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January 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 1 · pp. 3–10 

Social Action - A Christian Mandate

John Bower

During the Thanksgiving weekend of 1973 a memorable meeting was held in Chicago where 50 of the Evangelical world’s “best and brightest” met to hammer out “A Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” Since the group included some of the “elite” of evangelicalism, public recognition of the event was given by numerous Christian publications as well as newspapers and news magazines.

A friend of mine who attended the meeting was appalled that these leaders of the evangelical world appeared to have discovered a scriptural mandate regarding the social relevance and implications of the gospel. This friend, a social work colleague, was amazed that this group of “latecomers” was just discovering what Christian social workers have been saying for decades though lacking, apparently, the social prominence needed to gain widespread recognition and publicity.

Nonetheless, in spite of my misgivings about evangelicals “discovering” the relevance of social concerns 2000 years after Christ’s earthly ministry, the declaration certainly should be supported by Christian social workers for it contains clear statements in regard to racism, materialism, economic exploitation, injustice, violence, and sexism. Although this event exemplified our continued reliance on the elite and the well-known to speak with power and significance it also made us aware of a broad range of allies within the evangelical community.

I must humbly confess that the process of developing this paper has, in itself, been a struggling pilgrimage and growth experience for me. My perspective has not been so much on what the reader ought to know as on what I ought to know. Reviewing the literature, particularly the scriptural mandates regarding social concerns and actions, is an overwhelming and humiliating experience as it forces me to apply biblical yardsticks to my own inadequate behavior and {4} performance. The question that perplexes me is, “Why has our obsession with attempting to search out the whole counsel of God provided us with so little insight into what our behavior ought to be in relationship to our social, political, and economic situation?” For the Bible is clear that to serve God is to serve our fellow man.


Isaiah, Micah, and Jesus affirm that acceptable worship of God must be accompanied by service to God’s creation, our fellow man. Worship is to divide our bread with the hungry; worship is to treat employees fairly; worship is to bring into our homes the helpless, poor and destitute; worship is to help our relatives; worship is to clothe the naked; worship is to visit the sick; worship is to visit the prisoner; worship is to live a life of personal righteousness. Worship is not prayer so others take note; worship is not fasting until others notice how hungry we are; worship is not wearing the proper clothing and going through certain religious rituals; worship is not giving money and time to help another in a way which will bring recognition and praise.

Isaiah provides an illustration of these concepts in a dialogue which takes place between God and the children of Israel:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire {5} with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

Isaiah 58:6-11 (RSV)

Micah emphasizes the same point in discussing the issue of sacrifice as worship:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:7-8 (RSV)

Jesus also illustrated the concept of true worship when he said,

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. The righteous will answer him, “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.

Matthew 25:34-40 (RSV)

The impact of the quotes from Isaiah, Micah, and Jesus reinforce that (1) true worship is to divide our bread with the hungry, (2) ministry to the whole man is not “nice” but necessary, (3) Christian ministry must move from the Temple to the Street and from the Soul of Man to the Whole Man.


These passages clearly illustrate the behavior God expects from those who wish to gain His favor and blessing. The Greatest Commandment as restated by Jesus in the Gospel according to Saint Mark summarizes concisely the purpose of man’s existence—which is to love God, to love our fellow man and to love ourselves.

One day Jesus was questioned by a teacher of the Law who asked, {6}

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.

Mark 12:29-35 (RSV)

When we begin to understand that the three parallels, love for God, love for neighbor, and love for self, are the essence of God’s great design for human actions on earth, we will be driven to response. It is to this “discovery” that the next comments will be addressed.


The primary focus of social action (social action: working with social institutions so that they become more responsive to the needs of the individual), as practiced by Christian social workers, is the worth and intrinsic value of each individual. No person should be exploited as the means to some grand scheme of a society, or organization, or any group. Even if that group is a family, each individual in the family has intrinsic value beyond that of supporting the ultimate goals and aspirations of the family group. Man does not exist primarily to make a better world for future generations, for his children, or for the state. Man’s existence has intrinsic value regardless of his direct usefulness or uselessness to the current social situation. Man is the end and not the means to the end of a society, a group, or another individual.

And yet, human existence in the context of community calls for each of us to sacrifice for the common good of the group. It is important to speak to this issue due to mankind’s long history of inappropriately asking individuals to sacrifice self for the good of the whole.

The statements which follow are examples of inappropriate sacrifices:

1. Fighting a war which will assure a degree of democracy for the majority when the individual involved will be considered a second class citizen upon returning to his homeland; or, if he is killed, his {7} family is still treated as second class (as is the case with racial minorities).

2. Living in a physically debilitating area or engaging in a physically destructive occupation to assure that the majority will have inexpensive products and energy resources.

