The Church and Social Involvement
Christians believe that the church’s mission is to pastor
congregations and to convert people, rather than to reform society,
other Christians believe that the church does not truly follow
Christ until it is socially involved with radical action. These two
conflicting views urge this exploration of the relation between the
church and social involvement. According to Jesus’ teachings and
Rowan Williams’s view, the church should be socially involved. The
church must be socially involved through practicing prophetic
criticism, offering a goal and a model for social reformation, and
by leading practical action.
Description of the Issue
I am doing my placement at the School of Religion at Belmont University, as a teaching assistant for Professor Bell in his course, Comparative Spirituality in World Religions. Recently, Dr. Bell took the students and me to visit a local mosque. When we went to that mosque, an African-American man, who converted from Christianity to Islam many years ago, introduced us to Muslim doctrines and shared his personal testimony. He told us that the main reason for his conversion was because the leaders of American churches in the 1960s, such as Billy Graham, did not clearly support the civil rights movement or oppose immoral racism. After this visit, during our weekly meeting, my supervisor, Dr. Bell, also criticized the wrong attitude of the church and its failure in social involvement at that time. This problem also occurs in contemporary churches of Taiwan (my country). Most Taiwanese churches think that social reformation is the task of the government or social institutions, rather than the church. Social involvement is not considered a necessary requisite of the church. All these situations seem to reflect the fact that many churches have always neglected social involvement. This raises two theological questions: why must the church be socially involved? And how is the church to be socially involved?
Why must the church be socially involved?
The teachings of Jesus, as well as the views of Rowan Williams and some theologians, have shown the necessity and significance of the church’s social involvement. Jesus scorned the Pharisees for their contempt for the weightier matters of God’s law--justice and mercy--which all ought to have practiced (Mt 23:23). The significance and urgency of social action and involvement was clearly presented in many of Jesus’ messages (e.g. Mt 11:2-6; 25:35-46; Mk 9:41; Lk 4:16-21), which might inspire people to follow Jesus and then to make Jesus their king (or king of Israel) by force. All Jesus’ enthusiasm was directed toward social justice and love among people.
Williams believes that many Christian doctrines also reveal social involvement as the indispensable task of the church. He argues that the meanings of sacraments, especially baptism and eucharist, should challenge “how there might be a social order in which the disadvantaged and even the criminal could trust that the common resource of a society would work for their good.”  Christians must “resist anything that trivializes or shrinks the symbolic range of our sacramental practice-- baptism as essentially a mark of individual, the eucharist as a celebration of achieved local human fellowship.” Namely, symbolically sacramental actions in the church have to bring out practical social identities and meanings. Sacraments should not be merely transformative for particular religious individuals or communities but also for all society and humanity.
Williams also claims that the incarnation manifests “Christ as the head of all humanity, in whom all people in their social and familiar relations were included.” Thus, “if the community of the new creation depends upon the building up of each by all and all by each, the pain and frustration of any human beings is mine.” Christians must not do good or fulfill justice only within the church or the community of faith because “there cannot be a human good for one person or group that necessarily excludes the good of another person or group” in society.
In addition, Paul admonishes, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:4-5). Christians cannot separate themselves from the people outside the church, nor can the church refuse its mission toward social involvement. Jürgen Moltmann claims, “God’s kingdom is experienced in the present,” here and now. “Everywhere God’s kingdom takes us [Christians] beyond the frontiers of the church.” Walter Rauschenbusch points out, “Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social solution and institutions of men, to the extent denies the faith of Christianity.”
Paul DeHart states, “As a communal human response to the gift of divine love, the church is called to be a distinctive form of life in the world in which the good of the person in intended both within the community and beyond the community.” The church “does not exist purely for its own sake, but for the sake of the world…In balance with the intra-communal call to communion there is the trans-communal call to mission or witness which takes the form of service to non-Christian neighbor in the name of Christ.”
Indeed, God’s presence is with humans, rather than only with believers, in human community, rather than only in the community of faith. God’s Word and Jesus’ gospel is for all people at all times and places, not only for the people in the church on Sunday. The church should not and cannot limit God’s work to the church. God is not a tool for the church to demand obedience for the church’s authority. Rather, the church should be a tool for God to restrict any oppressor-- either in or outside the church -- to obeying God’s authority. God’s reign transcends any boundary and limit.
The church should not look to its own interests, but to the interests of others and society. The church’s mission, therefore, must transcend its boundary and extend into the society. The church’s task must be socialized in order to be capable of evangelizing society. The church’s desire must include not only individual or ecclesiastical reformation but also social reformation.
How is the church to be socially involved?
It is sinful when the church is aware of social injustice but refuses to exert efforts for change. This is the sin of silence against unrighteousness and complicity with wickedness. The best way for the church to avoid this sin is to audibly criticize and visibly fight against social injustice. However, directionless criticism or blind social reformation would lead to a more chaotic society. Thus, the church must offer a viable goal and be a model for social reformation. In short, the church ought to be socially involved by prophetic criticism, by offering a goal and a model for social reformation, and by practical action.
First, the church must be socially involved by prophetic criticism. Jesus himself can be regarded as a prophetic social critic, who criticizes social injustice and religious hypocrisy. Further, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go and therefore make disciples of all nations, …, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). The great commission of Christians, the disciples of Jesus, is not only to convert people to Christianity but also to make them obey Jesus’ teachings. The latter part means that Christians should criticize people of all nations (including people in the church) when they do not practice justice or love one another.
The church is called to exercise the gifts of prophets (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11), who criticize sinful things and social injustice with God’s Word, a powerful “two-edged” sword capable of deconstructing unjust systems or sinful structures in society. The church must prophetically criticize any thing that transgresses God’s law or will by the Word of God in order to obey its own call.
