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Relationism: Pursuing A Biblical Vision For Society (Part I)

Relationism: Pursuing a biblical vision for society (Part I)

After the series entitled ‘Christian Social Reform: What is the Agenda?’, we start this week a new series which deepens the theme of the relevance of the Biblical Law into modern-day society. To read the full document, click on this link.

It is now axiomatic that the big idea is an anachronistic concept. The central theme the think tanks share is that society has become too diverse and fragmented to be reduced to simple organising concepts such as the market or socialism.

Richard Cockett, The Times, 8 August 1994


This essay tells the story of my search over the last twenty years[1]to find an alternative social paradigm which is closer to biblical norms than democratic capitalism or market socialism. Biblical teaching on this issue is found in Old Testament law, where God provides a normative framework for Israelite society. Jesus says that biblical law hangs on the twin commands to love God and love neighbour. Love is not a term of economics or finance, but the language of relationships. Hence the term Relationism. The principles of biblical law, interpreted in relational terms, provide a coherent basis for public policy and personal lifestyle decisions. So Relationism holds great promise for broad-based reform of society, provided it is not severed from its roots in biblical revelation.

Do We Still Need the ‘Big Idea’?

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked a watershed. The day of high principle in politics is now over. What is good is what works. Policy should be assessed only on pragmatic criteria – if it works, use it; if it doesn’t, dump it. This is a period of single-issue politics, when a plural society must live with multiple visions of what is socially desirable.

However, the pragmatic approach has problems. It takes a long time to observe the full effects of policy, so even by its own criteria pragmatism is experimentally hazardous. More fundamentally, policies are seldom if ever value-neutral. Pension provision, for example, involves a choice between individual, family and state responsibility. The tax and benefit system may support marriage, or make cohabitation more financially attractive. A policy platform built on a case-by-case approach is likely to be full of internal contradictions.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to market economics, there have been few attempts to outline a coherent social vision. The Communitarian movement demands greater attention be given to issues of citizenship and community, but fails to address the causes of growing individualism. The Green movement has gained a place on the national agenda, but is peripheral to many central political concerns such as urban unemployment and the future of the NHS.

Some look back with nostalgia to the Utopian dreams of the Christian past. The Reformation vision of the ‘Christian commonwealth’ might appeal, but how do we first restore widespread belief in God strong enough to shape personal behaviour? Likewise, the Christian Socialist ideal looks fatally flawed when state control of the economy is reduced to an occasional nervous tug at a corporate sleeve.

Seeking an Alternative to Capitalism, Marxism and Socialism

My search for an alternative social vision built on biblical foundations stretches back over twenty years. The story begins in East Africa in the 1970s. Kenya was then at the centre of ideological debate. In neighbouring Tanzania, Nyerere was implementing ‘ujamaasocialism’, which included forcibly removing peasants from traditional homesteads into villages. To the north, the autarchic rule of Hailé Selassie was about to be replaced by a repressive Marxist regime. In Kenya itself, barely restrained capitalism was introducing extreme income inequalities. African Christian leaders were seeking a biblical response to these regimes.

Contemporary Christian reflection in Britain centred on identifying biblical principles to critique public policy. The Left stressed justice; the Right stressed stewardship. However, such general principles were inadequate to evaluate compulsory villagisation in Tanzania. The story circulated that the bishops in Tanzania had been asked by Nyerere to critique his policies. When they had nothing to say, he asked for their public support. Was there really no biblical basis for critical evaluation?

My discussions with Roy Clements, then pastor at Nairobi Baptist Church, pointed towards a fresh look at Old Testament law as an ethical foundation for public life. New Testament ethics were given largely to Christians; they assume the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit and were given to guide individuals and the church rather than societal behaviour. So the command by Jesus to ‘turn the other cheek’ is not an appropriate basis for sentencing armed robbers in a law court. Jesus himself points to OT law as the God-given source of ethical teaching when urging his disciples to act as salt and light in society, in the tradition of the prophets (Matthew 5:11-20). He underlines that biblical law continues to be God’s standard for unregenerate society (Matthew 5:17-19), given in part as an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart (Matthew 19:8).

From the summer of 1975 we undertook a careful and systematic study of the political, economic and social system contained in the Law of Moses. This proved a rich and rewarding enterprise. Although the laws appeared at first sight to be a random collection, closer study revealed remarkable internal consistency. The interlocking themes which emerged are considered later. Suffice to say, here was a coherent pattern of political economy which had self-evident relevance to the questions we had been seeking to answer in East Africa.

(Part II will be published next week)

Michael Schluter 

Dr Michael Schluter holds a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University (USA). He is the founder of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationship Foundation. He also worked as an applied economist for the World Bank.

With special thanks to the Jubilee Centre. For more information, visit the website

[1]This Cambridge Paper was written in December 1997

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