Social Ethics

James H. O. Kombo | Kenya

Social Ethics and the Bible

God created mankind as a society—initially, as one man and one woman, and thereafter as an ever-increasing family. To be created as a human is therefore to be inherently social. Yet Adam and Eve sinned, and we have been sinning ever since. This sin introduces disharmony and strife into the social sphere. As God redeems and restores this world, then, there is need for a wise understanding of the ethics that go into living life as social creatures.

Social ethics thus has to do with the principles and guidelines that regulate corporate welfare within a society, specifically with regard to determining what is deemed right and just and noble. The Bible has much to say regarding social ethics. In its call to justice and righteousness in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ ethical teaching in the New Testament, the Bible teaches how those created in his image are to live together in this world.

The Bible clearly views social ethics as crucial to the picture it portrays of what human life is meant to be. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24; compare Gen. 18:19; 1 Sam. 15:22–23). The Lord’s desire for righteousness to be practiced by the world, and in particular by his own people, reflects his own character: “I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight” (Jer. 9:24). God is passionate for equity and harmony among people. Jesus’ words in the Great Commandment bring a fitting New Testament summary, as he instructs his people to love God and to love others, declaring that such vertical and horizontal love sums up the entire Old Testament ethic (Matt. 22:37–40; see also Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5; Rom. 13:8–10).

Social ethics is important in another respect: it is portrayed in the Bible as that which pushes God’s people to go beyond the letter of the law by genuinely considering the welfare of others to be just as important as their own welfare (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Indeed, Christians are called even to put the needs of others ahead of their own needs (Rom. 12:10; Phil. 2:3–4). The only sustaining motivation by which we can do this from the heart is the gospel of Jesus Christ, in which Jesus himself put our welfare ahead of his own (2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5–8).

Some Contemporary Issues in Global Social Ethics

In considering the ethical dimension of corporate life in this fallen world, especially corporate life as the redeemed people of God, we will turn to consider a handful of pressing issues concerning social ethics. In what follows we will consider tribalism, hunger, slavery and human trafficking, and occultism. In considering each of these we are asking what the Bible has to say about such pressing global concerns. What can we learn from Scripture?


Tribalism continues to be a serious problem across societies. Tribalism is a social sin that has to do with the exaltation of one ethnic group above others. It involves a strong in-group loyalty and ethnic identity that manifests itself not only in separation of one’s own ethnic group from the rest but also in unfair elevation of individuals in an in-group. Tribalism in its current form is not just about tribal societies strictly speaking, but can be detected in societies all around the world—Western and non-Western, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated.

While the Bible recognizes and ultimately rejoices in racial distinction (Rev. 5:9–10; 7:9–10), it also teaches the equality of all peoples regardless of race or ethnicity (Eph. 2:14–18). In Christ, there is only one people, one nation, one “tribe”: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29). The Bible teaches that Christ has torn down the wall of division and has brought Jew and Gentile into one body (Eph. 2:14; 3:6). We are taught, then, that identity in Christ supersedes all other identities. Moreover, all people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27; 9:6). And so, as we learn to resist the exaltation of ourselves or our ethnicity that our sin nature promotes, we can joyfully exult in the wonder of being included in the one nation that the Christian gospel produces—the “tribe” of Christ (Eph. 4:3–7).

World hunger.

World hunger is a massive problem today and is growing at an alarming rate. Today, one in seven people around the globe are suffering from an insufficient amount of food and nutrition. Four factors are widely agreed upon as the chief causes of world hunger: 1) poverty; 2) inadequate economic systems; 3) interpersonal and inter-ethnic conflict; 4) previously existing hunger, which is self-propagating.

World hunger is not only a social and a governmental problem but also an ethical problem. One reason for this is that hunger is often bound up with other ethical issues, such as poverty, political corruption, harmful economic systems, and international conflict. Human wickedness therefore often aggravates the problem of world hunger indirectly through sins such as exploitation, indifference, and greed. Thus while secular social theory can help to an extent, only the biblical gospel can get to the root cause (human sin and selfishness) of most of the situations around the world where hunger is a problem.

