The Church, the State, and Social Responsibility

What is the responsibility of believers to social need? Should churches be involved in various works of social service? Is the government alone to be involved in such areas, or can both have a role to play?

These questions raise much bigger issues which cannot here be properly addressed; issues such as the relationship between church and state, the social record of the Christian church, and so on.

To narrow all this down a bit I want to interact with a comment posted on a recent article of mine. The commentator had some strong views on these matters, and they really warrant an extended discussion.

This friendly critic suggested that believers should not be in the business of “social welfare” at all, but should leave this entirely to the state. Those who do these activities are basically involved in a works-based salvation and have distorted the gospel.

Although this was a somewhat brief comment, he made a number of claims that need to be replied to. With all due respect, I believe that much of his argument and reasoning is fairly suspect, and that his understanding of the gospel and the believer’s calling is rather confused and often simply incorrect. I certainly do not mean to pick on this individual, but his remarks raise some important points that are worth discussing and reflecting upon.

Early on this commentator says, “Governments opted out of social welfare responsibilities and austere church run programs ultimately led to a range of abuses against the target populations.” It is not fully clear what he means by this, but if he is suggesting that the state had always done social welfare work, then stopped doing it, only to have the churches take over, this is historically rather confused.

Yes in one sense the state has always had a hand in providing various social goods and services, and taxes have been raised to allow these tasks to be performed. And that would be, to an extent, part of the job of the state as ordained by God. However, when the role of the state is discussed in the New Testament, as in Romans 13, it is a somewhat minimalist job description. Maintaining order and administering justice seem to be the main parameters. Of course the sort of justice presented here reflects the more traditional understanding of rendering to each person his or her due, not the much different idea of distributive justice, as reflected in modern socialist and welfare states.

Indeed, it is only recently that the modern welfare state has come on the scene. It in fact usurped the role of the churches, which for centuries had provided social welfare on a wide number of fronts. Increasingly today in the West faceless bureaucrats in taxpayer-funded offices have replaced the local church in providing most social services. The neighbourhood congregation, dealing with real people in real situations, has given way to bureaucracies and welfare programs that certainly have lost the personal touch, and have often been counter-productive in their outcomes. So in terms of recent history, the churches were first, with the modern, ever-encroaching state coming fairly late in the picture.

In fact, the problems of the modern welfare state are many. I have elsewhere spelled out some of these shortcomings. It is unclear why any believer would prefer the state to exclusively minister to human need instead of caring Christians fulfilling their biblical mandate to be salt and light in every area of society. That is not to say that the state has no role to play: both can and should work together where appropriate. But it is curious that a Christian would rather favour clumsy, impersonal state forces over the love and compassion of God’s people in so many of these vital areas.

The commentator goes on to say, “Church resources are exclusively for the Preaching and Teaching of the Word of God.” And, “It is ludicrous to suggest the church should direct resources away from spreading the Gospel of Salvation”.

There are several problems here. The first is a rather truncated and diluted understanding of the gospel and what it means to share that gospel. It seems the commentator has in mind preaching the word, evangelism and missionary work. And the gospel is seen as getting people saved and into heaven.

This is all true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. First, as to the gospel: sure, telling people they are sinners, in need of salvation, and pointing them to Christ the saviour is crucial. But that is not the sum total of the Christian message. Indeed, the biblical message is much broader.

The good news is not just about getting disembodied individuals into a cloudy heaven. That is Gnosticism, not biblical Christianity. God created us as whole persons, bodies included. Every aspect of us is the subject of redemption. And the cultural mandate of Genesis 1 is still in effect. The fall was an interruption to God’s intended program on planet earth. Establishing the reign and rule of Christ in all areas of life is part and parcel of the biblical Gospel.

