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Beyond Policy Advocacy: Clarifying the Church’s Social Ministry

By Timothy Sedgwick and Philip Turner

For the last 40 years we have been friends in conversation together as professors of Christian ethics at Episcopal seminaries and variously in the life of the Episcopal Church. Both of us now retired, Philip suggested that we might offer some reflections on what we see as “the crisis in moral teaching in the Episcopal Church” — the title of the book we edited in 1992 that drew together essays from eight Episcopal moral theologians. We both now see more clearly that the crisis that besets moral teaching is in understanding Christian faith and ministry. The church sees Christian faith and life in terms of its social ministry as a goal to be achieved. Christian faith is narrowed to the promise of faith in an idea of love and justice that is to be realized in the world.

P. Turner

So, what then is the social ministry of the churches? This is a question now frequently asked but never satisfactorily answered. Nevertheless, once the question is asked, many will simply assume that it refers first to church institutions — their clergy and governing bodies. On this view, these leaders and institutions are expected, in the name of God, to assume a prophetic stance that exposes social injustice and espouses particular social, political, and economic measures that all Christians are urged to regard as binding because they are the teaching of the church. In short, the social ministry of churches, under divine auspices, begins with moral judgment, policy advocacy, and social action on the part of ecclesial institutions and their leadership.

At first glance, this view of social ministry is more than plausible. That is, it is plausible until one looks more closely at what, in fact, it has brought about. In the United States it has not brought the churches unity of thought, purpose, action, and witness but division fueled by rancor. It is fair to say that social ministry understood as moral judgment followed by policy advocacy have produced not a unified view of social ministry but conflict between what might be called a “red” account and a “blue” account. The focus of the reds is the reestablishment of Christian values and practices within the American citizenry — “a Christian America.” Disputes over abortion and marriage serve as prime examples of this focus. The focus of the blue account is the social inclusion of previously excluded groups and individuals. For the blues, the goal of social ministry is the full social inclusion of African Americans, Indigenous Americans, women, and LGBTQ persons (among others).

Behind these conflicting views of social ministry lie divergent understandings of moral agency — the blues focus on the autonomy of individual agents and the reds on shared values and common practices. Different as they may be, both seek to resolve their differences by legal means. However, as the abortion debate makes abundantly clear, litigation resolves nothing. In fact, legal recourse produces winners and losers rather than a common moral vision and a common good. So it is that a view of social ministry meant to serve the health of a just social order through right moral judgment and policy advocacy turns out to be an engine for unresolved social division and conflict.

Sad to say, this depressing outcome was, as it were, baked into the originating assumptions of those on the left and the right who support this view of social ministry. Supporters, whether red or blue, simply assume that meaningful social change is to be brought about by changed policies and programs. The problem is that changes in policy and program require prudential judgments, and prudential judgments are fallible. They are matters over which reasonable people can rightly disagree. Thus, for churches to say, through their governing bodies, that policy X is the Christian way to address a given social problem is to fault the conscience of fellow believers who, with good reason, see things differently.

So it is that social ministry understood as moral judgment and policy advocacy, mediated by ecclesial office and structure, leaves one not with the answer to a perplexing question but with yet another question. If social ministry is not defined by authoritative moral judgment and policy advocacy, then what is the social ministry of the Church? We are on firmer ground if we suggest that the social ministry of churches is not to share a common moral vision and champion an array of agreed-upon policies and programs. Rather, it is to foster and strengthen communities in which Christ is taking form in love. Put another way, the social ministry of churches is not to become a series of political action committees. It is rather to become exemplary communities whose life together in love manifests an alternative to the strife and rancor that is now linked to prophetic pronouncement and policy advocacy.

T. Sedgwick

In speaking about “the social ministry of the church,” the meaning of social has become narrowed to mean sharing something of life together as companions, whether in personal life (as in a social gathering) or in some larger activity (as in a historical society or in a society for peace and justice). A society gathers persons together with a common purpose. The word ministry continues to carry the meaning of human agency, a position or an office by which something is accomplished. Together, the social ministry of the Church is to join together to realize God’s kingdom as revealed in Christ.

However, the life lived together as imaged as the kingdom of God is, as Phillip described, expressed in formal terms in the idea of love as rightly ordered, in other words, as a matter of justice. The idea of love and justice may then be further imaged in material images such as care and hospitality, equality, and liberty. These, though, still remain abstracted from what it is to care and welcome, to live together as free and equal at any one time and in any one place. Instead, the idea of the social is the idea of a future idealized beyond time and place. What it is to be a people incarnate in the life of the world — in suffering limitations and possibilities, oppression and freedom, loss and grace — is lost to a hope that forecloses what is known in Christ as imaged in cross and resurrection.

As Philip writes, a thicker, social description of Christian faith as known in Christ is needed in order to understand what is the new life in God that for Christians is claimed as known in Christ. This is what the Epistle to the Ephesians offers, along with the rest of Christian Scripture. From the Greek, ta biblia (the books), what is meant by social is not a project but what is shared together that forms a people, the people of God. Christian faith is social as life lived together in the life of the world as the people of God. This is life given together in suffering, the grace of God in the power and providence of God in creation, in life and death, in sin and salvation.

Expressed and revealed in the Bible, Christian faith and life is to be the people of God in faith and fidelity to the memory of God known in life together, from wandering Arameans to times of captivity and oppression, in exodus and new life together in a new land, in welcoming the stranger and those in need, in judgment and hearing the call of justice. Always life in God is lived in remembering the voice and memory of others. For Christians this is life in Christ, as God incarnate in the life of the world.

P. Turner

What then is the character (the identifying marks) of this people — this all-inclusive, exemplary community? Its character is defined by actions, virtues, and habits that manifest love, and for this reason are “worthy” (axios) of — proportionate to — the calling of this body. Its calling is to follow a way that imitates God as revealed in Christ. So, the calling of churches is to become a people whose common life assumes the form of Christ. Not surprisingly, these worthy actions and habits are identifiable. They give love a face. They are visible marks of character (or graces) that promote and support unity, love, and peace within a distinct and recognizable social body.

What are these virtues? Chapter four of Ephesians sets out a formidable list. They are, first, humility of mind — i.e., openness to correction; and second, gentleness in the correction of erring brothers and sisters. These two graces are followed by patience and eagerness to maintain unity in the bond of peace. Recognizing that these graces carry with them stiff demands, the writer notes that God has given gifts to his Church that help it prevail in a struggle with other (alien) forms of life. These gifts are not, as might be expected, individual talents or abilities. Rather, they are a people who can provide guidance to members of the body who are still children, not fully grown. The gifts are listed as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These people are the gifts, given by God to his people, so that its members may grow up in love and so make visible to the world the full stature or form of Christ. The social ministry of churches is, quite simply, to foster and make visible such communities. In other words, the social mission of churches is to become a people with a clear identity.

Recognizing the stringent demands made upon a community whose members walk in love, the writer of Ephesians urges his readers to remember a matter of extreme importance. They are to remember that, though they are in a battle with alien and hostile forms of life, they are not alone in this struggle. They are not simply individuals. They are social beings. They are members of a single body engaged in a common struggle. As such they are to be kind and forgiving one to another. They are to seek peace, and they are to honor the gifts God has given his people so that it is possible for its members to remain standing in a fearsome battle. They are further, because of the demands placed upon them by love, to pay close attention to the way in which they walk or live day by day. Further, they are urged in the battle to use not their own strength, but the weapons God provides. These gifts are truth, righteousness, peace, the message of salvation, and the Word of God. These God-given weapons are to be deployed not with bravado, but in the context of vigilance, perseverance, and constant prayer.

T. Sedgwick

Again, the social ministry of the Church is not a project to be achieved but a life lived “that imitates God as revealed in Christ.” The memory of God is not an idea that fulfills the hopes of a particular world. The memory of God is the memory of what gives life in the life of the world. The mission and ministry of the Church is not to be the vanguard in the crusade for love and justice. As distinct from being a society whose common cause is a political project, the mission and ministry of the Church is centered in the memory of God in Christ, as known together in a community of prayer and worship.

Centered in prayer and worship, life in God is given in hearing what gives life, in hearing the voice of others, past and present together, calling for response given the different demands, burdens, and opportunities of one’s own life. This is life given in lament and thanksgiving, in confession of faith and the confession of sins, and in the continuing conversion and call of God into life together in the vigilance and tenderness of love. Christian communities and their members will vary in matters of prayer and worship, education and formation, pastoral care, and spiritual disciplines. Further, social ministries will vary individually and corporately in matters of prophetic judgment, advocacy, and support of programs to welcome and serve those in need. In this sense, the social ministry of the Church is to be the people of God as the body of Christ.

