A Short Theology of Social Reform

     Over the last year, I have interviewed a number of believers who are trying to love their neighbors and change the way work is done in their field. Listening to them, I have come to a clearer understanding of the way social reform works. Generally speaking, people who bring positive reform normally have high skill, passion for a cause, a position that guarantees that they will be heard, and an ability to win allies. Beyond that, I see men and women whose faith spontaneously shapes their work. That makes sense. After all, the Lord reveals his love through the work of Christ and then pours his love into our hearts. As a result, we obey God's great commandment (Matt. 22:37-39), "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." He continues "And there is a second like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"

     As Paul says, we are saved by faith, not works, but saving faith does work. He writes in Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith… not a result of works, so that no one may boast." Yet we are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." So faith necessarily leads to good works, including acts of love for our neighbors.

     Americans tend to think of good works as individual acts and we forget that we probably have the greatest capacity to love our neighbors through our work. We know we should consecrate our work to God, but we think we love our neighbors outside of work. Even at work we tend to regard love in private terms: We listen to a needy co-laborer and offer to help and perhaps share the gospel. To focus on food, we may think, "I love my neighbor by bringing meals to the sick, by collecting for food pantries, and by serving in a homeless shelter."

     Fair enough, but far more people love their neighbors by working on farms, in grocery stores, and in restaurants. When we grow good food, transport and package it well, preventing waste and decay, when we sell grain, meat, vegetables, and fruit at fair prices, we also love our neighbor.

     In Work: The Meaning of Our Lives, Lester DeKoster proposed that we chiefly love our neighbors as ourselves at work. At work we have the most skill and training, the most resources and the strongest team. As a result, we have the greatest capacity to love our neighbor at work. Therefore, the first place we should look to do good and to bring social reform is at work.

Leviticus 19, social reform and work

     Leviticus 19:18b says "You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." This command is the centerpiece or climax of a series of commands, many of them social and work-related.

     In Leviticus 19:9-10, Moses tells farmers to leave gleanings after the harvest, so that the poor can gather them: "You shall not strip your vineyard bare… You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God." This teaches farmers that their work has a social dimension. They should care for the poor by giving them tasks to perform, without necessarily employing them.

     After Leviticus 19:11-12 forbids theft, false dealing, lies, and profanity, it grows more specific: "You shall not oppress your neighbor" (19:13-14). How so? Employers must pay hired workers at the end of the day. Further, "You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD" (19:14).

     The assumption is that the strong, the capable, will be tempted to use their abilities viciously. Some will want to degrade or dehumanize the weak and the disabled. Perhaps they think it amusing to curse the deaf; they never know! Or it may give them a sense of power to move rocks or tables so the blind stumble.

     These commands imply that the strong are tempted to abuse their abilities to humiliate or dominate the weak. Leviticus makes this explicit and yet it has a twist: "You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." This prohibits all judicial injustice. The strong may abuse their power, but the weak may try to use their weakness to harm the strong, if they can. Resentment and a victim mentality can lead to injustice to the great. So the law prohibits all forms of injustice, even if it accents mistreatment of the weak. (In Exodus 23:8, Moses says,"You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.") Clearly, these commands call for justice at both individual and social levels.

The healthy church has always been active socially

     James 1:26-27 names three marks of true religion; the second is "to visit" - "orphans and widows in their distress." (Visit translates episkeptomai which means to visit in order to help.) Faithful Christians have always pursued this at individual and social levels. Following James, the church has always had an eye for orphans.

     The first Christians rescued abandoned infants from the garbage heaps where mothers, thinking they could not care for them, deposited their babies. This was both personal, since individuals and families adopted these infants, and social, since it was an attempt to solve the widespread practice of abandoning infants.

     Wherever the church goes, it starts orphanages – Africa, Asia, and Europe. John Wesley and Jacob Spener, gospel loving, gospel preaching men, also started orphanages. I visited an orphanage in India that had nearly a thousand children. It started when one family deposited a child at the door of a missionary couple, word spread and many more followed. Other missions are far more deliberate and planned. Either way, orphanages love the neighbor personally and socially through organized labor, budgets. The same holds for hospitals and schools. Christians start them as acts of love of neighbor and they soon become regular employment or work.

     The heroes of the Reformation were social reformers too. Calvin, living in the age of the plague, took active interest in Geneva's hospitals. He promoted industry, especially publishing, mindful of the need for work for refugees. And he started an academy for theological training. 

     In fact, the separation of faith and social action is a more recent trend. Around 1900, Walter Rauschenbusch, in the age of old liberalism, split social action from the gospel by dropping the gospel. Later, Fundamentalists who had separatist impulses began to withdraw from society. Neither is faithful to Scripture.

     Believers should engage in social action as the Lord brings needs to our attention. In the language of James, if we see a brother without proper food or clothing we need to act. Galatians 6:10 says believers begin in the household of faith, but we also do good to all. In my city, St. Louis, there are large immigrant communities from Nepal and Bosnia. There is also city poverty and public schools are inferior. Naturally, Christians volunteer to help. That is wonderful, but believers in the public sector – politicians, perhaps teachers and administrators - can also strive to improve schools and help people find skills, opportunities, and work that help them escape poverty too. That too is an act of love of neighbor. 


Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani