Saturday, 24 January 2015

Why care? The theological foundation of social action

A friend of mine who has worked in development work in TSA for a number of years said to me a few months ago that he felt he didn't really have a theological basis for what he was doing. My impression is that he has dipped a little into various theologies, principally of the more Progress or Liberation type, but he has never felt that he has a coherent and comprehensive understanding from which to work. Specifically, I think he has never been strongly exposed to the broader evangelical history of social action nor its theological base. I believe that the SA, with its glorious history of social action, needs to rediscover its own theological roots in just this area, and so to place evangelism and social action in close coordination within the Army's holistic mission. 

You don't need a Liberation Theology to have a holistic vision for social action. The Christian social reformers of the 19th Century would not have agreed with an LT reading of, say, Exodus, and yet their call to social action WAS grounded in their classic, evangelical theology. What are the distinct elements of such a theology as it touches on social, compassionate and developmental issues? In one sense a "holistic" vision is one where all thought-streams are interconnected, so that every aspect of theology has a social outworking, but I think it is possible to identify three key theological taproots of evangelical social concern.

1) The Image of God: Common humanity flowing from common humanness. 

We recognise and honour the image of God in every human being. This image is present and underwrites the value of human life after the Fall - it is present in all, regardless of gender, age, colour, class, age or ability. Admittedly, among the various lines of discussion regarding the nature of the image of God, it has been an evangelical stream - the Lutheran - that has tended to say that the image was lost completely in the Fall, but Reformed theology, with a few exceptions, has argued for a damaged and yet still present image, which is still the basic measure of human value. This position has dominated British evangelical theology.

The logic of this, once seen, or allowed, is inescapable. If the measure of human worth resides outside of ourselves, in God himself, then a respect and honour is due to one another which precludes all racism, sexism, classism and ageism.  And how can I allow my fellow image-bearer to starve, be mistreated, abused, trafficked or killed? 

In honouring all human beings as being made in the image of God, I honour the One who is THE image of the invisible God - the Man for whom and by whom all things were first made. This leads to the second point...

2) God's kindness and compassion in Jesus Christ

In a broken world under judgement, social concern is motivated by - we might say made possible at all by - the grace of God in Christ. The human race has fallen - we are corrupt. At one level we don't deserve any good. Hunger and pain, struggle and failure, chaos and unfairness, are all woven into our lives. But what God has done in Christ means that we cannot adopt a "grin and bear it" approach. He has shown kindness and mercy and condescension when we were dead in our sins. He has stooped to help us. We live in a helped world. 

This help has come to us holistically. Though the centre and goal of Jesus whole ministry was to PREACH the gospel of forgiveness of sins and then to BE that gospel through his dying and rising, nevertheless, along the way of the Word and the Cross, he did good at the most practical level. Maintaining the spiritual message of the Cross at centre is totally consistent with vigorous attempts to ease the physical burden of our fellow human beings because that is exactly how Jesus demonstrated his love as he travelled along the same road. If sin is the cancer and suffering and injustice are the symptoms, I will not take my eyes off the need for a cure from sin, but I will want to help with the symptoms. I will recognise that to preach the message of forgiveness to a man with an empty stomach is to deny the love at the very heart of the message I preach.

It is striking how the NT letters, as they come to practical application, repeatedly bring us back to the cross of Jesus as our motive.  Love your wife, give to the poor, be kind and tolerant towards each other in the church, submit to your boss - all these and more are to be driven, for the Christian, by a constant awareness of God's love in Jesus.  Amongst all the rediscoveries of which the church is in need, the rediscovery of the link between Cross and lifestyle is amongst the most important. 

3) The coming age of Christ 

The gospel of Christ is more than simply a spiritual message of forgiveness in itself, of course. In justification we hear the verdict of the future judgement day brought into the present; that great "Not Guilty" is the opening fanfare of our entrance into eternal life, and eternal life is enjoyed now and forever, in a new world which the scripture presents consistently as physical and solid. 

