The Danger Of The New Evangelical Social Gospel

Grace For The Journey

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17MayIn my blog for the next two days, I want to assess and refute a new and unbiblical mindset that is rapidly gaining ground in many churches.  A subtle ambush has taken place in evangelical circles which has impacted the understanding of the words “gospel” and “gospel ministry.”

Couched in appealing language and ambiguous slogans, it finds kindling in a new generation steeped in a popular liberal mindset, ungrounded in sound Bible theology.  It is gathering droves of Christians who see it as a balanced approach to ministry.

In past years, it was called “the social gospel.”  Today, those who label this wildfire by that term, risk being viewed as unprogressive, compassionless, or throwbacks to an epoch of fundamentalist isolationism.  There is a version of the social gospel is being revived today under the guise with new emphases on “mercy ministry” and “social justice.”

This new form transcends any call to more involvement with the needs of society.  It is a theological system of its own, a worldview that redefines the mission of the church, the kingdom of God, Christian living, and even the content of the word “gospel” itself.  It is almost a religion of its own.

Mercy ministry is plainly taught in the Bible as a gift of the Spirit and a necessary outworking of local church life. Zealous efforts to help the poor are wonderful. When such enthusiasm impinges on the meaning of the gospel or the mission of the church, we have a reason to become alarmed.

Flirting With Fallacy

Sectors of the evangelical community, led by well-meaning people, are beginning to flirt with the fine edges of heresy.  This new movement claims a mandate on Christians exists to focus on the needs of the poor and transform social institutions into a just and equitable society.

According to the movement, the gospel message itself embodies not only a call to personal salvation but also a commitment to the physical needs of humanity at large, the poor in particular, and not just within the church.  In the view of the founders of this group, rectifying social injustice is an inseparable part of the mission of the church and a key factor in defining the spirituality of its members.

Without these, they say, the gospel itself is truncated, incomplete and unbalanced.  This alone is the authentic gospel.

Such teaching is actually a new version of the failed social gospel of the early part of the 20th century, dressed up to appeal to conservatives.

How does the new differ from the old social gospel?

The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially social justice, inequality, etc.  Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing [of politics] … and most were theologically liberal. …[i][i]

The difference between the two is simply liberal versus conservative.  The new social gospel is really the old, dusted off version, dressed in new language, and presented to Christians as a fresh call for social justice.

How the new views the old

The current social gospel has its own perspective on the old.  It goes something like this: When the original social gospel movement started, liberalism was its bedfellow. Conservatives reacted by concentrating solely on the Bible and evangelism.  Apart from liberalism, nothing was particularly wrong with the movement.  If evangelicals today add back the pursuit of social justice, it will result in a powerhouse movement that the world will notice.

This historical scenario sounds perfectly reasonable.  It is also dead wrong.  While liberalism in the old social gospel was indeed erroneous, this is not the issue we must consider now.

Liberalism or not, it was still wrong for two reasons:

  • A false definition of the gospel.
  • An unbiblical mission of the church.

The same thing is wrong with the new version today; falsely defining the gospel as two indispensable halves, (1) preaching; plus, (2) service to the poor.  This includes creating a just and equitable society through Christianizing governmental institutions, along with environmental concerns.

The new social gospel conservatives have bought in to these wrong definitions while considering themselves distinct from the old version, solely because they reject the liberalism.  This is self-deceptive.  The definitions themselves are blatantly liberal and woefully unbiblical.

For both the old and new, meeting the material needs of mankind is just as much a part of the mission of the church as meeting the spiritual needs.  All we need to do is balance our current emphasis on evangelism with social justice and we will have a holistic gospel that will advance the kingdom of God and stun the world.

This is why I say, as kindly and firmly as I can, that the new social gospel is merely the old, repackaged version for conservatives.

The Flawed Theory of “Social” Missions

Many social justice advocates argue that the incarnation was, at least in part, about bringing peace, human flourishing, or general well-being to the human race.  Therefore, they say that any Christian effort which increases human flourishing (such as digging a well or starting a medical clinic) is gospel ministry.  Although this may initially seem compelling, it is a very dangerous one because it involves a significant redefinition of the gospel.

There are at least three biblical problems with the social action model of missions.  Of course, not all social-action advocates exhibit all of these problems, but naturally, since this is a survey, I need to paint with a broad brush.

