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Bible Dictionaries
Social Life

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. State of society in the time of Christ.—(1) A sympathetic reconsideration of the materials at our disposal has gone far to prove that the society of the Roman world at the beginning of the Christian era was not in the absolutely rotten state apparently pictured by contemporary satirists and moralists. Their animadversions and strictures cannot be regarded as applying to more than a proportion of the population. The vigour and earnestness of their denunciations are proofs in themselves of a spirit to which the prevalent immoralities were odious. That age is not wholly bad which has grace in some of its members to be ashamed. Juvenal denounces the inhumanity with which slaves were so often treated, and gives vivid and pungent utterance to an indignant tenderness and pity which would no longer submit to be stifled. From other sources of information it appears that there were middle-class circles, particularly in the provinces, which maintained a laudable level of life, keeping themselves free at least from the polluting and demoralizing vices of the capital and its urban imitators. Of them the worst that could be said was that they pursued empty lives devoted to frivolous aims and bubble ambitions, whose vanity was accentuated by their unconsciousness of it. The age was not without its high ideals and earnest idealists. But aspiration was crippled through lack of clearness as to the ideals it would realize. There are abundant manifest indications that a deep, strong, spiritual movement which made for better things had begun. Springing from a profound realization of the evils current, it yet had no clear understanding of their origin and causes, and blindly groped after ways of cure.

(2) It would seem as if the coming of Jesus opened the channels for the inflow of fresh Divine influences which voicelessly and mysteriously began to permeate human hearts and quicken a new and healthy life. The vague ideal which hung in solution in so many minds began to take shape and form. The Divine Spirit gave content and direction to the semi-conscious aspirations and half-blind desires moving restlessly in the deeps of the human heart, reinforced the spirit of reaction which had set in, imparting to its champions a new passion for the righteous, the pure, and the true.

2. Influence and methods of Jesus.—(1) Into the society in which this new life was stirring came Jesus, and very soon the influence of His teaching and spirit began to make itself felt. It would be an error, however, to attribute to that alone the social reformation which gradually evidenced itself as in progress. Other factors were already operating. The rebellion of misery against cruel economic conditions, a mutinous sense of the unjust and unjustifiable inequalities of life, the strong infusion of democratic sympathies into the governing circles, through the increasing number of those whose native ability had secured them wealth and position, the mixing of different races whose blood was strongly impregnated with inherited qualities often anti-toxic and mutually corrective,—these were factors which contributed to bring about radical changes in outlook and conduct. The social teaching of Jesus was not entirely new. Much of it had already been the staple propaganda of eloquent and earnest advocates. But Jesus made the body of principles He inculcated vitalizing forces in the shaping of human society, determining and dominating factors in its evolution, after an unprecedented fashion. He made them the accepted and controlling commonplaces of reform and reconstruction. He enunciated laws for the regulation of communal life which tended to eliminate the disorderly element of mere personal caprice and whim. In a word, He created a social conscience.

(2) In any consideration of Christ’s influence upon social life, it must be clearly recognized that it operated not only, and perhaps not so much, through the propagation of His teaching as through the infusion of His spirit into society. The work of His Holy Spirit in awakening men to the evils amidst which they lived, and impelling them to energetic suppressive and alterative measures, must be assigned its due place and value. The changes wrought upon society in the course of generations are the product of men educated upon the principles of Jesus, but freely using their personal judgment under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

(3) Nor must it be left out of account that the fact of the Incarnation, theologically conceived and estimated, with its pregnant suggestions of the worth and destiny of man and the Divine hopes and aims regarding him, provided for thoughtful and responsive minds a purified impulse towards a new humanitarianism.

(4) Profound as the influence of Jesus upon social life has been, it was by no means His primary function to procure its reformation. The social rectifications which unquestionably trace their original impulse to Him are of the nature of by-products of His work. He came to reveal God to man and to bring man to God. Nevertheless, He had an ulterior purpose, to which this was in a sense a preliminary step, in the founding of an ideal community, designated the Kingdom of God, composed of individuals whose mutual relations were determined by the implications of their proper relationship to God. The immediate implication of the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God is the brotherhood of man. These two doctrines are basal to, and determinative of, Christ’s whole ethical system. The ultimate aim of Jesus, then, may be said to have been social, inasmuch as the final end of His mission would be achieved only in the realization of a regenerate society.

