Archive: The Biblical Basis for Christian Social Concern

By Donald L. Frank Pastor
First Methodist Church, Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Current times are very confusing to the dedicated Christian. He is the person who has heard the good news in Christ … he has responded … and now he is trying to live out the faith in his daily existence.

But he hears different voices shouting at him when it comes down to the matter of political, economic and social issues. One voice tells him that Viet Nam or the metropolitan riots, or poverty, aren’t the church’s business. But another church voice is urging “Start marching!” “Get arrested!” “Burn your draft card!” “Storm city hall!” “Run for office!” This, we are being told, is the proper pattern for Christian life-style today.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many people in our churches are confused? Is it any wonder that sincere Christians are searching for principles of Biblical truth and plain old common sense … principles to help them live according to God’s will in a world filled with complex and difficult problems?

We look to the Bible as the standard of authority, for both faith and practice. And so we need to bring the revelation of God, as found in the Scriptures, to bear on this specific question: What guidance does the Bible give for Christian involvement in the concerns of man’s social, political and economic life?

When we turn to the Scripture, our minds turn automatically to the life of Jesus Christ. For in the “Word made Flesh,” God’s revelation has reached its peak, and God’s will has been most perfectly expressed. As we look at the total picture of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels, two major concerns spring into view. His first concern was about the individual person’s relationship with God. This great, over-arching concern of Jesus is evidenced from the very beginning of His public ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus was constantly concerned that men should live in close communion and obedient fellowship with God. Christ’s first recorded public message announced the way in which this was to come about: Man was to repent (tum around so as to face toward God) and believe in the good news which God had sent in the Person of Jesus Christ. The balance of Jesus’ earthly ministry was the proclamation of that good news of redemption, which the “turned around” man was to believe and to implement in daily relationships with God and his fellowman.

Our friends in the church who ignore the individual’s personal relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ ignore the very starting point for the Gospel of Christ. His message is intended to penetrate the lives of individual people, causing them to examine their motives and actions … to confess their sins … and then to receive God’s forgiveness. Thus liberated and inspired by His Spirit, believers can enjoy a new life, a new outlook and a new usefulness to God. There are certain things which must happen to change a man as an individual person. No government program, law, march, or protest can replace this inward transformation of the will, the value standards and the emotions. If, as we believe, a man’s life is ultimately dependent upon God and is incomplete without Him, then a man, whoever or wherever he is, must come to terms with God. First of all, a man must meet Him as an individual. Only then is it possible to live in a relationship of faith and trust and obedience, the source of practical Christian behavior in daily life.

The early church, as described in the Book of Acts, began with this kind of an outlook. It confronted the individual. It told him about Jesus. And then it drew him into a Christ-centered, intimate fellowship. It studied the teachings of Jesus. And it went out into the world to be accused of turning the world “upside down.” But always, top priority was given to man’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It is tempting to stop at this point. And, to our shame, some Christians do just that. We have used the walls of our churches like the Berlin Wall: to isolate, to separate. In so doing, we have served up “half a Christ” (if even that) to the world – and to ourselves. For, as we said previously, there are two major concerns which spring from the life of Jesus. Over and over again, the Master showed vital concern about the relationship of man to his fellow man. This is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the personal relationship with God.

Examples are abundant: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the second great commandment of our Lord, the parable of the Great Judgement, and the personal attitude of Jesus as He healed, visited, fed, and reminded the people of their obligation to one another. All these are specific indications of the deep and constant concern which Jesus had for the way in which man lived with his fellow man – especially fellow disciples.

Jesus indicates that the way in which we live with God is tied up with the way in which we live with one another-and vice versa. For instance, look at the question asked Jesus in Mark 10:17, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Then look at Jesus’ answer: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The thing which the man lacked, really, was an awareness of his responsibility to use his God-given wealth for the benefit of other people. He had fulfilled the commandments that applied to him personally. But, this was not enough to please God. The rich man’s outlook needed expansion – his own self and possessions had gotten in the way. If he was to inherit eternal life, he had tel find a loving faith which would unite him with his fellow man, as with his God. Both these dimensions of true faith were lacking; his religion was a matter of keeping rules.

