DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Out of Context

Written by: on November 6, 2014

Anthony Elliott’s Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction is a fascinating little book. Well ok, it may not be little, but it is fascinating none-the-less. The structure of the book makes it very usable as a reference book. The Kindle version, in particular makes it easy to navigate from the contents page to the chapters and from the chapters to the individual sections. The summaries at the end of each chapter and the hyperlinks to other resource websites makes it easy to gather a brief overview of the information as well as a starting point to dig deeper.

While social theory is not a topic that would pique most people’s interest, Elliott points out that “most people—most of the time—possess a basic social theory, which they use to orientate themselves to others and the wider world.”[1]
He goes on to say, “What Lemert underwrites is the very fact that social theory is implicated in how we live in the present. The present for us is always filtered through certain social-theoretical assumptions, precepts and ideas—however basic or elementary—of the social realities all around us. Thus we cannot choose to live non-theoretically: social life, its regulations, orderings and structurings, is quite as much theoretical as practical.”
[2] The fact is, we all live by “rules” or “structures” that regulate how we live, how we interact, where and how we work, what we do for leisure, etc. If there is any doubt to this theory, we need not look any further that a high school classroom where “social misfits” (those who do not comply to society norms) either are lauded, ridiculed, or chastised for “being different”. Elliott references Anthony Gidden’s argument that the social “rules” are so distinct that they function as clearly and regularly as a mathematical formula. “Understanding a formula, says Giddens, enables an agent to carry on in social life in a routine manner, to apply the rule in a range of different contexts. The same is true of bureaucratic rules, traffic rules, rules of football, rules of grammar, rules of social etiquette: to know a rule does not necessarily mean that one is able to explicitly formulate the principle, but it does mean that one can use the rule ‘to go on’ in social life.”[3]

The question that comes to mind is, “Where do these societal rules come from? Does social structure shape human lives or do human’s shape social structure? This is similar to the question, “Does art reflect culture or does culture mimic art? While we could look at both sides of these issues and probably reach the conclusion that both happen, culture shapes people and people shape culture, I believe that there is a missing piece to the whole social theory question.

The missing piece is that there is a bigger picture. It is not adequate to simply talk about social theory and human beings; we must consider God’s role in social theory. What happens when someone conforms to the “rules” or “norms” of society while disregarding God’s standards for human existence? What happens when an individual or a society experience a transformation through the Holy Spirit and begin to understand their very reason for existing?

I appreciated the fact that Elliott included critiques of the various theories and theorists. My greatest critic of social theorists and theories in general is that they often try to understand social theory without acknowledging God. Without considering God’s role in social theory, will never get a clear understanding because we neglect the very context in which human society exists.

[1] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2009), 9.

[2] Ibid., 11.

[3] Ibid., 128.

About the Author


Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

7 responses to “Out of Context”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Totally agree that social theory is best acknowledged with a perspective of God. That’s where the local church should come in.

    It’s pretty clear to me that sin has a direct impact of systems and social theory. Without God society will always have injustices and the oppressed.

  2. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Loved your post this week, especially this comment, “If there is any doubt to this theory, we need not look any further that a high school classroom where “social misfits” (those who do not comply to society norms) either are lauded, ridiculed, or chastised for “being different”.” I see this in churches way too often. We are creatures of habit and tend to welcome and embrace those who are just like us.

    Without viewing others as God does, it is understandable that society has issues with those who are different in schools and workplaces. Within the Christian community, we should be different. Throughout history civilizations have risen and fallen. Entire social structures have influence mankind’s destiny. If Christians within our communities fail to act and behave as God’s people within society, I have to wonder what the long term impact will be to our civilization.

  3. Mary says:

    As I read your words about including God in social theory, I thought of a picture of how God lifts our head up from the “rules and regulations” to something beyond ourselves. We need that kind of hope and ability to know that there is a bigger picture than what we see in front of us. Kind of holding in tension the “what is” with “what God wants.”

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Great words…”God lifts our head up from the “rules and regulations” to something beyond ourselves.” Sometimes we need to step back to ensure we are “seeing the forest through the trees”.

      Throughout history, people have allowed themselves to be caught up in the social climate or ‘rules of the day’, and trouble often followed due to poor choices or actions. For example, so many people supported Hitler. His propaganda appealed to the masses, and his policies were attractive given the political climate within society at that time. People were so influenced that they didn’t see his lies. Hitler himself said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Alternatively, there were people like Corrie ten Boom who chose to defy Hitler’s policies and ‘rules of the day’. She viewed all people as Christ does, showing His love in the midst of great hatred. It is Christ that made the difference between the way that Hitler versus ten Boom viewed society.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, Before Jon gets to it, let me be the first to post this one into LGP5 lore. “Without considering God’s role in social theory, we’ll never get a clear understanding because we neglect the very context in which human society exists.” Ba Bam! What a line! And in my head then, once God is brought into the picture, there is a lens in which social theory is entirely useful. Without God, the best social theory will be cyclical and empty without a bigger story/narrative to give it meaning. Nice post.

  5. mm Jon Spellman says:

    It’s true. Social Theories all ring out as pretty hollow sounding without the resonance and power of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    Hey Brian,

    I believe everyone has a social theory whether it is good or bad. Some are trying to live up to the status quo while others are into their own thing or some type of sub-social structure. It is important to maintain God in our thoughts as we deal with our social theory. I think we have to be closely related to scriptural mandates if we are to exemplify the princples God would have us to in this world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *