A Duty of Care? - Full Paper (2016)

Duty of Care of the Church

Back in January, a homeless woman died on the streets of Wolverhampton. The following morning I found myself awake at the crack of dawn with a growing sense of urgency in prayer for the poor and vulnerable of our city. As I began to pray I felt led to repent on behalf of the Church in Wolverhampton for corporate manslaughter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to suggest that the church and the community had not tried to help this woman. I am wholly aware that there were specific efforts to engage with her and for whatever reason, we fell short of being successful in saving her life. But the whole incident set off a train of thinking that led me to consider questions surrounding the notion of a duty of care and specifically whether the church could be said to have a duty of care towards the poor and vulnerable.

As a former lawyer I began to contemplate the elements of the offence of corporate manslaughter under English law which are as follows: the organisation has to have caused the death; there must be a relevant duty of care; a gross breach of that duty of care and mismanagement on behalf of the senior management of the organisation. Arguably the church did not participate directly in the death of this lady but does that mean that we can be completely absolved from taking any responsibility for her death and will we be held to account for our shortcomings in caring for people in our city?. In order to answer these questions, we have to consider a number of things:  Does the church have a specific duty of care towards the poor and vulnerable? Were we in breach of that duty of care in a negligent manner? Can that breach be said to have contributed towards her death by reason of an omission, a failure on our behalf corporately to act in accordance with what is required of us by God? And finally, if the answer to all of these questions is yes then can we, should we and will we be held to account for our actions or lack thereof?

This particular incident is one of many that could be cited to raise these same considerations. It could be said to be one that is of closer interest to city centre churches and maybe less so to rural churches facing other and no less significant challenges. The reason that this spoke particularly to me, is because I was affected by it. I am involved at the sharp end in working with homeless people. There are other situations that I could refer to where things have taken place or happened that should get us to be asking similar questions in different contexts. This is the important point here: that we start asking the right questions and start examining what the Bible has to say about the responsibilities and duties of the church.

In English law, the concept of a duty of care was established in the House of Lords in a case called Donoghue v Stevenson under what is referred to as “the neighbour principle”. Lord Atkin quoted the Bible when establishing this principle based on what Jesus said to be the second greatest commandment – “thou shalt love thy neighbour”. The neighbour principle is that a person must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which he can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure his neighbour. He goes on to ask the question in law as to “who is my neighbour?” and the conclusion that he reaches from a strictly legal point of view is that the reply to this question has to be a restricted one. Interestingly in the same passage of scripture where Jesus is explaining what the two greatest commandments are, he is asked the same question: who is my neighbour?  Jesus replies by citing the parable of the Good Samaritan and turns the question on its head by asking the teacher of the law which of the Priest, the Levite and the Samaritan was a neighbour to the man who had been robbed and left for dead. The teacher of the law correctly replies that it is the one who has mercy on the man who was his neighbour.

There are two very important points that this raises: Firstly Jesus makes it clear that the failure or omission of the Levite and the Priest to have mercy on a man who was in need constituted a breach of a duty of care. It, therefore, follows that Jesus is saying that in such a situation the Priest and Levite are to be held accountable for not recognising that their failure to act in helping this man would likely result in further injury to him.  Secondly, it opens up the question of who is my neighbour to its broadest possible definition. Prior to the general election in 2015, the Bishops of the Church of England wrote a letter to the members of the church on the issue of Christian engagement with politics and society. Again the starting point for the discussions that the letter was designed to engage was this fundamental question “who is my neighbour?” Some interesting points were raised.

  • Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God. But we are not made in isolation.  We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed.
  • A Christian approach must be driven by this vision: enabling all people to live good lives, with the chance to realise their potential, as individuals and together as a people.

From this it would appear that everyone is my neighbour since we are all made in the image of God; we all have God-given potential. That potential can be realised in those who benefit from me participating with God in bringing holistic transformation to the world around me. Does this mean that I have a duty of care to everyone because everyone is my neighbour? Well yes in one sense but what Jesus shows us in this parable is that the issue is not so much about asking the question “who is my neighbour?” He turns it on its head and looks at the issue of the identity of the person who is showing mercy rather than the one being helped. The redemptive work of Christ within us who have been saved according to his will and purpose is what enables us to show mercy. Only those whom God has justified and filled with his spirit are truly capable of loving him and loving their neighbours as themselves. And his word tells us that he has prepared good works in advance for us to do. It follows from this that failure to do those good works amounts to an omission for which we will be held to account. Does it ever cross our minds that God might see our failure to act out of love, mercy and justice in a given situation as one where we ought to have reasonably foreseen the harm that may come to another as result?

