Social Ministry: Biblical and Theological Perspectives
A Study Paper of the Lutheran Church in America, 1966
The following statement represents an effort on the part of the Board of Social Ministry to articulate the nature of the church's social mandate under God. Written by Dr. William H. Lazareth, with the collaboration of other members of the board, the statement was approved by the Board of Social Ministry at its meeting on February 15, 1966. The pertinent resolution designated it as "a statement of the theological basis of (the board's) mandate under the constitution of the Lutheran Church in America."
The document is not an official statement of the Lutheran Church in America. It has been adopted by the Board of Social Ministry primarily as a guide to the board's own understanding of its work. It is here offered in order to stimulate a sharpened inquiry into the task of the church in society.
The purpose of this statement is to present a biblical and theological basis for the work of the Board of Social Ministry of the Lutheran Church in America. In fidelity to its mandate, particular stress will be given to "the nature and proper obedience of the church's ministry within the structures of social life . . . in which individual and social needs are met as an expression of Christian responsibility for love and justice" (Article Ill, "Object," Constitution of the Board of Social Ministry.)
The urgent need for the church's social ministry is accentuated by the convergence of two momentous revolutions in our day. In the first place, we are living in an age of rapid social change throughout both the developed and developing areas of the world. Powerful new forces as divergent as thermonuclear energy, exploding populations, and emerging nationalism are capable of visiting untold good or evil on mankind. Spectacular breakthroughs have become commonplace in automation and cybernetics, astrophysics, biochemistry, and wonder drugs. Our whole world view is undergoing a radical transformation. As a result, the modern world of the last 400 years is dying before our eyes, taking its place beside the ancient and medieval ages. In its stead, the 20th century is painfully giving birth to an awful and yet wonderful "post-modern" world.
At the same time, the Christian church has been engaged in repentant self-examination and spiritual renewal. Weakened by political persecution from without and cultural compromise from within, the church in our day is attempting to recapture the integrity of its divine message and mission. In trying to meet the contemporary challenge, many are seeing the need for a continuing reformation through biblical theology, the unity of the ecumenical church, new forms of church worship and witness, and the revitalization of the ministry of the laity throughout society. Like the turbulent world which it is called to serve, the church of Christ will never again be the same after the 20th century.
In the face of this new situation, Christians must reaffirm their commitment to a vital social ministry as an integral part of the church's total mission to the world. In the critical decades ahead, it will be imperative for Christians, both privately and corporately, as citizens and as churchmen, to join hands with all men of good will in working together for the common good of humanity. Nevertheless, their motives, resources and goals will remain radically different. For a Christian social ministry must always be obedient to God's Word as well as relevant to God's world.
Our position rests on the conviction that Christian faith in the Triune God expresses itself in a distinctly evangelical social ministry. It is rooted in the proclamation of God the Redeemer (kekerygma), nourished in the fellowship of God the Sanctifier (koinonia), and bears fruit in the world of God the Creator (diakonia). The trinitarian faith determines the quality and direction of Christian service, whether believers are gathered about God's Word or scattered throughout God's world. Therefore, just as churchmen witness to their faith and hope in a Christian ministry of Word and sacrament, so they will also testify to their love in a Christian ministry of justice and mercy.
I. The Servant Lord
As evangelical Christians, we find the normative pattern for the church's social ministry in the biblical witness to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. As God's loving self-revelation, Jesus was the only Man always free to serve others. Hence, all authentic Christian service - whether performed individually or corporately - must faithfully and lovingly conform to the distinctive style of life revealed by Jesus Christ.
Throughout the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the "Son of Man." As set forth earlier by the prophet Daniel, the figure of the Son of Man symbolized the true Israel that would prevail over God's enemies in the kingdoms of this world. "And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him" (7:14). Later the Jews looked forward to the coming of the Son of Man as God's Anointed One, the heavenly ruler destined to appear in judgment to establish the kingdom of God's saints.
Crucial for our Christian social ministry is the paradoxical way in which Jesus exercised the universal dominion of the Son of Man. He purposely assumed the form of God's humble and obedient Servant. It was this combination of exaltation and humiliation that was so completely new and unique in the mission of Jesus. "Not as I will, but what thou wilt" was the keynote of Jesus' whole earthly mission in his oneness with God the Father.
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," declared Jesus at the outset of his public ministry. Reading from the prophet's witness in Isaiah 61, Jesus identified himself with the Spirit-anointed messenger of God and his coming kingdom. His vocation is glorious: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).
In the chapters of Isaiah preceding the one in terms of which Jesus first announced his divine mission, there are four songs in praise of a mystical figure called the "Servant of God" (42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). In the prophet's testimony, the Servant's identity is ambiguous. Often it seems to refer to Israel as a whole, sometimes to a faithful remnant within Israel, and finally even to an individual person representing a new Israel. The Servant's mission, however, is crystal clear. He is to carry out God's redemptive purposes for the world through his obedient witness and vicarious suffering. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed" (53:5).
What most deeply impressed the early Christians was the remarkable way in which Jesus fulfilled his unique calling as the Son of Man by living the life of the suffering Servant of God. After Peter confessed Jesus to be the Jews' long-awaited Messiah, Mark narrates, "And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three clays rise again" (9:31). Jesus later pointed to the Servant-form of his own life as binding on all who would enter God's kingdom. "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:43-45).
John also portrayed Jesus' earthly ministry in terms of the loving action of the Servant of God. During his last week on earth, Jesus is depicted as the Lord who wields not a sceptre but a towel. After he humbly washed the disciples' feet, Jesus says: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (John 13:14-15).
In like fashion, Paul gloried in a theology of the cross, a main feature of which was the lifelong Servant-form of Jesus. He declared to the Christians at Rome, "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy" (Romans 15:8-9). Furthermore, in writing to the saints at Philippi, Paul urged them to engage in ethical behavior and service that was consonant with the mind of Christ, ". . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).
None of the writers of the New Testament advocate any legalistic imitation of the specific deeds performed by Jesus. The Messiah's vocation was absolutely unique in inaugurating God's kingdom among men. Christians are rather encouraged to "have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus." That is, they are to demonstrate in their own very different callings, the same kind of obedient love that Jesus revealed as the Servant of God. In obedience to the mind of Christ, their whole lives are to conform to the Servant-form of the One who voluntarily divested himself of his glory in order to serve others in humility.
At this crucial point, the New Testament reveals the distinctive motive of Christian social ministry: "We love, because he first loved us" (I John 4:19). The apostles insist that the kind of obedient love (agape) revealed and demanded by Jesus is a gift of God's spirit and not a simple human possibility. Men are enabled to love with the mind of Christ only as they are convicted by the message of Christ: "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).
Consequently the lifelong service of Jesus did not reach its climax until his death on the cross. Sinful men were in need of far more than an ethical teacher who could summarize all the law and prophets of Israel in the two inseparable commandments of love of God and neighbor. Indeed, when confronted by Jesus and compelled to examine their lives in the mirror of God's perfect love, men stood accused. For by not serving the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned and the oppressed, sinners had shown their contempt for the God in whose image all men were created, The loveless fruits exposed the faithless roots. Jesus' proclamation and demonstration of the sacrificial love of God served only to awaken in repentant men the need for divine forgiveness and renewal.
Therefore the heart of Christian faith and life lies in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (II Corinthians 5:19). Since the Servant of God was no less than God the Servant, Christians proclaim the cross of Christ as the supreme demonstration of God's unmerited favor toward mankind. This apostolic gospel of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" is the a revelation of the righteous activity of God by which he accomplished salvation for all who trust in his Word of promise. Persons who confess Christ as Lord are promised God's pardon for their infidelity and the Spirit's power for their witness and service.
Only one conclusion can be drawn from this testimony of Holy Scripture. We may confidently assert that a vital social ministry is integral to the mission of Christ's church because it was integral to the mission of Christ himself. For just as Jesus was both the heavenly Son of Man and the earthly Servant of God, so the Christian is likewise both the "lord of all, subject to none" in faithful worship of God and the "servant of all, subject to all" in the loving service of his neighbors (Luther). Social action, social education, social service:
whatever may he its form, Christ must be the norm. Christians are called in the obedience of faith to minister in and for the world as the servant church of the Servant Lord.
II. The Servant Church
We move now from the Christological depth to the Trinitarian breadth of the church's social ministry. We do so in order to avoid the twin pitfalls of quietism and activism. On the one hand, quietism results whenever Christians forget that a major part of the church's ministry is inescapably social in service to the needy world of God the Creator. On the other hand, activism takes place whenever Christians fail to realize that the church's engagement in society is inherently a ministry of love and justice empowered by God the Sanctifier.
The church's most effective weapon against both quietism and activism is a lively theology of God's Word. In past generations we have sometimes crippled the church's social ministry by an unbiblical divorce of body and soul, or of justification and sanctification, or of church and society. The present generation, however, is being renewed through biblical theology and chastened by secularism and totalitarianism. The challenges of our age have compelled mis to give new stress to the inherent servanthood of time church. Through both faithful speech and loving action, we must now faithfully proclaim God's whole Word (both law and gospel) to whole men (both body and soul) throughout the whole of life (both church and society). Nothing less will do as the theological ground of the church's social ministry.
