What are Christian Values?

Writing recently about whether hard work is a Christian value reminded me why I started this blog. I finished my dissertation and found myself with more questions than answers….

Thinking about values was a key part of my dissertation. Research by Schwartz in the early 90s identified values which are important to people and motivational to the way people live their lives. Further research identified that most of these values are consistently important across societies and cultures around the world. Plotting how much importance people attached to these values showed patterns where certain values cluster together – if one value in a cluster is important to someone, then all of them usually are. Schwartz called these clusters “value types” and identified an underlying motivational goal for each one. For example, values such as social power, wealth, preserving my public image and authority were grouped together as “power”. The value types also have a relationship to each other, with certain types being found together. This relationship brings all the value types together in a circle. So an individual with a tendency towards “power” values would also be likely to rate highly values within “achievement” and “security”, and so on round the circle:

Schwartz's Values Circumplex
Schwartz’s Values Circumplex

Other values are important to people in different cultures, but Schwartz concentrated on the ones which could be considered universal. They are values which are shared across humanity. We all place different weight on which values are important to us, and this weighting is not static. We change which values we consider to be important depending on what decision we are making and the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are also influenced by other people and the environment around us as to which ones we attach more importance to. The circle above shows how values influence each other. A situation which highlights security values will also raise the importance of power and tradition/conformity. At the same time, it will also diminish the importance of the values directly opposite in the circle – in this case self-direction and stimulation.

The weighting and importance placed on values influences the way we behave. Bringing it back to topics closer to my heart, research was carried out on the values considered more important by people who got involved with issues of social justice such as climate change, global poverty and human rights. People who placed an emphasis on “universalism” values were more likely to have modified their behaviour because of these issues, from recycling to buying Fair Trade. Universalism values are equality, unity with nature, wisdom, a world of beauty, social justice, broad-minded, protecting the environment, a world at peace. This doesn’t seem like rocket science when you see what these values are! Universalism is described as being concerned with the welfare of all people and nature. Second most strongly linked with pro-social behaviour was the “benevolence” value type, described as concern for those around you. These values are helpful, responsible, forgiving, honest, loyal. So far so obvious. But the value types on the opposite side of the circle – power, achievement and, to a lesser extent, security – were associated with not getting involved with this pro-social behaviour.

As I said above, we all have all the values, it is just the importance of each value that differs between us, and this is not static. This begs the question, if the balance of values changes, does this change behaviour? The research suggests that yes, it does. Remember that encouraging the values on one side of the circle diminishes the other side. This means that the emphasis given to power or achievement values can be reduced by promoting universalism and benevolence values. Researchers found effects could be achieved simply by exposing participants to words associated with universalism, and the opposite effect with power words, all compared to controls of neutral words.

Extrapolating from research brings us to this: Issues of climate change, global poverty and human rights are not going away. We do not seem to be able to fully grapple with what we need to do across the whole of society to deal with these issues. If we could encourage the emphasis on universalism values, we would see more people willing to engage and act in pro-social ways. These values are part of every person’s value set, we don’t need to change people, just encourage what is already within. But a quick look around the influences in our society, especially advertising and the media, reveals that we are bombarded with messages emphasising the importance of power and achievement values. I’m starting to see articles in the paper about this, such as this one about the link between materialism and lack of empathy. It’s a big job, but one that can start wherever you are, encouraging values of equality, social justice, unity with nature etc by what we say, how we treat people, the metaphors we use, the motivations that drive us.

I came away from my dissertation enthusiastic to promote these values, and I still feel this way. I really want to encourage them in the church, and that is what set me thinking. If I am promoting justice, wisdom, equality etc am I not just promoting Christianity? Trying to embody these values feels to me like trying to be more like Jesus. Should I focus on the values, or focus on sharing my faith, because the values follow on naturally? Are they compatible or mutually exclusive? Just a question of emphasis? What are Christian values anyway? Are there other values in the circle which are Christian, and if there are, do they work against the values which encourage pro-social behaviour? I can see some conflict with tradition/conformity being seen as typically religious values, but which might limit a vision to see beyond ourselves and being willing to rock the boat (which the massive challenges ahead of us would seem to demand). But I get the feeling a lot of church leaders feel like this too!

The values of benevolence are also associated with pro-social behaviour and look pretty much like Christian values. Some groups involved in promoting this values-based approach to address global issues have not wanted to focus on benevolence values because the looking towards our neighbour sometimes closes the door to behaviour which benefits those far away if it harms or doesn’t benefit those close to home (eg paying more for Fair Trade). However, church is often one place where we do recognise that our neighbour includes those in far away places, especially churches which support organisations like TearFund and Christian Aid.

Below is a table of all the universal values, grouped in value types. Which ones are Christian values? Do we see universalism values in Jesus, in the Bible, in church? Is this what church should be like? Does it matter? I want to pursue these questions, and would love to know what you think?

Universalism Equality – Unity with nature – Wisdom – A world of beauty – Social justice – Broad-minded – Protecting the environment – A world at peace
Benevolence Helpful – Responsible – Forgiving – Honest – Loyal
Conformity Obedient – Self-discipline – Politeness – Honouring of parents and elders
Tradition Respect for tradition – Devout – Accepting my portion in life – Humble – Moderate
Security National security – Reciprocation of favours – Family security – Social order
Power Social power – Wealth – Authority – Preserving my public image
Achievement Ambitious – Influential – Capable – Successful
Hedonism Pleasure – Enjoying life
Stimulation An exciting life – A varied life – Daring
Self-direction Freedom – Creativity – Independent – Choosing own goals – Curious

One thought on “What are Christian Values?

  1. Hi Jo.

    That’s really interesting – I just took some study leave to explore almost the exact same questions, in relation to the church’s work on poverty. I wrote up my research – you can read it at https://www.dropbox.com/s/89vnthrspdxkugx/Values%2C%20frames%20and%20stories.pdf if you like (it’s still a work in progress so please don’t share it more widely).

    A quick summary is that I think we need to do more to get the church speaking out in prophetic ways that promote and strengthen universalist values. The challenge is how we do that, but I think there’s a great opportunity right now because churches and church leaders are already asking some of the same questions.

    I noticed, like you, that faith groups seem to have a different slant on benevolence values than secular ones. I think it’s part of what makes us unique and means we have something to offer.

    It would be great to have a chat about some of this – drop me an email if you want.



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