2. Religious challenges


2.1 Dualistic worldview


Myers (2005) describes worldview as the way we understand and interpret the world in which we live. There is a big danger in practicing Christian faith with a dualistic worldview, i.e. the separation of the spiritual and physical realms. If this dominates Christian thought and church practice, it undermines the principles of any theology of transformation, social action and empowerment.

The modern separation of the physical and spiritual realms explains a wide range of the modern dichotomies that are prevalent in the modern worldview. For example, the spiritual world is the arena of sacred revelation, in which we know by believing. The real world where we hear, see, feel, and touch is where scientific observation allows us to know things with certainty. Faith and religion are part of the spiritual world, while reason and science provide the explanations in the real world. The spiritual world is an interior, private place; the real world is an exterior, public place. This means that values are a private matter of personal choice, having no relevance in the public square where politics and economics reign (Myers 2005:6).

In accepting the dichotomy, believers limit the scope of both sin and the gospel. “By limiting the domain of sin to a person’s soul, we inadvertently limit the scope of the gospel as well. We need to transform this way of thinking. God’s rule extends to both the spiritual and material; the redemptive work of Jesus Christ is needed wherever sin has penetrated” (Myers 2005:10).

Myers (2005:123) reckons “If the most fundamental cause of poverty is the impact of sin, then dealing with sin must be part of the Christian process of change”. He continues: “While we must deal with the individual nature of sin, we must also address its consequences as expressed in relationships that are based on a web of lies and that promote disempowerment of the poor and domination by the non-poor. This means that a Christian process of change must center on truth telling and the promotion of justice and righteousness”.

The central message of the Bible is justice-love; it is God’s unconditional love of the world. Loving God and loving your neighbour defines Christian life – Christianity is totally integrated with everyday life. Respect and love for God cannot be separated from respect and love towards human beings, e.g. Ex. 20; Lev. 19; Deut. 5; Micah 6:6-8; Rom. 13:8-10. The quality of loving God is measured by the love believers have for other people. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20), says it all.

If we prefer to stay in our comfort zones of apathy and material riches, then we should ask ourselves whether we have got the right to call ourselves Christians.  We should heed the words of Christ in Matt 25:41:Depart from me, ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.And also verses 45 – 46: “…. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.  And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal(ACROS statement in 2002). 

It is also true that the poor and oppressed may oppress other poor. “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still” (Eccl 5:8). Poor people may oppress other people who are also poor e.g. poor stealing from other poor. “The truth must be discovered about the way the poor contribute to their own poverty, and the truth must be discovered about how poverty is created by the god-complexes of the non-poor, inadequacies of worldview, and deception by the principalities and powers. Only in repenting in the face of God’s truth can relationships be restored so that life, justice, and peace (shalom) can be restored” (Myers 2005:123). Any theology of empowerment, development or social change should take this principle in consideration.

2.2 Sociology of religion

2.2.1 Janus-faced


The influence of religion (Christian faith) on society is complex.


Religion integrates and also disrupts society; it is truly Janus-faced. It may provide legitimation for the existing order, give emotional support to the fundamental values of the society, soften the impact of conflict by emphasizing values such as salvation which are common to all, and lessen social tension by supramundane value. But religion also involves transcendent moral standards which define an ideal against which human performance can be measured. Hence those who are dissatisfied politically, economically, socially, or spiritually – may find religion strong support for their attack upon status quo. Religion can be a powerful agent pushing the thoughts of men beyond tradition; it may become the spiritual dynamic of revolution (Lewy 1974:584).

The sociological perspective on religion is important to help us understand the influential forces of religion on society. Sociologists are interested in studying religion primarily for two reasons. First, religion is very important to many people… Religious values influence their actions, and religious meanings help them interpret their experiences…  Second, religion is an important object for sociological study because of its influence on society and society’s impact on religion (McGuire 1992:3). It was Calvin who said that the knowledge of the self and the knowledge of God are deeply intertwined. People develop their humanity by the image they have of God. People, who believe in an empowering God, are more open to empowerment and social change. “The way in which we conceive God and the way we speak of God have real consequences in the realm of human affairs (Case-Winters 1990:19).

Max Weber (1978) studied the influence of Calvinism in society. He found that modern capitalism originated from the Protestant faith in the Western world. He saw religion as a dynamo for social change, but it can also be legitimizing, instead of innovative. There exists an interrelationship between religion and social change.

i. A stabilising faith

The influence of Christian faith on society is mainly to stabilize communities. “There is an inherently conservative aspect to religion… Important elements in religion maintain the status quo” (Mc Guire 1992:214). A survey worth mentioning is that of Glock, Ringer and Babbie (Glock et al. 1967). They interviewed 1,885 members, including ministers and bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The majority saw the church as “a refuge for those who are denied access to valued achievements and rewards in everyday American life” (ibid.:107) and “to collect and distribute clothing and food to the poor, to minister to the sick and to extend pastoral counseling to the anguished” (ibid.:204). Religion provides a haven to people in need. My research in the early nineties on poverty and dependence amongst NGKA members (before the unification of the NGKA and NGSK) indicated that they were more concerned with the stabilization of communities than the empowerment thereof. My doctoral study in 1997 confirmed this finding once again. I investigated the relation between their Christian image of God (faith) and the social empowerment of members in a rural congregation of URCSA in the Eastern Cape. The member’s faith left them immobilized and disempowered.

