A Biblical Case for Social and
Why should Christians be involved?
by John Eldredge
books have been written, sermons preached and seminars held seeking
to provide Christians with an apology for involvement in social
issues. I have tried to distill the essence of the historical
Christian perspective in the following five points, seeking to
answer from the Scriptures this question: Why should Christians be
socially and politically involved?
I. A Christian view of love and
compassion compels us.
We have a tendency to forget that
the statistics we read in our newspapers and the reports we hear on
the nightly news represent the lives of real people.
Numbers like 1.6 million abortions
every year can be overwhelming. For many of us, figures like these
are too much to comprehend. But perhaps we can relate to one woman
and one child whose life is in question.
Rachel was 17 when she learned she
was pregnant. Her high school counselor recommended she have an
abortion, arranged for state funding and recommended a particular
abortion clinic. No other alternatives were discussed. Rachel was
afraid to tell her parents that she had become pregnant. Unaware of
any alternatives, she consented to the abortion.
Several days later she developed
some flu-like symptoms in her chest. She went to her family doctor,
but she did not tell him about the abortion because she did not
think the symptoms were related.
Sometime later, Rachel became so
sick her father took her to a local hospital. The next morning she
was found in a comatose condition. Subsequently, it was discovered
she had developed bacterial endocarditis — a condition directly
attributable to a post-abortion surgical infection. The bacterial
endocarditis had caused blood clots to develop and become lodged in
the vascular system of her brain, causing a stroke. When Rachel
recovered from her coma, she was left permanently wheelchair-bound.
Why was it not required by law that her parents know before the
procedure ever happened?
Rachel’s story is not uncommon,
although the consequences for her were particularly extreme. But
consider also the millions of women and girls who undergo deep
physical and emotional distress as a result of abortion; and think
of all of those children who would have been starting kindergarten
this year, or playing on the varsity team, or going off to college,
but were never given a chance.
Pornography and the whole issue of
censorship is another example of a concern that typically strikes
believers as peripheral to the Christian life. But consider Brian
Thompson. This 12-year-old boy spent two hours in his pastor’s
study one day in the summer of 1987, repeatedly calling 976
dial-a-porn, Brian assaulted a 4-year-old neighbor girl. Tragic as
it is, Brian is not an isolated case. Why is pornography so readily
available to minors?
Then there is the story of Oliver
Wanglie. Oliver’s wife Helga fell into a coma in 1990 as the
result of a heart attack. Because she was elderly and showing no
signs of improvement, the hospital where Helga was staying went to
court to force Oliver to take her off life-sustaining equipment.
Oliver knew this would not be Helga’s desire, and he fought for
his wife’s life. Imagine the plight of this elderly man when the
medical establishment tried to get a court to rule him incompetent
to make decisions for his wife. Oliver won the case, and Helga died
months later of natural causes. But other suits will follow, and the
next senior citizen may not be so fortunate. The euthanasia movement
is on the rise in America.
You are probably familiar with the
story of Kimberly Bergalis, the young woman from Florida who
contracted AIDS from her dentist. Newsweek printed a letter
Kimberly wrote to the medical establishment as she lay dying:
"When I was diagnosed
with AIDS in December of '89, I was only 21 years old. It was the
shock of my life and my family’s as well. I have lived to see my
hair fall out, my body lose over 40 pounds, blisters on my sides.
I’ve lived to go through nausea and vomiting, continual night
sweats, chronic fevers of 103-104.... I’ve had a bone marrow
I cried my heart out from the
pain of the biopsy.... I lived to see white fungus grow all over
the inside of my mouth..... Unless a cure is found, I’ll be one
of your statistics soon.... You’ve ruined my life and my
Here was a medical professional,
conducting an often bloody procedure on his patients knowing he was
dying of AIDS but refusing to even warn them, and protected by law
from having to do so.
Because we are talking about real
people, human beings made in the image of God, the question of the
second greatest commandment is immediately raised. How do we
"love our neighbor as ourselves" when it comes to social
issues? What are we to do for all the Rachels, Brians, Olivers and
Kimberlys of our world? We know that Christ calls us to compassion
for those in distress, but what exactly is meant by compassion? Is
it merely feeling bad for the person?
B.B. Warfield in his book The
Person and Work of Christ points us to the story of Jesus at the
tomb of Lazarus to broaden our understanding of compassion. The
setting is familiar to us. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary,
has died. These were close friends of Jesus, and Christ now comes
down to Bethany where the two sisters are mourning. What is His
reaction to this event? (cf. John 11:33-36)
Jesus has two reactions here: One
is sorrow (He wept). The other is described by the phrase
"deeply moved," used twice in this account of Jesus at the
tomb of Lazarus. Warfield points out that the English translation
doesn’t fully convey the sense of the Greek word embrimaomai.
The root of this word means to "snort in spirit." It was
used by Greek playwrights to describe stallion before battle,
rearing up on their hind legs, pawing at the air and snorting before
Jesus enters His father’s world,
a place that should have been full of beauty, order and, above all,
life. Instead He finds ugliness, disarray and death. Christ is not
only moved with sorrow here, He is outraged. He figuratively snorts
in spirit. This give us a fuller understanding of the biblical
meaning of compassion. This is an appropriate reaction to issues
like abortion, pornography, and euthanasia — a reaction that
should be encouraged in our churches.
Outrage may be an appropriate
place to start, but we know that outrage is not enough. A biblical
sense of compassion demands action on our part. We are all familiar
with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Both the
priest and the Levite could see that an injustice had been done to
the man in the ditch, but the Samaritan did something about it.
Biblical compassion is not sentimental wish-wash. A sense of outrage
in the face of an injustice must result in action on our
neighbor’s behalf. When you hear a story like Rachel’s or
Brian’s, you must do something.
Why should Christians be socially
and politically involved?
II. A Christian view of human
beings assumes it.
The late Francis Schaeffer used to
say that "man is not just soul to be saved." Throughout
his published works, Schaeffer placed a great emphasis on the
biblical model of humanity, and for good reason. We understand from
Scripture that people have physical needs that God is concerned
with; we have emotional needs that God is concerned with as well.
British theologian John Stott says, "Therefore if we truly love
our neighbors, and because of their worth desire to serve them, we
shall be concerned for their total welfare, the well being of their
soul, their soul, their body and their community. And our concern
shall lead to practical programs...."
The evangelical church in
particular has lost this balance. Its focus on evangelism has all
but excluded social action. People are not just souls to be saved.
Take a careful look at the parable of the sheep and the goats in
Matthew 25:31-46. This sobering passage reveals that Christ is very
concerned about our life here and now, not just in the hereafter.
What have the sheep done, that they are welcomed into eternal life?
They have engaged in practical ministry to people’s physical and
emotional needs. In contrast, the goats are condemned for failing to
meet those needs. There is no mention of evangelism here; no Four
Laws, no altar calls. In many places elsewhere in Scripture, Christ
makes it clear we are to be very concerned for our neighbor’s
eternal destiny (Matthew 20:18-20), but never to the exclusion of
their physical and emotional needs.
Shortly after World War II, a
young theologian wrote a small book that exploded like a bomb in the
peaceful world of conservative Christianity. The writer, Carl Henry,
chastised fundamentalism for its narrow emphasis on personal
salvation and its lack of concern for problems facing society. Until
Christians became serious about dealing with social problems, they
could never be the salt and light that Scripture commands them to
be. Henry’s book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism
helped launch the modern evangelical Christian movement. But 45
years later, Henry is still calling for the church to impact the
culture. It is a message that has been slow to sink in.
Compassion demands action, and the
biblical model of man requires that we take action not only to save
souls, but for the temporal welfare of those souls as well. Frankly,
when our Christianity fails to address all aspects of life, it
appears to the world too trivial to be true. Perhaps it would be
best to consider, at this point, the relationship between social
action and evangelism.
Why should Christians be socially
and politically involved?
III. The effectiveness of our
evangelism depends on it.
The relationship of social action
to evangelism is a question that has kept the Christian community in
tension for the better part of a century. In 1982, the Lausanne
Committee for World Evangelism and the World Evangelical Fellowship
sponsored a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to draft a report
bringing social action and evangelism into biblical balance. The
report concluded that these two areas of Christian concern are
"like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of
a bird." The conference delineated three ways in
which social responsibility and evangelism are related:
"First, social activity is a
consequence of evangelism." That is, our salvation should
result in social responsibility. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:6 that
"faith works through love." James 2:18 says, "I will
show you my faith by my works." Titus 2:14 tells us that Christ
came not only to "redeem us from all iniquity" but also
"to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for
good deeds." Similarly, Ephesians 2:10 teaches that Christians
are "created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared
beforehand that we should walk in them." Thus, the writers of
the Grand Rapids report noted that "good works cannot save, but
they are an indispensable evidence of salvation.... Social
responsibility, like evangelism, should therefore be included in the
teaching ministry of the church."
