Chapter 8: Love Your Neighbor

The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 8: Love Your Neighbor

‘Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’, said James in his epistle (Jas. 2:17). John said the same, ‘Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth’ (1 John 3:18).Jesus himself linked the commands to love God and to love the neighbor.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ final parable is of the Last Judgment when the sheep and goats will be separated. To those on his right hand, Jesus said, the king will say:

Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

The righteous in astonishment asked when they had seen the king hungry or naked or as a stranger and the king replied, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matt. 25:31-46).

Love of the neighbor is shown not only by the way a disciple lives, which we shall consider first, but also, as we shall see in the second section of the chapter, by the combined efforts of the followers of Jesus to meet human need and, third, by attempts to change the structures of society.

A Christian Way of Life

‘The greatest of these as love’

Paul in his letter to the Galatians describes the fruits of the Spirit as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Gal. 5:22). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks again of spiritual gifts of which love is supreme: ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs . . .’ (1 Cor. 13:4-8).

Love is the characteristic way to sum up the quality of life expected of the follower of Jesus. It is a selfless, sacrificial concern for the other and mirrors the love shown to the believer by God in Christ Christians recognize that they cannot show this love in their own power, but only if their lives are transformed by Christ. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) sums up Jesus’ ethical teaching, but it has been said that the gospel comes first The Sermon describes the new way of life of those who live in loving recognition of God as their Father. People, of their own will, cannot live free from anxiety about the future nor turn the other cheek when someone hits them.

Love is not sentimental and it does not have sexual overtones. Indeed, the Greek word used in the New Testament, agape, distinguishes this love from the sexual associations of eros.

Traditional teaching speaks of four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, on which all others depend. Ambrose (c.339-97), the Bishop of Milan who baptized Augustine and who is one of the four Doctors of the Church, said the cardinal virtues were derived from the four virtues listed by Plato. They were extended by the medieval scholastics to seven by adding the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, which are mentioned by Paul (1 Cor. 13:13).

The Complexity of Moral Decisions

It is difficult always to be loving and to be as concerned for the other as for the self. It is often equally difficult to know the most loving thing to do. Is it always right to tell the truth, even if that would cause pain? Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), whose home in Haarlem was a sanctuary and hiding place for Jews during the Second World War and who herself survived imprisonment in Ravensbruck concentration camp, told how she lied to save Jews from the Nazi death camps. Is it always right, as Jesus suggested, to turn the other cheek, or is the use of violence on occasion the lesser of two evils?

Although the basic command to love your neighbor as yourself seems simple, its application is very complex. Christian teachers have struggled with the many moral decisions that a person has to make in day-to-day life. Paul’s letters already show examples of this, when he discussed the question of food offered to idols or questions of marriage and virginity (1 Cor. 6-8).

Christian teaching has veered between two extremes. On the one hand there is the approach of Situational Ethics which emphasizes the importance of determining in each situation what is the most loving thing to do. Augustine’s words, ‘Love and do what you will’1 are often quoted to justify this approach. The disciple relies, in the end, on the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it is easy to mistake one’s own opinion for the voice of God! On the other hand, papal teaching as expressed through encyclicals has an almost infallible authority. No longer does the individual need to resolve the complexity of a moral decision, instead the individual is required to obey the teaching of the church. The difficulty is that any rule has a certain inflexibility and its application may not always be the best response to human need. For example, in teaching on abortion, the Roman Catholic church says it is always wrong, because murder is forbidden, whereas liberal Protestants may accept that it is the lesser of two evils.

Christians’ moral judgments are informed by the teaching of the Bible and especially the New Testament, although decisions should not be made by merely quoting a text. The biblical teaching should be weighed together with the traditions of the church, the present-day teaching of the church, and the best contemporary expert opinions. In the end, the believer’s conscience is sacrosanct. Cardinal Newman (1801-90) said, ‘Conscience is the first of all the Vicars of Christ.’2 Conscience should be informed, but it should not be coerced.

The question of whether there are absolute values is one which is a subject of debate amongst moral philosophers. Many Christians see Cod as the guardian of the moral law, but some thinkers recognize the autonomy of morals and hold that people can discern what is right and wrong independently of their basic beliefs about the universe.

It is understandable that there has been and still is considerable disagreement between Christians on many ethical matters. The differences affect both the Christian’s own lifestyle and his or her attitude to the behavior of others.

Food and Drink

Some Christians, for example, object to the use of alcohol, whilst others see nothing wrong in its enjoyment in moderation. The latter point to biblical texts in which wine is extolled as part of the bounty of God (Ps. 104:15) and to Paul’s advice to Timothy, ‘Stop drinking only water and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses’ (I Tim. 5:23). The former can point to warnings about wine leading to debauchery (Eph. 5:18) and to the social abuses which alcohol can produce. It was this latter which led members of the Temperance movement in Britain in the nineteenth century to campaign against the use of alcohol and to set up alcohol-free clubs. Until recently the Methodist church was known for its temperance, and William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army, campaigned against alcohol. In the USA, the Temperance movement grew in strength during the nineteenth century and by 1916, nineteen states had entirely forbidden the sale of alcohol.

