Does it matter?
In the last 5 years or so I’ve been intrigued by the research done by groups such as Barna, Pew, Gallup and others. While statistical analysis is not 100% accurate it is interesting to consider what the numbers say about the views and values of our nation. Such data is especially interesting when studies are repeated year over year for a decade ore more. Earlier this month Pew Research released the findings of their “Trends in American Values” study; a survey which they’ve conducted and expanded for the last 25 years. Although I’ve only skimmed the overview and have not read the full 164 page report, the trends are interesting, to say the least; and particularly so for the Church. For instance, on page 5 of the overview we read.
Republicans and Democrats are furthest apart in their opinions about the social safety net. There are partisan differences of 35 points or more in opinions about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.
Just 40% of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” down 18 points since 2007. In three surveys during the George W. Bush administration, no fewer than half of Republicans said the government had a responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves. In 1987, during the Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62% expressed this view.
Later the report reveals Republican and Democrat value shifts graphically.
Is this an issue? Does it matter? I think is and does.
In chapter 2 of his book “Preaching & Preachers” Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones writes briefly of early 20th century British church history. He cites the rise of a “social gospel” in Western countries prior to the First World War and explains that the same was happening in America at the time of His lecture series, which ultimately became the book “Preaching & Preachers.” Lloyd-Jones’ purpose in doing so was to highlight the importance of keeping the preaching of the gospel central to the work of the church. He argues that this “social gospel” was “largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain.” I do not question Lloyd-Jones’ assertion, nor do I disagree that preaching should remain primary within the Church. The social concerns that Lloyd-Jones addresses are ones of ethics and morality, which he rightly argues are nothing without godliness; his points are actually well made . My concern however, which I believe is represented in the above data from Pew Research, is that American Evangelical Christianity in the last half century, or more, has neglected its social responsibility. This shift is certainly not because of Lloyd-Jones, but rather a position that seems to say “the purpose of the church is preaching, and we should vacate the social sphere.”
Yes, the proclamation of the gospel is the central work of the Church. It is essential that we “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15). But are there not aspects of the gospel that require the activity of the Church in the sphere of social issues? Throughout it’s history, the Church has been the body which addressed humanity’s social ills. Health and welfare are the responsibility of the body of Christ. Be that as it may, somewhere in the middle of the last century, the American Evangelical Church withdrew from that sphere, leaving a vacuum. Since nature abhors a vacuum, someone or something had to fill it. Enter the Government. What once was the ground held by the church is now occupied by federal, state and local government agencies. What once was provided for by the loving charity of God’s People is now—out of necessity—funded by ever increasing taxation. So, it is no surprise that Republicans, who are far more “religious” than Democrats, and who count themselves “socially conservative” would agree that It is not the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, or meet the needs of the poor. My question is, are we, the Church, ready to move back into the sphere that is rightfully ours and gladly meet the needs of others via our loving, compassionate charity? What good is social conservatism’s push for prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments back in the public arena, if we’re unwilling to practically display the love of Christ through gospel demonstration?
To political pundits like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, “Social Justice” is a catchphrase for Communism. But it is elementary in Christianity that “I am my brother’s keeper.”
You really hit it on the head here and it is something I have been struggling with. How involved do we get and how do get the gospel into what we do? Trying somethings this summer experiment.
Hi, Miles – thanks for this. A couple of responses:
1) What little research and study I’ve done on this gave evidence that it wasn’t the social work of the church that determined its theology, but its theology determined its social work (and other ministries, as well). So, the fear that an evangelical church doing social work (justice and mercy ministries) will move away from the gospel and eventually abandon it is by no means the norm. Those churches that do social work and minimize or dismiss the gospel came to that position apart from, and before, their social work. In fact, because they don’t have the cross all that is left to them is good works.
This doesn’t mean that some evangelical churches or ministries haven’t abandoned the gospel (I’m sure there are some examples), but it is not the norm nor the trend. I have heard of some evangelical ministries whose primary vision is mercy ministry who have not abandoned the gospel and the blood of Jesus, but have put that on the back burner because their main focus is nutrition and health. I am not ready to criticize them.
2) The pendulum swinging this way again in terms of evangelical churches engaged in social justice ministries demonstrates the breakdown and inadequacy of government. In that the government has taken responsibility for meeting the needs of the underclass demonstrates that it has been heavily leavened by Biblical teachings. In that the government is not able to meet the needs of the underclass demonstrates either that the needs of the underclass are overwhelming or that the government is incompetent in their marshalling of the resources at their disposal to meet that need. I vote for the latter.
Government’s greed and incompetency has left a vacuum for the church to fill. The church had filled that need by the leavening of government. But the unleavening of government, their departure from their Biblical mandate, calls upon the church to address the physical and social needs of the underclass – this is worthy. But it puts an undue burden upon the church for in addition to paying taxes to a corrupt and incompetent government, further monies must be allocated to this ministry.
I thought I would cut and paste your comment so I could respond directly.
“In that the government is not able to meet the needs of the underclass demonstrates either that the needs of the underclass are overwhelming or that the government is incompetent in their marshalling of the resources at their disposal to meet that need. I vote for the latter.”
