Social Activism and the New Testament

For the most recent issue of Ad Fontes, I wrote an essay about nationalism in early Christianity. In it, I attempt to outline some of the incongruencies between ancient Christian attitudes about political identity and those of today’s Christian nationalists. There my complaints are largely directed toward the Christian right-of-center.

Here I want to suggest, however, that my basic thesis cuts the other way too, that it equally applies to those (often evangelical) Christians who have taken what has been called a “woke” or “social justice” approach in recent years. To put it simply, I think this activist or reformist fervor aligns only clumsily with the social ethic of the New Testament.

Activism and Proof-Texting

Regardless of what you make of the phenomenon, there seems to be general agreement that changes are afoot within evangelicalism with regard to what is commonly called “social justice.”[1] While certainly real, this social justice impulse (for lack of a better definition) within evangelicalism is also far from a fully developed agenda set of protocols. At its most basic level, it is a mindset that tends to stress activist or reformist postures in ministry, catechesis, and outreach, often informed by and oriented toward larger programs of collective action in public policy and elections.[2] Issues of race have been the most prominent in recent years, but other iterations involve poverty or gender. One of the underlying presumptions seems to be that Christians must acknowledge and attack social evils collectively and often in coordination with secular allies: big cultural and political problems require big cultural and political solutions.

For our present purposes, the “woke” or social justice evangelical turn in itself is less important than its apparent exegetical presuppositions. Concerned with social justice or not, evangelicals, by definition, profess to ground their theology in biblical authority. Even most skeptics of this turn will admit that the New Testament certainly seems to have something to say about social problems (and so too the Old Testament, but for reasons that should be obvious, the prescribed social order of the Old Testament translates even less easily to contemporary Christianity in liberal democracies). Yet careful interpreters will find that the New Testament says embarrassingly little about the socio-political scene as modern Westerners think of it today.[3] Consequently, any good faith effort to understand the political outlook of the New Testament requires careful historical thinking; haphazard proof-texting or fuzzy biblical metanarratives only invite anachronism.

Christians interested in social justice, decrying evil cultural norms, or criticizing political systems can draw from some sections in the New Testament which seem immediately relevant (I alluded to some of these already in my article on nationalism.) Some might see the Church called to a prophetic role of speaking truth to Caesar, as Jesus does to Pilate in John 18. Others will point to the florid, combative book of Revelation, which has little nice to say about the present age, be it in the political, economic, or cultural sphere.[4] Galatians 3:28—“there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave nor free, no longer male and female”—certainly lends itself to the egalitarian instincts of modern Christian activism. Meanwhile, in passages like Ephesians 6 or Colossians 1 which refer to the “power and principalities,” others have found scriptural antecedents to contemporary rhetoric of structural oppression; the spiritual forces that lurked behind Caesar and his culture like Satanic puppet-masters are said to still pull strings in our world. Undoubtedly, one can indeed find a critical or even adversarial approach to the Roman empire and its social norms in the New Testament.

That said, there are many other passages, like Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:17 or 1 Timothy 2:2, that urge Christians to get along with the institutions of the day as best they can, with the obvious implication that they should avoid a reputation for troublemaking as far as it lies in their power. Likewise, Luke’s narrative in Acts presents the apostate Jerusalem as a far bigger threat to the Church than worldly Rome, as indeed does the Book of Revelation.[5]

As so often in biblical theology, then, proof-texting will not get us far, and we need to look more carefully at what is being said and left unsaid. For that, we need to re-highlight some of the basics about life in the first century.

Scandalous Social Assumptions: The Case Study of Slavery

A little knowledge about the social world of antiquity reveals a vast gulf between the outlook of someone like the Apostle Paul and the contemporary activists in some corners of evangelicalism. Here, the biggest elephant in room—there are others—is slavery, the most obvious form of truly systemic oppression, and yet a pillar of ancient society. As in modernity, ancient slavery could come in many different forms. At its worst, however, it could certainly rival the horrors of American slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Violence and sexual exploitation were commonplace, if not assumed. Considering its ubiquity and centrality to the working social order of antiquity, scholars today will often say that Jesus, Paul, and co. basically echoed the moral framework of the culture around them where slavery was concerned.[6] It is not hard to see why, given modern political assumptions.

No Alternatives?

Activist exegetes today may make the case that Paul and other early Christians simply had no other choice, given the political environment. The ancient world had its complex systems and entrenched interests, all of which constrained the kinds of protests and avenues for reform we take for granted today, so we can cut the earliest Christians slack for their apparent quietism. Had they lived now, or in the 1960s, etc., we can be sure they would have had much more to say about contemporary social issues than they did in the first century. This, anyway, seems to be how the thinking goes.

Maybe. But, in this assessment, activist exegesis treats the first century with far more gentleness, understanding, and nuance than the contemporary world: are we to suppose that the world has somehow gotten more manageable since antiquity?

