Jul 9, 2024

Who is Responsible?

Examining historical moments, biblical teachings, and contemporary societal challenges, students in "Church, State, and Social Welfare" consider the biblical call to care for our neighbor.

During a time in which the lines between church, state, and social welfare blur, who is responsible for helping the vulnerable among us?

This is a fundamental question for Professor of Social Work Dr. Abby (Jansen, '02) Foreman’s course “Church, State, and Social Welfare.” Examining historical moments, biblical teachings, and contemporary societal challenges, students consider the biblical call to care for our neighbor.

“I want students to come away with a better understanding of how they would answer the question of who’s responsible for those in need around us,” explains Foreman.

Foreman and her students explore both the impact of past decisions and the potential for future change. They study Reformed concepts like sphere sovereignty as well as Christian traditions like Lutheran and Anabaptist to understand perspectives on the relationship between the state, church, and society. They also analyze historical events such as the Orphan Train and Deinstitutionalization movements, which influenced approaches to social welfare. The group discusses religious freedom, including recent Supreme Court decisions regarding social service organizations.

“I want students to come away with a better understanding of who’s responsible for those in need."

“Understanding the historical context doesn’t mean we have to stay with the same solutions; there could be creative ways to solve problems that have been around for a while,” says Foreman.

In one assignment, Foreman asks students to propose an intervention that might change something they’re interested in.

“For example, I had a business major who wanted to research the purpose of having tax exemptions for non-profits and charitable deductions,” she says. “If you think about it, there’s a message behind why we would have that in place to benefit non-profits to do the work they do, and to incentivize people with resources to give.”

Joya Breems, a senior community development major, appreciates being able to talk about the Reformed perspective of sphere sovereignty.

“It was interesting to consider in which areas, like relationships, the church excels, while in other areas, like providing tax credits and welfare programs, the government is better equipped,” Breems says. “I love learning about how different systems interact, and this class helped me grow in both my professional knowledge of how our government welfare systems work and in my faith commitments to care for vulnerable people.”

Ally Munsterman, a senior criminal justice major, says that the course has allowed her to draw connections to how the government steps in and helps those who are vulnerable, while also balancing the church and state separation that the United States Constitution upholds.

“As someone going into law enforcement, I have found it valuable to see the extent of what assistance programs our government provides so that when I come in contact with those who are struggling, I will be better equipped to direct them to those who can assist them,” adds Munsterman.

It’s important for Christians to care for the vulnerable, says Breems. “I didn’t realize before this class how important justice is to Levitical law through practices like the year of jubilee, gleaning, and sanctuary cities,” she says. “Those commands continued into the New Testament through Jesus’ example of loving and dining with the outcasts. As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus’ example and be informed about the best ways to love these populations without causing more harm.”

Foreman hopes students come away from the class recognizing that “they have agency to be able to change things.”

“What I want them to recognize is that, even though things are a certain way right now, that’s not how they have to be. It could be different. They could be integral in solving a problem in a new way. We have a lot of freedom in the United States through our non-profit structure that we can start new organizations, work within existing church ministries, and make change happen.

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers