The Purpose of Social Compassion and Social Action
By James D. Berkley
Social concern and evangelism form the heart of the church’s mission. Unfortunately, some Christians have viewed evangelism as the church’s exclusive mandate, while others have emphasized only social concern. But biblical teaching, theology, and church history all advocate a mission that embodies both.
Social concern encompasses two primary forms: social compassion and social action. Social compassion involves direct, concrete ministry to existing social, physical, and emotionally needs. Church-sponsored hospitals, prison ministries, food banks, shelters, soup kitchens, and educational programs down through the centuries have expressed this Christian social compassion. While usually remedial in nature, social compassion allows for personal expressions of love and often builds bridges for verbal proclamation of the gospel.
Social action, by comparison focuses more on political, social, and institutional change. Preventive in nature, it seeks to keep social ills from developing in the first place. If ministries to prisoners illustrates the penal system denotes social action. The church uses political interest groups, prophetic pronouncements (from both the pulpit and organized church bodies), and educational programs to raise sensitivities and provoke action on the part of Christians. The evangelical church in the twentieth century has been most at home with social compassion, but in recent years has again ventured into the arena of social action.
Theological Foundations for Social Concern
There are many theological themes that lend support to Christian social compassion and action. The most foundational doctrines are creation, fall, redemption, and eschaton (or consummation). These are essential stages of the biblical drama and provide a significant theological foundation for the church’s mission, including both evangelism and social concern.
* Creation. At the heart of creation is an all-powerful, loving God creating human beings (male and female) in his image (Gen. 1:26-28). While theologians have long debated the meaning of the image of God, one implication is clear: all humans possess dignity and worth before God. Though the image of God was marred at the pall, it remains intact. Thus, Christians must always be concerned about social institutions, and human actions that deface the imago Dei. When Christians in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and America worked for the abolition of slavery, they usually did so with the rationale that all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even creed bear the mark of God’s image. In our own time, the dignity of human life is a powerful ethical principle informing a whole range of issues from abortion and euthanasia to economic justice and racism.
Creation theology also provides a foundation for social concern through the cultural mandate that God gave to men and women at creation: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves, on the ground,'” (Genesis 1:28). Being his image bearers, human beings have received from God the task of caring for the physical, temporal earth. Though we as sinful creature have abused that role by exploiting those resources (human and natural), we are nonetheless charged with the awesome task of trusteeship on earth.
* The Fall. The second stage of the biblical drama was the Fall. With the entrance of sin into the world, God’s good earth became corrupted, human relationships were distorted, and social and cultural realities gravitated from peace, justice, and freedom to violence, injustice, and bondage. The fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 produced alienation at four levels: from God, from self, from others, and from nature.
Sin, therefore, must be understood not only as encompassing individual actions and attitudes that transgress God’s way, but also as corporate and structural realities. The Old Testament decries civic laws that do injustice, while the New Testament denounces principalities and powers that abdicate their God-given role. Sin extends to those cultural norms, political policies, institutional patterns, and societal practices that circumvent the will of God.
Corporate realities, though never totally divorced from human action and thinking, do tend to assume a life of their own. Therefore, when Christians in the nineteenth century became sensitized to abuses in the factory system, they sought not only to change the human heart but also to revise the legal code. Similarly, may contemporary Christians who engage in the cultural battle over abortion seek not only to influence personal decisions (as exemplified y crisis pregnancy centers) but also to change civic laws to restrict the practice of abortion on demand in society.
* Redemption. The third part of the biblical drama is redemption. Some Christians view social transformation itself as a redemptive process, but many would prefer to reserve salvation language in this world to personal redemption. This, however, does not negate redemptive implications for social concern.
In redemption, through personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, a person is justified before God. But redemption through Christ’s forgiveness and the entrance of the Holy Spirit into one’s life brings personal renewal that affects all domains of life. As the apostle Paul put it, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Newness in Christ leads not only to inward change or outward practice of personal piety but also to new expressions of love and justice, growing concern for social abuses, and highlighted sensitivity to cultural degradation. Christians are called to a life of spirit-empowered holiness that is not only inward but also outward and social in nature.
