Christian Social Action
As Reformed Christians we have a full-orbed world-and-life view. We believe that Christ is Lord of all of life and that by his grace, through the ministry of the church, people and communities can be transformed by the gospel. Social action is word-and-deed ministry by Christians that brings deliverance to people in their total need. Social action encompasses the full ministry of the local church from its evangelism, teaching, and worship ministry to the ministry of mercy. It is the full ministry of the church as it seeks to bring the gospel to people in our sin-broken world.
Christian social action finds its moorings in the Scriptures. God created man and, calling him to serve in every aspect of his life, endowed him with the ability to do that (Genesis 1:26-28). This mission was to begin in Eden but extend to the very ends of the earth. God made us to be a people who work to develop the creation – a stewardship of our whole life.
We find this developing further in Genesis 2:19, where the Lord brings the creatures to Adam to see what he would name them. We don't often think about this passage because the Bible does not tell us what names Adam chose. However, we can be pretty sure that what he did was tied to what the Lord had called him to do. He was not just giving them nice-sounding names! He was really placing the creatures in the order of creation as a part of his dominion-activity. He was giving them names that acknowledged God alone to be Creator.
Sin renames the creation
Unfortunately, sin enters the picture in Genesis 3. Mankind seeks to take the ownership of creation from the Creator. Romans 1 tells us that the sinner worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator and, in so doing, renames the creation. He now names things in terms of his own sinful rule saying: "I am the owner of the creation!” Sin is far worse than most of us think. Christians sometimes say that sin is doing your own thing. But, if that is so, the world would only be half as bad as it is. Man not only wants to do his own thing, he wants everybody else to do his thing, too. He wants to say to the whole creation: "You are mine." And some people are more successful at it than others. They take the ownership of creation and in so doing enslave people, taking what belongs to God. That's why, in the Scriptures, God is so concerned about the relationship of the master to the worker because the work really belongs to him, and if the master does not compensate the worker with just wages he is stealing that person's ability to live freely in serving God.
The Sabbath principle
In the Old Testament the Sabbath was given to keep God's people in remembrance of the Creator-creature distinction. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). In keeping the Sabbath Israel was to remember that "in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them" (Exodus20:11). The Sabbath is given to keep us in remembrance of the fact that God is the Lord of the whole universe, because he made it.
In the Old Testament the Sabbath had three out workings: (1) the Sabbath day, (2) the Sabbath year and (3) the year of Jubilee. Each had a specific role in keeping Israel mindful of the Creator-creature distinction. Each person was to keep Sabbath because God is the Lord who made him (Exodus 20:8-11). During the Sabbath year, every seventh year, the land was to celebrate a Sabbath to the Lord because the land belonged to the Lord (Leviticus 25:1-7). Then, on the year of Jubilee, every 50th year, all land was to revert to its original owner and all slaves were to be set free and given a portion of what they had produced for their master so that they could start life again as free men. Why? Because the slave belonged to the Lord and the land belonged to the Lord (Leviticus 25:38, 55).
When we fail to keep Sabbath we very quickly lose sight of the Creator/creature distinction. We do what Israel did and fall into the trap of thinking that our life, our possessions, our neighbor and all the world around us are somehow ours to do with as we please.
The salvation principle
As Moses prepares the people for entering the Promised Land, he reiterates a principle that is foundational to our involvement in Christian social action (Deuteronomy 10:14-22).
Here Moses enlarges the Sabbath principle to say that the Lord is your maker, but your Redeemer as well. Remember where the Lord met you. He met you in your brokenness and enslavement, and he delivered you and brought you to this land. As Israel entered that Promised Land they were not to forget where they came from, how they got there. They were free because of the grace of the Lord.
Our social action ministry to the broken and the downtrodden, the poor and the alien in the world around us, must flow from our relationship to the Creator and Redeemer. We are to act toward our neighbors as the Lord himself has acted toward us. He has brought us total deliverance and endowed us with the ability to serve him. As a thankful response we are now to bring that same deliverance to others out of the resources that God gives. We need to live as a people who have been visited by the mercy of God.
Israel very quickly forgot this. There was to be no exploitation of the poor, of the alien, of those without land or resources. There was to be no exploitation of the widow and the fatherless who, by virtue of the death of the head of the household, had no legal rights in the land. Because they forgot this they were sent into exile for seventy years. Why 70? Why not 50 or 40? 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 suggests that the length of the captivity in Babylon was tied to the number of Sabbath years that Israel had failed to observe.
New Testament foundations
The Sabbath provision in the Old Testament is a shadow of the New Testament fulfillment in Christ. What, then, is that New Testament reality?
Christ, in his inaugural address, announces what he has come to establish, taking his text from Isaiah 61:1-2, to say that He has come to bring true Jubilee to Israel, Often, biblical commentators spiritualize this text by saying that Jesus is referring to the poor in spirit or the spiritually blind. Yet, Jesus makes clear that he means the economically poor–the beggar by the side of the road, the physically blind (cf. Luke 7:18-23). Jesus addresses the world's brokenness and alienation, bringing whole-life deliverance to those the Father had given to him. In this, he was obedient unto death.