In Luther's restatement of Paul's theology of the Word, the law and the gospel represent two different ways in which the Triune God relates himself to mankind. Through the demands of the law, God accuses sinful men of their unfaith and disobedience. Through the promises of the gospel, he grants faithful men the forgiveness of sin, life and salvation. Condemned by the law, sinners are crucified with Christ; redeemed by the gospel, saints are resurrected in Christ. It follows that Christian salvation and service take place only when men pass from the work-righteousness of the law to tile faith-righteousness of the gospel.
It is through time continual interaction of the law and the gospel that the Triune God rules the two realms of creation and redemption. As Creator and Judge, God employs the law to perform two crucial functions. Its theological task is to judge the self-righteousness of sinful men in the realm of redemption. Its ethical task is to prompt the civil righteousness of rational men in the realm of creation. As Redeemer and Sanctifier, God is at the same time employing the gospel to perform two other indispensable functions. Its theological task is to reckon the righteousness of Christ to faithful men in the realm of redemption. Its ethical task is to empower the Christian righteousness of loving men in the realm of creation.
Three features of this Reformation doctrine deserve special attention in connection with the church's social ministry. This is especially necessary in light of past and present misuse of this doctrine to try to justify evasion of Christian social responsibility both by individual Christians and by the institutional church.
First, the Triune God is the Lord of both realms of creation and redemption. He rules in the one as man's Creator-Judge and in the other as man's Redeemer-Sanctifier. This means that there is no sphere of life which is autonomous of the absolute sovereignty of God. It is wholly unevangelical for Christians to divide life into two unrelated realms of the "sacred" and the "secular," with God's rule piously but irrelevantly restricted to the former. Through the social ministry of the church, Christians are to witness both personally and corporately to the lordship of God over the whole of his creation.
Second, Christians live in both realms simultaneously. Insofar as they arc already righteous, Christians are governed by God's gospel through faith and love. Insofar as they still remain sinful, Christians are also governed by God's law through reason and justice. This means that reasonable men, even apart from faith in Christ, are capable of a high degree of social justice in the building of a peaceful and humane society. It is wholly unevangelical to deny that God has written his law on the hearts of all men created in his image. Moreover, the moral zeal of a humanitarian, however motivated, often exceeds that of the apathetic Christian. Especially in our kind of pluralistic society, the church's social ministry will often take the form of working together for human justice under the law with other civic minded groups, both voluntary and governmental. Privately and corporately, as citizens and as churchmen, Christians should offer their prudential cooperation to all such men of good will who are working to keep human life human.
Third, the two realms of creation and redemption interpenetrate each other. As love provides law with its ethical content, so law provides love with its social forms. This means that it is primarily in and through the social witness of Christian neighbors, workers and citizens that Christ's Servant Lordship becomes operative in contemporary society. At tile same time, in an age of corporate decision-making, the public witness of official representatives of time church can be particularly effective in expressing and reinforcing the ethical judgments of the Christian community. It is wholly unevangelical for the church to remove itself from the ethical struggles of life in the irresponsible quest for perfection through noninvolvement. The social ministry of the church is a witness, both personal and corporate, to the style of life whose re-enactment of the Servant-form of Jesus is clearly in but not of this world.
To conclude this brief survey of the Lutheran Reformation heritage in the area of the church's social ministry, we may cite four articles from the Augsburg Confession in which Luther's restatement of the central thrust of Paul's ethic is afforded normative authority by the Lutheran Church.
On the personal level, Article IV rejects ethical activism by grounding man's salvation solely in his being justified before God for Christ's sake through faith alone. Then Article VI militates against ethical quietism by affirming that this Christian faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is also necessary for Christians to do those good works which are commanded by God for the neighbors' benefit.
On the social level, Article XVI guards against secularism by insisting that Christians are not to espouse any dualism between the two realms of creation and redemption. Dedicated churchmen are rather to permeate all of society with personal love and social justice in the exercise of their Christian social responsibility. Finally Article XXVIII complements this stress with a rejection of clericalism by sharply distinguishing the valid functions of the church and the state under God. On the one side, the church should not impose its will on the civil community by usurping the power of enforcement that rightly fails within the domain of government. On the other side, the state ought not interfere with the church's prophetic role in holding public life accountable to the sovereign law of God.
We conclude both biblically and theologically that Christian social ministry is an essential part of the total mission of the Church of Jesus Christ. Whether it now takes the varied forms of social service, social education or social action, the diaconic witness of the servant church is carried out in obedient gratitude to its Servant Lord. Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit both individually and corporately, as citizens and as churchmen, to serve all those persons whom Jesus called "the least of these my brethren" in personal love and social justice to the glory of God.