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: )

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]

7 Replies to “The Church, the State, and Social Responsibility”

  1. Perhaps your commentator was simply over reacting to the way some denominations today seem to have become little more than welfare organisations with apparent neglect for the “verbal” gospel. Without meaning to pick on any one denomination, the motto used to be ‘soup, soap and salvation’, but now it seems the emphasis is on ‘soup and soap’ and forget about the salvation part.

    I agree with your observations re the extra-biblical nature of the modern welfare state. Would this also include government (taxpayer) funded overseas aid programs, the promotion of which seems to be a very fashionable cause for many churches these days?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. Thanks Ewan

    Yes, if he were simply just reacting to a social gospel type scenario, then I could concur (as I hinted at in my article above). But he seems to be doing much more in his various comments, condemning any church for doing anything other than just proclamation.

    As to the social gospel, it tended not only to avoid talk of sin, salvation and the cross, but it tended to equate any social action whatsoever with the advance of the kingdom of God. Thus even an atheist working with the poor would effectively be seen as doing the work of the kingdom. Christians back then were right to be concerned about this, and distance themselves from much of it. The rise of fundamentalism (in the original good sense of the word) was the result, but it tended to overreact, thus throwing out almost all cultural and social involvement, and it took the evangelical movement in the mid-20th century to start to get the balance right again.

    Of course to say this is not to argue that God disapproves of non-believers doing social work, or that it may not be meritorious, in a sense (but not for salvation). But by itself, it is not the gospel. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, but Christians express the gospel in many ways including doing social good, just as Jesus did. And it is done in his name (that is, it is not separated from the saving work of Christ, but seen to be part and parcel of it).

    As to overseas aid, again I think both Christians and the state can be involved. But it is not just a question of what are the proper boundaries of the state, but who in fact does a better job. We know for example that in such things as prison work and drug rehab work, to name but a few, Christian programs tend to be far more successful than secular ones.

    But many important issues arise in these sorts of discussions, thus it is a good debate to be having.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Bill you had a similar article to this relatively recently but I couldn’t find it. In it an atheist was saying that Christian involvement in government and law making would only lead to theocratic states, presumably like Byzantium, to which I replied that what she was proposing, based on an evolutionary humanists’ gospel written by prophets like Nietzsche, Marx and Russell, leads to dystopias such as Soviet Russia, Cambodia and now a dysfunctional Britain, where our social services and economy that relies a great deal on Christian, voluntary aid are slowly being forced to shut down. Adoption Agencies and hostels for the homeless have been some of the first to feel the effects of evolutionary, humanist Marxism.

    But the elimination of Christian influence in society will not be just confined to organisations but will inevitably lead the disappearance of the Christian individual working in a school, hospital, anywhere. The weapon being used by evolutionary humanists to airbrush us out of society is the threat of being found guilty of homophobia.

    Jesus Christ was known for his teaching and his works; it is was partly due to his healing ministry that many flocked to see him . The prayer he taught us: that we should ask that God’s name would be hallowed and acknowledged, that his kingdom of justice and righteous would come and that his will would be done on earth, in our nations, towns and communities just as it is in heaven. …the prayer that he taught us was that God’s glory would be visible in every area of our lives. John the Baptist sent a message asking for assurance that Jesus was the Saviour that Israel had been waiting for and Jesus sent back a reply which said “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

    David Skinner, UK

  4. I have heard Derek Prince say there was a church so keen on the idea “By faith alone” in the Bible that they wouldn’t hold a prayer meeting fearing that they would move away from this.

    Deuteronomy 15 tells us that we need to care for the poor and needy. Time and time again God criticises people for not caring for the poor and needy and often he punishes them, e.g., Nathan rebukes David for taking another man’s wife.

    You could also look at examples such as Psalm 14:6, Psalm 37:14, Proverbs 14:31 (He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker), Proverbs 17:5, Proverbs 21:13

    I could go on and on. When people are in need it is a good opportunity to reach them with the gospel. You need to believe what you preach. People don’t like hypocrites. If unbelievers are to convinced by us living our lives as the salt of the earth by the grace of God this has to involve caring for the needy. If we say “God cares for the needy”, people will look for us to prove it. If anyone thinks that Christians aren’t called to care for the poor and needy they need to read more of their Bible.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  5. I believe that God does care for the “needy” and that He has supplied a solution. The solution is simple, it is us believers. Jesus said that if you are truly His disciples you will do as He says and what He did. Believers must ask themselves “Am I truly doing what Jesus wants me too?” This world was changed by men who truly followed the example of Jesus.
    Jim Sturla

  6. I think the fact of the matter is that Christians were doing it first, that is caring for the ‘poor and needy’. If you look into the history of welfare in Australia it was organisations like the Salvation Army that supported people from low social economic backgrounds. It was the state that later catched on to the idea only because they saw it was profitable for the economy of the country to look after the people, hence socialised medicine. At least Chistians love people and have good motivations no matter what their background is; the state only wants people to work to boost the economy and has no room for difference or social justice.
    Pal Mochales

  7. Hello Pal, you are so right.
    Over the years I have seen great Christian organisations seeing a need in the community and taking on responsibility to fill that need.
    A government agency then sees this area as being PC and in order to improve its popularity becomes involved and grants funding.
    The Christian organisation sees it as a blessing and a way to expand its mission.
    Herein lies the thorn in the side because “he who pays the piper calls the tune.’
    All of a sudden we have innumerable government forms and regulations thrust upon us in order to continue with our funding.
    Yes the Christians began the service because they saw a need but now the government takes it on in order that they are viewed in a positive light.
    This may sound rather cynical but you see, I have been involved with 3 volunteer organisations over the past 15 years that this has happened to.
    My wife and I were teaching English to immigrants, the Government said that they would supply us funding if we followed their rules.
    Their rules were entirely in opposition to what we were doing and so we refused.
    By the way, we are still teaching English, God has provided marvellously.
    Jim Sturla

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: