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

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

After answering the common objections that are frequently raised against studying and applying Biblical Law in modern society, Dr. Michael Schluter continues his study of pursuing a biblical vision for society by asking the question: which principles of Biblical law could be applied in a secular society? (Read the whole paper here)

What Principles for Political Economy?

The next step was to ascertain which principles of biblical law could be applied today, in a largely secular context. We identified, among others, these:

  • The foundation of the state should be a covenant or promise between regions or sections of society which binds the parties together for good or ill, as in a marriage, so that there is commitment to resolving disputes rather than resorting to force or withdrawal.
  • The Family (extended family) should be given as great a role as possible to ensure its long-term cohesion. This should include economic and welfare functions as well as provision of emotional support, and nurture and education of children.
  • All Families should have geographic roots in a physical location and some permanent stake in property. This helps to ensure proximity in Families and stable local communities, and also some equality in social relationships while allowing differences of wealth.[1]
  • Surplus money should be channelled as far as possible within Families and communities where returns are non-pecuniary, or provided as equity capital to business so that risk is shared fairly between suppliers and users of capital.[2]
  • Crime should be regarded not as the individual breaking the rules of the state, but as a breakdown of relationship between offender and victim, and between offender and local/national community.
  • The power of central government should be restrained to ensure participation of people in decisions governing their lives. ‘Subsidiarity’ encourages direct political involvement and helps develop relationships within the local community.
  • National unity is to be built not on military or executive centralisation, but on a national system of law, education and medicine informed by shared values and aspirations.

These principles were found to be mutually reinforcing; they form a pattern of political and economic organisation.

Identifying the ‘Big Idea’ of Biblical Law

By 1981 much of the groundwork had been completed. We had studied the economic and social implications of the Jubilee laws for land; implications of the interest ban, and why it did not extend to foreigners; political structures; the role of the Levites; welfare arrangements and military organisation. But one issue still troubled us: what held all these laws together? In brief, capitalism was concerned primarily with the deployment and growth of capital, while socialism focused on the role and organisation of the collective, and advocated community ownership and control of the means of production. What was the central theme of the pattern found in biblical law?

The answer was found to be as simple as it was profound. After replying to a slightly different question from a lawyer, Jesus went on to address directly the question I was asking:

‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’

Jesus replied: ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’

Matthew 22:36-40

Love, of course, is not the language of finance or economics: it is the language of relationships. God measures a society, Jesus says, not by the size of its GNP or by the efficiency of its markets, but by the quality of its relationships.

Such a finding is hardly surprising. Christianity is a relational religion. John points out that God is not an isolated individual living in a silent universe. Rather, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). As John Zizioulas has observed:

The chief lesson is that if God is essentially relational, then all being shares in relation: there is, that is to say, a relational content built into the nature of being. To be is to exist in relation to other beings.[3]

Other aspects of Christian doctrine are equally focused on relationships. The central term ‘covenant’ is a promise which establishes and shapes a relationship. The atonement is explained by Paul as bringing about reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), the restoration of a broken relationship. Eternal life is a developing relationship (John 17:3). Paul teaches that spiritual gifts, knowledge and generosity to the poor are worth nothing without the right quality of relationships (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). From the moment of conversion, the individual is called to become part of a new community and not to live or act in isolation (e.g. Ephesians 2:19). The language of relationships is pervasive in Christian doctrine and experience.

(Part IV 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 http://www.jubilee-centre.org.


[1]See essay entitled ‘Disestablishment and the Church of England’ (Vol 3, No 4, Dec 94)

[2]See essay entitled ‘The Biblical Ban on Interest’ (Vol 2, No 1, March 93)

[3]Report of the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today, The Forgotten Trinity (British Council of Churches, London, 1989), p. 16.

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