Ten theses about the church as a social ethic

By Simon Barrow
February 8, 2011

Whether you find him inspiring or exasperating (and I sometimes find him both!), the work of US theologian Stanley Hauerwas provides a challenging alternative vision of church as subversive, exemplary community - rather than the cement or glue of society, as in the top-down Christendom model.

Most famously, he has declared: “The church does not have a social ethic; the church is a social ethic” - or not, I would add, looking at its actual performance in many instances.

Back in 1981, Hauerwas published Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses. The appeal echoed Luther's famous 95 Theses, which disputed the ideology and practice of church in his era - though not sufficiently to stop his followers persecuting Anabaptists and sanctioning state churches, sadly. But then reformation is a continual (radical) process, not a one-off event.

Hauerwas' ten theses, summarised below, assume (by contrast) the voluntary, non-state form that church must take in order to be true to its vocation. As is evident in the established Church of England's current debate about its role and polity, accessibly entitled Challenges for the New Quinquennium, this distinction is largely not grasped in Britain, where we are constantly told that the only options are some kind of civic, socially embedded religious order - or else an anti-religious version of secularism or a theocratic religious fundamentalism. Not so.

In our Values Statement, Ekklesia has declared: Ekklesia’s approach to issues of religion in the public sphere is primarily shaped by a strong theological and political critique of ‘Christendom’ – the historic collusion of institutional churches with governing authority and vice versa.

Instead, through research, publishing and commentary, Ekklesia seeks to reinvigorate a different understanding of the church as an alternative-generating ‘contrast society’ within the wider civic order: one that is politically aware, intellectually curious, spiritually refreshing, theologically rooted, voluntarily associational and radical in its social commitment.

In many respects, this puts us substantially in the Hauerwas 'church as social ethic' camp. Substantially, but not wholly. I would want to (and will) argue that thesis one needs revising in relation to the wider theology of the kin(g)dom of God emerging in all kinds of non-ecclesial ways; that thesis 8 needs expanding to embrace political virtues such as forgiveness, peacemaking, economic sharing and more (a point in line with Hauerwas' own writings), that thesis 9 begs a more nuanced relation to 'political and social liberalism' and rights discourses (recognising elements of coherence as well as substantial tensions and differences), and that thesis 10 does not rule out (as its author seems to) Christian propagation of 'public policy positions', but suggests both goals and limits for such interventions.

The latter point is especially important for us, since we seek to combine theologically rooted critique of both church and society with alliance-based attempts to develop alternative practices within both church and society. This is not to deny or soft peddle the fact that the Gospel narrates the world differently, but to find ways of expressing this which build bridges rather than creating barriers. Except when barriers (such as those we should erect towards the dominant 'myth of redemptive violence') are required.

Anyway, without more ado - there has probably been enough already! - here are Stanley Hauerwas' Ten Theses. A series of occasional pieces, developing the modifications I have suggested above, will appear in subsequent weeks, as "experiments in political-theological thinking". I will invite others to respond, too.


1. The social significance of the Gospel requires the recognition of the narrative structure of Christian convictions for the life of the church.

The church is founded on the premise that the creator God decisively calls and forms a people to serve him through the history of Israel and through the work of Jesus Christ to bring about the redemption of the creation.

2. Every social ethic involves a narrative, whether it is concerned with the formulation of basic principles of social organisation and/or with concrete policy alternatives.

The form and substance of the Christian community is story formed.

3. The ability to provide an adequate account of our existence is the primary test of the truthfulness of a social ethic.

The first task of the church is to help Christians form a community that looks like their story. The story of God showing up in unlikely places to bring about transformation and restoration.

4. Communities formed by a truthful narrative must provide the skills to transform fate into destiny so that the unexpected, especially as it comes in the form of strangers, can be welcomed as a gift.

From our story, we learn that we own nothing, and whatever we have is a gift. This understanding allows us be less attached to our stuff.

5. The primary social task of the church is to be itself - that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption.

The church is a people on a journey who insist on living lives that are consistent with their conviction that God is the lord of history. They thus refuse to resort to violence in order to secure their survival.

6. Christian social ethics can only be done from the perspective of those who do not seek to control national or world history but who are content to live “out of control”.

This means that Christians must find the means to make clear to both the oppressed and the oppressors that the cross determines the meaning of history. They should thus provide imaginative alternatives for social policy as they are released from the “necessities” of those that would control the world in the name of security. To be out of control means Christians can risk trusting in gifts and not on what we can achieve and hence must protect at all costs.

7. Christian social ethics depends on the development of leadership in the church that can trust and depend on the diversity of gifts in the community.

The authority necessary for leadership in the church should derive from the willingness of Christians to risk speaking the truth to and hearing the truth from those in charge. This is the kind of community that can afford to have their leader’s mistakes acknowledged without their ceasing to exercise authority.

8. For the church to be, rather than have, a social ethic means we must recapture the social significance of common behaviour, such as kindness, friendship, and the formation of families.

Trust is impossible in communities that always regard the other as a challenge and threat to their existence. One of the most profound commitments of a community, therefore, is providing a context that encourages us to trust and depend on one another.

9. In our attempt to control our society [American] Christians have readily accepted liberalism as a social strategy appropriate to the Christian story (that is, story-less living).

We must constantly remember that we are a story formed community and that story is what defines our existence.

10. The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organisation, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.

The church’s first task is to help us gain a critical perspective on the stories that have captivated our vision and lives. By doing so, the church may well help provide a paradigm of social relations otherwise thought impossible.


For those who may not know, Stanley Hauerwas has taught at the University of Notre Dame and is currently the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, with a joint appointment at the Duke University School of Law. His recent memoire is entitled Hannah's Child.

There is more about Hauerwas on Ekklesia, and on this very useful compendium website. The Wikepdia entry has some interesting summaries, too. The above theses, and much else, are included in the Hauerwas Reader, edited by John Berkman and Michael G. Cartwright, which is available (with a 35% discount while stocks last) from Ekklesia/Metanoia books. A 'Christian contrarian', Hauerwas has nevertheless (and somewhat against his wishes and ethos) been described by Time magazine as "America's best theologian". Love him or loathe him, you cannot and should not ignore him.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.