Biblical Foundations for Social Reform
From a talk by Jubilee Centre
In this talk from the Social Reformers Summer School 2019, Jonathan Tame unpacks the biblical foundations for social reform. He presents a biblical worldview for public engagement, articulates the importance of Biblical Law and offers some suggested principles for political economy.
The gospel shouldn’t just lead to the transformation of individual lives, it can also have a lasting impact on the wider culture. But how can we see that happen today? Here are some insights:
What is social reform? We quite often use the word transformation instead of reform. Sometimes it's interchangeable Oher times we want to stress social reform as it has an emphasis on institutions. For there to be the sustainability of change we need to see institutions changed as well as individuals.
Before I talk about a biblical basis, I want to put it in the context of two biblical and two theological frameworks for social transformation.
First is the kingdom of God - that big integrating vision for the transformation of people and nations. When it comes to understanding how to apply the kingdom to social reform, the kingdom is always God's initiative and we are called into the kingdom by the king whose government and peace shall have no end they will keep on increasing from the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 9.
Secondly is the now but not yet which is illustrated by Jesus's parable of the wheat and the weeds. In it, good and evil - the wheat and the weeds - grow up together till the end which means that both good will increase but also evil will increase. The legal battle for authority on the earth was won when Jesus died on the cross and rose again. But we see all kinds of stuff happening which is not God's will on earth. We've not yet seen the fullness of God's kingdom come on earth. That's why Jesus tells us to pray that the Father's will might be done on earth, his kingdom come.
Thirdly, God's kingdom inverts our cultural norms for it prioritizes the last, the least and the lost as the most important people in God's eyes but we are as followers of Jesus, ambassadors for the kingdom and we must engage also with those in power either in confrontation or in collaboration to plead the cause of the weak and the marginalized and seek justice.
Fourthly, we need to look further into the Bible to find strategy for engaging with the non-christian culture around us so this leads to the biblical worldview of creation, fall, redemption and future restoration. Genesis 1 - the creation mandate - God's purposes for human beings to take charge of this planet and make it fruitful. Fill the earth and subdue it, to be done for the glory of God in accountability to the Creator. Then it all goes pear-shaped and sin enters into the world. The fall changed everything but most importantly it did not cancel out the creation mandate. It just made it much more difficult. As believers and followers of Jesus you know we don't start our mission with the Great Commission. We are first of all human beings under the creation mandate. Creation has become distorted and corrupted through the influence of sin and you see sin working its way out through culture, through the misuse of technology, through culture that degrades and spoils and destroys. Jesus summed it up very well as the thief comes to steal and kill and destroy it but I've come that you might have life in all its fullness. That leads us to the third aspect of the biblical worldview which is Redemption. Jesus came to reverse and undo this advance of sin and corruption and destruction and put it in reverse. God's response through Christ has dealt with the root causes of alienation, sin, corruption and decay and opened the way for complete reconciliation. We are called to be ambassadors of that Redemption and to bring it into every sphere of life and steer culture and society towards good - God's good creation. But it is a battle and the battle will go on until Jesus finally comes back and settles it.
As we consider the biblical mandate for social reform this worldview framework helps us discern God's purposes for specific institutions to see how the fall is undermining human flourishing and to develop a vision and strategy for restoration.
An integration of different instructional parts of the Bible together express a vision of society ultimately answerable to God. Biblical law has another purpose which was to shape the life of a nation that was called to be a witness to God's ways in all areas of society. The political, economic and social system contained in the law of Moses provides a rich and rewarding study. Although these laws appear at first sight to be a rather random collection, a closer examination reveals remarkable internal consistency. Here is a coherent pattern of political economy which are relevant today.
You may have objections to that:
Biblical law has no continuing role in the New Testament. But we read in the passage in Matthew 5, Jesus insists he has not come to abolish the law and Paul in 1 Timothy 1:8 says biblical law was intended to generate Israel's social organization and ethical distinctiveness which was part of her calling to be a light to the Gentiles to show what living God's Way looks like.
There's no mandate for Christians to promote biblical law in society today. The answer to this objection lies in the incentive offered by Jesus again in Matthew 5:19 to anyone who practices and teaches these commands. They will be great in the kingdom so there's an intrinsic link between law and the kingdom. Paul says in Galatians 3 that he law was put in charge to bring us to Christ. Matthew 28 says all authority in heaven on earth has been given to Jesus so Christians have a God-given mandate to challenge society with an appropriate application of the law as well as the gospel.
Biblical law upholds a society based on patriarchy, slavery and gender. Significant allowance must be made for the cultural context of the ancient Near East and agricultural societies. Women could hold prominent roles in managing their households. Slavery was a far cry from slavery in other cultures. Slaves were allowed to run away and were released every seventh year. Old Testament slavery is more like a domestic service contract. It was in effect a punishment in the community for a thief or a person in debt or a way for them to pay their way out of debt. It was probably more humane than the social exclusion and enforced inactivity of a modern prison.
It's not clear which parts of biblical law should be applied today. While many of the laws and their penalties are part of Israel's ceremonial law and thus are fulfilled in Christ and no longer binding on followers of Jesus e.g.food laws, Jesus still insists that no part of the law can be entirely dismissed on grounds of cultural irrelevance. Civil and ceremonial law are helpful if they're seen to describe different purposes of the law. Such Biblical law should be looked at through the lens of love where Jesus said love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, on these two commands hang all the law and the prophets. According to Jesus that means all those 613 commands in the Torah are describing what love for God and love for neighbour looks like from God's perspective in all kinds of different social contexts.
Every act of sin or every deed of righteousness takes place in the context of one relationship or another either with God or with people so the law points out what God thinks of as a loving just and kind relationship as opposed to an abusive unjust or exploitative one. Love, of course, is not the language of finance or economics - it's the language of relationships. God measures a society not by the size of its GDP or by the efficiency of its markets but by the quality of relationships.
Jonathan then goes on to develop more insights based on the above.
Watch the full 42 min talk here:
Find out more about the Summer School here.
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