Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Why Social Theory? Why not Theology?

Written by: on November 6, 2014

“Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction” by Anthony Elliott has become my favorite read for class so far. For some reason when we first received the reading list way back in August (seems like years ago in some ways) I was able to first obtain Elliott’s book and jumped in on the reading race early. Revisiting it this week, I was drawn pretty passionately into the Afterward entitled, “Social Theory Today and Toward 2025.”

At the heart of my passion raised I believe was the tension within me that I will call, “Why social theory and why not theology?”  In the first paragraph of the Afterword Elliot writes:

“Indeed, so serious is the damage done to human life today that much social theory insists                  it is only by confronting the worst and most painful aspects of current global realities that we might hope to develop plausible alternative social and institutional possibilities. Hence the surprising innovations of recent years – post-feminist, queer, postmodern, risk and liquidity theories – which address anew why modernity leaves so large a number of the world’s population unsatisfied, displaced and outcast.”1

Why social theory? Why not theology? With such a claim as to address the “worst and most painful aspects of current global realities“ with “hope to develop plausible alternative social and institutional possibilities,” again, why social theory and why not theology? Maybe this is exposing great ignorance on my part, but why does it seem like there is more concern, thought, and understanding in “social theory” than in “theology” about the greatest challenges we are facing and greatest hopes that we hold as we head towards 2025 in our postmodern, individualized, and globalized society.

All the questions and issues Elliot poses through the Afterword seem like what theology ought to be posing and asking, but from my acute angle it doesn’t really seem like the “theology radar” is picking up any such “blips.”

This feels like it may be becoming a rant.  I am thinking the rant has a great deal to do with a “sheltered” theological life, but I would hope a radical devotion to Jesus, a ruthless commitment to loving one another, and a relentless dedication to reaching our world would look like a theology and the start of theological conversations that sound much more like what Elliot is posing and thinking about in social theory.

Is it just me or as we read through the progression of “theology books” we in one sense went “deeper and deeper” in to “theology” but further and further away from talking about the greatest challenges our world is facing and how the challenges can be addressed with hope and possibility.

Maybe I am feeling much of this because of my dissertation topic and its underlying theme.   I am hoping the Church can be a part of a the collaborative effort that helps to mine and imagine the tectonic plate shifts that are happening and are necessary in our culture, societies and world to right the greatest wrongs. I am feeling great angst these days about the current situation of my view of theology and its role in our world and the work social theory attempts. As Elliot writes social theory is thinking deeply about the “institutional units of society, from identity and sexuality, to the family and work, to the nation and politics.”2 Such themes of violence, suffering and death, disease and malnutrition, ever-rising levels of poverty and how they apply to our increasingly global world all seem like the are moving to the middle of the radar screen in social theory, but again, why not theology?

So friends, could someone help me out by answering this question. (Sorry for you, I am thinking of this as free counseling so allow me to lay back on the curved burgundy leather couch and take in your wisdom, encouragement, correction, and advice)  So, why social theory and why not theology? Is it wrong for me to want to what our “theology” to be our “social theory?”

  1. Elliott, Anthony (2014-02-10). Contemporary Social Theory: An introduction (Kindle Locations 8343-8346). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  1. Ibid., (Kindle Locations 8415-8416).

About the Author

Phillip Struckmeyer

14 responses to “Why Social Theory? Why not Theology?”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Phil! This has also been my favorite read of the semester. Maybe it’s because it followed 3 theology books but I came to many of the same questions you did. Obviously Jason did this to us on purpose!

    If you have theology without any framework for social theory then you go into foreign countries on mission trips and expect their new church to look and act exactly like our churches back home.

    If you have social theory without theology then we try to “fix” problems without Jesus.

    We need both! And that’s why I’m so interested in your dissertation project. How can the local church lead in this effort? We should be leading but I’m not sure I see any churches doing it well.

    • Phillip Struckmeyer says:

      Nick, I agree with you in that I think “this (brain strain) is being done to us.” At least that is my Jason conspiracy theory, which is a whole other theory:).

  2. Jon Spellman says:

    Phil, it seems that Social Theory has developed in recent years within the vacuum created by the church’s exit from society. If the Gospel were being extended, if people were following Jesus, if we, as the broader community of humans, took seriously the instructions of our Lord then there would be no inequalities or injustices to be studied!

    If the church would be the church, Social Theory would never have been theorized…

    • Phillip Struckmeyer says:

      Jon, One of the books I am reading, “Social Reform and the Church” by JR Commons in 1894 said Christianity is the “cause” of social problems because without Christianity everything can just stay broke, but that Christianity then must also be the solution to the social woes created and identified with a belief in “a way things are supposed to be.”