You can find similar considerations in both French and German criminal law which both contain a criminal offence of voluntarily abstaining from coming to the aid of a person in mortal danger.  In this parable of the Good Samaritan, both the Priest and the Levite would have been found guilty of this offence. They could see the danger that the person who had been robbed was in; they were in a position to provide assistance and doing so would not have endangered themselves or a third party. And yet they chose voluntarily to do nothing. How do we think God views our failure to act when it is within our capacity to do so?

Jonathan Edwards, a great preacher of the 18th Century said this: "It is… our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship, or anything else whatever… I know of scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament and New, as this duty of charity to the poor".

Once it has been established that there is a duty of care, the next question that has to be answered is whether or not that duty of care has been breached. Or otherwise put: has there been negligence? Coming back to the legal considerations negligence was defined by Baron Alderson in a civil case of 1857. He says this: “Negligence is the omission to do something, which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations, which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something, which a prudent and reasonable man would not do”. Now of course how you interpret this definition depends entirely on what you believe to be the considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs. He claimed this to be an objective standard but it remains relative to the cultural and societal considerations of the time in which the matter is being determined. Unless there is an absolute moral standard by which we can judge these considerations, they are subject to variation and evolution over time. The bible is that absolute moral standard and it has no room in it for the concepts of the reasonable and prudent man. It sets out in no uncertain terms what is required of us and anything that falls short of that could be said to be a breach of our duty of care. What is required of us? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God. According to Micah 6v6. This is very close to what Jesus called the two greatest commandments. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. In other words, our duty is to always act towards our fellow man in a manner that is just, compassionate and merciful.

But in addition to the general requirements of the law, there are also specific requirements in the law that create special duties of care. We are told many times in the Old Testament that we are especially to look out for the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

Zechariah 7v10, for example, commands us to 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'

Here we have both the general duty of care to our brother or neighbour to act always out of justice, kindness, mercy and compassion but also the specific duty of care to the widow, orphan and stranger.

Similar considerations are found in Exodus 22v21 and 22 where the command is not to oppress the orphan, the widow or the stranger but we have already seen that we can cause as much harm by acts of omission and failure to act from a place of mercy, as we do by acts that directly cause harm.

In today’s terms, this special duty of care is for those who have lost their identity, their community, their home and sometimes their homeland. Some examples of this would be refugees, the homeless and looked after children. The church has a special duty of care placed upon it to show mercy to these and other vulnerable people who are close to God’s heart.

I am firmly of the view that the conditions for holding the church to account for failing to act with love justice and mercy towards those who are suffering and the vulnerable of our communities are met. The Bible does appear to place on the Church a special and relevant duty of care towards the poor and vulnerable. We can be said to be in breach of that duty when we fail to act in a manner that is worthy of the calling upon us. And our church leaders, business leaders and leaders of Christian organisations are aware – myself included – that the status quo is unacceptable and the Church in its current state is not up to the task. But where does that leave us? Should we be rolling up our sleeves and trying harder? I am not convinced that this would have the desired impact. A good starting point would be a shift in our theological thinking. The church needs to be transformed by the renewing of its mind to align us more with where God’s heart is.    

If we look back to the 19th century, we can see countless examples of great heroes of the faith who understood the calling upon the church to provide and care for the most disadvantaged around us such as George Muller who cared for the orphans, William Booth who founded the Salvation Army and John Howard who worked tirelessly to see prison reform. Admittedly, in the absence of any form of welfare state, the Church had a greater role to play in caring for the disadvantaged. At the time without a government safety net to fall back on, those who found themselves in poverty had nothing and nowhere to turn and so the Church stepped up.

At the beginning of the 20th century, things began to change politically amidst the rise of socialism and communism in the USSR and theologically with the emergence of the so-called social gospel. There are arguments on both sides for suggesting that the government effectively pushed the church and the private sector out of the arena of social welfare but also for the church abdicating its responsibility and allowing the government to take over its God-given duties.

