Does the Bible have something to say about ‘development’? In the third installment of his Cambridge Paper, Dr Michael Schluter shows that there are Biblical principles that can form the foundation of modern development policies.
Biblical teaching on social goals
The starting point of biblical teaching on national life and social organisation is the sovereignty of Christ over all creation, for ‘all things were created by him and for him…and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:16). This does not allow Christians to force their views on other people, but it does authorise Christians to practise ‘love’ in the world, and to seek to persuade other people by example and argument (Matthew 5:19).
In terms of national goals, the focus of biblical teaching is the theme of right relationships. Christianity is a relational religion. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit enjoys relationships within as well as outside the Godhead. This distinctive relational nature of the Trinity, characterised by love and righteousness, sets Christianity apart. The central significance of relationships in human society is not imposed by God arbitrarily but reflects who he is. Righteousness is not just absence of guilt through God’s forgiveness, but the practice of right relationships, towards both God and humans; the essence of sin is the desire for autonomy.
Biblical teaching covers Godward and intra-family relationships but also covers other relationships such as those between citizens, across gender and age groups, between citizens and the state, between citizens and foreigners, between ethnic groups, and between nations. In a modern state, God is surely concerned about relationships between doctor and patient, shareholder and director, and between professional groups, to name but a few.
What, then, are the characteristics of right relationships? ‘Justice…is the fulfilment of the demands of a relationship, with God or a person. There is no norm of righteousness outside of that personal involvement. When people fulfil the conditions imposed on them by relationships they are righteous. Every relationship has specific obligations.’ Right relationships are characterised by justice, mercy, faithfulness, forgiveness, truth, generosity, compassion, respect, hope, patience and love; wrong or bad relationships by injustice, oppression, violence, deceit, self-centredness, lust, irritability, envy, greed. Biblical law rests on ‘love’.
The good and bad relationships listed above shine through many aspects of OT Law. The role of the Law in part is to provide teaching on how to establish an institutional framework conducive to sustaining right relationships and ‘love’. These same values characterise the social vision of the prophets, particularly Isaiah. Above all, these virtues are demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus. For example, Jesus’ practice of, and emphasis on, social inclusion echoes the emphasis of the Law on loving the alien, and also echoes the teaching of the Prophets. He fulfils the Law by showing right relationships being practised in the life of a person, and also demonstrates ‘shalom’ (health, tranquillity, contentment, well-being) in his response to crisis situations. No wonder Isaiah described the future Messiah as the ‘Prince of Peace’.
Within this framework, the ultimate goal of society is described in biblical teaching as ‘shalom’, which is translated normally as peace, but includes the idea of well-being and social harmony for the nation, the community and the individual. The exiled Jews in Babylon are called by Jeremiah ‘to seek the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city’ where they were exiled. ‘Shalom’ is more than the absence of conflict; it is about forgiveness, the resolution of conflict, security, safety and a society at peace with itself. The only route to shalom is through right relationships (righteousness): as Isaiah says, ‘The fruit of righteousness will be shalom’.
Although biblical law is clear enough on what brings peace for both individual and community, sadly at a personal level we each do wrong. Through Christ we can be saved from our sin and have our true, God-given nature restored. However, salvation is not simply a process of individual transformation. God’s intention is that all believers should become part of Christian communities that demonstrate his values in their collective life through the power of the Spirit. This is bound to bring about social change among those touched by these communities, and may result in change at a national level where Christian communities are numerous enough.
Promoting right relationships, leading to social harmony and well-being at both a community and personal level, which I term ‘relational well-being’ (RWB), does not directly bring anyone into the Kingdom. However, it does contribute indirectly by preparing the ground for the gospel. In addition, God’s promise to the nation of Israel is that right relationships across society will result in successful family formation, food security, net capital outflows, trade, military security and leadership in international affairs. Relational well-being, then, is the goal of social change, and brings political and economic benefits.
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.
See Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft, eds. Jubilee Manifesto, IVP, 2005, ch.2.
B. Malchow, Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1996.
For a list given by Jesus, see Mark 7:21–23.
See Isa. 51:1–8; 56:1–8; 58:6–14; 59:1–15; 61:1–11; 65:17–25.
E.g. Luke 15:1–2; 18:35–43.
E.g. Deut. 10:18–19; 24:14–15.
E.g. Isa. 56:3–8.
E.g. the fall in crime in British cities 1850–1900 has been attributed to the high proportion of children in Sunday Schools during that period. See Christie Davies, ‘Crime and the Rise and Decline of a Relational Society’, Relational Justice, Waterside Press, Winchester.