I tend to think the answer to that is both. For a myriad of reasons, many people here are in bad shape. As a church, we could literally go broke trying to meet all the needs, and then those in need would find another place for help. Personally, I still wrestle with the degree and to whom the church should be helping.
As a separate topic, I’m surprised no one has addressed the decline of the Republican’s care for the enviroment. Living where I live, and knowing so many who are dependent on the land for their livelihood, I can say that is simply not the case. While convervatives may not crusade around a spotted owl (or the predecessor: the sage grouse), those who work the land have a huge interest in taking care of it.
I totally agree that the social activities of the Church must spring from a theological foundation. Furthermore, such social activities ought to take into consideration the primary problem—sin—from which every social ill stems. When ministering to the health and welfare of an individual, we must have total wellness in mind, which involves the spiritual wellbeing of the patient/client/seeker. Gospel proclamation is essential to gospel demonstration. These two cannot be mutually exclusive. When the church swings too far to either side, they do so to the detriment of the Gospel’s power.
Jesus’ words “The poor you will have with you always” is an indication, to me, that the Church will always have plenty with which to occupy itself. It is, I believe, wrong to interpret His words in such a way that gives the Christian an escape from their social responsibility. “Oh the task is so big, we’ll never be able to tackle it, don’t you know that we’ll always have the poor?”
Perhaps I’m totally off on this. In fact I’d actually like to be wrong in this respect. But it seems, from interactions I’ve personally had and words I’ve heard and read, that there is a mindset among Evangelical Christians—most of whom would call themselves “socially conservative”—that taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves and meeting the needs of the poor is too costly via taxation. You point out two good [possible] reasons for the costliness of it: (1) the needs are too great, and (2) the government is incompetent. But the fact remains, if the government were to vacate the sphere, like many conservative Christians would like, the [many] problems would still remain. Would we [the church] take up the costly slack via our caring, compassionate charity? I hope the answer would be yes.
You may be right, “Government’s greed and incompetency has left a vacuum for the church to fill.” My question would be, are we [the church] also greedy with our possessions, unwillingly hoarding “unrighteous mammon” while proving ourselves undeserving of a trust of “true riches?” When people point at the greediness of our government, shouldn’t we consider that a reflection of our own greediness? We are a government “of the people and by the people.”
Thanks for your word’s Tim, as usual, you cause me to think. 😉
The responsibility for caring for those around us who are less fortunate lies with the church. That is clear. What is not so clear is what that looks like in practice. Well, we have tried to ship off this obligation to the central government, and we see that has not worked out so well.
If one agrees that our founding documents were inspired, one might assume that endeavors by the occupants of the elected positions will behave in accord with those documents. But many have abused scripture to their own ends, so why are we surprised when the same happens in our centralized governments?
The true role of government in social justice ought to be that, within the borders of this country, the work of God’s Church shall not be hindered by outside forces, nor be abridged by laws or ‘policies’ that would either shackle or usurp the role of the church. Of course this means the church must take on fully the task, and faithfully do the work.
The Church dragged its feet, the people gave the load to the central government, and now the church needs to convince the people it can and will carry the load once again.
Hi, Greg – thanks for this. I don’t think it’s the case that the church shipped off her obligation for the poor to the central government. Historically, the government assumed that responsibility (leavened as it was by Biblical teaching). And maybe this is more to your point – the church gladly let the government shoulder this responsibility. And I don’t think it’s that the church dragged her feet and so the government had to take up the cause. But it is certainly the case now that the government is dragging its feet and the staggering social needs of America (and elsewhere) need to be addressed by the church. What do you think?
11 So you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger who is among you.
12 “When you have finished laying aside all the tithe of your increase in the third year—the year of tithing—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your gates and be filled, 13 then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.”
We, not as a church body but as followers of Jesus Christ our Messiah, are called upon to meet the needs of those in our community who are lacking housing, food, care, and need a helping, loving hand. And it is not for what we can get, as we are learning through our study of 2 Corinthians 8 but as a form of worship to Jesus, the defender of the fatherless, the window and the orphans. And our giving will not cause our own poverty as God promises to meet all our needs.
18 Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God. 19 And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. 20 Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”[b] 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
And that is to say that we are not to point to the “church” as we shouldn’t point to the government to take care of the “problem” of the poor and needy amoung us. We, you and I, need to step up and take responsablity for our neighbors next door.
Great verses, and very challenging.
There certainly was a time when the church led in the area of health and welfare. I’m not 100% sure what that would look like in 21st century western society, but it would be interesting if we were to step into the arena again. Certainly it happens to a larger extent in developing nations by missionaries and NGO’s, and in the form of clinics here in the states.
Lots to chew on. Thanks for commenting.
Happy 4th of July!
Interesting question: Could you as an individual, or even you as an individual church do as the Good Samaritan did in assuming financial responsibility for just one person’s medical care? It is not inconceivable that just one sickly person’s healthcare needs would financially sink a church.
I like that phrase, “Think global, act local.” I can’t do it all, but the some I can do, I should do.