But it will be unfair not to acknowledge the Eastern Cape URCSA members survival strategies, the way they cope with limited resources. Poor people are sometimes blessed with amazing wisdom.

ii. Empowering faith


While I was preparing this paper, I attended a meeting on the challenges of farm schools in the George – Great Brak River region. A CBO operating in George did a presentation on their involvement at a farm school, their holistic approach, their successes and vision. A headmaster of another farm school complained of the lack of co-operation with the local farm owners. One farm schoolteacher shared her disgust with their school’s infrastructure. They don’t have running water and the pit toilet is a health and safety risk. A few Christian farm owners involved at another farm school shared their concerns. I kept quiet (not typical of me) but after two hours and two cups of Ricoffy, I decided to make a comment. I said that I think the situation at farm schools will drastically change when farm workers and farm owners, the whole farming community send their children to the same school. After my comment a Christian farm owner stood up and said I should leave politics out of the conversation. He continued, he was not willing to sell his bakkie, because his worker could afford a horse and that he worked very hard to live a good life.


Christian action takes more than welfare. True compassion includes justice (Hendriks 1974:26). “Armoedeverligting kan nie meer gesien word – soos lank in kerklike kringe gedoen is – as welsynswerk (welfare of charity) nie. Dit kan nie langer net gesien word as die uitdeel van aalmoese om die lot van sekeres effens te verlig nie. Die huidige tydgewrig roep om die permanente verandering van die lewenstog van diegene wat te weinig het om ‘n sinvolle, menswaardige lewe te lei” said Prof. Elwil Beukes, developmental economist, at a Badisa conference in 2004.

McGuire (1992:231) reckons that “certain qualities of some religions’ beliefs and practices make them more likely to effect change than other religions”. To learn more of these qualities she asked the following questions:

  • Does the belief system contain a critical standard against which the established social system and existing patterns of interaction can be measured? Those religions that emphasize a critical standard (e.g. prophetic tradition or a revolutionary myth) pose the potential of internal challenge to the existing social arrangements. The prophetic tradition of the Israelites was a basis for subsequent religious challenges to the established way of doing things…


  • How does the belief system define the social situation? Individuals’ perceptions of the social situation are shaped largely by how their belief system defines that reality. If a religion informs believers that their misfortune is part of God’s plan to test their faith, they are not likely to challenge that misfortune. Believers are unlikely to try changing a situation that the belief system has defined as one that humans are powerless to change. Belief systems that embody this kind of fatalism are not conducive to social activism…


  • How does the belief system define the relationship of the individual to the social world? Weber distinguished between religions that promote a “this-worldly” as compared with an “other-worldly” outlook. Buddhism’s interpretation of the material world and aspirations as illusion discourages this-worldly action. By contrast, many strains of Protestantism emphasize one’s “working out” of salvation in this world and one’s “stewardship”.

3. The power of God


My understanding of doing theology of empowerment, assumes faith in a liberating and empowering God. Christian images of God that take a person’s freedom away are inhuman and anxiety provoking should be rejected (Lindijer 1990:6). The God of the Christian faith is not the enemy but the friend of true human freedom (Migliore 1983:28). “Christian faith, centers on the issue of making and keeping human life human” (Migliore 1983:43).

It is so sad when members of URCSA – a “new” church with a long history of struggle against racism and injustice and a church with a unique confession (Confession of Belhar) – accept poverty as the will of God. “God is in beheer en dit moet aanvaar word”; “God beskik en gee op die regte tyd”; “dit is volgens God se plan”; “swaarkry moet aanvaar word” are a few responses of rural URCSA members I interviewed. This kind of faith tends to make them passive and paralyzed for social empowerment – it immobilizes them. Furthermore, when they perceive God as allowing suffering as a form of punishment, then it leads to the perception that God is revengeful. This results in them being shameful and strengthens powerlessness.

“The power of God made known decisively in Jesus Christ, the crucified and living Lord, is neither sheer almightiness nor mere impotence; it is power that makes for freedom, justice, and lasting community” (Migliore 1983:13). “Jesus empowers the powerless by extending God’s forgiveness and affirmation to them. He tells the nobodies of his time that they are the somebodies in God’s eyes” (ibid.).

4. The importance of narrative theology in the process of empowerment.

An important principle of doing Theology of Development is the challenge to integrate biblical principles and values to the process of transformation and empowerment. Myers integrated the whole bible story with this process. “To pursue human transformation as Christians means understanding where humanity is coming from, where it is going, and how it can get there. To do the work for transformation, we have to embrace the whole of the biblical story, the story that makes sense and gives direction to the stories of the communities where we work, as well as to our own stories” (Myers 2005:23).