(5) Jesus consistently set an ideal of perfection before men. Himself sinless, He would have all men sinless as well (John 5:14; John 8:11 ‘Sin no more’; Matthew 5:48 ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect’). But this perfection was not merely a negative condition, a state of freedom from every evil spot or stain. The context of Matthew 5:48 clearly indicates the connotation the word τέλειος is intended to have. It meant such perfection as that of His Father in heaven, which, on the positive side, was determined by the gracious activities and loving ministries of which men were the objects and beneficiaries. Human perfection was then to be attained only through a life of similar beneficent activity. It cannot be achieved in isolation. Christ never contemplates human life so situated. He regards man as essentially a social being, whose full self-realization can only be attained in vital relationship with his fellows. No man may go apart by himself and live a truly godly or saintly life (John 17:11; John 17:15). The ideal character, according to Jesus, is to be realized only through the proper discharge of the social responsibilities entailed by communal life (Matthew 19:21) Sin with Him, and sin of the most blameworthy kind, is largely neglect or failure to fulfil social duties and obligations (Matthew 25:42 f.) The virtues, on the other hand, which distinguish the good man after the mind of Christ are those which emerge in a life of vigilant and incessant beneficence and self-sacrificing love (Matthew 25:35 ff., John 15:14). The whole spirit of Christ’s teaching condemns the hermit existence as one which gravely imperils a man’s title to be considered a citizen of the Kingdom of God. The root of the world’s evil is selfish individualism.

(6) Jesus, then, was not properly a social reformer; He was an inspirer of social reform. He enunciated principles in the light of which the evil of prevalent conditions, practices, and accepted institutions became increasingly apparent. He changed things by first changing men. He made many things impossible by making them intolerable to the sensitized conscience and Christianized heart.

3. Attitude of Jesus to existing social relationships.—(1) All this is borne out by the consideration of Christ’s attitude to the society of His own day. Upon its constituent elements He passed no strictures suggestive of an attitude of protest or condemnation. He accepted its inequalities of position and possessions without demur; nor did He range Himself with that species of socialism which anticipates an epoch when the relationships of master and servant, rich and poor, employer and employed, capital and labour, shall cease to exist (Matthew 10:24, Luke 17:7-9, Mark 14:7). These characterize the normal and stable state of society, which He seemed to regard as fittingly ordered to provide the opportunities or agencies for the evolution of the, type of character which most conformed to the image of God, and the realization of the type of life which best expressed His spirit.

(2) If, then, the essential features of society as presently constituted undergo ‘a sea-change Into something rich and strange,’ it will not be because Jesus deliberately legislated to that end, but because the spirit He infused into men, educated on His principles, demanded different conditions for its fuller and more perfect expression. His sympathies were inferentially on the side of an industrial and economic order wherein individual talents, capabilities, and fidelities would have ample scope to prove and exercise themselves, and would meet with such suitable and proportionate reward as would stimulate and foster healthy aspiration, honest ambition, and those qualities of industry, integrity, and disinterested fidelity which go to form the ideal character (cf. Luke 12:42 ff; Luke 19:12 ff.).