Most Christians are prepared to eat meat, although there have been some, in every generation, who were vegetarian because of the wish to avoid taking life. Clement of Alexandria wrote, ‘It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals. Accordingly the apostle Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh.’3 Tertullian and John Chrysostom seem to have been vegetarians and Jerome advocated a meat-free diet, although he did not entirely follow his own advice. Some of the Celtic saints had a close relationship with animals. John Wesley was a vegetarian and campaigner for animal rights. Today a number of Christians are active in animal welfare movements. Some churches hold animal or pet services, usually in early October to mark the saint’s day of St Francis of Assist.

In the Middle Ages monks and nuns kept a number of fasts, when they abstained from meat as an exercise in self-discipline. The observance of regular fasting began with weekly fast days on Wednesdays and Fridays, to which were added the forty days of Lent. In the Eastern and Oriental churches, fasting meant the abstinence from all food, or at least from all animal food products. In the West it meant only one chief meal a day, although Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which were also observed by the laity, were kept as complete fasts. In England, after the Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I insisted that the custom of eating fish on a Friday should be continued, not for religious reasons but to preserve the fishing industry. This in turn meant that there would be, enough ships to protect the country in the event of war.

Medical Advances

We have seen in the previous chapter that Christians disagree on questions such as divorce, homosexuality, contraception and abortion. Medical advances are creating new dilemmas. Most Christians accept the transplantation of human organs, provided there is no coercion. Efforts to assist fertility are usually welcome, including artificial insemination by the husband (AIH). A few Christians object to artificial insemination by a donor (AID) because the husband would not be the real father. There seems to be no objection to the sex detection of a fetus, but there would be if it became a means of sex-selection. Christians would disagree about the abortion of a child who is expected to be severely handicapped. Some would insist that each life is valuable, others might question whether some children with very severe brain damage are in any real sense capable of human life.

Many Christians resist the idea of human cloning. It is theoretically possible to produce a ‘carbon-copy’ of a human being. Yet this might seem to be a human usurpation of God’s right to create. Cloning would create very considerable identity and psychological problems and the process by-passes the -mother’s womb. These are matters on which there will be more debate.

The weight of Christian opinion is against euthanasia, believing that to God alone belongs the power to give life and to take life. The Christian, however, believes that death is not the end but the gateway to another life. Christians, therefore, may be critical of over-strenuous efforts to keep a patient, as it were, artificially alive. They would encourage spiritual preparation for death and have in recent years taken a lead in the hospice movement, which seeks to provide for the terminally ill a loving, caring environment where pain is controlled as much as possible.


There have been sharp disputes about recourse to arms. The early Christians were pacifist and in every century some Christians have upheld this position. When Christianity became the religion of Empire, the doctrine of the just war was developed. Augustine tried to draw together the threads of a just war theory, although the first systematic account of this teaching appeared in the Decretum of Gratian (d. no later than 1159) which is the major source of Roman Catholic canon law. The theory requires, first, that there is a just cause, which may be to regain something that was wrongfully taken or to punish evil or in defense against planned or actual aggression. Second, it requires that war is initiated by a legitimate authority; third that there is a right intention on the part of those involved. Fourth, the use of force must be proportional, that is to say, relevant to the issue and not doing more harm than good. Many Christians have not been able to see how a nuclear war could meet this requirement, although those Christians who have supported nuclear disarmament have not necessarily been total pacifists. Traditionally, a just war also had to be for the sake of peace and have a reasonable hope of success. The teaching also tried to limit the cruelties of war.

Whilst many of the Reformation churches took over this teaching, the radical churches, such as the Mennonites, followers of Menno Simons (1496-1561), who in 1536 left the Catholic priesthood and joined the Anabaptists, preached nonresistance to evil. The Quakers also taught non-violence. Pacifists claim that non-violence is to follow the way of Christ crucified. Only love can transform and reconcile the enemy. Yet, while it is true that violence can never produce lasting peace, which requires the reconciliation of those opposed to each other, some Christians think that violence can hold evil in check. Nuclear weapons have shown, however, the enormous danger of violence, whilst acts of genocide have made clear the deadly potential of evil tyrants.

Penal Policy

At the Reformation, there was disagreement whether a Christian should submit to unjust rule, and some radical Christians upheld the right to rebel against a tyrant. Paul had said that ‘there is no authority except that which God has established . . . [The one in authority] does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer’ (Rom. 13:1-5). The Book of Revelation, on the other hand, produced by a community suffering persecution, took a less sanguine view of civil authority. None the less, Christians have recognized the need to check crime, forcibly if necessary, and to punish the offender.

Wrongdoing creates a corruption of character and destroys human relationship. An adulterer, for example, is likely to destroy his marriage. The suffering of oneself or others is the necessary consequence of the wrongdoing. In John’s gospel, punishment is self-inflicted by those who reject the offer of light (John 3:16-21) -- it is not inflicted by God because his majesty has been offended. There are, however, passages in the New Testament and in later Christian writing in which God is pictured like a king who punishes those who rebel. In human society such deliberate punishment is, in a sense, artificial and dramatic. It is not directly produced by the wrongdoing. It is retributive, but many Christians have argued that retribution, which is akin to legalized revenge, is not an adequate motive for punishment. Punishment needs further aims. It may be to deter the wrongdoer from evil ways; it may be to discourage others from following a bad example; it may be to declare society’s abhorrence of the crime. Many would argue that punishment should be remedial -- not only to frighten the criminals from further wrongdoing but to show them the error of their ways and to educate them into a new way of life.

