Biblical Social Vision

Why do we need a biblical vision for society in the 21st century? Despite advancements in knowledge and technology, society in the West is foundering because it lacks a clear vision for what constitutes a good and worthwhile life. Dominant ideologies like Capitalism, consumerism and individualism set the direction of western societies, often to the detriment of human wellbeing and flourishing communities. Pain, brokenness and injustice are persistent problems that contemporary culture is ill-equipped to address. Could the Bible, which had such a significant impact on the development of European culture in the past, offer an alternative vision for public life today?

Over several decades, we’ve become convinced that the Bible not only reveals the way to personal salvation through Christ – it also provides a positive vision for a just and thriving economic, social and political order in any age. It’s not irrelevant, but profoundly relevant to shaping the institutions that govern our common life.  The Jubilee Centre exists to help Christians connect their faith to public life, and over the last 35 years two themes have emerged which summarise our approach: seeing biblical law as providing a roadmap for society and using the principle of right relationships as a compass to find our way. Read more about these below, or take a look at our Strategy for Engagement.

The ‘Map’ of Biblical Law

It’s easy to assume that applying the Old Testament to the world today means the imposition of a rigid, archaic set of rules. However, there’s a way to generate biblical principles from the OT that is thoughtful, nuanced and listens carefully to both the original setting and our contemporary context. It starts with recognising the enduring relevance of biblical law. While a superficial reading of the New Testament suggests that OT law has been made redundant, Jesus himself insists that he has not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17) and Paul says that 'the Law is good if one uses it properly' (1 Timothy 1:8).

For our purposes, it’s worth remembering that the New Testament writers were concerned with how people could be reconciled to God through Christ, and how churches could witness to Jesus as Lord in a hostile political environment. In contrast, we can find in the Old Testament a comprehensive vision for society, especially in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah.

In the Torah we see God setting out a map for building a new nation; he gave this map to the people of Israel while they were still refugees fleeing from Egypt with few material resources, institutions or leadership. The law expounded through Moses deals with a wide range of issues such as infectious disease outbreaks, how priests should offer sacrifices, setting limits on debts and extending social rights to foreigners. The Torah was God’s chosen means to build the new nation of Israel from the ground up, in every area of its social, economic, political and religious life. It covers themes such as family, government, finance, property, work and rest, justice, welfare and community. In generating Israel's social organisation and ethical distinctiveness, biblical law guided them to become 'a light to the Gentiles,' witnesses to the surrounding nations (Isaiah 42:6) of God’s good intentions in all areas of life.

So how might biblical law form the basis of our social ethics today? After all, it’s easy to cherry pick verses to argue for or against different approaches. Indeed, a judicious choice of texts can give ‘biblical’ support to both Capitalism and socialism (depending on your need). 

To avoid such errors, we need to understand that all the strands of biblical law were interconnected in a holistic model. You can’t apply a specific law in isolation and still expect it to have the intended effect; we need to think about how individual laws functioned together to bring about the outcome of ‘creating or restoring a community of justice and compassion in family and societal life’ (Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, IVP 2004, p.410). The book of Ruth is a good case study where different strands of the Law – such as welcoming the destitute foreigner, gleaning, inheritance rules, protecting the vulnerable and the role of kinsman-redeemer – all work together to bring hope and salvation to an impoverished family.

In applying biblical law appropriately to today’s world, it’s vital to consider the purpose or intention of any specific law.  What kind of situation was it trying to promote, or prevent? Who would have benefited and why? What rights and responsibilities were embodied in this law? What ethical norms were thus established? Once we understand the objective of the law in the original context and calling of ancient Israel, we can bring that objective into our present day context and work out what policies would best reflect that biblical ethical norm today.

The most valuable framework we have come to discover for interpreting and applying biblical law into the modern world is the theme of relationships.

The ‘Compass’ of Right Relationships

The best hermeneutical key for understanding how biblical law can be applied in the 21st century is the realisation that God's law is primarily about relationships. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied that you must love God wholeheartedly and love others sacrificially (Matthew 22:37-40). Then he added, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’. Therefore every law given to Israel through Moses is best understood as an expression of love – where love is a quality of relationship. In other words, through biblical law God is defining what loving relationships look like practically in a fallen world, as opposed to abusive, corrupt or exploitative ones. This isn’t just about close personal relationships either – biblical law concerns relations between borrowers and lenders, masters and servants, residents and foreigners, parents and children, kings and citizens, offenders and victims. This law is the design of a relational God for a relational society, and the way this was worked out in ancient Israel ­(both as example and warning) provides us with a paradigm for translating God’s purposes to other societies and at other times.