"Secondly, social activity
can be a bridge to evangelism. It can break down prejudice and
suspicion, open closed doors and gain an hearing for the gospel....
If we turn a blind eye to the suffering, the social oppression, the
alienation and loneliness of people, let us not be surprised if they
turn a deaf ear to our message of eternal salvation."
"Thirdly, social activity not
only follows evangelism as its consequence and aim, and precedes it
as a bridge, but also accompanies it as its partner." In His
own ministry, Jesus went about "teaching and preaching"
and also "doing good and healing. Both were expressions of His
compassion for people, and both should be of ours. . .Thus
evangelism and social responsibility, while distinct from one
another, are integrally related in our proclamation of and obedience
to the Gospel. The partnership is, in reality, a marriage."6
So far, we have not said anything
with which most Christians would disagree. We know we ought to love
our neighbor as ourselves, and we know that love must have practical
ramifications. Where the tension usually arises is when the issues
are controversial. Feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless —
there is little debate that the church should do these things. The
church grows reluctant when an issue becomes "political."
The Grand Rapids report is helpful in this regard as well. The
drafter included the following table to clarify the difference
between social service and social action:
· relieving human need
· philanthropic activity
· seeking to minister to individuals and families
· works of mercy
· removing the causes of human need
· political / economic activity
· seeking to transform the structures of society
· the quest for justice
Social service is
an area of comfort, where the church can remain free from
controversy. Social action represents activity often
derisively labeled "political," and by implication
off-limits for the Christian. While these distinctions are helpful,
they also are artificial. It is not practical or possible to get
involved in social service without social action. Stott uses slavery
as an example. The harsh treatment of slaves might be ameliorated
through social service, but you will continue to have the problem
unless you abolish slavery through social action. Or if accidents
keep occurring at an unregulated intersection, then what is needed
is not more ambulances but a traffic light. "So if we truly
love our neighbors and want to serve them, our service may oblige us
to take ... political action on their behalf," notes Stott (p.
Why should we be socially and politically
IV. A Christian view of government requires it.
Webster defines politics as
"the art or science of government." Given the
respect the Bible accords to government, why has the church shied
away from politics? There are many reasons, but foremost among them
is the confusion surrounding the New Testament teaching on civil
government. One scholar who has looked deeply into the relationship
of Christians to the state is the British theologian C.E.B.
Cranfield. He makes these observations from the following
The Herodians, trying to trap
Jesus, ask Him if it is proper to pay taxes to the Roman government.
At Christ’s request, one of them produces a Roman coin, and Christ
says, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is
God’s." The word "render" carries a sense of duty
or obligation. Christ commands his hearers to do their duty to civil
government, and in the United States that means participation in the
political process. Those of us who live in a democratic republic are
But why this sense of obligation?
The fact that the Jewish questioners produce a Roman coin is
essential to the story. Those taking advantage of the amenities of
Caesar’s rule are obligated to help pay for them. As citizens of
our country, we benefit from its economic prosperity, its political
order, its public safety, transportation, educational opportunities,
and so forth. We are obligated to our government.
God has established government,
and service to the state as part of our debt of gratitude. Romans 13
does not appear in a vacuum. It is merely a continuation of an
exhortation which starts with chapter 12, an exuberant call for us
to love, to give, to bless and to service others. Why? This attitude
of service wells up out of a deep sense of gratitude for all that
God has done and is doing for us — His people (chapters 1-11).
Further, God’s purpose in establishing government is very limited
and very specific: to reward good behavior and punish evil.
Magnificent light is shed on this in 1 Timothy.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
When government restrains chaos,
conditions are best for preaching the gospel, and God desires that
all people be given the opportunity to repent and be saved. This is
why government is essential. What stronger motivation could there
possibly be for the Christian to ensure that government works well?
Unfortunately, a superficial
reading of Romans 13 has led many Christians to conclude that we
must accept whatever form of government we have and submit to
whatever actions our rulers take. This is a deeply mistaken reading
of the text. Scriptural examples abound where God’s people opposed
authority when their human leaders violated the law of God.
The principle set forth in this
passage is quite clear; when government violates the will of God, it
is our duty to oppress it. Part of the act of submission is to hold
our government accountable to a higher law, the law of God. Remember
Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego (Daniel 3)? Or Rahab (Joshua 2)? Or
the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1)? They are all examples of limited
submission. It is interesting to note that Charles Finney, the great
19th century evangelist still revered today for his work in revival,
taught his followers that Christians have a moral duty to oppose
government when government fails to do the will of God. 9 Many
of Finney’s converts were instrumental in the abolition of
slavery. The State is not supreme, and it is the role of the church
to hold the state to a higher standard. This brings us to our fifth
reason for social involvement.
