The very phrase "social action" can bring instant tension. Images of picket signs, demonstrations, and rude bumper stickers cause many of us to cringe. Many Christians believe that social action shouldn't be part of our mission at all. Yet, the idea of leaving social problems online in the hands of a secular world is, well - quite unsettling. So what is our role in social action? What does the Bible say?
First, there is really no doubt that God called His chosen people Israel to follow a strong social ethic. "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (Isaiah 1:17 NIV). Mosaic Law mandated special care for the poor. While we are not under Mosaic Law today, we should still see God's continuing concern about human suffering and His desire that we respond to this suffering.
Interestingly, God's expectations were not just for Israel. Non-covenant Gentile societies were also to practice an ethic of humaneness. God destroyed Sodom, because she was "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned" and " did not help the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16:49). Amos the prophet (1:3-2:3) held peoples living around Israel to a social ethic based on common decency, condemning what we moderns would call "crimes against humanity".
Today's world struggles through difficult issues of war, poverty, abortion, AIDS, same-sex marriage, addictions, immigration, and stem cell research. How can a secular government decide on these issues with no moral compass? Christian influence is essential today, just as it was in the Old Testament where God appointed civil servants, people like Joseph and Daniel, to be moral influence to the nations. God does the same today.
Jesus started a "grass roots movement" and, working with common people, He changed the ancient world. He continues to change the world today - through us! We are to follow His lead in touching all areas of life, not only by sharing the gospel in words.
Jesus taught so much more which makes following His teachings a life-long task! Being His disciple means a lifetime of living out His teachings.
Jesus clearly taught the affirmation of "Old Testament" values (Matthew 5:17-20) and our need to fulfill them in love (Matthew 22:37-40). This thought confirms the ethical guideline of the Old Testament (including social activism) and validates them for us today. One clear word on our social responsibilities is found in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus taught us, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" (Luke 2:25), an obligation ultimately much greater than just paying taxes. We learn from the New Testament that it includes obedience, honor and prayer (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2).
The early church lived under an authoritarian government and lacked political and civil rights. Today's church, at least in the United States, finds itself in a different world - it is a body with both spiritual and civic empowerment. We can vote, influence legislation, proclaim truth, seek justice, propel initiatives and much more. Part of following Christ's teachings is taking moral truths and placing them into today's culture with all the tools at our disposal.
Let's take these tools, enriched with Scripture and strengthened by prayer, to have a positive influence on our needy world.
What can our church do?
- Sponsoring blood drives
- Registering voters
- Using church facilities as a polling place
- Supporting pro-life ministries to unwed mothers
- Speaking out prophetically on social issues
- Announcing positions on ballot issues that touch Christian values
- Working for or against legislation, as appropriate
- Partnering with local ministries to serve the poor, marginalized, or alien
- Supporting AIDS crisis ministries in Africa
- Educating the church family on issues on suffering and injustice
- Making church facilities available for recovery groups and other wholesome community programs
- Providing personnel and equipment to community service groups and for commemorative events
Let us take our assignment from the strong advice God gave to the Jewish captives in Babylon - God's people living in a secular society like ours today (Jeremiah 29:1-9).
"Put your roots down deep right where you are. Pray for your community and work for its peace and betterment. Don't listen to the prophecy fanatics who tell you to be disengaged from this world because any time now you might be 'taken home'. Until I do take you home, get involved. Polish the brass on a sinking ship. Because I told you so!"
Dr. Donald P. Shoemaker
Pastor Emeritus, Grace Community Church
Seal Beach, California
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