This is not the place for a discussion of penal policy, but the picture a person has of how God acts will affect his or her view of how society should act. If the picture is of a God who rejoices over one sinner who repents or who welcomes the penitent just as the father welcomed his prodigal son, then the emphasis is on the wrongdoer’s rehabilitation. Certainly, society needs to be protected from criminal action, but the criminal continues to be a person made in the image of God and one for whom Christ died. Further, the Christian hesitates to judge another, partly because of the warning of Jesus (Matt. 7:1), but also because of an awareness that any virtue is not his or her achievement, but the result of God’s grace in his or her life. The English Protestant martyr John Bradford (c.1505-55) when he saw a group of criminals being led to their execution said, ‘But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.’4 Those Christians who emphasize the remedial purpose of punishment usually oppose capital punishment.

Conscious of the suffering of prisoners and well aware that through the centuries many faithful Christians have been wrongfully imprisoned and put to death, Christians have emphasized the importance of visiting prisoners, have campaigned for prison and penal reform and have supported organizations such as Amnesty International that campaigns for prisoners of conscience. One example is the Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who became a ‘minister’ in 1811. In 1813 her interest was roused in the state of prisons and she devoted herself to the welfare of female prisoners in Newgate. She campaigned for the separation of the sexes, classification of criminals, female supervision of women and the provision of secular and religious instruction. She gave evidence to a committee of the House of Commons and traveled in Europe, promoting prison reform. She was also concerned about the treatment of the insane.

Meeting Human Need

The recognition that God created human beings in his image and that Christ died to show that every single person is precious in God’s sight has inspired many Christians to practical service of others, especially through educational and medical work. Christians in Europe have played a major part in the development of schools and universities, the provision of medical care and the relief of the poor. Such service of others was also a hallmark of much missionary work in Africa and Asia.

Today, because many of these responsibilities have been assumed by governments, it is worth while to recall the Christian legacy in these fields. Still today, many Christians are motivated by their faith to devote their lives to medical, educational and caring professions. Other Christians are actively engaged in voluntary bodies which seek to meet special needs.

The Church and Education

Most of Christianity’s first converts were poor and illiterate (1 Cor. 1:26). During the second century, a growing number of educated people were attracted to the faith. They naturally wanted their children to have as good an education as they had had themselves, but the only schools available were the grammar and rhetoric schools which offered an education based on Greco-Roman non-Christian culture. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, as well as Augustine and Jerome, encouraged Christians to use secular schools, because they recognized the value of Hellenistic culture, provided it was subservient to Christian teaching. Tertullian was more suspicious of Hellenistic culture. He admitted the necessity of using secular schools, but deplored the situation.

Many Christians continued to use secular schools even when, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, Christians also established catechetical schools, particularly for adults who wished to be baptized. The most famous catechetical school was in Alexandria in Egypt, where the syllabus included the best in Greek science and philosophy as well as Christian studies.

In western Europe, the invasions from the north gradually broke up the Roman educational system, although grammar and rhetoric schools survived in France and Spain into the eighth century. Slowly the church began to provide its own education, especially for the clergy. Even in the dark days from the fifth to the eighth century there were Christian scholars, such as Boethius (c.480- c.524) and Cassiodorus (c.485 - c.580) in Rome, St Isidore (c.560-636), who was Archbishop of Seville in Spain, and the Venerable Bede (c.673-735), who has been called the ‘father of English church history’. Monasteries offered some education and a few became centers of learning, especially in Ireland, where, as in other Celtic regions, there had been a tradition of education dating back to pre-Christian times.

Bishops too founded schools, usually in their cathedral city. These are sometimes regarded as the successors of the Roman rhetoric schools and as the precursors of grammar schools. Whilst initially mainly for those intending to be ordained, they quite quickly started to welcome other young people. Sometimes provision was made for those who needed to board. These schools too were influenced by the syllabus and the style of teaching in the monastic schools. Children were expected to be dutiful. As Bede said, ‘a child does not contradict the professors’.5 The discipline was strict.

Under the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), who built on the monastic and episcopal schools, there was further development. Charlemagne was a lover of learning, and when he came to the throne he was distressed to find how poor was the Latin of many of his correspondents, including bishops and abbots. He recognized that the correct interpretation of Holy Scripture required a fluent knowledge of Latin. He gave orders that ‘in each bishopric and in each monastery let the psalms, the notes, the chant, calculation and grammar be taught and carefully corrected books be available’.6 He also set up a school at his palace at Aachen and imported talent from different parts of Europe, including Alcuin (c.735-804), who had been master of the school at York, and the grammarian Paul the Deacon (c.120-c.800) from Italy.

There were far more extensive educational developments during the cultural awakening of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including the organization of universities, such as the University of Paris, which formally came into being between 1150 and 1170. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are slightly later and other ancient universities of Europe date from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Most of the students were in holy orders and theology was regarded as the ‘queen of the sciences’.

The development of universities led, in turn, to an increase of schools of various kinds. Besides the ones run by ecclesiastical authorities, some of the trade guilds started their own schools. It has been estimated that toward the close of the Middle Ages, England and Wales, with a population of about two and a half million, had 400 grammar schools - a rather better provision than in Victorian England.

