Three Fallacies of the Social Gospel

Grace For The Journey

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17MayYesterday I wrote about a subtle, destructive, and unbiblical mindset that is rapidly gaining ground in many churches.  This popular movement 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 and 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 that is being revived today under the guise with new emphases on “mercy ministry” and “social justice.”

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

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

I want to share three fallacies that are the reasons for this grave concern:

Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch famously preached these points in Christian opposition to the evils of capitalism and big business.  He firmly believed the Gospel promoted a form of Christian socialism that is somewhat reminiscent in some Emerging Church circles today.  In the early 20th century, the Social Gospel movement was driven by the belief that the Second Coming of Christ could not happen until humanity rid itself of all social evils by human effort.  Followers applied Christian ethics to social justice issues, especially as it related to social economic policy.

Similar to the way Marxism twisted Scripture, the Social Gospel Movement was guilty of three major theological fallacies:

1) Man Is Not So Bad, And God Is Not So Mad.

In his book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr criticized the liberal Social Gospel movement and described its message as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Rauschenbusch and his followers tended to blame sin on societal structures rather than human nature.  According to Kyle Potter in a Georgetown College article, they believed individuals “could not leave a life of sin until they were freed from the social and economic situation that drove them into sin in the first place.”  This view plainly contradicts the Biblical concept of original sin and the need for a Savior.

2)  Cultural Restoration Is The Gospel.

Social Gospel adherents seem to believe the Gospel is centered on cultural involvement: if people transformed culture, only then would Christ be revealed.  But this understanding of the Gospel is too narrow.

Christians are absolutely called to engage culture – that is the heart of the stewardship principle in life and over creation – but the Gospel is larger than that.  It is the story of God’s creation, the Fall, redemption, and the final restoration.  Rauschenbusch seemed to over-emphasize cultural restoration and minimize Christ as the agent of cultural transformation.

3) Social Salvation Is Superior To Individual Salvation.

Conservative theologians see redemption as a matter strictly between each individual and God; but progressives in the Social Gospel Movement, “hold that redemption could only be achieved collectively, by means of unified, social, and political activism.”

Though Rauschenbusch saw individual salvation as important, he always considered it secondary to social reform.  In a recent interview with Gospel Coalition, Tim Keller rejects this notion: “…individual salvation needs to be kept central.”

Though the Social Gospel movement has since fizzled, similar theology has appeared in Emerging Church circles today.   One well-known southern California pastor referred

to the Social Gospel, which is supported by many of the mainline churches, as “Marxism in Christian clothing.”  But this same pastor points out we, “shouldn’t choose between cultural restoration and personal salvation. The Gospel contains both with Christ at the center.”

So What Does It All Mean?

As we work towards developing a biblical perspective on social ministry, it’s important to keep in mind the above fallacies of the Social Gospel movement.  As we labor on behalf of the Kingdom, it’s easy for Social Gospel ideas to shape how we think about certain aspects of faith and ministry:

  • Like the Social Gospel, it’s easy to start treating cultural transformation as an end in and of itself.
  • If cultural restoration becomes our gospel, we begin to think that the Kingdom is built by us.

Regarding cultural transformation, the Social Gospel rightly recognizes that it is important.  However, it’s not the end goal . . .

Everything we do,

All the transformation we work towards,

Should point to the glory of God.

In his post “Kingdom Work,” Hugh Whelchel makes this point by quoting Bill Edgar: “Our cultural involvements are the reflection of the deeper reality of our relationship with God.”  This more nuanced view of cultural transformation strikes a balance between outward work and inner salvation.

Another common yet subtle idea implied from Social Gospel teachings is that God’s Kingdom is built by us.  It’s not!

Every part of the Kingdom,

From its establishment

To its construction

And eventual consummation

Is carried out by Christ.

He uses us as His tools in this endeavor.  It’s a subtle distinction.

We aren’t building the Kingdom;

God is building it and using us.

Simply put, it is best explained this way: Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with Him, and then one day He will restore the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with Him forever.

In order for us to have a correct, biblical perspective on social ministry . . .

We need to understand that

Christ drives the process,

On both the individual and societal levels.

He “accomplishes our salvation,”

And will one day restore His creation.

My concern is not that the church is not ministering to the poor nor seeking to be good stewards of God’s creation.  My concern is that we will do it for the wrong reason if we are not led by God’s Word.

 

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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