The future world will be a place of justice and peace, of integrity and prosperity. All that is corrupt and unjust in the present system will be swept away into the rubbish bin of eternity. Some Christians, including some evangelicals, have tended to say, "Well - that's for the age to come - no need for us to do anything now." I think the opposite - we are to live as citizens of the coming kingdom. This world may be passing, it may be destined for judgement, and yet it is groaning for its future redemption and we cannot live as if it had no value at all. The powers of the age to come have already laid hold of us, and we have to demonstrate the values of that age in the here and now by pursuing the same goals. We are to show the characteristics of the future reign of our dear King, Jesus, in this age. Indeed, it is precisely the certainty of his coming justice, of judgement in the light of the transcendent moral values of this King, that makes the pursuit of justice in the present evil age so utterly imperative. 

One of my favourite characters from British church history is James Montgomery the hymn writer, who gave us the carol "Angels from the realms of glory".  He was imprisoned on more than one occasion for his radical, socialist-leaning views. He cared passionately about the plight of the poor, and helped in the fight against the slave trade. All of that was rooted in his Moravian spirituality - the same source that John and Charles Wesley had drunk from so deeply. My favourite hymn of his is the well-known paraphrase of Psalm 72...

1. Hail to the Lord's Anointed,
great David's greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

2. He comes with succour speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.

3. He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before him on the mountains,
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.

4. To him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
his kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.
The tide of time shall never
his covenant remove;
his name shall stand forever;
that name to us is love.

That is eschatological hope, clearly breaking out into present social concern. 

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I am not rejecting every insight that has come through Liberation Theology. I am saying that a broad-based commitment to social action was built into the Christian movement way before LT. In the Salvation Army there are many who have a genuinely deep love for Christ, and a deep love and concern for people, which have been come into being through a traditionally evangelical but theologically impoverished preaching. As those who are involved in social action look for a deeper foundation, they seem to be offered mainly non-Evangelical models. We need to go back to our roots, with greater confidence that we have what we need in classic Evangelical thought.

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For a helpful and thorough historical and theological survey of the relationship between Evangelism and Social action in the SA, please see here. I think it ends up a tad too positive about the impact of post-modernity, but I think the authors may not have been aware of (or imagined) the way that post-modern thought would invade evangelical theology over the last decade.



  1. I love "Hail". The version you have there misses out the climax and completion, when the kingdom will be fully present: "O'er every foe victorious he on his throne shall rest...".

    1. You are quite right, Anthony! It is most unlike me not to quote a hymn in its fullest text.

      Hail to the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater Son!
      Hail in the time appointed, His reign on earth begun!
      He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free;
      To take away transgression, and rule in equity.

      He comes in succor speedy to those who suffer wrong;
      To help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong;
      To give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light,
      Whose souls, condemned and dying, were precious in His sight.

      By such shall He be fearèd while sun and moon endure;
      Beloved, obeyed, reverèd; for He shall judge the poor
      Through changing generations, with justice, mercy, truth,
      While stars maintain their stations, or moons renew their youth.

      He shall come down like showers upon the fruitful earth;
      Love, joy, and hope, like flowers, spring in His path to birth.
      Before Him, on the mountains, shall peace, the herald, go,
      And righteousness, in fountains, from hill to valley flow.

      Arabia’s desert ranger to Him shall bow the knee;
      The Ethiopian stranger His glory come to see;
      With offerings of devotion ships from the isles shall meet,
      To pour the wealth of oceans in tribute at His feet.

      Kings shall fall down before Him, and gold and incense bring;
      All nations shall adore Him, His praise all people sing;
      For He shall have dominion o’er river, sea and shore,
      Far as the eagle’s pinion or dove’s light wing can soar.

      For Him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend;
      His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end:
      The mountain dews shall nourish a seed in weakness sown,
      Whose fruit shall spread and flourish and shake like Lebanon.

      O’er every foe victorious, He on His throne shall rest;
      From age to age more glorious, all blessing and all blest.
      The tide of time shall never His covenant remove;
      His name shall stand forever, His name to us is Love.

  2. Replies
    1. The stars are maintaining their stations just for you!