(3) Jesus did not forbid the accumulation of private property. Rather He accepted it as a fundamental right of every man to possess in security whatever property honestly belonged to him (Matthew 20:15; Matthew 25:20 f., Matthew 25:29; Matthew 13:44-46). That is the underlying assumption of those maxims which inculcate giving, and of those utterances which approve a saintly charity (Luke 6:30; Luke 6:35; Luke 6:38). He had no word of censure for the many persons of means whom He numbered amongst His friends. His disciples continued to own property (John 21:3 ff., Luke 19:2-9), and His little company subsisted on a common, if meagre, purse (John 12:6; John 13:29). Poor Himself, He inflamed no envy of the rich, nor fostered any class feeling. Money He accepted as an effective instrument for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. He recognized that, while for one it might be a snare and therefore should be foregone (Luke 18:22; Luke 18:24), for another it provided means towards the better doing of God’s will. He was urgent in His warnings regarding the spiritual dangers which attended its ampler possession. He magnified its subtle power to enthral the affections and divorce the heart from God by winning that trust for itself which should be reposed in Him alone (Mark 10:24, Matthew 13:22). He vividly portrayed how it dried up the spirit of unselfish sympathies and tended to Tender men indifferent and callous to human need (Luke 16:19 ff.). He understood how its successful acquisition developed an unquenchable thirst for more, and therefore He admonished all to beware of covetousness, the greedy spirit which wants more than it can profitably or enjoyably use (Luke 12:15 ff.). In various ways He impressed upon men that money was not the true wealth, and could not of itself procure true blessedness (Luke 18:18-23; Luke 12:21; Luke 16:11). See, further, art. Wealth.

(4) It is evident that Jesus held the institution of the family in profound reverence. He expounded His theology in terms of its relationships. He displayed a peculiarly anxious concern in dealing with questions that affected its integrity. The state of things in His day urgently called for outspoken protest and warning. There was an increasing laxity of view and practice with regard to marriage. Divorce (which see) was common, and resorted to upon meagre enough grounds. The school of Hillel sanctioned it for no better reason than that a wife had spoilt her husband’s dinner, this opinion being founded upon a liberal interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. There is no subject on which Jesus spoke more uncompromisingly and unequivocally. He recognized that the stability and wholesomeness of social life depend largely on the health and purity of domestic life. While recognizing its physical basis, Jesus conceived of marriage as an essentially spiritual union. He regarded it as a Divine institution and ordinance, which involved the parties entering into it in the most solemn and sacred mutual obligations. In the highest, and to Him the only legitimate view of it, it was a consummation of mutual love mediated by God Himself (Matthew 19:6). That was therefore no true marriage which was entered into for the gratification of sensual passion or on the score of worldly considerations. It was not within the province of man to sunder those whom God had joined, i.e. to cancel their vows and annul the relationship that had bound them to one another. No human law-court has the right to undo the tie made and sealed by God Himself. See, further, artt. Adultery, Divorce, Eunuch, Family, Marriage.

(5) Jesus, then, acquiesced in the indefinite continuance of the ordinary relationships of life then obtaining, as constituting the normal state of society. He gave no countenance to anarchism. He Himself offered an example of law-abiding citizenship, consistently demanding that due respect be paid to the requirements and enactments of the civil power legislating within its own proper sphere. He rebuked the spirit of revolt which demurred to the right of government to levy taxes, He himself submitting to be taxed, even when He might have claimed exemption (Matthew 17:27 ff.). He consistently acquiesced in the right of properly constituted authorities to act in accordance with their legal powers; He would permit of no resistance to the emissaries of the Sanhedrin sent to arrest Him. The case against Him founded on charges of law-breaking collapsed. Pilate, with the best will, could find no fault in Him (Luke 23:14).

4. Jesus nevertheless did not fail to denounce with vehemence current injustices and abuses, His recognition of the prevalence of oppression, extortion, corrupt practices, and the pinched poverty due to them, not only finds explicit and scathing utterance (Luke 20:47), but is reflected in many of His parables and implied in many of His sayings. Yet He does not speak as if the emergence of these were the inevitable outcome of established social conditions. The blame is always laid upon individuals who guiltily abused their powers and opportunities. He allowed no word to escape His lips which might countenance the methods of violent revolution. He started no popular agitation to secure social reconstruction. No forcible alteration in the mere externalities of life would ensure the disappearance of prevalent evils. Jesus plainly taught that social amelioration must be brought about by the gradual assimilation of the mass to the ideal type, and the infusion of the principles of His gospel into all the veins of the body politic (Matthew 13:33). By evolution, not by revolution, lay the path to the realization of the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus did not share the prophetic enthusiasm of impatient expectation to which the Day of the Lord seemed already at the doors. From the beginning He impressed it upon His disciples that it was indefinitely far off (Mark 4:26 ff., Matthew 24:14). He had a profound appreciation of the protracted manner in which a regenerate state of society of a stable kind may only be attained, through the working of healthy spiritual forces in individual hearts (Matthew 5:13). In this He stood alone. His doctrine surprised and perplexed His disciples. It was out of harmony with the traditional beliefs and hopes on which they had been nurtured (Mark 13:3 ff.).