In the sixteenth century, the Renaissance, with its New Learning, broke the dominance of scholastic studies and helped to broaden the syllabus while at the same time the spread of printing increased the availability of books. The dissolution of the monasteries and the upheavals of the Reformation period, however, caused considerable disruption. The Reformers were committed to the importance of education. Calvin in Geneva, where the theological academy under Theodore Bees (1519-1605) reached high standards of scholarship, advocated ‘universal’ education. In the Netherlands, which were Calvinist, free public schools were setup in every village and town by the early seventeenth century. John Knox, another Calvinist, had tried to do the same in Scotland but was prevented by the Scottish nobility.

In countries which remained loyal to the Catholic church there was also a development of education, in part thanks to the enthusiasm of the Jesuits.

The eighteenth century saw important changes to the pattern of education. Teaching in mother languages grew in importance and rivaled Latin; the exact sciences were brought into the curriculum and the correct method of teaching became a pedagogic question. The dominant religious motivation for education was beginning to be replaced. In the nineteenth century, this change was further developed, especially in those countries most affected by the French Revolution. Almost everywhere the aristocratic control of society was fading and a new commercial class wanted education to fit the needs of an industrial society.

In nineteenth-century Britain, the churches took a leading role in the development of elementary education. This, however, was marked by denominational rivalries. From 1870, the state has taken increasing control, although the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches still have a significant role, and religious education, which now includes teaching about the other major world religions as well as Christianity, is still required, as well as a daily act of collective worship. Christian influence was also dominant in the establishment of the so-called English ‘public’ or fee-paying schools. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), who was appointed headmaster of Rugby in 1828, set the pattern for producing Christians, gentlemen and scholars - in that order. It has to be said that despite their good quality of education, public schools have been socially divisive.

Elsewhere, the role of the churches in education today depends upon political history. In France. for example, the law of 1886 enacted that only lay persons should teach in public schools and that there should be no distinctive religious teaching. Private fee-paying schools continue to offer a religious education. In Spain, state schools co-exist with private, almost exclusively church schools. In the USA, there has been a clear separation of church and state, so that no religious education is allowed in state-funded schools. Protestant churches, therefore, invested heavily in well-organized Sunday schools, whilst the Roman Catholic church developed an extensive network of ‘parochial schools’, which are wholly financed and administered by the Catholic church. In most eastern European countries Communist governments ended the churches’ involvement in education and often made any instruction in the faith, even at home, very difficult.

While sometimes church involvement in education has seemed to be self-interested and seen as a way of propagating the faith, at its best it represents a Christian concern for the full dignity of the human being. Christians have therefore resisted schooling which is just training for a job and seen its role as developing each person’s full potential as a physical, mental and spiritual being.

The Church of England’s Durham Report on Education (1970) puts the matter like this:

[Do human beings] differ as socially acceptable citizens at all significantly from house-trained dogs? Or are human beings anything more than extremely elaborate computers whose major distinction is that they are comparatively cheap to come by? If this is our view of the nature of man, then the educational process need plainly be no more than a process of individual and social conditioning . . . [Christians] believe in the intrinsic worth of each individual … whether bright or stupid, beautiful or ugly, good or bad . . . For Christians it derives from a certain conception of man as created in the image of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and destined for eternal life. Each individual as an object of the love of God has a unique value. Against tendencies to depersonalize and to dehumanize which are prevalent in society the Christian will want constantly to emphasize the importance of personal relationships . . . The development of the person in all his aspects, religious and moral, as well as physical and mental, is therefore a matter of the deepest importance to him.7

The Care of the Sick

The church has also played an important part in the development of medical care in the West In Greek and Roman times, temples were used as hospitals. After the conversion of Constantine, the establishment of hospitals became an integral part of church organization. Following a decree that Constantine issued in 335, hospitals were developed in Rome, Constantinople, Ephesus and other parts of the Roman Empire. The Hotel-Dieu of Lyons in France was opened in 542 and the Hotel-Dieu of Paris in 660. It has to be admitted that more attention in these hospitals was given to the well-being of the patient’s soul than to his or her bodily ailments.

The monasteries also set a new standard in their care for their sick members. Monasteries had an infirmitorium or place to which sick monks were taken for treatment. Monasteries also possessed a pharmacy and often a garden with medicinal plants. The monasteries also opened their doors to pilgrims and other travelers and no doubt offered them medical care when it was required, as well as to the lay people who served them.

The growth of hospitals accelerated during the Crusades, especially as more people were killed by disease than by the Muslim enemies. Military hospitals were set up along the routes which the crusaders traveled. The Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St.John in 1099 established in the Holy Land a hospital that could care for 2,000 patients. The Order has survived through the centuries as the St. John’s Ambulance.

Most hospitals in the later Middle Ages were associated with monasteries, although some were built by cities, and this practice increased in those countries where the monasteries were disbanded. In the nineteenth century great advances took place in medical care and hospital provision, associated with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and her reform of nursing, Louis Pasteur (1822-95) and his work in the development of germ theory, and Lord Lister’s (1827-1912) advances in surgery. While many Christians were still motivated by their faith to become doctors and nurses, the Christian hegemony in medical care was fast disappearing. Even so, the nineteenth century, as we have seen, was a period in which missionaries established Western-style hospitals and medical care in many parts of Asia and Africa. Now, there is a new interest in the West in the traditional healing practices of the East.

