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Man in Society

MAN IN SOCIETY. The Scriptures do not contain the word “society” nor do they articulate any systematic definition of the human social order. The terms employed to bear the meaning which “society” indicates in the modern world are concrete and empirical ones, such as nation or nations, people or peoples, Jews and Gentiles, Jews and Greeks, “people of the east” (Gen 29:1), rulers “of the north” (Dan 11:6) and “of the south” (Dan 11:5, 6; Matt 12:42), etc.

Man and society in the OT.

The solidarity of the human race is more than implied in the narrative describing the creation of man. With the development, however, of the national self-consciousness within Israel, this resting upon the Covenant of Abraham and upon the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law at Sinai, there developed a division of emphasis within the Heb. tradition. On the one hand, there was a growing awareness of vocation—of chosenness—which tended toward separateness, both with respect to environing nations, and also at the point of interpersonal relations between Hebrews and non-Hebrews. On the other hand, there was a certain cosmopolitanism within the Levitical legislation, so that Israel’s experiences in Egypt were to be regarded as a paradigm for the peoples’ treatment of the “stranger” which was to be humane and even cordial. This is emphasized, for example in Exodus 23:9 and Deuteronomy 24:20.

There existed a type of national ambivalence with respect to those of other national stocks. The Levitical order prescribed a sort of prophylactic separation of Israel from her neighbors, this serving the purpose of maintaining a needed separatism. Such legislation was underlain by a positive humanitarianism. On the whole, it may be said that preexilic relations between Israel and neighboring people as persons was moderately cordial, so that Uriah the Hittite was a trusted officer under David (2 Sam 11:6-17), Ittai the Gittite was captain of David’s personal guard (18:2), the Kenites were treated as brethren (Judges 1:16; 5:24), and strangers in general had the right of asylum in Israel’s cities of refuge (Num 35:15).

Societal relations between the Jewish people and non-Jews deteriorated with the return of the exiles from the captivities. No doubt the ruthless treatment of Jews during the Exile afforded a background for the growing antipathy of postexilic Jewish society for the Gentiles. Contributive to this polarity was also the strict reform which separated many mixed marriages under Ezra (Ezra 10:18-44). As necessary as these reform measures may have been, they could not have failed to generate much tension between Jews and the peoples from whom the “strange wives” came. Tensions at this point were aggravated by the Samaritan division, and even more by the measures taken both to humiliate and to Hellenize the Jews by Antiochus IV. The hardening of the Jewish institutional structure during the intertestamental period continued these tensions.

During OT times, the individual enjoyed a real but limited role as a unit within society, although gifted individuals, both men and women, did rise to positions of recognized leadership, outstandingly during the period of the Judges. Family life was central to Heb. society; and within the family, both wifehood and childhood were protected by many safeguards. Widows and orphans, fair game for exploitation in many societies, were accorded special care and solicitude. Divorce was restricted, and the reciprocal rights of parents and children were established and safeguarded.

While pl. marriages were tolerated during the patriarchal period, the overtones of the Mosaic lit. seem clearly to indicate disapproval of the practice. Without leveling any frontal assault upon the practice, the records give prominence to the negative and deleterious elements which derive from polygamy. There were drastic penalties perscribed upon adulterers and incorrigible sons (Lev 20:9, 10; Deut 21:18-21). There is evidence, however, that common usage shored up and modified the infliction of these, so that the number of capital crimes was progressively reduced.

Property rights were protected in basic law (Exod 20:15) and unlawful alienation of property was controlled and restitution carefully specified. Damage to life and limb was controlled early by the principle of equivalence (“an eye for an eye”), but it seems clear that this, along with the ancient practice of blood-revenge, was modified by the imposition of an alternate material restitution. Punishment for unintentional maiming and manslaughter was controlled by the institution of Cities of Refuge. Special value was set upon female chastity, both premarital and within marriage, and rigid safeguards were set about the integrity of the female person.