“To link the gospel to the process of development, the people need to hear about the God who created the world and their culture; the God who wants human beings to worship God and love their neighbor; and the God who wants and will enable them to be productive stewards in creation” (Myers 2005:215). The biblical story is a very unusual story. “We are told the beginning, the middle, and the final chapter of the story. But the piece between Jesus and his work on the cross and the final chapter is still being written” (Myers 2005:23).

The convergence of the different stories (e.g. God’s story; community story) is a very helpful framework for setting the context in which development takes place. “Each story needs to engage all the other stories, and all need to engage the larger story of which all stories are part” (Myers 2005:11; 138).

5. Good news for rich and poor

God’s (biblical) story is for everyone, for the poor and the rich.  But “there are two ways in which human response to the story creates a bias that favors the poor (Myers 2005:55):

  • “First, it is apparently very hard for the non-poor to accept the biblical story as their story (Lk 18:18-30). Wealth and power seem to make people hard of hearing and poor at understanding (Lk 8:14)”. (If wealthy Christians are poor at understanding, I think we can refer to them as “spiritually poor”.)


  • “Second, it is the poor who most consistently seem to recognize God’s story as their story… God has always insisted that caring for the widow, orphan, and alien is a measure of the fidelity with which we live out our faith. No story, in which the poor are forgotten, ignored, or left to their own devices is consistent with the biblical story. If the poor are forgotten, God will be forgotten too. Loving God and loving neighbor are twin injunctions of a single command” (Myers 2005:55).

I do not agree with the general statement of God taking the side of the poor and oppressed blindly and that God is against the rich and the wealthy. I also disagree, as indicated before, that only the oppressed are just. Wealthy people can also convert and do justice to others. The Confession of Belhar reflects the biblical witnesses of God correctly by stating God’s special concern for the needy and the poor. God calls his church to follow “Him” by standing with “Him” against any unjust systems.

6. A “new way” of reading the Bible


There are “new ways” to allow God and the Bible to speak for themselves in the development process. “The Scripture Search use of the Bible in transformational development assumes the Bible is less a source of rules or a conceptual foundation and more creative encounter with God and the story God has chosen to tell us”.  (See figure in Myers (2005:229) Addendum 7.)

Myers (2005:231) also explains the Seven Steps approach. The emphasis is on group listening and receiving, not on the left-brain work of determining meaning (see Addendum 8).

I would like to share with you one alternative way of reading particular Bible texts. I wrote my master thesis on a socio-literary and socio-historical approach to the Old Testament book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes (Qohelet). I examined Qohelet’s reflections on wealth and poverty to discover whether his views were influenced by his social position. The text was seen as a social expression – a product, among other things, of socio-economic and political conditions of the time. In the interpretation the needs of the oppressed was kept in mind. Qohelet’s social background could be reconstructed from his reflections. He observed the oppression of the poor, but, on account of his socio-economic position, he refused to act. As a “bourgeois intellectual”, he benefited from the existing order. His choice therefore was “better dead than red” (Van Niekerk 1988).

7. And what now? …


God owns everything; we are managers or stewards of all God’s resources, and of our personal talents and the earth’s resources.


It was Ecclesiastes who said: “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account” (3:15). With this paper I first thought I would be able to reflect on a Theology of Empowerment from a different and new angle, but I have soon realized nothing is new and has been said before.

Now the challenge is for us to formulate a Theology of Empowerment that is relevant, contextual, prophetic, transformative and liberating. Crucial to this is your sharing of your own stories and experiences of Christian empowerment.

I end my paper with a comma, but be warned, “… of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (Eccl. 12:12),

Pieter van Niekerk


Case-Winters, A. 1990. God’s power: Traditional   understandings and contemporary challenges. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press.


Glock, Ringer B B & Babbie E R. 1967. To comfort and to challenge: A dilemma of the contemporary church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hay, D A. 1989. Economics today: A Christian critique. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Hendriks, J. 1974. Overal waar mensen zijn, De diaconale gemeente. Kampen: Kok.

Lewy, G. 1974.  Religion and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lindijer, C. (Ed.) 1990. Beelden van God: Orientaties op het denken en spreken over God in onze tijd. ‘s Gravenhage: Meinema.

McGuire, M B. 1992. Religion the social context. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Myers, B L. 2005. Walking with the poor. Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. New York: Orbis Books.

Migliore, D l. 1983.  The power of God. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Van Niekerk, P I. 1988. Rykdom en armoede in Qohelet. Unpublished MA thesis. Pretoria: UNISA.

Van Niekerk, P I. 1997. Die verband tussen ‘n Christelike Godsbeskouing en sosiale bemagtiging van lidmate in ‘n plattelandse gemeente van die VGKSA. Unpublished DTh thesis.

Weber, M. 1978. Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. In Winckelmann, J. (Ed.), Die Protestantische Ethik 1, 27-227. Gutersloh: Verlaghaus Mohn.