Some Christians may appear to regard faith-healing as an alternative to orthodox medicine. Most Christians do not see the church’s ministry to the sick as a rival to orthodox medicine. The majority of Christians are likely to think that God’s gift of healing is normally mediated through the skill and dedication of doctors and nurses. It is also widely recognized that religious faith is no protection against depression and mental illness and that Christians should have no feelings of guilt in seeking psychiatric help. It was a Christian clergyman, Chad Varah, who in 1953 took the lead in setting up the Samaritans, an organization with no particular religious affiliation, which offers counseling to the suicidal.

Poverty, Aid and Development

Alms-giving has always been expected of faithful Christians and care for the poor has been a continuing Christian concern. In medieval Europe the monasteries offered relief to the destitute. After the Reformation, in Protestant countries, other provision had to be made, but it was often still the responsibility of the church.

In sixteenth-century England, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered by parish overseers, who were sometimes the same people as the churchwardens. The alms collected at the Communion service and some of the tithes were used for the relief of the poor. In the nineteenth century, pauperism amongst the able-bodied came to be regarded as a moral failing, and the New Poor Law of 1834 made the provisions of the workhouse so unattractive that they were meant to force people back to work.

Growing humanitarian concern and the recognition of the complex causes of unemployment led in the twentieth century to the development of the Welfare State in Britain. Most developed countries now make basic provision for the unemployed and destitute, although mounting costs are leading several countries to re-examine their welfare provision.

In poorer countries, the destitute have to depend on begging. Civil war and famine have created terrible conditions for many people. Millions of people never get enough to eat or have an inadequate diet. This has troubled the consciences of Christians and others in richer countries and the churches have shared in the voluntary efforts to send aid to victims of emergencies and to assist small-scale development projects. Although the amounts given by churches are tiny compared to the aid budgets of governments, the money has usually been well spent. The churches have also tried to help mobilize public opinion in favor of overseas aid.

Christian Aid

An example of this concern is the work of Christian Aid, as recalled by its pioneering first Director, Janet Lacey. Born in Sunderland in County Durham, Janet Lacey’s first interest was the theatre. In 1946 she went to Germany to work for the YMCA (the Young Men’s Christian Association), but she was soon asked to join the Youth Department of the British Council of Churches and from there moved to Inter-Church Aid, which later became known as Christian Aid.

The agency’s first task was to try to help the legacy of refugees and displaced persons in Europe created by the Second World War. This was a slow business, partly because several governments were reluctant to admit them. In 1959, four young English politicians wrote an article in Crossbow called ‘Wanted, a World Refugee Year’, which drew attention to the 200,000 people in Europe who were still refugees. Within a year, ninety-seven nations responded to the challenge. During the year, £30 million was donated, of which two-thirds came from the public and the rest from governments. Many countries agreed to relax their rules and let in a few more refugees. The World Council of Churches opened thirty-four refugee homes. In Britain, the UK World Refugee Year Committee set a target of £2 million, but ended up with over £7 million and nearly £2 million worth of clothing and houses.

The Year did not solve the problem and subsequently many more millions of people have been made refugees. The last fifty years have seen massive numbers of refugees in many parts of the world, for example the Palestinians in the Middle East, or refugees from Tibet, or recently in Rwanda. I recall visiting a Palestinian camp, where a very tall hedge was pointed out to me. I was told that in 1947 several people had said that it was a waste of time to plant the bushes. The refugees would soon be going home. In fact, some have been refugees for their whole life.

Even before the end of World Refugee Year, however, attention was also turning to the desperate poverty of many people. In 1961, the Director of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization launched the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, which lasted for ten years and then became the UN Development Decade. In the 1960s, I was working in the Medway towns and was chair of the Freedom from Hunger and Christian Aid Committee. One project was to raise money for a Halco Tiger drilling machine which could make available supplies of clean water. I vividly recall visiting a village where a well had just been installed, providing for the first time a pure water supply, which it was hoped would reduce illness and infection and provide some water for irrigation. This was only one of many projects which encouraged people to help themselves and which brought real improvement to some villages.

Christian Aid, with other agencies, has also tried to respond to the immediate impact both of natural disasters and those caused by fighting and violence. For example, when the Mau Mau rebellion erupted in Kenya in 1952, the local churches tried to organize relief. Janet Lacey recalls how the churches in Britain were bombarded with demands for help, which were way beyond the money Christian Aid had available. Janet Lacey then went to see for herself the situation and describes a visit to some of the detainee camps and prisons:

It was pouring with rain. I’ll never forget those detainee camps. Hundreds and hundreds of African men huddled together in groups in large wire netting compounds, with grey blankets held tightly round their bodies. The grey sky, the grey faces and the grey blankets made them all look like L. S. Lowry’s paintings, almost ‘stick’ men, unhappy and lost. I found it hard to take. They were men. What were they feeling and thinking? Guards with guns were at every entrance.8

Christians in many countries have tried to bring assistance to refugees, victims of disasters and those condemned to a life of poverty. They have also tried to prod governments into doing more to help. Many people have been given relief and renewed hope. Through this work Christians of different denominations have discovered a unity in service. They have recognized also that there can be no restriction on compassion and that aid should not be used to recruit converts for the church. The criterion for receiving help is need, not creed. After one earthquake disaster, Christian Aid gave money to help the villagers rebuild their mosque. As Janet Lacey wrote, ‘Christian Aid is not just another charity but should be a reconciling factor in the Church and the world, between nationality, classes and between Christian and non-Christian.’9 Those Christians, however, who see the urgent need of the world’s poor are likely to be impatient with the priorities of the institutional churches and their reluctance to let their prayers for unity be translated into effective action.