Commitment to Jesus Christ brings one into his body, the church which is God’s new community on earth, the first fruits of God’s coring kingdom. As such, it is called to embody a new quality of relationships and commitments. It is called to live out God’s love, mercy, and justice, and so to become salt, light, and leaven within the world. Its prophetic voice and its deeds of social compassion and action demonstrate that redemption through Jesus Christ makes a difference in this world.
* The Consummation. The fourth part of the biblical drama is consummation, or eschaton. Manifestations of redemption present world are incomplete, but Scripture teaches that just as inaugurated human history, so he will bring it to its culmination.
Christians throughout history have developed different interpretations regarding Christ’s return and the end of time. Some eschatologies have propelled believers to great action in the present, while others have engendered quietism and passivity interpretation, several things are clear. It is indeed God who will bring about the consummation of history and the ultimate triumph. But Christians are to long for this “blessed hope” with actions that reflect its coming reality.
Though perfect peace and justice will ultimately be realized only the eschaton, God’s people are called to bear witness to that reality by their own lives and commitments. The coming of Christ in the New Testament is never portrayed as an occasion for crystal-ball gazing passive waiting. It is rather a call to action that anticipates God’s ultimate reign.
Creation, fall, redemption, and consummation: these form the foundations that give perspective for the church’s social compass and action in our world. Without this framework our actions in society can easily be reduced to mere humanistic moralism on the one hand or hopeless passivity on the other.
Biblical Examples of Social Concern
The Bible is full of exhortations and examples regarding social concern.
* Old Testament. The Old Testament books of the Law echo a strong concern for social justice. Laws regulating property, the use of land, and the treatment of other people (i.e., Exod. 21-23) helped control violations of human dignity and ensure justice. Allocations and uses of land were of particular significance, since the very existence and identity of the Hebrew people were bound up with land. Thus, God directed them not to harvest the corners of their fields or go back over their vineyards a second time, so that the poor among them would have food (Lev. 19:9-10). And every fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee, land was to be returned to its original owner to ensure a measure of distributive justice (Lev. 25). God’s law, then, stipulated not only acts of mercy for the downtrodden (Deut. 15:10-11) but also structural changes that limited exploitation and promoted justice in an agrarian, peasant society.
The balance of the Old Testament echoes a similar support for social concern. In the historical books, God condemns acts of social evil such as when King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ordered Naboth killed to confiscate the vineyard that was his inheritance and means of livelihood (1 Kings 21). In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prays to God who “raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (v. 8).
The poetic books similarly portray Yahweh as a God of justice, compassion, and holiness. The psalmist gives praise to God because “he upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.”
The Lord sets prisoners flee, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (146:7-8). The Proverbs for people to express that same character: “He who oppresses poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (14:31).
It is with the Old Testament prophets that we find the most explicit calls to social compassion and action. In calling the people of God to a renewal of their spiritual covenant, the prophets challenge them to turn away from idols that destroy both their relationship with God and each other. They call for repentance from sin, including such social sins as apathy toward the poor, mistreatment of workers, greedy accumulation of land, and injustice in the courts. Amos, prophesying in the eighth century B.C. amidst great opulence and social unrighteousness, decries those who “hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them, though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine (5:10-11).”
Most of the prophets resonate in one way or another with the oft-quoted words of Micah: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
* New Testament. The New Testament further develops the theme:, of social concern seen in the Old Covenant, and nowhere is this more explicit than in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. One day at the beginning of his ministry, Christ read from the prophet Isaiah, claiming that this Scripture was fulfilled in him: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).”
Though Jesus never engaged in social action of an overtly politics nature, his own ministry and teachings were deemed a threat to conventional societal norms, as evidenced in his arrest and death. His teachings trumpeted a clarion call for love, mercy, and justice, often in ways that broke ranks with the expected mores, as seen in his story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10). His healing miracles, while clearly an evidence of his deity, are examples of social compassion and demonstrate that Christ ministered to the whole person, not merely the soul.