Nevertheless, Jesus did not anticipate that the Kingdom would come by a peaceful and progressive process of evolution, without the shocks of revolution. He foresaw that the forces of reform would rouse the strenuous hostility of antagonistic spiritual elements in society, with the consequent outbreak of anarchic convulsions (Matthew 24:3 ff.). Indeed, He anticipated that the ideal society would never be attained as the result of pure evolution. The forces of evil would refuse to be ousted, and would prove too strong to be suppressed. Successive Divine interferences would be required, culminating in a final catastrophic one, to secure their suppression and the realization of the Kingdom of heaven on earth in stable and universal sway (Matthew 10:21; Matthew 11:12; Matthew 13:41; Matthew 13:49).

5. Fundamental principles of Christ’s social teaching, and their outcome.—(1) Jesus laid the foundation of the social structure of the future by His doctrine of the equal essential worth of the individual. This had already been preached with conviction and power, but with, little practical outcome. Rigid lines of demarcation continued to separate the various classes in Roman society (cf. Dill, Roman Society, p. 270 ff.). It was through Jesus that the doctrine ceased to be little more than an academic proposition, and became a vitalizing element in civilization, and a regulative principle in the development of the new social organism. He laid the foundations of a pure, universal democracy—a democracy based, not on equality of personal possessions, but on equality of individual rights. He awakened a new sense of the essential dignity of human nature, and gave a meaning and a value to the most obscure life. He invested the common people with a new self-respect which elevated and fortified, and with a sense of personal responsibility which steadied and deepened, while eliminating the dangerous sense of purposelessness and insignificance. Every human being was a storehouse of Divine potentialities; His whole ministry consistently enforced and illustrated this pregnant truth. Though consenting to social inequalities, He did not allow these to be regarded as the sign or token of any differences in the intrinsic worth of the human soul. In His intercourse with all sorts and conditions He manifested a lofty indifference to rank and position, practically ignoring the artificial distinctions of society (Luke 7:36 ff.). There was no human being beneath respectful regard or outside the. radius of brotherly love. This He drove home by incarnating God’s concern for the outcasts and the fallen, the pariahs of society. The express purpose of His mission was to seek and save that which was lost. By His self-sacrifice on the Cross, necessitated to procure redemption, approved and accepted by the Father, He made plain that the worth of the individual soul was, in God’s regard, beyond calculation. Thus was a new sense of the sacredness of personality impressed upon the mind and heart of the world. From the acceptance of this doctrine flowed many and far-reaching consequences. Life might no longer be held cheap. Every human being, whatever his position, had certain rights which must be respected.

(a) Slavery could not and did not long persist as a normal institution of society. It speedily came under the ban of healthy Christian sentiment (Philemon 1:16). Such a condition was not consonant with the essential dignity of human nature as hall-marked by Christ. It became impossible to regard human beings as mere goods and chattels, to be bought and sold as household furniture. Nor might they be treated with the callous brutalities of an inhumanity which made no distinction between slaves and beasts. The slave was also a man, and entitled at least to the regard proper to one possessed of an immortal and priceless soul.

(b) Woman also came into her kingdom. Generally speaking, she had been treated as an inferior being, who had duties but no rights, except what man chose to grant her. Her nature was ‘cribb’d, cabin’d, and confin’d.’ There were indeed many and brilliant exceptions in women who dignified the sex and won the warmest admiration. But the common contempt in which woman was held inevitably reacted on her nature, and, by lowering her self-respect, made of her what went to confirm the general opinion regarding her. Jesus changed all that. He emancipated her from her position of sex-inferiority. He did this by Himself treating her as an equal, in no wise of less essential worth than man (Luke 10:38 ff., John 11:5). He gave her peculiar honour. Some of the most significant incidents in His life are associated with women (John 4:9 ff; John 11:32 ff.). He overturned the estimates of the past and revoked its unquestioned judgments. See, further, art. Woman.