Campaigning to Change Society

Relief of those in need -- sometimes called ‘ambulance-work’ -- is not enough. Many Christians recognize the importance of changing the conditions in society that cause the distress. Critics complain of what they call ‘meddling’ in politics. The Christian, however, believes that Jesus came that people ‘might have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). The church, therefore, is concerned with social conditions as well as with spiritual matters. The belief that every single person is precious in God’s sight has inspired some Christians to work for social changes such as the abolition of slavery, an end to the exploitation of factory workers, the removal of racial discrimination and apartheid, and the prevention of cruelty to and the sexual abuse of women and children.

Abolition of Slavery

The name forever associated with the campaign to abolish slavery is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a member of the Clapham Sect, who became a member of Parliament in 1780 -- the same year as the future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who was a friend of Wilberforce, entered Parliament. Wilberforce was not the first to denounce slavery. The Quakers had already protested against it. Then Granville Sharp (1735-1813) formed the Abolition Society, and Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) several times risked his life collecting evidence of the terrible conditions in which the trade was carried on.

Ships set out from England to Africa, loaded with cheap cotton goods which were bartered for slaves. The slaves were then transported to America and sold for raw cotton, sugar and tobacco, which was shipped back to England. The conditions in the ships were often terrible. The men and women were herded together in much discomfort and many died in the course of making the so-called ‘middle passage’. Even with these losses, the trade was profitable and in 1771, for example, 50,000 slaves were transported.

William Wilberforce and his colleagues knew the strength of the vested interests which they had to tackle and the indifference of public opinion. Their only weapon was the appeal to conscience. Wilberforce ended a three-and-a-half-hour speech in the House of Commons with these words, ‘What is there in this-life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice and the laws of God?’10 The campaigners used every means possible to arouse public feeling. They held meetings, issued pamphlets and even had anti-slavery slogans painted on their soup bowls. As their guests ate their soup, they would gradually discern the words ‘Abolish all slavery’ or find a picture of a black man with the words, ‘A man and a brother’.

Victory came on 23 February 1807 when, by a very large majority, the House of Commons declared the slave trade illegal. In 1833 all slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. In the United States of America, where both black rebellions and religious revivals helped create opposition to slavery, it was only completely abolished after the Civil War (1861-5).

Factory Reform

Members of the Clapham Sect were also concerned about the underprivileged in Britain, but the most famous campaigner was the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-85), known as Lord Ashley from 1811 to 1851. He campaigned on many issues. He favored the political emancipation of Roman Catholics. He secured the passage of the Lunacy Act of 1845, which for the first time treated the insane as a ‘person of unsound mind’, rather than as a social outcast. He led the campaign to shorten the hours worked by those in the textile mills to ten per day. By the Mines Act, Ashley, who had found boys as young as five working in the mines, excluded all women and girls and boys under thirteen from work in coal mines. He urged the government to sponsor low-cost housing for urban workers. For thirty-nine years he was President of the Ragged Schools Union, which during that time provided education for some 300,000 poor children. He was, however, accused of neglecting the conditions of rural workers, including those on his own estate.

The concern for the plight of workers continues to exercise the Christian conscience. Christians have been active in campaigns about working conditions in Asia, for example, on tea plantations and in sports and toy factories. Christian Aid has also drawn attention to the effect making carpets for the Western market has on the eyesight of children who have to do the work.

The Basis for Social Action

While the Evangelicals’ concern for the social problems of their day was mainly practical and philanthropic, trying to effect change through Acts of Parliament and by giving relief to those in need, the response of the Church of England’s High Church party, known as the Tractarians or Oxford Movement, was more theological. Their answer was a high doctrine of the church and the provision of priests to work in slum areas.

The Christian Socialists

A third approach was articulated by a group who came to be known as Christian Socialists, who were led by F. D. Maurice (1805-72), who was Professor of Theology at Kings College, London, from 1846 until he was dismissed when his Theological Essays (1853) provoked a crisis because he questioned the teaching of eternal damnation. Maurice was interested in the application of Christian principles to social reform. Maurice said that Christ came not to establish a religious sect, but a kingdom which should embrace all people. In such a kingdom there could be no class-distinctions, no rich or poor and no oppressor or oppressed. This approach has had a lasting influence on the Anglican church and on other churches, for example through William Temple and his contribution to the Life and Work Movement, which as we have seen, became part of the World Council of Churches.

The Social Gospel Movement

Maurice’s writings also influenced the leaders of the ‘Social Gospel’ movement in the USA. In part this Protestant movement reiterated the dream which had brought Independents, Puritans and Quakers to North America who hoped to build an ideal Christian society in the New World. They also were influenced by the writings of the German theologian Albrecht Ritschl.11

One of the Social Gospel’s most influential leaders was Washington Gladden (1836-1918), who for thirty-six years was a Congregational pastor in Columbus, Ohio. He campaigned for applied Christianity. The best-known advocate of the Social Gospel was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). He was born in the USA of German ancestry. His parents had come as refugees to the USA after the defeat of liberalism in Germany in the revolutionary year of 1848. After some pastoral work in New York, Rauschenbusch returned as a teacher to Rochester Theological Seminary, where he had studied. His Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) brought him nation-wide recognition.

