some make. As Donald MacKay states, ultimately data can only show what is not the case (see A Clock Work Image, ch. 2).

The seventh misconception described by Horton and Leslie is that problems can be cured without institutional change. In contrast, they suggest that major changes may be needed, even though changes may be painful. Personal sacrifice and expenditure of extra time may be needed to solve social problems.

While Christians would basically agree that the "principalities and powers of this age" are in need of change, such changes in themselves are worthy but incomplete. Solutions also require a change of heart and world-view among those who perpetuate social problems. A prime example is that of welfare-merely changing the political institution, as was done in the I 960's "war on poverty" did little to help the poor, and may have actually made things worse because it encouraged inflation. The solution is both the reform of institutions and a change of heart among those who suffer from social problems and those who perpetuate the problems.

Society's Attitudes

Among the attitudes commonly held in our society, Horton and Leslie include the notion of "religious retribution," which suggests that social problems are God's punishment upon people. They state that this factor does not fit the conception of God as loving, since the wicked do not always suffer the most.

While this issue impinges upon the philosophical problem of evil (see Jon Tal Murphry's A Loving God in a Suffering World), it should be noted that retribution is not given as the only reason for social problems in the Bible. Religious retribution was the perspective of Job's comforters, who were soundly denounced by God for their arguments. Actually, the concept of retribution as the reason for one's station in life has more in common with the Karma of reincarnation, In contrast, the Bible clearly states that "rain falls upon the just and the unjust," although God can choose to act through a catastrophe, as He did in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. We need to have a balanced view of God as being both loving and just, and avoid blaming God for the social problems we create.

Another issue Horton and Leslie take up is the tendency to romanticize social problems. The text speaks of the tendency of both those of right and left wing politics to romanticize certain values. For example, those of the left wing might romanticize the dialect of those in the ghetto thus keeping inner city residents from getting better jobs due to the lack of knowledge of standard English. Likewise, right wing groups might romanticize values of an earlier age indiscriminately (such as the myth of the "religious founding fathers").

Some Christians, it might be pointed Out, do a bit of romanticizing themselves, whether it be called "the power of positive thinking" or "making a positive confession." When extended to social problems, this results in glossing over genuine problems. There need be no solutions if problems are not clearly identified.

In response to the romanticizing of both the left and right, the Christian needs to see the positive biblical values in each of these political positions, without necessarily capitulating to either (and hopefully not capitulating to a secularistic "middle of the road" either!). The biblical values congruent with the right, including freedom, the value of the individual, and the need for private property, should be fused with the positive values of the left, including equality and concern for the welfare of others, to form a distinctively Christian option.


The Christian shares many broad areas of concern with the secular social scientist, as has been observed in this analysis, yet the definitions, analysis, and potential solutions are likely to differ in important respects. Considerable rapprochement is possible on certain issues, yet the Christian will bring a distinctive perspective to the study of social problems. Francis Schaeffer speaks of being "co-belligerents" with those who have differing beliefs, to achieve certain social objectives consistent with a Christian world-view.

One particular area of common concern is the necessity of working for change in society for the purpose of alleviating problems in society. Yet there is considerable irony in the complacent "social Darwinism" of some Christians who fail to reach out to those less fortunate, yet who strongly denounce evolutionary theory. Complacency is often rationalized by making statements that "we must not impose our values upon society" or "we need only be an example to the world." Ultimately we have no choice; we will influence society one way or another. We can either encourage the Christian values we hold, or we can allow others to impose their values upon society. Even letting people decide for themselves implies the value of relativism. Not speaking up on issues suggests that those issues are unimportant, or at least that there is no ultimate answer. To take no action is to choose the status quo.

We as Christians can learn much from the perspectives and data provided by those involved in the study of social problems, as long as the views studied are carefully compared with the biblical worldview. Likewise, the secularist has much to gain from Christianity, not only because of its reference to absolutes, but also for its potential as a spiritual catalyst for social problem remediation.


Campolo, Anthony. ideas for Social Action. El Cajon, Calif.: Youth Specialties, 1983.

Campolo, Anthony. The Power Delusion. Wheaton, III.: Victor Books, 1983.

Geisler, Norman. Ethics: Alternatives and Issues. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971.

Horton, Paul, and Leslie, Gerald. The Sociology of Social Problems, Seventh Edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981.

MacKay, Donald. The Clock Work Image. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1974.

Murphry, Jon Tal. A Loving God in a Suffering World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982.

Schaeffer, Francis. How Should We Then Live? Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1983.