Sociology: A Litmus Test of Theology
“You know, I think every pastor should study sociology,” suggested Daniel, “that’s what I studied in college: if you really knew about communities and how people work, you could… well, pastors are leading groups of people- they need to know this stuff!”
Such was the opinion of a customer of mine from last week as we helped him with his business transaction. “Sure, sociology would be helpful,” I thought, “but… theology more so. Were I a seminary dean, I would more quickly replace a theology or exegesis course with some other types of classes more quickly than I would one on sociology.
Later that week, I was doing my research on Paul’s use of rhetoric, and happened to stumble across this assertion at the beginning of an article: sociology is indicative of theology. Perhaps… there is something more for theologians to glean from social studies?
The more I reflect on this assertion, the more I feel that there is a biblical case for it. In fact, I think that a careful contemplation of our communities might actually tell us more about our theological affixations- and more than likely, our weaknesses- than any written exam or armchair theology coffee talk.
In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul writing to a flock divided by factions. Some are proud to only follow Peter, other’s are wearing their proverbial “Paul for President” bumper stickers, and others ignore both apostles to tout a discipleship devoted only to the Messiah. Knowing that a house divided cannot stand, the sociological condition of Corinth was certainly a dangerous one. Yet, there are deeper issues too. Paul is adamant about reminding that the Gospel has been revealed not to the noble, the strong, and the wise of this world- it has been given to the base, the weak, and the foolish- it was given to them. A glimpse at the social conditions of the church in Corinth likely shows communities forming around identities around nuclear issues such as wealth, social status, and who initially spoke the gospel to them. Yet, all these reasons for boasting and forming different circles of community stem from a deeper theological issue-Christ, and Christ crucified is clearly not the deepest identity and community marker. And when Jesus is missing from the center of your theology…anything else will replace it.
In Galatians, we see a very hurtful and socially devastating situation- Peter deliberately chooses to not associate and to fellowship with Gentile believers in the presence of “certain men who came from James.” Peter stands condemned for ostracizing the brethren, because at that moment, the dominant driver in his heart was a belief that purity (and the reputation thereof) by separation from outsiders was his means of standing and acceptance before God and His appointed leaders… rather than a belief that faith is all that determines our justification and acceptance by God.
Likewise in Philemon, there is a very social reality at stake- Philemon’s willingness or lack thereof of receiving, Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother. And again, the root of Philemon’s social decision is a theological one. Does the family making power of the gospel really make a slave (and a disobedient one at that) an equal participant, and co-benefactor, of membership among the people of God?
Now, what about the social behaviors and time-etched patterns within our lives. Do our smallgroups and Bible studies hum along at an unexciting and unengaged speed of monotony? Does our church body clearly have its own cliques or factions that prevent some from communicating with… or serving, others? What theological inadequacies about the character of God, gospel, about the blood shed on the cross, result in such behaviors that many would fear to call sinful, but that are clear symptoms of deeper issues?
I know for myself, sad are the days and when I evaluate my Christian walk based upon how much I “didn’t sin,” rather than the extent to which I walked in faith and tasted the work and presence of the Spirit. Similarly, how anemic and fruitless might our communities become if we fail to recognize the sociological indicators of deeper theological inadequacies.
 Name changed for this public publication