Christians never question the command to love their neighbors, though some are unsure about when, where, and how to obey it. And while God’s people long to see culture conform to God’s plan, many aren’t sure about how to produce social change when and where the culture needs it.
The two issues are related says Dan Doriani, professor of theology and vice president of strategic academic projects at Covenant Theological Seminary. And during his General Assembly seminar, “A Theology of Social Reform,” he will explore the intersection. The seminar will take place on Wednesday, June 13, at 10:30 a.m.
Doriani begins by noting that Presbyterians hold two foundational truths that apply to social reform. First, active faith transforms the life of the believer. Second, faith leads to good works, and good works are often acts of love directed toward our neighbors.
The Bible and Christian history give us a clear a foundation for gospel-driven social reform, he says. Leviticus 19:18, for instance, is the first time God commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The command follows a series of instructions about how the strong should treat the weak: Farmers should leave grain in the field and grapes on the vine to be gleaned by the poor and the sojourner (v. 9-10). God’s people must not steal, deal falsely, lie, or profane God’s name (v. 11-12). They should pay hired servants fairly and not oppress the disabled (v. 13-14). God forbids judicial injustice, too (v. 15-16).
We also see that for the first leaders of the New Testament church, caring for the community was central to the church’s identity. That’s why James lists caring for widows and orphans as one of the three marks of true religion (James 1:27).
Doriani also points out that throughout most of Christian history this concern for the vulnerable led to founding orphanages, building hospitals, rescuing abandoned children, and teaching that one’s work is an act of worship to God. But as we approached the 20th century a change began to emerge. “During the 20th century, liberal theologians began to promote good works without specifically connecting them to the Gospel. In response, conservatives began focusing on theological orthodoxy without connecting it to social action. Neither is faithful to Scripture or the Reformation.”
“A Theology of Social Reform” will spend less time on specific avenues of social reform and more time developing a biblical theology of social action and sharing encouraging examples of faith-driven reforms.
One of the most basic things we want to do, says Doriani, is recapture the Reformation idea that the best way to help one’s neighbors might be to work faithfully each day.
“No matter how often pastors say we should consecrate our work to God, American Christians have a tendency to cordon it off from the life of faith. So, we think we love our neighbors as individuals, outside of work,” Doriani said. We shouldn’t be fragmenting our lives that way.
Doriani hopes the seminar will help people understand that working for the good of society is not a new idea, nor is it a liberal concept that theological conservatives are appropriating. This has always been God’s plan. “The goal, of course, is to see social reform, mostly through faithfulness at work, as a spiritual consequence of our faith,” he said.