In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20) Jesus says, "I don't just want your heart; I call you to serve me with your whole life." In calling the church to ''teach all that I have commanded," he means everything from Genesis to Revelation. This is really the gospel implementation of the redeeming of the creation. The Lord wants a people who will serve him with their whole life, not just with their lips (cf. Ephesians2:8-10 and Titus 2:11-14).
Social action in the book of Acts
As the gospel comes to people first in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, and finally in the other parts of the world, we find that they are not only gathered into a worshiping body but they become a serving body. They care for one another and minister wholeness to the world around them.
The church in Jerusalem, fulfilling its mission of word and deed, finds itself challenged to deal justly in the care of widows in the congregation. Many in the church felt that the apostles should drop everything that they were doing to devote themselves to the care of widows. However, the full word-deed ministry would be jeopardized if they did this. Wisely, they asked the church to appoint seven others who would coordinate this ministry. Here we find the beginning of organized mercy ministry in the church, eventuating in the establishment of the office of deacon. By this a full word-deed ministry stayed together in the church.
Word-Deed ministry in Macedonia
One of the most remarkable passages supporting word-deed ministry is found in 2 Corinthians 8. Paul had committed himself to make known the unique needs of the Jerusalem church in their time of persecution and famine. Everywhere he went he told of that need and took an offering for the needs of the saints.
He did that even in Macedonia where the church was going through its own trial. Yet they had an abundance of joy which resulted in their giving a very generous offering. So generous, that Paul thought that they had given too much (2 Corinthians 8:3b-5). Imagine this scene: your pastor tells of the need of a sister congregation – perhaps it has been devastated by a tornado. There is going to be an offering taken for this emergency need. Then, on the announced Sunday, the ushers bring it to the front. The pastor takes one look and exclaims, "You've given too much. You can't possibly afford to give this much." He asks the ushers to pass the plates back with the instruction that each person take something out. The plates come back with even more in them. The congregation pleads: "The Lord has blessed us so that we must give to meet this need."
Social action in James
We live in an age in which the number of fatherless children and widows is mushrooming before our eyes – people without a legal defender, protector or provider. But God has a special interest in the fatherless and widows because of their vulnerability to those who advantage of them.
Now, some translations tend to weaken the thrust of James 1:27. The Authorized Version has: "visit the widow and the orphan in their distress." This conveys the thought that widows are lonely people whom we ought to visit on a Sunday afternoon. To be sure, we should do that, but it means much more. "To look after" or "to visit" is a verb form of the word that is translated "bishop" in other passages. The bishop is to look out for the needs of the congregation, to protect them from forces which seek to devour and destroy (cf. Titus 1). Look out, then, for the needs and interests of the widow and the orphan in their distress. Bring deliverance to the widow and the fatherless in their oppression.
So, the ministry to the widows (in Acts 6) was not just that of giving another meal, but rather a ministry of being their extended family, their protector and provider.
John Perkins, in A Quiet Revolution, identifies five essential steps to getting involved in social action that transforms lives and communities:
1. The Call
God calls us to go to the broken and alienated points of the communities around us. Our relationship with Christ began with Jesus meeting us in our hour of need (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus took his ministry directly to those who were broken and alienated and in need of the gospel. We are to do the same. We are to be a people who are compelled by the gospel to go to the tough places of the world around would take us and to bring the gospel to people at their point of need.
If you live in the city, as I do, you can easily identify a poor community and people with needs. But, in many of our communities they are not as visible. Yet they are there. You might develop a ministry to battered women. Drug and alcohol abuse abound on all sides. In our day one in two marriages ends in divorce. Who is ministering to those whose homes have been broken in this way? Or, you may take on a ministry at a prison, recognizing the need to deal not only with the prisoner but also with his family. This is especially true of women prisoners who very often have children who are placed in foster homes while they are in prison.
The healing we bring begins with the proclamation of the gospel. What we do, we do in the name of Christ. He has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20) Philadelphia’s largest church is the Deliverance Evangelistic Church.
The church’s motto is “reaching the lost at any cost.” With over thirty-five departments of evangelism this church is reaching out to the city on all fronts, from street corner preaching to prison evangelism, nursing homes, youth recreational activities, telephone evangelism, family counseling and a twenty-four hour prayer phone line. Each ministry targets people with specific needs and works to place Christians equipped to share the gospel at each point of need.
Ed Wilbraham of Trinity OP Church, Hatboro, Pa. is involved with the ministry of Transport for Christ (New Horizons, vol. 10, #7) which seeks to reach America’s nomadic people–truck drivers. Many truckers spend weeks at a time on the road. Most come from broken homes. Yes, Christ calls us to take the gospel to the truck stops of our land.