(c) Jesus was the Saviour of the child. He put an end to the inhumanities with which unwelcome infants were treated (Matthew 18:6; Matthew 18:10; Matthew 18:14, Luke 17:2). He gave the child an importance which resulted in increasing attention being paid to its well-being. The Early Church led the way in interpreting and applying the mind of the Master. Wherever His spirit has been most active, there has the child been the object of the most thoughtful and solicitous care. One of the fruits of the Reformation was the new interest taken in the education of the young. The modern deep and earnest study of child life, the many and varied institutions for promoting the physical and moral welfare of the young, are the outcome of a deepening and more sympathetic appreciation of the worth Jesus gave to the child (Mark 9:33-37, Matthew 18:5). See, further, art. Children.

(2) Jesus preached the brotherhood of men, based on their common relationship to the Father-God, to whom all alike owe their being. Thus He linked the whole human race in a common kinship. The Stoics had ineffectively taught this doctrine. Jesus made it a substantial fact. Through Him it became a principle profoundly influential in determining the nature of the relations between man and man. It operated towards the obliteration of the artificial distinctions between class and class which obtained in a society ordered according to pagan ideas and ideals, distinctions which almost implied the tacit assumption of a gradual differentiation of nature. The Early Church gave practical illustration of the necessary outcome of Christ’s teaching in their gatherings for worship, where rich and poor, master and slave, employer and employed, mingled indiscriminately, with the freedom and mutual regard based on the cordial recognition of their common brotherhood.

(a) Through the inculcation of this doctrine Jesus generated a social conscience, the sense of individual responsibility for the corporate well-being. He sowed the seed of the fruitful idea of the solidarity of the race. He gave a new meaning to the word ‘neighbour,’ and exalted neighbourliness to the rank of a supreme Christian virtue (Luke 10:29 ff.). He widened the area of duty till it embraced the whole of mankind (Acts 1:8). There is no horizon to the sphere of personal obligation. It reaches to the circumference of human need.

(b) Jesus thus evoked a new sense of humanity. He gave it a comprehensiveness, an outlook, and an insight, which it never possessed before. The Mosaic Code contains many enactments relative to the treatment of strangers and foreigners, but these rested on no broad human basis. They were instructed and qualified by considerations of nationality, antecedents, and prudential policy. Jesus refused to allow barriers of race to restrict the outflow of the spirit of beneficent love (Mark 7:26, John 4:9; John 4:40). He taught it to reach out to the uttermost, as well as to reach down to the lowermost. His Church was to make the brotherhood of man a visible reality, environing within it people of all nations and tongues (Luke 13:29, John 12:20 ff.). The duty of preaching the gospel to every creature involves the obligation of treating all alike in the spirit of the gospel. The sympathetic appreciation of the Heavenly Father’s attitude to the erring and the wretched, as pictured in the parables, and as reflected in His own life, set men of whatever race or condition in a new light. The outcast, the fallen, the depraved, all those whose moral and spiritual condition classed them amongst the lost, became the objects of a compassion which yearned for their restoration. Their recovery became the serious concern of every soul bent upon the imitation of God. Christ infused the Saviour-spirit into the world, to which all need is a summons to help, and in whose eyes every sinner is a possible saint (Matthew 12:20, Luke 23:43). There was no bondage to sin from which emancipation was not possible, no far country from which there was no return. Despair was a word foreign to Christ’s vocabulary (Luke 6:35). He instituted the method of redemption by pity and love, whose intelligent application is gradually operating to effect what He proved in individual instances it was actually fitted to achieve (John 8:11, Luke 19:1 ff.). He discredited the method of spiritual cure which relies upon threats and penalties alone.