Problem 1:  A redefinition of the gospel.

Many social justice advocates argue that the incarnation was, at least in part, about bringing shalom, human flourishing, or general well-being to the human race.  Therefore, they say that any Christian effort which increases human flourishing (such as digging a well or starting a medical clinic) is gospel ministry.  Although this may initially seem compelling, it is a very dangerous one because it involves a significant redefinition of the gospel.

As D. A. Carson points out, any such redefinition of the gospel is categorically wrong.  He writes, “[The gospel is] the good news of what God has done, not a description of what [Christians] ought to do in consequence …. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.”  In other words, by definition, digging a well is not the gospel, because the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus Christ, not anything we do.  How did we forget that?

Furthermore, to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ as being about the general upliftment of unbelieving society is, in fact, to misrepresent the gospel.  John MacArthur writes: “I recently mentioned to a friend that I was working on a book dealing with sin and our culture’s declining moral climate.  He immediately said: ‘Be sure you urge Christians to get actively involved in reclaiming society.  The main problem is that Christians haven’t acquired enough influence in politics, art, and the entertainment industry to turn things around for good.’  That, I acknowledge, is a common view held by many Christians.  But I’m afraid I don’t agree …. God’s purpose in this world – and the church’s only legitimate commission – is the proclamation of the message of sin and salvation to individuals.”

Problem 2:  An inexplicable preference for indirect gospel ministry over direct gospel ministry.

In most social action mission efforts, the actual gospel ministry is quite limited – more of a hoped-for byproduct than the overt goal.  For example, school teachers and doctors naturally have to spend the majority of their day teaching arithmetic and peering into ears and down throats.  A church planter, on the other hand, spends his entire day doing direct gospel ministry.  Based on the book of Acts, I would argue that the gospel is not merely a hoped-for byproduct of missions.  The gospel is the mission.  An indirect approach might be necessary in Islamic countries where Christians need secular employment to get into the country.  However, there is no need to adopt indirect strategies when reaching open countries.

Often lurking behind this preference for expensive, roundabout, indirect-gospel ministry is the notion that the church must first portray the gospel by means of social action before it can preach the gospel.  I find no basis for this in Acts or the Epistles.  In fact, missions efforts in which the preaching of the Word and the proclamation of the gospel are an afterthought or a hoped-for byproduct bear no resemblance to the missions efforts of the apostles in the New Testament.

Problem 3:  The new pragmatism.

Someone has said that “one of the key crippling weaknesses of the evangelical church in our era is a spiraling loss of confidence in the power of Scripture.”  One can often see this reflected in the social action movement.  The argument is, once the church’s social relief programs make unbelievers amiable toward us, then we can nudge them toward Christ.  It’s a new expression of the old notion that the gospel needs an enticing lead-in because it will never succeed by itself.

Let me illustrate.  The following description of a social-action church plant in the Baltimore, Maryland area, comes from a book on urban missions written by graduates of Westminster Seminary.  This quote, which is fully representative of the book, provides a rather bare-faced example of doubting the power of the gospel and of the medium becoming the message: “Without a holistic faith, there is no gospel in Sandtown.  Living out the gospel in this context has meant building a collaborative network of church and community-based institutions that focus on housing, job development, education and health care.  In 2001, the full-time staff numbered over eighty ….  Seeking the shalom of Sandtown means a concentrated effort to eliminate vacant and substandard housing, a K-8 school … a job placement center that links over one hundred residents a year to employment, and a family health center …. Simply ‘preaching the gospel’ would have failed.

According to that author, the gospel in Sandtown includes housing reform, job development, quality education, and health care.  In fact, it appears that about the only thing that the gospel in Sandtown does not include is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners.  Jesus as Savior from substandard housing and unemployment is highly visible.  Jesus as Savior from sin and hell is nowhere to be found, and frankly, isn’t even necessary to most of what is being done.  The power of the gospel is openly doubted (imagine if eighty full-time church planters had been sent there!), and the medium—social reform—has become the message.

In the end, the new pragmatism leads one very far from book-of-Acts kind of missions.

In tomorrow’s blog, I will continue this thought as I conclude with presenting three fallacies of the social gospel.

This is God’s Word For Today … This Is Grace For The Journey

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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