3. Social action
Our ministry is not in word only, but in word and deed. As we go forth with the gospel we meet people with physical, social, economic and spiritual needs. John Perkins defines social action as action that meets the real felt needs of those to whom we bring the gospel. It’s bringing immediate relief to something that is burdening people. It could be food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless or battered, or counseling for the troubled. We must learn to listen and feel with them the needs that they are facing. If we are living with people in community, their needs will become our needs. Jesus tells us that children of the Kingdom feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).
4. Economic development
Perkins argues that very often the church gets bogged down in meeting immediate needs and becomes a relief agency without necessarily bringing true deliverance to people in the midst of their situation. We need to find long-term solutions to the felt needs that people have. Behind homelessness often lies joblessness. Many people are not able to get jobs simply because they really don’t have employable skills.
Today in Philadelphia 40% of the adult population is functionally illiterate–they cannot read well enough to fill out a job application. Walking with a homeless person often means teaching him how to read so that he can fill out a job application. And you don’t do that overnight. It takes loving perseverance to walk with a person with this need. Yet, if we want to see him in a home of his own and with the resources with which to live so that he too might serve the Lord, we have got to do exactly that. We have got to walk with people so that they can find work with dignity and an adequate wage.
Dennis McAllister, a member of Emmanuel Chapel (OPC), Philadelphia, is developing just such an adult literacy ministry. Dennis can tell you that it is not just a matter of needing tutors to teach basic reading skills but it’s being a counselor, a friend and advocate to walk by their side through very difficult situations as they come out of being trapped in unemployment.
In John 14-17 the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete, our Friend by our side in the world which falsely accuses us as it did Christ. That’s exactly what we are to be, an advocate to look out for the interests of people, to be their friend by their side and to bring vindication to their name, that they might have the freedom to serve the Lord.
5. Justice ministry
Harvie Conn, in Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, argues that word-and-deed ministry involves bringing deliverance to people in their total need. It involves standing for justice when the system keeps people in bondage even when they desire to serve God.
Some years ago at Emmanuel Chapel one of our members was living in housing that was in very poor condition. So much so, that when it rained, it seemed to rain as hard inside as it did outside. We read in the paper that the city had a Homestead Program for low and moderate income families where they could buy an abandoned house from the city for $1 and the city would provide resources to fix it up and bring it up to code. Here was a wonderful opportunity to meet this family's need, or so we thought. In applying we found out that the program was only for families with both a husband and wife.
Here she was a single mother with four children, yet she met the income requirement. Well, we had to knock on the door and get the rules changed so that she could be eligible. We spent the better part of a year walking through the process of getting a house and then doing the work on the house with volunteer labor by the church. In the end she had a house of her own at an affordable cost.
How do you avoid forcing Christians into one or another political position against their wishes? One party will support the system and another will call for the system's dismantlement, and a Christian may find himself uncomfortable in one or another of those camps. How does the Christian seek justice and correction of the system without being identified with the party that wants to tear down the system?
The answer is for us to build our involvement in these areas, first, in terms of a relationship to the Lord and doing things out of the principles that he clearly gives us in his Word. Our agenda is not that of one party or another. It is the Lord's agenda as he instructs and guides us in our ministry. Secondly, we must build our involvement around the people to whom we are committed in ministry. Their real needs are the agenda through which we work. Often we find ourselves taking positions that are not on anybody's political agenda.
Should this work always be done on an individual basis so that the church as church is never identified with a political program? Or should the church seek to come to one mind on these issues so that as church it moves forward, doing these ministries? There is no easy answer to this question. When believers face a need, such as abortion, I believe that the regional, and perhaps national, church does need to come to some unified mind as to how it must minister in this situation.
Sometimes local churches find themselves without the resources to meet a need. The OPC has a denominational Diaconal Committee to assist local churches and presbyteries in meeting such needs from resources of the larger church. Emmanuel Chapel does not have the economic resources to support a person to carry on its literacy ministry. It will be able to do this ministry only in partnership with other churches who face the same need, or with congregations who are willing to supply that need. As this happens, the church puts into practice the principle of 2 Corinthians 8:13-15.
There are many other social action ministries needed today. We need Christians in the work place calling people to be stewards of their work in the service of the Lord. We need Christians to be involved in labor/management issues from a Christian perspective, helping employers to deal justly with their workers. We need Christians working for freedom of education within our country. We need Christians working at a full pro-life agenda that includes providing viable alternatives like adoption and ministries to support and encourage single parents while, at the same time, seeking a change in the laws of our land.
Begin by drawing up a balance sheet of the grace of God in your life. Reflect on where the Lord met you and how he has worked in your life to bring you to the place where you are now. From this, recognize that what the Lord has done with you he is calling you to do with other people. Then ask the Lord to make you willing to put your life at the hard and broken places in the world around you. Recognize that our God has what it takes to minister in that tough place. Finally, pray that the Lord would make you a good steward of his grace in that situation. As you do that, he will surprise you with what he does.