The Social Gospel


     Some do not understand what is meant by the negative use of "social gospel." For sure, the early Christians were gregarious and, in this sense, social (Acts 2: 46). The gospel also addresses matters social in nature (cp. Rom. 12: 18). However, the designation "social gospel" alludes to something different. The social gospel is a system that places the emphasis on the present and physical. The social gospel is more interested in telling man how to enhance his physical, economic, and mental state than it is regarding his soul and life ever after. Churches that have embraced the social gospel have as their primary mission the feeding and filling of men's stomachs rather than the providing for man's spiritual needs and salvation. There was a period in American history when there was a developing social consciousness. Labor movements and unions began to address social injustices. It was during this period that the social gospel, as we know it, was born.

     In a study of the inception, evolution, and present status of the social gospel, such names as Washington Gladden (1836-1918) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) are encountered as major movers in the advancement of the social gospel. Gladden and Rauschenburse had a different view of the Kingdom of God than did their contemporaries. Author Robert Handy wrote the following regarding Washington Gladden:

     "Washington Gladden, a Congregational minister who had been much influenced by Horace Bushnell, became an outspoken advocate of the right of labor to organize during a long pastorate in Columbus, Ohio. He was also a champion of liberal theology, advocating the historical approach to the scriptures and preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in the near future. Often called 'the father of the social gospel,' he developed a Christian version of progressive economic and social views that by the turn of the century was a rising force in the churches" (A history of the Churches in the United States and Canada, pp. 299-302).

     Williston Walker succinctly outlines the circumstance and development of the social gospel:

     "Early nineteenth-century Protestantism had expressed its social concerns largely in individualistic terms, stressing charity and moral reform, but the social gospel focused attention on the corporate aspects of modern life and on the achievement of social justice. Great attention was devoted to the relations between capital and labor, and the movement influenced the shortening of the working day. Dedicated to the building of the Kingdom of God on earth, the social gospel was especially prominent in the life and work of the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists of the North, and among Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Courses on social ethics were added to seminary curricula, and denominational departments of social action were founded under social Christian influence. A number of social settlements in underprivileged areas were founded under Protestant auspices, and many institutional churches to bring social services to the urban masses were erected. The social emphasis was strongly felt on the mission field, where agricultural, medical, and educational missions were expanded (A History of the Christian Church, pg. 518).

     As the influence of the social gospel spread, churches began to place their focus on matters physical and material. Walter Rauschenbusch expressed it well:

     "The contributions made by Christianity to the working efficiency and the constructive social abilities of humanity in the past have been mainly indirect. The main aim set before Christians was to save souls from eternal woe, to have communion with God now and hereafter, and to live God-fearing lives. It was individualistic religion, concentrated on the life to come. Its social effectiveness was largely a by-product. What, now, would have been the result if Christianity had placed an equally strong emphasis on the Kingdom of God, the ideal social order?" (The Social Principles of Jesus, pp. 73, 74).

     Rauschenbusch believed that the church should have been directly involved as the driving force in forming the workings of industry and trade. Hear him:

     "What the world of Christian men and women needs is to have a great social objective set before them and laid on their conscience with the authority of religion. Then religion would get behind social evolution in earnest" (Ibid.).

     One does not have to be a trained historian to observe the effects of the social gospel today. Most religions have taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Fun, frolic, and preoccupation with the transitory matters of this world have now come to characterize religion in general.

     "The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church of Christ that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for the people with a view to winning them into her ranks. The human nature that lies in every heart has risen to the bait. Here, now, is an opportunity of gratifying the flesh and yet retaining a comfortable conscience," wrote Archibald Brown, a Baptist preacher. "We can now please ourselves in order to do good to others. The rough old cross can be exchanged for a 'costume,' and the exchange can be made with the benevolent purpose of elevating the people" (The Devil's Mission of Amusement: The Church's Task - Entertainment or Evangelization?).

     There are a number of resultant evils forthcoming from the social gospel, to say nothing of the erroneous conceptual error involved in the initial premise. Consider the social gospel from a biblical perspective.

     The social gospel was begun in liberalism and infidelity. The founders of the Social Gospel Movement had largely lost hope relative to the hereafter; hence, they became increasingly preoccupied with the present. Many of these men had ceased to believe in the inspiration of the scriptures and the sufficiency of the Bible to prepare one for life eternal (cp. 2 Tim. 3: 16, 17). However, the emphasis of the scriptures is clearly the world to come. Hear Peter:

     "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (I Pet. 1: 3, 4).