Why should Christians be socially
and politically involved?
V. The character of God and the
lordship of Christ requires it.
Many Christians view the God they
serve as Lord of their own lives and of His church, but not much
else. A biblical view of His dominion is much broader. In his work
on social involvement, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, John
Stott points to three elements of God’s nature that have been
neglected by the church.
1. God is the God of the sacred
and the secular. Christians tend to view God as concerned only
with religious things, but God is the God of all creation and His
concern extends even to the smallest sparrow. Stott believes our
conception of God is too religious. "We imagine that He is
chiefly interested in religion, in religious buildings, religious
activities and religious books. Of course He is concerned about
these things, but only if they are related to the whole of life.
According to the Old Testament prophets and the teaching of Jesus,
God is very critical of ‘religion,’ if by that is meant
religious services divorced from real life, loving service, and the
moral obedience of the heart."
Francis Schaeffer spent a great
deal of his life helping the church to broaden its understanding of
the Lordship of Christ. He wrote in A Christian Manifesto
that "a platonic concept of spirituality which does not include
all of life is not true biblical spirituality. True spirituality
touches all of life, including things of government and law, and not
just ‘religious things.’"
2. God is the God of the
nations as well as of His covenant people. You recall in the
book of Daniel how Nebuchadnezzar is humbled to the point of grazing
on grass. He had to learn the hard way that "the Most High is
sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He
wishes." The Israelites were often guilty of reducing God to a
petty tribal deity — Yahweh, the god of the Jews. Amos is sent by
God to remind them that just as He brought Israel up from Egypt, so
He brought the Philistines from Crete and the Arameans from Kir. The
self-interest of Christians today reflects the same error the
Israelites made. God raises up His people to be a "blessing to
3. God is the God of justice as
well as of justification. We serve a compassionate God who
abounds in mercy, but not to the exclusion of justice (Psalm
146:7-9). Again, God is not only concerned with justice among His
people, but among all nations. In the first two chapters of Amos,
God indicts other nations for their brutal practices. Syria is
condemned for savage cruelty, Philistia for selling whole
communities into slavery, Tyre for breaking a treaty of brotherhood,
Edom for pitiless hostility toward Israel, Ammon for atrocities in
warfare, and Moab for desecrating the bones of a neighboring king.
Sodom and Gomorrah are well aware that God is concerned with
injustice wherever He finds it.
Stott sums up these three points:
"Here then is the God of the Bible. His concerns are
all-embracing — not only the ‘sacred’ but the secular.... Not
only His covenant people but all people, not only justification but
social justice in every community, not only His gospel but His law.
So we must not attempt to narrow down His interests. Moreover, ours
must be as broad as His."
There is so much more we could
say, but we trust this will suffice to set forth a biblical case for
social involvement. Perhaps it would be helpful to present the study
in outline form:
Why should Christians be socially and politically
I. A Christian view of love and compassion compels
We must love our neighbor as ourselves.
Love involves a sense of outrage in the face of evil.
Love requires that we take action.
II. A Christian view of human beings assumes it.
We must take seriously man’s physical, emotional and social needs.
III. The effectiveness of our evangelism depends
Galatians 5:6 and Titus 2:14
Good works are a consequence of evangelism.
Ephesians 2:10 and Matthew 5:16
Good works are a bridge to evangelism.
IV. A Christian view of government requires it.
We have a duty to government, including participation.
Government is ordained of God to reward good and punish evil.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
Government maintains the social order so that the gospel may go
Our submission to government is limited; we must hold it accountable
to a higher standard.
V. The character of God and the Lordship of Christ
God is the God of the secular as well as the sacred--critical of
God is Lord over all nations.
God is concerned with justice as well as mercy.
I trust this article provides a compelling case
for Christian social and political involvement.
Cranfield, C.E.B., "The Christians Political
Responsibility According to the New Testament," Scottish
Journal of Theology 15, 1962, pp. 176-92.
Schaeffer, Francis A. , A Christian Manifesto, Westchester:
Crossway, 1981, p. 87.
Stott, John, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, Old
Tappan: Revell, 1990, p. 19.
Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment,
The Grand Rapids Report, Paternoster, 1982, p.23.
Warfield, Benjamin, The Person and Work of Christ,
Philadelphia: Presbyterian, 1970, p. 110-115.
Copyright © 1998 Focus on the
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.