In tune with the evolutionary mood of the age, the supporters of the Social Gospel hoped that society could be changed into a closer likeness of God’s kingdom. The hymn ‘God is working his purpose out’ by A. C. Ainger (1814-1919), a teacher at Eton, sums up this mood of optimistic endeavor with its line, ‘Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be. . .’ The third verse continues:

What can we do to work God’s work, to prosper and increase the brotherhood of all mankind, the reign of the Prince of Peace? What can we do to hasten the time, the time that shall surely be, When the earth shall be filled with glory of God as the waters cover the sea?12

Christian Pragmatism

Such confidence was shattered in Europe by the slaughter in the trenches during the First World War. The liberal optimism, which largely had abandoned the concept of sin and believed that the world could be put right by education and social and economic reform, was challenged by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner (1889-1966) and other continental European theologians. In the English-speaking world the writings of the American Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), especially his Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), were more influential. He reinstated the doctrine of original sin and tried to expound a ‘vital prophetic Christianity’ or ‘Christian pragmatism’ also sometimes called ‘Christian realism’. This was Christian in the sense that the law of love on the one hand and the Christian awareness of the law of self-love as an ubiquitous and persistent force describe the upper and lower limits of a social order in a sinful world. It was pragmatic in the sense that it becomes increasingly aware of the contingent circumstances of history which determine how much or how little it is necessary to emphasize’ such regulative principles as justice, equality and liberty.

Life and Work

At the 1925 Stockholm Life and Work conference, there was a clear division between the British and American idealism and optimism that thought the church’s task was to inspire humanity to build the kingdom of God -- the Social Gospel approach -- and the more pessimistic continental view which saw a clear distinction between the values of the world and the message of the gospel, which was as much a judgment on human sin as a message of God’s grace. The Stockholm conference made a long list of social evils, but made no social or economic structural analysis.

The next Life and Work conference, which was held at Oxford in 1937, was dominated by the economic depression and the mass unemployment that it caused. Nearly three-quarters of the delegates were from the USA and the British Commonwealth. The conference, under the leadership of J. H. Oldham (1874-1969), who devoted much of his life to the ecumenical movement, had been well prepared for and the valuable papers were published as The Church and Its Function in Society. The general tone of the Oxford conference was ‘Christian realism’, although perhaps not enough attention was paid to the dangers of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

The World Council of Churches

The sufferings of the Second World War and the spread of communism served to accentuate the note of sober realism in the social attitudes of the ecumenical movement. There was an emphasis in Europe on rebuilding shattered societies and helping refugees and displaced persons. The first assembly of the World Council of Churches, with representatives from 147 churches (there are now over 300 member churches) was held at Amsterdam in 1948. It was overshadowed by the Cold War, although it avoided lining up behind either capitalism or communism as an economic system.

The second assembly was held at Evanston, Illinois, in 1954 and was notable for a report on ‘The Church amid Racial and Ethnic Tensions’. Following the meeting a study of Rapid Social Change was initiated, which continued until the next assembly held in New Delhi in 1961.

In the 1960s there was a new mood of optimism, although this was soon dispelled by the growing threat of nuclear war and by economic instability. As African and Asian Christians came to share the leadership of the world church, the concerns of the developing world and the call for economic justice rather than relief came to the fore. The Papal Encyclical Populorum Progressio of 1967 had spoken of economic development as the new name for peace. The 1968 Uppsala assembly regarded this as too optimistic and felt that social transformation within Third World countries was more important than the transfer of resources from the industrialized world to the developing world. Racist issues also were prominent and following the assembly the controversial Programme to Combat Racism was established. The Uppsala assembly was also the prelude to the development of contextual theologies, such as black, feminist and liberation theologies, which have been influential in WCC circles. After 1968, there were also changes to the Churches’ Commission on International Affairs, which now came to express a radical Third World perspective, often non-aligned or ‘anti-Western’ on international issues and with a pacifist tendency.

Following the 1975 Nairobi assembly, at which there were sharp disagreements about the Christian attitude to people of other faiths, the phrase ‘A Just Participatory and Sustainable Society’ provided the framework for discussion of social ethics. At other conferences in Bucharest and Massachusetts, attention focused on scientific and technological developments. Criticism was voiced of transnational companies and their effects on developing economies.

The 1983 Vancouver assembly is remembered for the high quality of its worship, but the reports were thin and showed a certain utopian naïveté. The same could be said of the 1991 Canberra assembly which was overshadowed by the Gulf War.

In the 1990s, the threat of nuclear war has receded, but horrific violence is still evident in many parts of the world -- indeed it is reckoned that some eighteen million people have died in wars and civil wars from 1945 to 1995. The west European churches have been concerned to re-establish links with the churches of eastern Europe. Feminist and ecological issues have gained prominence, as well the injustice of continuing Western economic dominance and cultural imperialism. The World Council of Churches has had serious financial difficulties that have led to cut-backs in its work. It is probable that few members of local congregations feel involved in the life of the WCC. Many Christians in North America and Europe feel alienated from the Third World ideology that seems to dominate WCC thinking, although perhaps this reflects the failure of those Christians to acknowledge the economic exploitation and racism of Europe and North America.

