The Church has always been involved in social welfare. The prophets of Israel were concerned that the widows and orphans be cared for, and that there was social justice. No one was to be left out of the community’s care.
The churches of our day are involved in large welfare organisations from hospitals, nursing homes and retirement villages to children’s homes and other agencies. But these roles have become problematic with the rise of the secular welfare state (no doubt taking its cue from our roots in the Christian tradition).
Church agencies now get most of their funding from the government, and often find themselves doing its work at less cost than the government could do it itself. They have, effectively, become an arm of government.
While all this is well and good, and our society has the benefit of agencies that act out of something other than the profit motive, it raises the question of the Church’s central role in our time. Many mainline churches find their congregations are dwindling while their agencies expand with the help of government money.
The modern Church’s activism began in dire social circumstances at the end of the 19th century, when capital exploited labour. This produced the socialist Christian who identified with Jesus’ association with the poor - the little ones. The idea that salvation was a private affair disconnected from the world was challenged and the social gospel born.
This movement coincided with liberalism in theology brought about by historical critical study of the Bible and a subsequent devaluing of its authority. The most important loss was the understanding that the New Testament pointed towards the end time - the Eschaton, or second coming of Jesus - in which a new heaven and earth would be revealed.
This is understandable given the many figures in history, such as Isaac Newton, who had gone to great trouble to calculate the exact date of the end. As is even now the case, liberalism reacted against literalism and threw the baby out with the bath water.
The idea of the Kingdom of God, however, was retained in a secular form as social activism - the attempt to improve the conditions of men and women through trade unions, education and various causes. Men would establish the kingdom with their own hands.
Although good in itself and laudable, this attempt tended to leave Jesus behind, seeking instead to produce its own hope rather than hoping in God and His coming. They read the kingdom parables in the New Testament, annealing them with the idea of progress and coining admirable phrases like “God helps those who help themselves”.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the New World in which the frontier spirit of self-reliance was elevated to the pinnacle of the virtues.
In this scheme, the Gospel was thought of as a complete set of insights that could be applied for society’s betterment. The tension between the present and the future coming of the “Crucified One” was lost. Instead of understanding Jesus as the “One who comes”, He became a being in history from whom we can learn the lessons of life. The Church was more like a memorial society than a people who worshipped a God who was present and who would come.
Unfortunately, the ensuing polarisation traded individual self-reliance against quietism, painted as passive and superstitious. Christians were to be active in the world with the Gospel as their armoury.
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