New Testament church sought to flesh out the ways of Chris both within the Christian community as well as the larger world. These early Christians felt their first responsibility was to fellow Christians, as evidenced in the selling of possessions to meet others needs (Acts 2:45; 4:32-35) and in the offerings for economically distressed churches (2 Cor. 8–9; 1 Cor. 16:1-4). But as the apostle Paul made clear, Christian compassion was to extend beyond the walls of the church (Gal. 6:10, 2 Cor. 9:13) and was to be rooted in both love and justice.
Social concern in the New Testament is the outworking of God’s grace in a person’s life; without it, one’s salvation can be questioned: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).
Social Concern In Church History
Throughout the history of the church, believers have demonstrated diverse forms of social action and social compassion. The greatest divergence, and controversy, has been lodged in the social action arena, where the church has long debated such foundational issues s he relationship of Christianity and society and the appropriate mechanisms for effecting societal or cultural change.
While the early church seemed most at home with social compassion, it also made a dent in certain socio-cultural practices. Its social ministries were set in a larger context of animosity and persecution, with the church being a distinct minority. The church viewed the state with great suspicion, rejecting the notion (which would become commonplace by the fourth century) that the state or any social institution could be counted on to reinforce Christian morals and belief.
Despite its minority status and tentative attitude toward society, church made an impact through preaching-teaching and moral example in such social practices as slavery, gladiatorial fights, and infanticide. In contrast to the classical world, which displayed little concern for the needy, ally Christians were filled with mercy and compassion as evidenced by this description from Aristides: They love one another, and from windows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has gives to him who has not, without boasting And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother. And if there is any among them that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply the needy their lack of food (Webber 1986, 56).
The church of the Middle Ages stood in stark contrast to the early church. In the fourth century under Constantine, the church was officially recognized and soon became the favored religious body, exerting great power over al of society. While the medieval church continued its ministries of compassion, it relied increasingly on social action and its influence over politics, economics, education, and the entire cultural fabric. While the church achieved unprecedented power and influence, it also came to be ruled by society and its norms.
With the Reformation came renewed but diverse visions of social concern. Lutherans, with their strong two-kingdom theology, granted the state temporal rule, while the church was in charge of the spiritual realm. In Calvin’s Geneva, the Reformed church exerted such influence in economics and politics that it has often been branded a theocracy (rule by God’s law). On the other hand, Anabaptists called for separation of church and state and were skeptical of the state’s ability to uphold Christian beliefs or ethical norms. All three Protestant movements addressed social concern but expressed it with great variation.
This diversity of approaches had continued in the modern era. One of the most powerful expressions of social concern in this period came in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening in England at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. A group of evangelical Anglicans (called the Clapham sect) under the leadership of William Wilberforce, spearheaded in Parliament the abolition of slave trade and eventually brought about emancipation. They, along with later evangelicals, also initiated reform in prisons, educational institutions, factories, and child-labor laws. The reforms clearly were rooted in the great “Evangelical Revival” and the preaching of John Wesley.
In nineteenth-century America, much the some story can be told. Revivalism had a profound impact on the antislavery movement, women’s suffrage, and ministries of social compassion in industrial, urban centers. Great preachers like Charles Finney called people to walk the sawdust trail to receive Christ as well as to join the abolition forces.
During the first half of the twentieth century, many conservative Christians abandoned their commitment to social concern. However, in recent decades social compassion and social action have been reclaimed by evangelicalism. And yet not all is well. In the attempt to impact society, some Christians have become highly politicized, failing to grasp the complexity of Christian social action in a pluralistic society. Theological foundations have given way to pragmatism; emotional reactions have sometimes replaced prayerful wisdom.
Social compassion and social action in the midst of a secularized society are part of the church’s mandate. But they must be grounded in Scripture, guided by theology, and informed by the church’s prior involvements. Above all, Christian social concern must seek the glory of god, the compassion of Jesus Christ, and the empowerment and discernment of the Holy Spirit.
This article “The Purpose Of Social Compassion And Social Action” written by James D. Berkley is excerpted from Leadership Handbooks Of Practical Theology: Volume 2 Outreach And Care written by James D. Berkley chapter 11.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”