3. Accepting low paying jobs to assure that the majority will have access to inexpensive goods and services, as do the maid, the waitress, the hotel maid, the dishwasher, the migrant worker, the farm laborer.

4. Accepting a low standard of living to assure that the world’s resources will be primarily left for the enjoyment of the wealthy minority. We know only too well that if everyone engaged in the utilization of resources at the rate demanded by the top quintile of the population, world energy (non-replaceable) resources would be depleted at an alarming rate.

The solution to this dilemma of sacrificing the individual for the good of the majority is that justifiable sacrifice occurs only when it emerges as voluntarism based on a sense of belonging and ownership. An individual should not be called upon to provide physical, political, or economic security for others if he is not an equal sharer in the benefits.


Christians involved in social action must be realistic about the nature of man and the nature of human institutions. The goal of social action is not to bring a utopian society to earth. It is not to bring the Kingdom of God in the final form. Rather the goal is to make the situation a little better, a bit more tolerable and humane, more responsive to human needs, a better place for children to grow up, and perhaps provide a tiny glimpse of the Kingdom of God as modeled in the lives of Christians.

God created the universe and mankind for His enjoyment. It is His desire that worship and communication abide between man and God. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that it is God’s will that the world be preserved as long as possible. A Christian must participate in the preservation of the world which is best preserved when men call upon God. The Christian finds himself at a point of contact between two currents: the will of God for preservation and the will of the world which appears to be in the direction of death and self-destruction. Where Abraham stood in relation to Sodom and Gomorrah is precisely where a Christian stands in today’s world. “Righteousness will preserve a nation.” Again, it must be emphasized that a Christian cannot hope for the Kingdom of God and its full glory to be ushered in {8} through human energies. Nevertheless, the effort toward preservation is worthwhile because it is the will of God and it provides additional opportunities for more of mankind to choose between rejecting or accepting the message of the Good News.


The Christian, be he a social worker or otherwise, is in the world but not of it. He is actually the citizen of two cities, the city of God and the city of this world. Although his physical existence is in the city of the world, he is the subject of another state. His heart and thoughts are elsewhere. He is the ambassador from God’s city to earth. His first duty is to be faithful to his Lord. He stands up for the interest of his Master as an ambassador and champion of the interests of his homeland.

The Christian, the citizen of two cities, must plunge into social and political problems in order to have an influence on the world. This action is not in the hope of making the world a paradise. It is simply to help make it a more tolerable place, to help bring order where there is disorder. The Christian in the world can have a profound impact. Where personal righteousness exists, social evils are called into question. Institutional change takes place when Christianity is present. Equity must emerge out of Christianity, slavery must be condemned. Oppression of the poor by the rich should be condemned when Christianity is present.

Each generation of God’s people must find the implications of the Greatest Commandment for their time and place. The mandates of the scriptures calling for love of God, love of neighbor and love of self, must be worked out in society in ways which might be quite unique to each generation and to each local situation. Practical implications of the Gospel will emerge and have an impact on any social situation when Christians are present.


An unknown second century Christian, in what has been termed “The noblest of early Christian writings,” wrote the So-Called Letter to Diognetus. This letter is a classical attempt to describe to an unknown person or audience what it means to be Christian. The following excerpts from the letter illustrate the struggles of being in the world, being vitally involved in the world, and being deeply committed to serving one’s fellow man while remaining aware that to be “Christian” has a pervasive influence on behavior, perspective, and ultimate goals.

Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow {9} an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own fellowship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned. . . . When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.

The power of Christianity, incarnated into human behavior, provides the Social Action impetus for Christians in Social Work or in any other field of activity.

Christians who take seriously the whole counsel of God will search for ways to show respect for Him through their actions on behalf of their fellow man. This is the “sacrifice” that God demands!


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As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives in Christ from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claims of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses. {10}

We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and the oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.

We must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services. We recognize that as a nation we play a crucial role in the imbalance and injustice of international trade and development. Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.

We acknowledge our Christian responsibilities of citizenship. Therefore, we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might—a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad. We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.

We acknowledge that we have encouraged man to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.

We proclaim no new gospel, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.

By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.

We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship till He comes.

(Adopted November 25,1973
Chicago, Illinois)


  1. For the remainder of this paper I have incorporated concepts from the writings and sermons of Elmer A. Martens, President of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, and from Jacques Ellul, author of The Presence of the Kingdom (New York: Seabury Press, 1967).
This article is revised from a paper originally prepared for the 22nd Annual Convention of the National Association of Christians in Social Work, April 11, 1975. John Bower is Director of Social Work Programs, Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, and is a board member of NACSW.