Activist exegesis also dodges the fact that there were conceivably other modes of social action available in antiquity that would have resisted the institution of slavery without, say, directly butting heads with the empire. Yet there is little to no evidence that early Christians were chomping at the proverbial bit to resist slavery per se. For example, we cannot find Jesus or Paul issuing any manifestos on slavery. There is no blanket command or even encouragement, for example, for those in the churches to free their slaves. Nor were there ever peaceful protests against slavery. We see no signs that Christian bigwigs—and we think there were at least a few even before Constantine—ever complained about slavery in their local city assemblies or formed pressure groups (e.g. collegia or hetairiai) or allied with philosophical schools that also critiqued slavery. None of the early martyrs or confessors appear to have suffered for taking a stand against slavery-qua-institution. There were, in other words, no truly political or social tools of collective action used or otherwise sought to demolish the ugly edifice of forced servitude.

Where it actually chooses to speak, the New Testament’s statements about slavery should also shock contemporary sensibilities. Slaves are repeatedly enjoined to obey their masters, even the bad ones (1 Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22), which would seem to discourage slaves from running away.[7] In his letter to Philemon where we see him facing the problem of Christian slavery most directly, Paul might be read to be asking for Onesimus’ freedom when commanding Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me” (v17), doing so “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother” (v16). Yet his tone is hardly that of an activist attacking systemic oppression, even if he is giving commands which he is confident will be obeyed (v21). Contrast this to the New Testament’s palpable, squirming discomfort with another well-established cultural and legal institution (for both Jew and Gentile) such as divorce. On aggregate, even if one accounts for apparent provisos, exceptions, and other indications that the earliest Christian communities struggled to implement a consistent policy, we can still detect an energy to oppose the institution of divorce to a degree we cannot for slavery.[8]

A Problem of Scale

The difference responses to slavery and divorce brings us back to a problem that clouds much discourse on today’s politics and biblical exegesis on the subject: scale. Modernity has acclimated most of us to looking automatically for structural solutions to structural problems, which usually means trying to effect changes at the level of macro-politics and mass cultural movements. More recently, the internet and social media have distilled this acerbic tendency into a psychologically toxic concoction. Modern technologies tend to intensify our personal awareness of evil in the world—evil generates a lot more clicks than puppies—without giving individuals commensurate power to change things.[9] Consequently, as we increasingly imagine our environment on an impersonal scale far beyond our real friends and neighbors, we concurrently demand impersonal, large-scale solutions.

Yet the early Christian response to obvious social injustices was less like a wrecking ball or dynamite and more like a chemical solvent. Paul’s approach to Onesimus’ situation is subtle. He does not call for the abolition of all slaves, or publicly shame Philemon (and note, the rest of the local church appears to have overheard Paul’s message). Instead, he urges that Onesimus be received as a “beloved brother,” a notion which largely cuts down the moral presuppositions of a slave society to its roots. Arguably, a similar ethic pervades the New Testament’s approach to gender and other issues: Get the smaller things right and the structural problem will eventually dissolve.

To risk absurdity for the sake of illustration, a world where everyone assiduously lived out the Sermon on the Mount would make most political problems moot. This is not to say that the New Testament ethic would immediately reject careful thinking about bigger social problems or any form of collective action in today’s democracies. Modern people obviously do have more levers at their disposal than our ancient predecessors when it comes to politics and social formation. But to see real reforms through, there must first be serious intellectual discipline, sound theology, and a thorough understanding of civics. None of these appear to be in high supply these days, and one might be forgiven for perceiving that zeal presently triumphs over understanding.

All in all, the New Testament chiefly concerns itself with individuals, households, and local assemblies of Christians, and it is not hard to see why. A society characterized by justice, mercy, and faithfulness is only possible insofar as individuals themselves actually do the much harder, less glamorous work of embodying those virtues. One must rid the garden of snakes before seeking dragons to slay abroad.

Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. For a recent criticism of these trends, see Carl Trueman’s “The Failure of Evangelical Elites,” First Things, Nov. 2021. For a response, see David French’s “Evangelical Elites, Fighting Each Other,” The Dispatch, Oct. 17, 2021

  2. For example, see again David French, “Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality,” The Dispatch, July 25, 2021

  3. Note the modern activist imagery (5:00-5:25) chosen by the popular Bible Project series in their explanation of justice as a biblical theme. Note too the overwhelming focus on the metanarrative and proof-texts of the Hebrew Bible with almost no attention to the New Testament’s actual churches

  4. This has been suspected to be one of the main reasons that the Book of Revelation long struggled to attain canonical status in eastern churches.

  5. See Paul Duff’s interesting thesis in Who Rides the Beast? Prophetic Rivalry and the Rhetoric of Crisis in the Churches of the Apocalypse (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). That is, Rome and the shared culture of the empire loom in Revelation’s background, but the chief objects of criticism are in fact other Christians, as the opening letters to the seven churches indicate.

  6. Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006). For a contrast, see Kyle Harper’s provocative From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

  7. See Plutarch’s Life of Crassus 9 on the slaves of Spartacus’ revolt. Supposedly, the plan had been for these slave to escape en masse to their respective homelands in Gaul and Thrace, which would seem to reconfirm that slaves like Onesimus could successfully escape in this world, even across long distances.

  8. The loci classici appear in the varying rigidity–exception for porneia or no?–in the Gospels’ record of Jesus’ command against divorce (Matt. 5:32, 19:1-12, Luke 16:18, Mark 10:11). See also Paul’s negative-but-nuanced approach to divorce in 1 Cor. 7:10-15.

  9. Wilfred McClay touches on some of these themes in his excellent essay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Post-Modern Self, Spring 2017.


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