Teaching about the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-44), Jesus points out that God will honor and save people whose vital faith made them care about others, even though “the blessed” were not conscious, at the time, that by serving other people they were simultaneously serving Christ. On the other hand, God will dismiss and reject people who lacked a faith real enough to generate spontaneous compassion such as the Good Samaritan demonstrated. The damned are those who fail to understand that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4: 20b). In this parable, the blessed and the damned are symbols of those of us who de fine things in isolated terms of religious and non-religious, church and world, and confine themselves to the “religious.” Jesus teaches that this kind of a dichotomy cannot exist in His disciples’ lives.

Over and over again these two themes are interwoven in the life and ministry of the Master: man’s relationship with God and man’s relationship with other man.

The life of Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of the writing of the Old Testament prophets – writings which reached a peak in that famous passage in Micah 6:6-8 which concludes: “He has showed you, 0 man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” The prophets Micah, Amos, Hosea, et al., were all concerned about the way people were treated and taken advantage of by the so-called “religious elite.” These religious leaders went through the motions of being religious. But they were not concerned inwardly, so their religion was not a reality of heart and life. The condemnation of God’s spokesmen thundered down upon the hypocrites because they had broken covenant with the God, who required honesty and compassion toward others as the natural response to His kindness toward His chosen people.

Lying behind these utterances and attitudes of the prophets were the commandments and rules of the Jewish people dating from the Exodus itself. These divine rules show a concern for other people and often express a very exacting ethical standard of dealing with someone else. God’s concern for the man who is forced into servitude is shown by providing for a year of jubilee or release. God shows His concern for the person who loses an animal because of another man’s negligence. A fair method of repayment is set forth. God also shows His concern for the poor and widowed. Fields are not to be picked clean at harvest time in order that needy people might go through and glean some food for themselves. Written into the founding principles of God’s covenant is a holy concern for other people. This same concern for persons expressed itself fully and perfectly in the life of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, as well as His death, resurrection and His promised return as Redeemer of the universe.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus, the apostle Paul continues emphasizing this same dual nature of the Christian life. In his splendid letter to the Romans, Paul outlines his doctrine of Justification by faith (Romans 3:21-22), which stands at the heart of our Christian faith. We are saved by faith in Christ. Christ alone. Let us never forget or lose this!

However, in the very same letter, Paul also writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren … to present your bodies as a living sacrifice …” (Romans 12:1 ) And he goes on in that marvelous twelfth chapter to speak of a life of love, hospitality, contribution, blessing, harmonious living, repaying no one evil for evil, peaceable living, feeding the enemy, and overcoming evil with good. If we do believe the Bible we cannot escape the conclusion that we are under God’s command to live with others in a way that reflects the faith which we profess to have.

We cannot read the Bible in its totality without running, over and over again, into the understanding that any man who is in a proper faith relationship with God is also under certain obligations toward other people. Here lies the Biblical mandate for Christian social action or concern in our own day. The individual who says that the church ought “to mind its own business” (meaning that the church ought to leave the cares of the world alone) doesn’t have a Scriptural leg to stand on. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a “social gospel.” That is a myth! There is one Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ. It has profound social implications, but these cannot be divorced from the personal implications if the gospel of Christ is to be maintained in its intended fulness. For if we understand the faith only in terms of social involvement or action, we have departed from the faith as recorded in the Bible and as exemplified in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Any honest survey of the Bible, with the question of social involvement in mind, leads to the following conclusions:

  1. Our relationship to God is linked inseparably to our relationship with others.
  2. We are called to put our faith into action, socially as well as individually.
  3. Our involvement is rooted in Christ’s call to be one of His. Any social involvement that is Christian must be guided, empowered and nourished in a life of faith, worship, prayer, and growing knowledge of Scripture.
  4. Our commitment to God must find practical expression in the daily struggles of life.
  5. The Gospel is not social or personal – it is both.

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