     The social gospel distorts the basic nature of Christ's mission. In a word, Jesus came to save men spiritually (Matt. 1: 21, I Tim. 1: 15). Jesus is not seen in the scriptures as a social worker. To those who followed him for material or social reasons, Jesus said:

     "Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed" (Jn. 6: 27, see vs. 26).

     The social gospel corrupts the nature of the gospel. The essential nature of the gospel is spiritual. Hence, Paul could mention to the Corinthians that he, "…had sown unto you spiritual things…" (I Cor. 9: 11). The primary goal of the gospel is not sublimating man's material standard of living, but saving his soul (Rom. 1: 16). For instance, when Paul arrived in Athens Greece, he did not set up a social order or mission, but he preached the gospel to those people (Acts 17: 16ff.).

     The social gospel perverts the nature and mission of Jesus' church. As one considers the church recorded in the New Testament, the church Jesus said he would build, the emphasis is on the spiritual. The church is, "…the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3: 15). The church is seen preaching the gospel to sinner and saint alike (Acts 13: 3ff., Eph. 4: 15, 16). The work of preachers was that of, "Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4: 2). The grave concern was that God's people would not remain doctrinally and morally sound (2 Tim. 4: 3ff.).

     When questioned by Pilate as to the nature of his Kingdom, Jesus said, "…My kingdom is not of this world…" (Jn. 18: 36). "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink: but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit," wrote Paul (Rom. 14: 17).

     The social gospel changes the one hope of the gospel. The apostle wrote, "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling" (Eph. 4: 4). The one hope of the Christian's calling is heaven, not some utopia on earth or some "ideal social order" (I Pet. 1: 4). In this vein, the social gospel breeds worldliness, but "…the world passeth away…" (I Jn. 2: 17). The Christian is taught to not become too attached to this world, seeing Christians are "strangers and pilgrims" (I Pet. 2: 11).

     The social gospel and churches of Christ. There are many manifestations of the influence of the social gospel among a growing number of Churches of Christ. Institutionalism is a fruit of the social gospel mentality. "We must think of new ways to improve mankind and, therefore, there is a growing need for additional institutions to be funded by the churches," is the thinking. If the improvement of troubled young men is the goal, then establish more homes for boys. If we seek to enhance the condition of young women in difficult situations, then start another home for unwed mothers. In order to increase the potential for better income, churches place colleges in their budget. The elderly are often living below the "average" standard of living; hence, more widow and senior homes are needed, this is how the social gospel works. Institutionalism flourishes in the atmosphere of the social gospel. Many Churches of Christ are becoming famous for their institutions. In fact, it has reached the point in many circles that the fidelity and soundness of a given local church is determined largely by the number of institutions that are supported out of the treasury.

     The social gospel promotes the physical man; hence, more focus is on man's medical needs. The Christian Chronicle reported:

     "Christian medical professionals and students from around the world will gather in Atlanta October 19 and 20 for the annual Medical Evangelism Seminar, hosted by the Decatur Church of Christ and Medical Outreach, Inc.," The report continues, "The Decatur congregation has long been active in medical mission work. But, in the last three years, members of the congregation have organized to focus on solutions to the personnel problems that have hampered mission clinics and hospitals in the past" (May 29, 1979 issue).

     We received several letters over the past six years from members of the church of Christ seeking support to go to various locations to render medical assistance. According to their letters, such requests are common and apparently often granted.

     The presence of the social gospel among Churches of Christ is also evidenced by the attention being paid by churches to satisfying the trivial pleasures of members. Basketball courts are becoming common on church grounds. Church basements often contain family life centers, complete with theaters to view cartoons, etc., kitchens, and game rooms. The word "fellowship" has come to mean a meal.

     In conclusion, the social gospel is not the Jerusalem gospel for which Jesus died and concerning which he commissioned his apostles to preach. There is a place for medical attention, secular education, and recreation, but it is not the work of the church to provide such matters. The gospel is spiritual and its influence is also spiritual. People need the church to offer them something beyond the tawdry and tangible. If they want exercise, they can go to a health club. If they desire a meal, they can go to a restaurant or eat at home (see I Cor. 11: 22). Again, I repeat, the church and the gospel is not about such matters. (Related reading is, "I Corinthians 11: 20-22, 33, 34, What Were They Doing?," and, "The People Rose Up To Play".)