Does the Church Have a Social Responsibility?

This article originally appeared on Capital Commentary and is a shortened version of the introduction to The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice, a new book edited by Robert Joustra and Jordan J. Ballor, available through Christian Library Press. Contributors include CPJ’s own Stephanie Summers, Capital Commentary contributors Kevin den Dulk, David T. Koyzis and Vincent Bacote, as well as Richard Mouw, Jessica Driesenga, and others. 

Evangelicals are starting to believe in institutions again, and not a moment too soon. Organized religion, long the whipping boy of authenticity-addicted late modern Gen-Xers, is losing its boogie man status in the minds of their children. And so has begun a minor renaissance in thinking about the Church, not as a gathering of hierarchy-allergic spiritualists, but the Church as a brick and mortar institution, something with tradition, and weight, and history. Church not as catchphrase and metaphor for likeminded people who love Jesus, but Church as an inheritance, as spiritual and cultural lifeblood, as common practice and belief, as community.

This minor (and it is minor) resurgence of thinking about the Church as an institution is part of the reason for this little volume, The Church’s Social Responsibility. It has long been the conviction of Christian social thought that “the Church” has a social responsibility. Back in our grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ day, that responsibility was obvious. The Church ran schools. It ran hospitals. It ran out-of-the-cold programs and homeless shelters. It spoke with weight and power about international and local issues. But those days in North America are long gone, and many of those churches are long gone, as Kevin Flatt writes in After Evangelicalism. The decline in organized religion is real, and the influence of organized religion in North America has long collapsed and is by now overgrown.

So what voice should the Church have today in North America, what should it speak about, and who speaks for it? Those are the questions that bind together this new book edited by Jordan Ballor and me, The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice.

The Embarrassment of Power

Evangelicals, and Christians generally in North America, are recovering from an embarrassment of power that Simon Schama knows a thing or two about. In his 1987 classic, The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama argued that Dutch Protestants were so scandalized by the luxurious wealth they generated during the Dutch ascent to power (1570-1670) that large-scale religious philanthropy became a kind of valve to relieve their guilt and shame. The metaphor is instructive: as Christian people, and churches especially, amass the “things of this world” in striking and unsettling quantities, we’re left with the problem of what to do with it all. Perhaps more to the point, we’re also left with the a priori question of whether we haven’t made a big mistake by getting all those “things” in the first place.

The long walk back from the anti-institutionalism and especially the anti-organized religion of the late twentieth century has been a fascinating study in just this kind of embarrassment. But the embarrassment of power, and the many failings the Church in North America has on its record from it (see, for example, Michael Hogeterp’s essay in the book) is now being channeled into a new kind of embarrassment: one of silence. This is fuelling a new generation’s focus on speaking with the voice of the Church to the embarrassing and at times even Church-incriminating, social issues of our day. This is, at least, one reason for this fledgling renaissance of the Church in public.

The larger reason, however, is because the odds were always on the institutionalists’ side. Private spirituality and personalized faith lack the glue that makes traditions last. Among the most significant factors for faith formation in young adults is not just belief, but believing communities. Habits make virtue, said Aristotle, and it’s true. But, added Aquinas adeptly, communal habits make sustainable and, often, world-changing virtue. This was hardly a startling revelation to the monastics of Aquinas’s day. For various reasons, it has come to startle anew.

That sociological insight is one of the best reasons that so much renewed attention is being given to debates about the power of institutional religion in the North American context. Sociologists of religion worth their salt know that if you want to track the relationship between “belief and behavior” you can’t just trust the box people check on a census form. The real link between belief and behavior usually only emerges if in addition to checking a religion box, people also attend a place of worship twice a month or more. In other words, the real link involves organizations and institutions. That’s where things like giving patterns and volunteerism shift dramatically upward from the rest of the population. Behavior is less related to belief than it is to embedded belief, communal belief. That’s where causal links start to become significant from a social science perspective.

Why Institutions Need Theology

The Pope, once quipped Joseph Stalin, how many divisions does he have? He thought he had nothing to fear from the Vatican’s man in white, a doddering old man surrounded by church mice.

He was wrong.

The social science tells us the Church matters, and that it matters as an institution, not just a collection of beliefs. It can also tell us (as Kevin den Dulk’s chapter does), how and when the Church speaks and in what ways it is most influential.

But, some might complain, that’s a somewhat mercenary way to put the argument-- that the Church should speak in some ways and not in others because that’s how it gains influence. Indeed, as James Davison Hunter points out in To Change the World, influence should not necessarily always be our goal. There is such a thing as speaking prophetically on issues, even if nobody will listen, even, in fact, if it is a deeply unpopular, marginalizing thing to say.

This is why the theological argument for what and how the Church should speak – as institute and as organism – is by far the more essential conversation.

Rediscovering institutions is great, but the real work is not merely loving institutions, but – as Jonathan Chaplin has put it – loving faithful institutions. Habits make virtue and institutions make change, but habits also make vice, and institutions can also produce profound and perverse pathology.

Social capital, we’ve all been trained to think, is always a good thing, but there is such a thing as dark social capital, building networks and institutions that sustain and produce pathology. Sociological studies on religious radicalization over the decade since 9/11 have shown how collective habits can also produce collective pathology. Radicalization patterns in the country of Belgium, for example, show not just the influence of the Internet but the influence of the Internet in creating local moral communities that build and reinforce habits and practices. Obviously “institutions” and the communities that sustain them are not uncomplicated moral goods.

It is the theology, then, in the full and unapologetic meaning of the term, of the Church, of its voice and social responsibility that we’re after. We may neglect it and still seize cultural power, but that power will be meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

These are some of the questions we raise in the book: should churches as institutes and denominations speak about abortion, or is that issue so pragmatically unpopular that we would be prudent to stay silent and work on issues that will get more traction? Why abortion but not immigration, or should it be both? Should churches as institutes speak on specific policies, or do we risk turning church offices into second-rate think tanks staffed with pastors instead of informed pundits and policy makers? (Stephanie Summers writes about this in her chapter on churches and think tanks.) Should we speak on principle but default on policy? Both on issues and on strategy a more protracted theological conversation is essential if we are to make sense of where the roles and responsibilities of the Church as an institute, and the Church as organism, begin and end.

Churches still have significant power. Churches still have a social responsibility. But pairing those things together? The devil, as they say, is in those details, and that is the essential conversation we hope this little book will help open.

- Robert J. Joustra is assistant professor of International Studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.