While there was no overt distinction between public and private morality, it is clear that the ancient Hebrews, guided by divine inspiration, sought to apply principles to both interpersonal and interracial relationships reflective of their high providential origin as a people. There was a progressive elimination of purely tribal usages, a reduction of the number of capital crimes, and a concern for “widow, orphan and stranger” which marked off Israel’s societal life qualitatively from other social patterns of the times. Interracial relationships often were corrupted by the brutalities of invading peoples, and Israel’s social usages frequently reflected all too clearly the social evils of her environing peoples. At the same time, Israel made a good showing in her overall societal relationship when compared with other peoples of the ancient world.

Man and society in the NT.

As our Lord opened His ministry, He found the exaggerated nationalism which had grown up in the postexilic period to be a stubborn factor. Jews had, formally at least, no dealings with the Samaritans (John 4:9), and those nationals of the adjoining nations who dealt with Jews were keenly aware that they were second-class persons (Mark 7:26-28). The mandate to “love your neighbor” had been defiled by the wrongheaded inference, “hate your enemy” (Matt 5:43).

Jesus, on the other hand, sought to extend the range covered by the term “neighbor,” and emphasized the sins of His own people, rather than those committed by other nations. The parable of the Good Samaritan opened up to Judaism a whole new world of international concern. Again, our Lord did not hesitate to call attention to the Isaianic promise of mercy for the Gentiles (12:18, 21) or to remind his hearers that the men of Nineveh and the Queen of Sheba stood as a rebuke to their own hardness of heart (12:41, 42).

The Scriptures indicate that Jesus Christ, while not ignoring either interpersonal or interracial relationships, sought to deal with society through the individual. The heart of natural man was regarded as a microcosm of the evil world; and the major thrust of the Good News was in the direction of making clean the inside of the human heart.

The Pauline teaching stressed, in general, Christian compliance with the regulations of human society, and did not elaborate a program for either the external remaking of man’s society or Christian resistance to unjust societies. This does not mean that the Christian Scriptures do not contain elements and principles which when embodied did and do lead to profound modifications of human society, and as well, to monumental changes in the role of individual men with respect to their social groupings.

There is a futuristic thrust in Biblical teaching with respect to human society in the endtime. There is an obvious difference between society as Romans 13:1-7 treats it, and that envisioned in Revelation 13. The former is to be recognized as God’s instrument for man’s good. The latter is regarded as a final manifestation of the demonic in human life, and presumably should and will be resisted.

The NT makes few pronouncements which bear directly upon the specifics of society with respect to what one regards as modern social problems. At the same time the sacred writings do give expression to principles which when embodied in significant numbers of individuals within a society do implement public conscience and ultimately public policy. In the Book of Philemon, Paul launches no direct or frontal attack upon the institution of human slavery; at the same time, this inspired tract enunciates principles with respect to the structures of human relations and of forgiveness which would ultimately sound the death knell of slavery.

In general, however, the NT emphasizes man’s relation to God as primary, and man’s interpersonal relations as being “under God,” so that societal consequences should follow as a matter of course. That is to say, man in society is a responsible moral being, living in community by divine ordination and providential placement. The Christian faith is designed to cultivate a sensitivity to others, and to direct man to accord to others the same dignity which one wishes shown to him.

Finally, the Christian sustains a special relation to his society, as our Lord suggests in His words, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world,” even as He prayed for their preservation following His death. Man’s life in society is always under the divine scrutiny; he must on the one hand live creatively and redemptively within human institutions; and, on the other hand, maintain his final citizenship in heaven.


H. W. Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (1911), 1-150; R. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, II (1943), 244-286; C. F. H. Henry, ed., Contemporary Evangelical Thought (1957), 109-133; S. Doniger, ed., The Nature of Man (1962), 97-119; W. N. Pittenger, The Christian Understanding of Human Nature (1964), 126-178; D. Weinstein, ed., The Renaissance and the Reformation (1965), 173-184.