How shall the church think about social issues of race, justice and power? It is increasingly popular for these issues to be framed and discussed in the church using the categories of social justice and racial privilege as defined by the social sciences. In secular academic settings such categories find their genesis in and are tethered to Marxist systems of analysis. These systems emphasize the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Marxist frameworks may have surface resonances with Biblical concerns for justice, equality and the poor. However, these frameworks emphasize the ongoing Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis without a clear pathway for resolution. Therefore, the insights gained from such analyses are not placed within a framework adequate to provide a healthy response to the social problems posed.
Rather than relying--almost exclusively in certain sectors of the church--on categories that find their genesis in systems hostile to orthodox Christianity, the church should rediscover the corrective guidance of its own tradition and draw upon its creedal and confessional resources. One such resource is the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), a document famous for its exposition of the moral law of God. The WLC offers a paradigm for social responsibility, a framework for robust ethical reasoning, and points toward the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A Paradigm for Social Responsibility
We don't need to rely on Marxist paradigms to teach us about social responsibility. The WLC's rules for interpreting the moral law make it clear that we are, in fact, our brother's keeper. WLC 99 states that "what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places." Similarly, rule eight sates "what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them."
The WLC does not envision a Christian unconcerned with the moral obligations of their neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes helping them obey God. In the WLC's exposition of the Ten Commandments, this concern extends to the physical welfare of our neighbors too (see WLC 141-142). Pietistic isolation is not an option. As human beings we are knit together in social relationships which incur moral obligation.
However, the WLC pushes past the simplistic collectivism of Marxist paradigms which posit blanket responsibility or victimization in collectives of race, class and gender. Accordingly, moral guilt or a claim to justice will accrue to these same collectives. The result is a powerful, yet vague and ultimately unhelpful, angst. By contrast the WLC goes further, providing a framework that has the capacity to yield particular pathways for repentance, obedience and advocacy. The WLC teaches that our moral obligations will also be informed by our places and our callings.
On the one hand this is freeing. The single mother working two low-wage earning jobs does share the same kind of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO for her neighbors, but she does not share the same degree of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO. On the other hand, it is morally challenging. True righteousness is measured by deeds not by angst. Marxist paradigms that call for awareness, angst and protest allow us to rest content with awareness, angst and protest. The WLC pushes further, calling for actual righteous deeds to be done according to your place and calling. When we stand before God we shall not be judged for how we felt, but for what we have done. Therefore, we need theories of social responsibility that provide particular guidance for obedience.
A Framework for Robust Ethical Reasoning
Pastors and historians alike can tell you that evil deeds are often justified through painfully atomistic readings of Scripture. Our sinful hearts are prone to suppress obvious moral implications from Biblical texts. Jesus summarized the ten commandments with two great laws of love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus reasons even as he appeals to the heart.
The WLC follows Jesus and embraces a well-reasoned use of the law of God. Good and necessary inferences are drawn from the commandments, always with a view to the whole counsel of Scripture: "where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included." The WLC encourages a robust moral reasoning intended to give expression to the spirit of the law, lest our sinful hearts rest content with the letter of the law. Both the WLC's exposition of the commandments and the type of moral reasoning it encourages offer resources to fashion a Biblical response to issues of race, justice and power.
The Hope of the Gospel
The WLC makes it clear that the moral law of God binds all people at all times (WLC 91-93). It is the ethical standard that defines what Christians labor for in the public square as much as in the home. For example, the WLC reminds us that we are not to exercise "undue silence in a just cause" (WLC 145). We should "endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others" (WLC 142). In these matters the moral law of God will be our guide.
And yet, the WLC reminds us that ethics and morality are not social goods with which we can rest content. For love of God and neighbor we pursue earthly righteousness. But we accept that "none is righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10). Therefore, there is no lasting hope without Christ. The law that guides our vision for justice will, if handled rightly, at the very same time convict us of our inability to keep it. For the regenerate this means that the law will "show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule to their obedience" (WLC 97). Here we see that the law moves us to worship and adore Christ when we realize that he kept it for us when we could not and bore its curse in our place. The WLC would have the law move our hearts to love Christ, and from that place of love to obey Christ.
For the unregenerate, the moral law is of use "to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ" (WLC 96). The law serves salvation by driving the unregenerate to Christ. We can never rest content with social transformation or the alleviation of earthly suffering. We will always be burdened to see spiritual transformation and the alleviation of eternal suffering. This is not to deny the God glorifying, neighbor loving value of alleviating temporal suffering. It is simply to remember that temporal suffering is temporal. Of course, to lean on the temporality of suffering as an excuse to ignore our neighbor's pain is wrong. But to forget that our neighbor faces eternal suffering is equally heartless, and with even greater consequences.
This understanding of the usefulness of the law for the unregenerate will inform how we exercise co-belligerence as Christians. Augustine famously coined the phrase City of Man to describe that realm of civil society where Christians labor with unbelievers for the common good. But, those with whom we labor in matters of social concern must take us as we are. We cannot make common cause with those who would demand we lay down the cross of Christ in order take up another cause. We cannot be silenced, for we must save both ourselves and our hearers.
In the spirit of avoiding what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," just because the Westminster Larger Catechism is old (1648) does not mean it is old-fashioned. It remains relevant today. Nor should we presume that because it was not heeded in earlier days that it did not speak clearly enough to be heard. Hearing was not the problem, heeding was. Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted that in the late 18th century the American Presbyterian church removed the word "depopulations" from the WLC's exposition of the eighth commandment. This ban "was embarrassing given the ongoing European settlement of territory once belonging to native Americans." One might wonder whether 19th century Presbyterians were not similarly embarrassed by the prohibitions against manstealing, defrauding one's neighbor and enriching oneself unjustly.
The WLC is not our only Biblical resource to address concerns over race, justice and power, but it is an important one. Our forebears seemed to have heard the WLC without heading it in these areas. We may find that tomorrow's embarrassment is not that we deleted a word from the WLC because it made us uncomfortable, but that we never bothered to read it seriously in the first place.
1. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), xxii.