There have been a variety of criticisms of the World Council of Churches’ social teaching and programmes. In part this is inevitable given the varied make up of the WCC. Ronald Preston, for many years Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology at Manchester University, has identified five main forms of criticism.

The first is that the World Council of Churches is unrepresentative and, while quick to criticize the ‘First World’, excuses abuses of human rights in the ‘Third World’. The second criticism, from the so-called ‘New Right’, defends free market forces and objects to the church meddling with politics. Similar attacks were made on the Church of England’s report Faith in the City (1985), which was criticized by some for blaming crime and delinquency on bad social and economic conditions, rather than on the individual’s moral failure. Other criticisms of the WOO come from those who uphold a separation of church and state, whereas a fourth group is utopian and regards the WCC as too ready to compromise with political powers. The fifth criticism, which is Preston’s own, is that the WCC is not realistic enough and does not sufficiently analyze the complexities of social and political decisions.13 Preston’s criticism may be fair, but it highlights the difficult question of how religious bodies can influence world affairs.

Roman Catholic Social Teaching

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic church seemed like an embattled fortress, trying to resist the acids of the French Revolution, nationalism and industrialization. Leo XII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) caused a surprise by backing trade unions. The encyclical also stressed the Natural Law. Quadragesimo Anno (1931) introduced the notion of subsidiarity, which implies that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. This has recently been the subject of discussion in the European Community. The encyclical also distinguished ‘moderate’ socialism from communism.

Vatican II and subsequent documents have addressed social issues in a greater spirit of dialogue with the modern world. Pacem in Terris (1963) allowed for the possibility of Marxism containing elements that are positive and deserving of approval. Populorum Progressio (1967) emphasized the urgent need for economic development in the Third World. Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (1981) endorsed the Marxist emphasis on the primacy of labor among the factors of production and encouraged schemes whereby workers became part-owners of the places where they work. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) recognized that structural sin, that is to say, the structures of society, as well as individual decisions, can be wrong. Quadragesimo Anno for the first time mentioned ecological issues. The Pope has repeatedly also called for peace and disarmament.

Although Pope John Paul II has made clear his disagreement with the revolutionary approach of liberation theologians, Catholic social teaching is more radical than the popular opinion of the present Pope, based on his views about birth control and sexual morality, might suggest. They are a challenge to many of the presuppositions of those in the West, and indeed to members of Catholic parties in Europe and Latin America, which tend to be right wing. Again, however, the question is, how does the church exercise an influence? There are deeper questions about the possibility of the application of ethical values to political and economic decisions and about how Christians should interpret the prayer ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.

A Global Ethic

Gradually Christians are recognizing that ethical concern about world society is not a monopoly of the churches. Indeed, if the critical issues of today are to be tackled, then all people of faith and good will need to act together.

There continues, however, to be some pessimism as to whether ethical values can be applied to political life. In his recent A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (1997), Hans Küng argues for the relevance of ethical considerations. Further, in his advocacy of The Declaration Towards a Global Ethic of which he was the main author and which was adopted at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993, Küng has stressed the need for the world religions to articulate the ethical values which they share. There will, Küng has said, be ‘no human life together without a world ethic for the nations’,14 and that requires peace among the religions, which itself requires dialogue among the religions.

My own hope is that the religions of the world will come together to affirm the spiritual and moral values on which a new world society needs to be based. Unless people and nations can learn to co-operate, there will be repetitions of the bitter violence witnessed in former Yugoslavia. The great issues that face world society, such as the poverty and hunger of millions, the endemic violence, the drug trade, or the abuse of the environment -- to name only a selection of key concerns -- all have a spiritual and moral dimension. Together with the technical issues, the key question is one of a will to act which depends upon the recognition of human responsibility for one another. The ecumenical and interfaith movements are not to be seen as ends in themselves, but as a way by which people of faith and good will can work together for a society based on ethical values. People of faith can help to shape public opinion and so influence political decisions. Perhaps most important of all, they affirm the hope that change is possible and that ‘God’s will’ is to be done on earth.

An attractive book on the Christian way of life is Donald Nicholl, Holiness (Darton. Longman and Todd, 1981).

Robert Bruce McLaren, Christian Ethics (Prentice-Hall, 1994), is a good introductory guide to the subject.

On Christian responsibility in society, a classic is Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Hans Küng’s Global Responsibility (SCM Press, 1991), deals with similar issues in a world context.



1. In Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos (413 CE), tract. 7, sect. 8.

2. Quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, ed. J. Bowker (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 322.

3. Quoted by Lewis G. Regenstein in Replenish the Earth (SCM Press, 1991), p. 178.

4. Quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (4th edn. 1992), with reference to the Dictionary of National Biography.

5. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edn, vol.6, p. 334.

6. Capitualry of 789 CE.

7. The Fourth R: The Durham Report on Religious Education (National Society and SPCK, 1970), pp. 67-72.

8. Janet Lacey, A Cup Of Water: The Story of Christian Aid (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), P. 128.

9. Ibid., p. 182.

10. R. Coupled, Wilberforce (new edn., 1945), p. 104.

11. See above, p. 75.

12. Hymns and Praise, 769.

13. Ronald H. Preston, Confusions in Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans, 1994).

14. Hans Küng, Global Responsibility (Continuum, New York, and SCM Press, 1991). See also A Global Ethic, eds. Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel (SCM Press, 1993).