The Lordship of Christ demands that we seek to reclaim and redeem every aspect of life, all of which were created by God and declared to be good. Sure, sin has affected every area, be it the cultural, social, political or spiritual, but the saving work of God is to reclaim all things in Christ (Col. 1:20). (For more on this, see my recent review of Creation Regained by Wolters: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/05/a-review-of-creation-regained-biblical-basics-for-a-reformational-worldview-by-albert-wolter/ )

The commentator goes on to suggest that believers who seek to do social good have “distorted” the gospel, “to provide a sense of self-righteousness to people who feel the need for good works to justify their salvation or to provide a false basis for it.” He continues, “This false emphasis is a works based false gospel taking the focus away from the biblical injunction for the Church to Preach the Word of God.”

This is a somewhat unfortunate and careless set of remarks. Now do some people do various good works as a kind of self-righteousness, and to help ensure they are in God’s good books? Yes, there are some. But it really is foolish to suggest that any time a believer is involved in any act of social charity, he or she is doing it for these wrong reasons.

When the early Christians fed the poor, helped the needy, ministered to the sick, and acted as salt and light in a dark and needy society – all in response to the clear commands of Christ – were they all being self-righteous, or seeking to earn their salvation through good works?

As to a right concept of salvation, Ephesians 2:8-9 nicely summarises how it takes place: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Sure, salvation has nothing to do with works. But the initial act of saving grace is just the beginning. Then there is a life-long growth in sanctification, and the expressing of one’s faith in practical ways. As James puts it “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17).

Good works do not procure salvation, but they most certainly are the inevitable and obvious outcome of it. In gratitude to, and love for, God one naturally seeks to spread the love of Christ in a wholistic fashion. This can take many forms. Some believers may feel called of God to work in an AIDS hospital. Some may help in a ghetto soup kitchen. Some may volunteer to help victims of a hurricane. Some may work for a relief and development organisation. Individual believers, churches and parachurch groups can all become involved in such activities. There is nothing wrong with such acts of Christian love and service.

And as noted, they do not stand against proclaiming the good news. They are one means of preaching the gospel, and the open doors that may result from such activities will lead to natural opportunities to give a verbal presentation of the gospel message.

The commentator is simply creating a false dilemma here. He is suggesting that the believer must either preach the gospel, or engage in acts of social service, as if one cancels out the other. But it is not a case of either/or, but both/and. Indeed, whenever the gospel was proclaimed around the world, the two have normally gone hand in hand. Christian missionaries preached the gospel and lived the gospel. They told people about Jesus and they also established hospitals, set up schools, helped feed the poor, challenged inhumane customs, and lived the gospel out in the eyes of the non-believers.

Indeed, many have noted that one of the main reasons why the early church was so successful in expanding was because the Christians saw no separation between telling people the good news and living it out in very practical and life-affirming ways. For example, when a plague or pestilence would sweep through an area, many would flee, but the believers would remain and minister to the sick and dying. That is why the early faith expanded so rapidly. It was a whole gospel presented to the whole person.

It was not just some pie in the sky in the sweet by and by stuff, but a fully biblical and Christlike gospel. And how could it be otherwise? What good is it to come upon a person starving to death, begging for food, and telling him, “Sorry, that is not my job. I have to just tell you about a heavenly salvation that has nothing to do with your needs on this earth.” Very few would want such an emaciated and lopsided Gospel.

Jesus ministered to whole people, healing their diseases, dealing with the hunger, as well as pointing them to eternal life. To argue that believers must only present some verbal proclamation of the gospel, while ignoring everything else, flies in the face of everything that Jesus, the early church, and most of Christendom have said and done.

This commentator seems in a bit of a time warp. Over a hundred years ago, the rise of theological liberalism and the social gospel were rightly rejected by biblical believers. The social gospel tended to equate any social action with the kingdom of God, without any mention of sin, Jesus and the cross. That is not what I am on about here, but it seems this is what the commentator seems to be responding to.

Any worldly gospel that does not talk about our sin and need of a saviour is not the gospel. But proclaiming the true gospel is not inimical or contrary to expressing the love of Christ in very tangible and practical ways, in whatever ways God might lead.

Thus I respectfully disagree with the basic thrust of this commentator, and his rather selective understanding of the biblical mission, and how believers are to live their lives in this fallen world. The New Testament gives us a much fuller and realistic version of events.

[1906 words]


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