From a theological point of view, a divide began to appear. On the one hand, it was contended that the Second coming of Christ would not happen until the social evils of this world had been completely abolished and this was made to be the primary mission of the church (Social Gospel). On the other in many evangelical circles, it was contended that caring for the poor should be subject to the primary mission of the Church which is the preaching of the Gospel. Much of this was down to a reaction by evangelicals against the liberal theology of the Social Gospel and so the baby ended up getting thrown out with the bathwater. Dr Brian Fikkert in When helping hurts claims that “As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation”. This could arguably be said to still the case today when we look at Ian Green’s statistic that on average in evangelical churches in the 21st century, 85% of the church’s budget is spent on a Sunday morning. We appear to be more interested and focussed on getting bums on seats on a Sunday morning than anything else but should this be our sole and primary focus? Is this what the gospel is all about?

The reality is that caring for the poor and the preaching of the gospel are both duties of the church to which special attention should be given. In the same book, Dr Fikkert states that: “Adherents of the social gospel can’t fulfil the mission of the church without including Christ’s message of redemption, and evangelicals can’t fulfil the mission of the church without caring for the physical needs of the poor.”

In fact, it could be contended that both of these theologies are right and wrong at the same time. They both assert the primacy of one duty and mission of the church which has its rightful place but they do so by placing it over the other almost to the exclusion of the other. Both of these theologies have the effect of reducing the gospel down to something less than it really is The gospel cannot be reduced down to social action, neither can it be reduced down to the preaching the message of the cross from a pulpit in a building on Sunday. It is fundamentally and inherently both. When Paul talks about the preaching of Christ crucified he is referring to a words & deeds expression that embodies everything Jesus did on the cross - including serving the needy and acts of humility such as helping the marginalised.

As evangelicals, we have to recognise that we have been guilty for a long time of reducing down the gospel to a legal transaction in which Christ is punished in our place and we get to go free and are saved. This is a wonderful message of salvation and eternal life but I am convinced that there is more to the gospel than this. If our main focus is on filling up our church buildings on Sundays and getting people saved then have we sold the Bible short of everything Christ has to offer? Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with encouraging people to give their lives to Christ but that is not the be all end all of the gospel. Salvation is the entry point to the kingdom but there is so much more to the gospel and the kingdom than that. Jesus told people to repent because the kingdom of God was near. He constantly preached the coming of a new kingdom.

But what does this kingdom look like? Jesus makes it clear that it is not a physical kingdom. The word kingdom itself is significant: “king”-“dom”. The kingdom of heaven is about the dominion of the king. What does the kingdom of God look like? It looks like there is a new King in town who has dominion over our lives. It means that we adhere to his new rules and do things differently. Jesus says that we will be recognised as his disciples as being part of his kingdom because we do things differently in the way that we love one another, care for each other and act with love, justice, compassion and mercy towards our neighbours particularly the orphan, the widow and the stranger. This new way of living and these new rules apply to every area of our lives: church, work, play, relationships…etc. It is about demonstrating that we have a new identity and a new boss in everything that we do and equally what we say. The kingdom does not just bring transformation to the spiritual realm, it affects the physical realm as well and God wants us to partner with him in bringing about both. If we look at Matthew 11v5, for example, Jesus says this: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor”. Or in Luke 4v18 he says this: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free”.

Again that same letter from the bishops to the members of the Church of England said this:

“Christ’s resurrection is a sign that the sufferings of the world are not the last word and that God’s transforming power can turn the material world – not just the spiritual – to work for good. Christians believe that we are called to share in this responsibility for bringing to birth a new creation”.

We so often pray from the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come”. Do we realise that in order for this prayer to become a living reality that we need to submit more fully and daily to the reign of the new King in our lives? We are part of the kingdom and so we share with God the responsibility of seeing the kingdom come here on Earth. Ultimately the responsibility for the advance of the Kingdom is God’s yet he chooses to use us to bring this advance. We are responsible for submitting to the King and his reign and allowing him to work in us and through us more and more. We often pray and ask God for him to move in our city and our nation but to quote William Booth “a move of God happens when the Church gets up and moves”. Or to quote the pastor of Elevation Church “we are not waiting on a move of God, we are a move of God”. If you want to see the kingdom come then submit to the king. If you want God to move in this nation then get up and go and make disciples. If you want God’s fire to fall then stop crawling off the altar. We are called to be the living sacrifices upon which the fire of God will fall. Christ came to serve us and redeem us that we might serve him as King. We are to offer ourselves in service of the King who now has dominion over us and in service of our neighbours. Are there new ways in which God is calling you today to be of service to him and to your city? Even in our ordinary everyday mundane lives we can serve him faithfully and work with him to see His Kingdom come.  


Matthieu Lambert

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published this page in Articles 2018-05-18 07:00:06 +0100