There are two great advantages to this approach – which we call ‘relationism’ or ‘Relational Thinking’ – when talking about biblical social ethics today. First, it enables us to translate biblical law into the 21st century world, because although technology, political institutions and socio-economic structures have changed beyond recognition since the Law was written, the nature and importance of human relationships hasn’t. Secondly, we can talk about biblical social ethics without using religious terms in a society which rejects the authority of the Bible and is increasingly antagonistic to the Christian message in public life. However, the language of relationships is open and accessible, and almost everyone will be interested in making relationships better.

Relational Thinking helps us develop an alternative agenda at the personal, institutional and public policy levels: to change priorities and put relationships first. This amounts to a ‘Copernican revolution’ or a new way of seeing the world. Copernicus was the Polish astronomer who first argued that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, not vice-versa. At the personal level, this means no longer taking decisions about careers, where to live or retire, holidays, or the use of time and money primarily for individual fulfilment; for people often neglect or even sacrifice personal relationships along the way. Instead, building and nurturing those key relationships is placed at the centre of our outlook.

When it comes to organisations, we need to think of them as networks of relationships between stakeholders, who together seek to accomplish an agreed set of goals. How can those relationships be enriched in terms of fairness, understanding, communication and purpose? What do relational schools, businesses, hospitals and prisons look like? Our sister organisation Relationships Foundation has worked this through at length in some of these areas of society.

At the public policy level, the questions to ask include, what impact does legislation have on the levels of social capital which are essential to a thriving society? How can it improve rather than undermine the motivation, opportunity and support for crucial relationships in families, communities and public sector organisations? 

Thinking of right relationships as a compass can help point us in the best direction as we seek wisdom to grapple with personal, organisational or public policy dilemmas.

Our Research

We combine these two elements – the map and the compass – in our research work on public issues today. Our approach is to look thoroughly at what is really going on around an issue like artificial intelligence, pay differentials or the climate crisis – not only what we might like to see – and listen carefully to people on the front line. Then we dig deep into the scriptures and draw on the paradigm of biblical law to develop a nuanced Christian understanding of the topic. Finally, we bring these two parts together in dialogue, in order to develop a thoughtful biblical response and recommend social reform applications at the three levels mentioned above: personal, organisational and public policy.

Online Course

COMING SOON: 'The Bible and Public Life' is our online training course that helps you to discover how the Bible connects to public life today.

eBooks

Discover our catalogue of eBooks covering a wide range of subjects, from artificial intelligence to money creation, and all available to download.

Get Connected

We’re committed to offering you relevant and timely ideas that help you connect your faith to public life. Sign up to our monthly email and be the first to hear about our latest research, training and events.

Subscribe

Become a Member

Learn More

Make a Donation

Donate Now

Topics

Thoughtful perspectives on today's social, political and economic challenges

Worldview & Ideologies

Worldview & Ideologies

Reconsidering our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world.

Politics & Government

Politics & Government

How do we encourage politics for the common good?

Arts & Popular Culture

Arts & Popular Culture

Making room for artists to challenge the way we see God and the world.

Welfare

Welfare

How can we rethink welfare as more than just a political issue?

Environment

Environment

Today’s environmental issues are theological and relational at heart.

Family & Sexual Ethics

Family & Sexual Ethics

How do we strengthen the basic unit of society: the extended family?

Science & Technology

Science & Technology

How can science and technology serve true human flourishing?

Economy & Business

Economy & Business

Building relational economies for financial stability, economic justice and social cohesion.

Local Church & Community

Local Church & Community

How can relational churches thrive with a mission to transform their communities?

Worldview & Ideologies

Worldview & Ideologies

Reconsidering our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world.

Politics & Government

Politics & Government

How do we encourage politics for the common good?

Arts & Popular Culture

Arts & Popular Culture

Making room for artists to challenge the way we see God and the world.

Welfare

Welfare

How can we rethink welfare as more than just a political issue?

Environment

Environment

Today’s environmental issues are theological and relational at heart.

Family & Sexual Ethics

Family & Sexual Ethics

How do we strengthen the basic unit of society: the extended family?

Science & Technology

Science & Technology

How can science and technology serve true human flourishing?

Economy & Business

Economy & Business

Building relational economies for financial stability, economic justice and social cohesion.

Local Church & Community

Local Church & Community

How can relational churches thrive with a mission to transform their communities?

Worldview & Ideologies

Worldview & Ideologies

Reconsidering our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world.

Politics & Government

Politics & Government

How do we encourage politics for the common good?

Arts & Popular Culture

Arts & Popular Culture

Making room for artists to challenge the way we see God and the world.

Welfare

Welfare

How can we rethink welfare as more than just a political issue?

Environment

Environment

Today’s environmental issues are theological and relational at heart.

Family & Sexual Ethics

Family & Sexual Ethics

How do we strengthen the basic unit of society: the extended family?

Science & Technology

Science & Technology

How can science and technology serve true human flourishing?

Economy & Business

Economy & Business

Building relational economies for financial stability, economic justice and social cohesion.

Local Church & Community

Local Church & Community

How can relational churches thrive with a mission to transform their communities?