Feature Article

The Social Gospel

Stan Cox


The church needs to be "relevant" in our age. It needs to address the problems of our society, and be an agency of change to benefit mankind. This is a sentiment with which all agree. However, it is such a broad generalization that it allows for many different interpretations.

One such interpretation has led to the establishment of a "social" emphasis regarding the purpose and work of the church in the world today. Suggestions are made that the challenges of our culture and time are different from those in the past, and the church must change to meet those needs. I suppose that it is natural for each generation to think that its problems and needs are unique, and require unique solutions.

The "social gospel" mindset had its genesis in such thinking. Around 1900, theologically liberal thought among the various Protestant denominations led to a determination to innovatively deal with the peculiar problems of the emerging urban-industrial nations. This period of time between the Civil War and World War II was the genesis of one of the most influential religious movements in America's history. Men felt the need to turn the United States into a modern utopia, and saw the church as a tool to bring about that change -- hence the synthesis of the "social gospel." When the advocate of the pure social gospel speaks of salvation, he is not referring to freedom from sin and the hope of eternal life, but rather freedom from poverty and misery on this earth. While we refer to the kingdom as the rule of the Christ, and the spiritual relationship with Him as the head; the "social gospel" apologist advocates the change of such a perception to that of a kingdom on earth. One early influential writer in this movement wrote, "The kingdom of God is a great social synthesis which includes the whole life of man, spiritual, moral, mental and physical; its field of manifestation is man's personal, family, social, political and industrial relations."

The "Social Gospel" in the Lord's Church

Churches of Christ began to be influenced by this thinking as well. The change in mindset was gradual, and many of the projects, though without scriptural authority, nevertheless had an altruistic appeal. Churches began establishing and overseeing human institutions such as Orphan Homes. Appeals were made to support Christian education from the treasury of the local church. Recreational activities and common meals became a normal "work" of the local church. Such a mindset has a strong hold on many congregations today. Those who were carried away in the institutional digression of the 1950's have mostly embraced the "social gospel" philosophy as valid and appropriate. The evolution of such thinking can be seen easily today, as Churches of Christ run hospitals, host secular organizations and agendas which range from job training to weight loss to day care, and field softball teams and drama clubs.

On July 14, 1990 a minister of the Midtown church of Christ in Ft. Worth, TX, Wyatt Sawyer, referred to the need for the church to work with "Christian families to provide Christian recreation for Christian young people." He said, "We were working with families to to take care of the needs of our young people socially to keep them out of the devil's dens, and all that sort of thing." (Dallas Meeting, panel discussion). This attitude, that the church has a responsibility to minister to the social needs of Christians, is a typical one in our time.

The Failure of the Social Gospel

As we began this article, we mentioned this philosophy is an interpretation of a truth we all agree with, which is that the church "needs to address the problems of our society, and be an agency of change to benefit mankind." It is, however, an invalid interpretation of that truth. It is invalid because it disregards the means God provided to address those problems, and supplies in its place the machinations of men.

In reality, the needs and problems of our culture and time are not unique at all. They are the same as any other generation, and any other culture. The problem is sin, and the need is forgiveness. The church has been divinely designed and commissioned. Its organization, worship and work had its genesis in the mind of the Almighty. If in the first century the church was able to "address the problems of our society, and be an agency of change to benefit mankind", it can do the same today in the same way. To believe any different is to cast aspersion upon the efficacy of God's plan.

Advocates of the "Social Gospel" philosophy fail to recognize the true purpose of the gospel of Christ. Jesus said, "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). Too often churches are caught up in addressing social ills and injustice, and as a result forget that the goal is not to alleviate temporal suffering, but eternal suffering. As one experienced preacher has said, "The work of the gospel is among souls of men, not social work among men."

Some would object to this as ignoring the needs of a suffering humanity. It has been said, "You can't preach to one whose belly is empty." Those who argue in this way fail to distinguish between what is the work of the church, and what is the work of the individual. No one is advocating that the ills of society be ignored. The Christian is to be empathetic to the poor, helpful to the hungry, protective of the young, and solicitous of the elderly. But, the proper question for us is, "For what purpose did God establish the church?"

The church is a spiritual institution, and its primary pursuit is the salvation of souls. Paul wrote that it is the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). The primary mission of the church is twofold: The edifying of itself in love, (cf. Ephesians 4:16), and the proclamation of the gospel to the lost (cf. Acts 8:1-4). God expects each individual to be active in benevolent work. We have in scripture the example of the Good Samaritan who took it upon himself to help his fellow man (Luke 10). We have the instructions given by James concerning the individual's responsibilities in the practice of pure religion, "Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). The Christian is to fulfill these responsibilities in his various roles in society: family, business, social, civil, fraternal. But, the church is not the family, and is not charged by God to raise children. The church is not a business, and is not charged with supplying services or making profits. The church is not a social organization such as the Lion's Club or the Shriner's, charged with effecting social change and good. The church is not a physical sovereignty charged with establishing and enforcing civil law. And the church is not a fraternal organization, charged with supplying recreational and avocational activities. Those who seek to involve the church in any of these serve to dissuade her in her primary work of saving souls! This is a shameful and wasteful use of the institution God chose to deliver His precious gospel.

This principle can be easily illustrated by looking at Acts 6. Some were murmuring because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. (Note: Scripture authorizes and expects the church to care for her own indigent. See 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). In response to this the apostles gave instructions for the church to choose seven men to take care of the distribution. In explaining their decision, they said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4).

It would have been inappropriate for the apostles to use their precious time and resources in serving tables, thus leaving undone the far more important work of ministering to the spiritual needs of the brethren. Likewise it is inappropriate for congregations to become involved in activities other than those delegated to her by God. Christians should focus the resources and talents of the local congregation on the saving of men's souls.

Finally, advocates of the "Social Gospel" philosophy reveal a lack of trust in the power of God's word. We hear laments of "losing our children", of not "appealing to the individual where they are", and "being out of touch with society." These laments are used as excuses to involve the church in practices which are not authorized in scripture. Paul said in Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek." Those who involve the church in the social and temporal are indicating their lack of confidence in the soul-changing power of the gospel.

The church does need to address the needs of man, and be an agency of change to benefit mankind. And it can and will do so as long as it fulfills the call of God to preach the Word. The power is the gospel, and it alone is "relevant" to the eternal needs of sinful man.


e-mail this author at stancox@watchmanmag.com

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