P. Turner

What then is to be said about moral judgment and policy advocacy? These are necessary aspects of political life. Are these then matters about which Christians have nothing to say? They are certainly matters about which Christians have much to say, but they are also matters about which there is plenty of room for honest disagreement. For this reason, we have argued that the social ministry of churches ought not to be to establish one rather than another policy option as the Christian view. It is, however, an aspect of the social ministry of churches to form people who have the requisite virtues for being good citizens. Historically, these have been listed as prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Prudence allows one to see not only what is right but also what is possible. Courage allows one to stand in the face of threat. Temperance allows one to be balanced in one’s approach to any issue. Justice allows one to give all people their due.

It is not a stretch to say that a community in which Christ is taking form is a people whose members are also free and strongly motivated by love to acquire the virtues necessary for a just and wholesome social life. We conclude, therefore, that the social ministry of churches is to form communities whose members are well-positioned and strongly motivated to acquire the civic virtues that make possible a heathy, well-ordered, and diverse social life. This is the social ministry of churches. They are not called to become religious Super PACs. Rather, they are called to become communities (a people) in which Christ is taking form. Out of such communities, characterized by love, will come men and women with the motivation and the virtues that allow and encourage them to join with other citizens in forming an abundant and life-enhancing social order.

T. Sedgwick

The crises in the social ministry of the Church are not that of failures in developing successful initiatives and programs. These are variously significant or not in support of Christian communities of faith and their members. The crisis in social ministry is rather writ large where advocacy becomes the mission of the church. This is most pronounced where an order of authority is established whose goal is to establish and regulate the life of churches, that all may be changed and be agents of change in the world. What is clear, where Christian faith becomes a project to be achieved, Christian faith will be lost in dreams of success and fulfillment measured by growth of the Church and its effect in transforming the life of the world.

The crisis in the social ministry of the Church is not a matter of realizing the kingdom of God, but a matter of living in the kingdom of God as the people of God in the life of the world. This is not a matter of one ruling another, but of building the body of Christ in Christian communities as one in many.

The crisis in the social ministry of the church is in the raising up of ministry in the establishment of governing bodies, in creating committees and commissions, in forming dioceses and the national church, in providing prayer books, lectionaries, and hymnals, in developing and coordinating educational resources, in creating and supporting social services, and in providing prophetic voices of judgment and advocacy that reflect the larger church while honoring differences in conscience, in developing ecumenical relationships, and in missions and ministries supporting, coordinating, and reaching beyond the established life of singular congregations.

The crisis in the social ministry of the church, in being the people of God, is raising up leaders who are adepts, those who are formed in the memory of God in Christ, in the practices of faith, in word and sacrament as given voice in the faith and life of Christian communities past and present, as one and many. Our sense of this crisis is the challenge of the formation of leaders who are adept in the life of faith that they may share, invite, support, and care for one another in the life of faith.

Our reflections are not accompanied by a set of proposals. Rather, our sense of crisis is accompanied by a humble sense that the grace of God is known in the practices of faith centered in Christian communities of prayer and worship. This, we believe, requires the immersive experience of life together in well-formed Christian communities of faith centered in life together celebrated and effected in prayer and worship.

These reflections on the social ministry of the Church are shaped by our vocations as seminary professors that together span more than 40 years at five different Episcopal seminaries and as broadly engaged in the life and work of the Episcopal Church. These reflections have led us to ask what ought to be the focus of what has traditionally been the mission of seminary.

As the mission of the Church is to be the people of God, the mission of seminaries — however developed, reformed or reinvented — is to form leaders, adepts, lay and ordained, shepherds and pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries, and particularly those whose ministries are ordained as leaders of the church to preside over its life, to gather and order the life of the church as shepherds and pastors, as bishops, priests, and deacons.

Christian communities of faith whose mission is the formation of leaders will variously form from the ground up. But what we believe is that those who will be formed as leaders in the church in its ministry to be the people of God will be those who are formed in Christian faith in life together, in prayer and worship, in the study of Scripture and the life of the church, in meals and work together, bearing each other’s cares and concerns, hopes and joys, hearing and knowing the faith shared together beyond themselves, beyond one’s life and culture, drawing them into life in God, in what it is to be the people of God, the body of Christ, in the life of the world.

Dr. Timothy F. Sedgwick is the Clinton S. Quin professor emeritus of Christian Ethics at Virginia Theological Seminary. His is the author of The Christian Moral Life, Sex, Moral Teaching, & The Unity of the Church, and forcoming Saving Memory and the Body of Christ: A Moral Liturgical Theology (Fortress Academic, expected 2024).

The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. He is the author of a number of books and articles, including Sex, Money, and Power and Christian Ethics and the Church. He has served the Episcopal Church as a missionary, rector, and seminary professor and dean.


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