Thesis 5 of the Barmen Theological Declaration says, “The church is a reminder of God’s kingdom, God’s commandments, and righteousness, and hence of the responsibility of governments and the governed.” Many African-American people have regarded American churches in the 1960s as hypocritical because they failed to be “a reminder.” The church did not speak truth on the racial issue or criticize social injustice at that time. Most terribly, American churches even became the most segregated place in American. Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the leaders of the civil right movement, says, “If this is Christianity that is being offered in most of the churches around this land, then we do not want any part of it. Look at what is happening all over the land, and the churched does not pay any attention to it.” The churches have driven people from God “with this big act of hypocrisy…[it] is long past time for the church to wake up.” 
Indeed, if the church is silent on social injustice, it is not surprised that many people will think either that God is dead or that the church is dead (or even submits to the devil). To avoid similar failures, the church must continually play a prophetically critical role in society where any oppression or injustice still exists.
The Goal and Model for Social Reformation
Any reformation requires a goal and a model. Without them, social reformation may lead to greater social turmoil. The church must be socially involved by offering a goal and being a model for social reformation. As Williams asserts, “The Church claims to show the human world as such what is possible for it in relation to God…by witnessing to the possibility of a common life sustained by God’s creative breaking of existing frontiers and showing that creating authority in the pattern of relation already described, the building up of Chris-like persons.”
First, the church should provide a clear and viable goal by which society may be transformed in accordance with God’s law and will. According to Jesus’ teachings, the goal of social reformation can be summed up in two central notions: justice and love. Social justice can be briefly interpreted as freeing the oppressed (Lk 4:18). The oppressed include the people who live under any kind of oppression, such as physical, economic, political, religious, or racial oppression. Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrated that the divine has always been on the side of the oppressed. The history of God’s reign was, is, and will be a history of liberating people from oppressions in God’s promise. Therefore, liberating people from oppression must be included in the goal of social reformation.
Love, in the social dimension, can be understood as loving others as oneself (Mt 22:39). This love is not merely sympathy, but the sense of solidarity that makes all human life part of one’s life. If everyone loves others as oneself, there will be no more injustice or oppression in society and thus is the end of social reformation. John the Baptist provided a practical example for a brotherly love in society: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Lk 3:11). Without love, society abides in death. When people love one another, they live in God, and God lives in them (1 Jn 4:12). Undoubtedly, loving others as oneself is an indispensable goal for social reformation.
Second, the church must not merely offer a goal or some principles for social reformation. Williams proclaims that the church is “the place where the rationale of all other relations is made plain and their deepening and securing made possible.” Here, “made plain” is to make the rationale easy to hear, see, and understand. In other words, the goal, the church offers for social reformation must be audible and visible as well.
As a sacred community of Christ, the church must be a model for the society in order to show what a human community ought to be and then to expect a better society to come. That is, it must model right relations between people and make clear what things that people should do or should not do. Thus, Christians have to practice justice and to love one another before they prophetically criticize others. They must obey Jesus’ teachings themselves before they make disciples of all nations.
Finally, the church must be socially involved through practically social action. The church, which criticizes social injustice and offers a goal for social reformation but lacks practical action, becomes hypocritical. The church ought to do what it says.
People can know what God has done for the society only through seeing what the church has done for it. As Williams wrote, “What we [Christians] do is now to be a sign, above all, of a gift given for the deepening of solidarity…If our acts with one another speaks of mutual gift and given-ness, they are signs of the radical self-gift which initiates the Church.” Most significantly, “The meanings of the word ‘God’ are to be discovered by watching what this community does.” The 1971 Synod of Bishops also stated, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
Further, the church can complete its mission only through practically social actions, if its task is to bring liberty to the oppressed, human dignity to the humiliated, and the justice to people. Unjust laws and, systems, structures can be reformed only by political action and/or social movement in many contemporary societies. For this reason, the church must be socially involved by practical action in order to achieve its mission.
Following Jesus, Christians should not live for themselves, but for others. They should not seek their own good, but the good of others (1 Cor 10:24, 33). Likewise, the church should not look to its own interests, but to the interests of others and of society. Both Jesus’ teachings and Rowan Williams’s view have revealed the significance and necessity for the church to be socially involved. Social involvement ought to be considered as an indispensable task of the church. The church must be socially involved through prophetic criticism, by offering a goal and being a model for social reformation, and by practical action for social reformation. If the church fails to practice social involvement in any of these three dimensions, it may lose the sacred meaning and value of its existence in society and defy its divine calling for human community. Thus, even though the church must pay a heavy price for or suffer from its social involvement, it still has to be socially involved in order not only to make the society a better place but also to complete its mission, which is ordained by God.
 Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (UK: Blackwell, 2000), 220.
 Williams, 221.
 Williams, 225.
 Williams, 234.
 Williams, 213.
 Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Trans. By Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1994), 19, 22.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Kentucky: Westminster, 1991), 48-49.
 Paul DeHart, “Christian Theology: Church and Sacrament” (Lecture Outline on Feb 20, 2006), 1.
 Maricia Y. Riggs, ed. Can I Get a Witness?: Prophetic Religious Voices of African Women (NY: Orbis, 1997), 178-179.
 Williams, 233.
 Williams, 226.
 Williams, 204.
 Williams, xii.
 “Justice in the World,” in the document of 1971 Synod of Bishops, cited in Peter Henriot, SJ. “Social Sin and Conversion: A Theology of the Church’s Social Involvement,” in Kenneth R. Himes & Ronald P. Hamel eds. Introduction to Christian Ethics: A Reader (NY: Paulist Press, 1989), 221.