Another reason why it is valid to consider world hunger an ethical issue is that the Bible teaches that there is an ethical obligation on the part of God’s people who have enough food to share with those who are in need (Lev. 19:18; 25:35; Deut. 15:7–8; 26:12–13; Prov. 19:17). Jesus even went so far as to say that when Christians provide food and drink to those who need them, they are providing food and drink to Jesus himself (Matt. 25:31–46). On the one hand, we must remember that the greatest need of every human being is to be forgiven and made an heir of eternal life through Jesus Christ. This is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Thus concern for the poor and the hungry ought not to replace but rather to complement the preaching of the gospel. Yet we must also remember that to preach the gospel without “adorning” it with acts of love is to render such gospel proclamation hollow and harmful to the name of Jesus (Titus 2:7–8; compare 1 John 3:17–18). In all of this we are heartened by the Bible’s teaching that God draws near to those who are suffering in hunger and in other ways, identifying with them in their affliction (Ps. 9:12; 82:3–4; 140:12; Isa. 57:15).

Slavery and human trafficking.

Slavery and human trafficking are closely related. Trafficking is perhaps the most pervasive form of slavery around the world today. Anytime a person is held captive by another against the captive’s will, this is slavery. Trafficking involves the buying and selling of the enslaved. Whereas slavery is supposed to have stopped over a century ago, today there are over 29 million slaves worldwide (more than twice the number of slaves transported during the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade) in such forms as chattel slavery in southern Sudan and Mauritania, child “carpet slaves” in India, shackled laborers in Pakistan, cane cutters in the Dominican Republic, and those (especially girls) who are trafficked as sex slaves all around the world.

The Bible addresses the social problem of slavery in different ways while underscoring its abhorrence to God. First, foundationally, we remember the inherent value that God has invested in all human beings. All humans are created in God’s image and therefore have intrinsic value. To enslave someone who bears God’s image is therefore to assault the very character of God (Gen. 9:6). Second, God not only created all people in his image, but he also delights in all people (Gen. 1:26–31; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:1–4). Universal human sin does not mean that God is unable to rejoice in his good creation, however deeply marred through sin it may be. Third, God instructs his people to love others and especially those in need (Matt. 7:12; Luke 10:25–37; Rom. 13:8–10). Fourth, God hates slavery and human trafficking: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Ex. 21:16). The New Testament lists slave traders among “the ungodly and sinners” and puts them in the same category as practitioners of murder and other grievous sins (1 Tim. 1:8–10). Fifth, the biblical doctrine of salvation frequently depicts us as slaves who have been freed from the worst slavery of all—slavery to sin and death (Rom. 6:15–23; Gal. 4:3, 8; Titus 3:3–7; 2 Pet. 2:19). Consequently, anyone who has experienced God’s gift of salvation and freedom must recognize that enslaving another human being goes against the very salvation that is theirs in Christ. Christians should therefore pray for and advocate on behalf of those caught up in slavery and human trafficking (Prov. 31:8–9; James 2:14–17; 5:16).


The occult has to do with secret and hidden contact with the supernatural forces of evil, whether disembodied, such as demons or Satan, or embodied, such as witches or mediums. Some of the practices associated with occultism include magic, divinatory practices (astrology, tarot, palmistry, numerology), mediumship, magic, and witchcraft. Other practices include prediction of the future, exploring past lives, casting spells, and psychokinesis (movement of physical objects without the use of physical means). Occultism is pervasive in many societies around the world.

The Bible denounces occultism not only on the basis that it is evil but also on the ground that it is a form of idolatry. God does not share his glory with false gods (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). God has designed humans to satisfy their longing for glory and the supernatural by communing with him, not with the forces of hell. Consequently, the Bible prohibits magic, spells, enchantments, charming, sorcery, wizardry, and witchcraft (Deut. 18:9–14; 2 Kings 21:6; Jer. 27:9–10; Rev. 9:20–21; 22:15). We are likewise to avoid divination, fortune-telling, mediums, spiritism, séances, and clairvoyance (1 Chron. 10:13–14; Isa. 44:24–25). These practices not only take people further from God, but those who engage in these activities are depicted as fools and failures, while the occult itself is described by Scripture as nonsense, lies, deception, and defilement (Lev. 19:31; 20:27; Jer. 14:14; Ezek. 13:8–9; Dan. 2:27).


Social ethics must be rooted in Scripture, for in social ethics as in all things, those who build their lives on the Bible are like a man who builds his house on the rock rather than on the sand (Matt. 7:24–27). God’s people around the world are called to embody the ethical instruction of God’s Word in their own lives and take that ethical instruction into the various spheres of social life, loving others and seeking to protect the weak and vulnerable.