(c) He inaugurated the day of specifically Christian charity. Charity had been exercised before, but it was largely a matter of expediency, or the outflow of a mere pitifulness for misery and want. Jesus gave it a new heart and a new will, a new sight and a new insight. It was not to be left henceforth to a few munificent gentlemen like Pliny to dispense. Its exercise became the duty of all alike, according to their ability and opportunity. The organization of charity has been justly characterized as the finest achievement of the Early Christians (v. Dobschütz). Jesus erected charity into a supreme Christian virtue. He regarded its absence as a convicting proof of the absence of that spirit which qualified for entrance into the Kingdom of God. That was a sure indication of a soul out of fellowship with God (Matthew 25:41 ff., Luke 12:20 f., Luke 16:20 ff.). Jesus enjoined as a primary duty the prompt and ungrudging use of one’s means in the relief of necessity of whatever kind. The priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side were transgressing the first and last law of love. Jesus would allow of no limit to the sacrifices one must be prepared to make in obedience to its legitimate demands (Luke 12:33). Charity must not be of the nature of unwilling acquiescence in a begging request. It must be the fruit of that spirit which is ready to give more than is asked, and will err on the side of generosity rather than of meanness (Luke 6:30). Yet the exercise of charity must not be indiscriminate or unregulated. It must always tend to promote the ends of the law of Christian love. It must be regulated by regard to the Golden Rule, interpreted in the light of the Heavenly Father’s example. It must be well considered, ever keeping in view the highest welfare of those who invite its aid. Each case must be taken on its own merits. Charity is legitimate, only when it subserves the spiritual interests of the individual assisted,—when it makes him not only better off, but a better man. It is forbidden to give after such wise as will only encourage or confirm evil habits. To do so were to keep the lower law while breaking the higher,—the law of Christian love, which forbids the infliction of the ultimate moral injury that inevitably eventuates from indiscriminate and heedless giving. We must always do the studiously loving thing. True charity finds its exemplar in the Heavenly Father, who will not give what is harmful or useless, but only good things (Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13); and it seeks with wise concern to foster the virtues of self-reliance, self-help, manly independence, and industry, whose exercise reduces the occasions of charity.

(3) Jesus preached life as a stewardship, and its powers, means, opportunities as a trust from God for the proper use of which each man was answerable. Talents must be regarded as gifts, to be used, not for the possessor’s selfish purposes, but for the ends of an altruistic love. The teaching of Jesus uncompromisingly condemns the life which is spent in the pursuit of wealth for what it may yield of selfish pleasure, and the expenditure of means on purely personal gratification (Luke 12:16 ff.). We are given that we may give. ‘A man does not own his wealth; he owes it.’ From the highest point of view, there is no such thing as private means. All possessions are a public trust. Jesus was urgent in His demand for the generous open-handedness of a large-hearted benevolence whose instinct was always to consent or comply rather than to refuse or withhold (Matthew 5:42). To those who exercised it He made the most lavish promises (Luke 6:38; Luke 18:28 ff.). The only saying preserved in the Canon outside the Gospels is an incitement to unselfish liberality on the ground of the blessedness it procures (Acts 20:35). Jesus bestows as strong condemnation upon the indifferent spirit which fails to use its means for the right ends, as upon those who wantonly abuse them for the wrong ones (Matthew 25:26 ff., Luke 16:19 ff.). Means must always be regarded as a means. Their exploitation for selfish or sinister purposes invites and incurs penalties of the direst kind (Matthew 24:51). The same duties and responsibilities are laid upon small means as upon large,—upon the man of one talent as upon the man of ten (Luke 16:11; Luke 19:13-27).

Literature.—Brace, Gesta Christi; Dill, Roman Society from, Nero to Marcus Aurelius; v. Dobschütz, Primitive Life in the Primitive Church; Lecky, History of European Morals; Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question; Sanday, art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ; Wendt, Teaching of Jesus; Westcott, Social Aspects of Christianity; Sceley, Ecce Homo; Harnack, What is Christianity? Forrest, Authority of Christ.

A. M. Hunter.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Social Life'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/social-life.html. 1906-1918.
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