  3. Your question reminds me of a conversation with a local denominational exec — his portfolio was “evangelism and church planting” but both are being “phased out.” However, he isn’t bemoaning this so much as rejoicing that the old categories no longer represent the reality because first the wine, and then the wine-skin, have morphed profoundly. The “church plants” that are now most promising look more like community centers and urban abbeys, looking back to celtic traditions where the abbey included both vocational and non-vocational monks, married and singles, and were built at the crossroads instead of off somewhere in isolation. How, in this social location, do we engage in a way that is both really IN the world, and really not OF the world?

  4. Mary says:

    Phil – one of the pieces while I was researching beyond Elliott’s book was from an author who spoke about theology as the next step beyond social theory because it deals with transcendence and hope. That’s not something that social theory can offer in its discipline of observation and prediction. But what I hear from your words is not so much about if the church and theology have fallen short, but how can you be a catalyst.

    As a word of encouragement, here’s a quote from my new friend, Rene, I met in Cape Town who lived through Apartheid:

    The “faith expression” is what I think belongs in the “purpose” of the community. If the reason for belonging is me and my self interest and self preservation, the result is a small story and no need for hope or life beyond me. The result is often that the people in that small story think that their world, is THE world. Faith expression… for me, is the need to believe for something more than me, something bigger than what we can do for ourselves and draws us out of ourselves, to be, do and hope for something more… the story gets bigger, God needs to be bigger and the world gets bigger… and love gets bigger…

    -Reinhold Niebuhr says it best

    “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, Therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; Therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. “

  5. Dave Young says:


    So why isn’t the church, and theology really addressing the hard issues being struggled with in our society? Why Social theory and not theology? I’d look first to our own soul, look to how much are we in tune with the Father. IF we’re not in tune with the Father then we don’t know His will.

    Jesus prayed “on earth as it is in heaven” He wanted His Father’s will to be done around un, in society. He wanted the kingdom to unfold in everyday ways, ways in which people could see. Today I believe Jesus would address: sexuality, politics, violence, suffering and death, disease and malnutrition. If Jesus was here today he’d address everything that was on the Father’s heart.

    So I’d conclude the church isn’t wrestling with the issues of society because either we’re not in tune with the Father or the Father doesn’t care about the world. Based on John 3:16 I’m pretty sure He cares about the world.

  6. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Nick, I agree with you in that I think “this (brain strain) is being done to us.” At least that is my Jason conspiracy theory, which is a whole other theory:).

  7. Brian Yost says:

    “I would hope a radical devotion to Jesus, a ruthless commitment to loving one another, and a relentless dedication to reaching our world would look like a theology and the start of theological conversations that sound much more like what Elliot is posing and thinking about in social theory.”
    Phil, I love this! It reminds me of the saying, “You cannot give what you do not have.” It is easy to see the problems (whether or not we truly understand them). The difficulty comes what we look for solutions. Without first being grounded in a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ and catching his heart for the world, our response will always be less than sufficient.

  8. Dawnel Volzke says:

    I believe that we need both theology and social theory. The message in the Bible is timeless, but social theory is not. Theology is at the foundation of why Christians act as they do. I know quite a few Christians with great theological knowledge and desire to help others…but they aren’t very good at engaging with people different than themselves.

    I’m thinking of one family member, specifically. This person is much older (in 70s) and has always lived in the American Midwest. Their first trip out of the country was after the age of 60, and then it was a tour in Europe. This is typical of many in this generation. Even though this particular person has a genuine desire to connect with and get to know different types of people, the encounters are often awkward. I’ve found it helpful to educate, lead by example, and to help facilitate opportunities that expose this individual to people and circumstances that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

    Another example is my grandmother. Several years ago when she went to a nursing home, she was very upset black staff members were assigned to care for her…especially black males. Despite her protests, she had no choice but to accept help from whomever was assigned. Within a couple of weeks the same staff members became some of her best friends, and she was so grateful for their wonderful and compassionate care. This forced exposure calmed her fear and helped her to put away false assumptions. At her funeral, many of these same staff members told how she had shared Christ with them. You see, my grandmother was a very strong Christian woman. Her theology was strong, yet she had spent years in a culture that had taught her false information about certain groups of people.

    I believe that globalization will help increase cultural intelligence with each new generation. However, ongoing study of social theory will help us to be aware of those subtle ideas and actions that we often fall prey to. We are often guilty of propagating injustice due to our own ignorance. It is because of our theological views that we should want to understand social theory…

  9. Travis Biglow says:


    I think that our theology is important and that we should become more radical in our theological position as it also relates to postmodern Christianity. Im dealing with this topic in my analysis of missional leadership concepts and transformational leadership. I think we have reached a place in our time that a lot of the denominational structures and practices are not reaching a new generation. At the same time im cautioned by the fact that even being radical you have to be intelligent too. You dont want to be targeted when you are trying to bring in change. It is counter productive to just be radical and never able to insitute the things that bring transformation. But missional leaders have to be about the mission that Christ gave us and that is to be a church that is on a mission from above and we dont have time to get stuck in social theory when we are trying to bring preach about a new kingdom that is coming to earth!

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