Social Gospel Redux?

Article
03.01.2010

He said he’d wished I’d preached on Judges.

I was the guest preacher that day and this was one of those sluggish congregations where you feel as though you’re looking into the eyes of department store mannequins. I’d just finished preaching a gospel sermon on the new birth from the third chapter of John. And the man approached me to say he’d love to hear me preach on Judges, because “that’s what we really need.”

I said I’d wished I’d known that. The Book of Judges is one of my favorites, and I’d have been glad to preach the gospel of Christ from the account of the days when “there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The Book of Judges defines the scope of human rebellion, and the longing for a kingdom that can only come in Jesus.

So I said, “I’ll tell you what: anytime you want, I’ll come back and preach on Judges.”

He was excited, for the first time that morning it seemed. “Great,” he said. “We need it. I’ll tell you . . . what the Democrats are doing—filibustering President Bush’s judges . . . it’s just not right.”

It took a second or so for me to get what he was saying. He was worried about judicial filibusters, not about the canonical Book of Judges. He wanted a sermon that was relevant to the problems of the world, and he thought the new birth was less relevant than congressional roadblocks to appointments to the federal judiciary.

In one sense, I suppose, that’s normal. After all, people tend to categorize what’s important by what the people around them are talking about. And no one on Fox News had been discussing what to do with unregenerate humanity that morning. They’d been talking about judicial nominations. This seemed “real” to him, and he wanted a word from God.

THE SOCIAL GOSPEL: A MORE “REAL” CHRISTIANITY?

This man’s experience is almost exactly what the pioneers of the “social gospel” were trying to get at: a Christianity that moves to something more “real” than church doctrines and religious experience. The social gospel movement of the early twentieth century picked up on this human impulse and designed a theology and a mission around it. And it seems that, in some ways, the old social gospel is back.

The pioneer of the social gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist who was alarmed by the plight of the poor in places ranging from Hell’s Kitchen in New York to the working class neighborhoods of Louisville, Kentucky. Rauschenbusch and other social gospel advocates wanted to make Christianity relevant to the social crisis in areas ranging from liquor traffic to housing conditions to labor negotiations to global peacemaking. But the social gospel advocates weren’t simply “applying” historic orthodox Christianity to these problems. The seeming impotence of traditional Christianity to address these issues was, for the social gospel pioneers, evidence that something was wrong with Christianity as it was then being articulated.

The social gospel believed Christianity’s problem was that it was too individual—focused as it was on personal regeneration and a gospel of salvation from judgment. The social gospel sought to redirect Christians away from “pie in the sky by and by” (that is, eternal life) and toward peace and justice in the present. Regeneration came to be articulated mostly in terms of social justice rather than peace with God and neighbor. And the kingdom of God came to be articulated in terms of the evolutionary progress of history rather than a cataclysmic invasion of history culminating in resurrection from the dead.

At the same time, the social gospel sought to deemphasize the centrality of the church as a local congregation (or even as the universal Body of Christ). “The Church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the State,” Rauschenbusch wrote. “The kingdom of God is in all these, and realizes itself through them all.”

For the social gospel, then, Christianity is defined by Christian social action in the name of Jesus, not by doctrines about Jesus or experiences with Jesus. The social gospel stood then with the “modernists” against the so-called “fundamentalists” in the doctrinal controversies of the early twentieth century because for them Christianity wasn’t about whether one affirmed the virgin birth or the second coming or the authority of Scripture or even the bodily resurrection. Christianity was defined by following Jesus, which meant “walking in his steps” in terms of advocacy for social justice and global change.

The social gospel did indeed advocate evangelism, but the evangelism was often a means to an end—to the “Christianization” of a locality or of the world—so that social change might result. Because progressives of this time often believed monotheistic Christianity was the evolutionary pinnacle of human religion, they believed a modern Christian identity could democratize, and thus “civilize”, the “heathen” social barbarisms around the world. Christian missions then would mean increased living conditions, more just industrial policies, better living conditions for women and children, and so forth. In this sense, the social gospel has a lot in common with, for instance, conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s insistence that the Islamic world be “evangelized” to Christianity—as part of the defeat of jihadist extremism in the “war on terror.”

IS THE EMERGING CHURCH A RENEWED SOCIAL GOSPEL?

When people ask me if I think the “emerging church” is a renewed social gospel, I normally have to hesitate. Without wanting to sound like former President Clinton before the special prosecutors, I have to say that it depends on what you mean by “social gospel,” and what you mean by “emerging church.”

As others have noted, the “emerging church” is a designation that means very little, and means less and less every day. Any designation that can be used by some to describe orthodox, evangelistic pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Dan Kimball in the same category as teachers such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell is a close to meaningless term. This confuses the issue.

At the same time, the issue is confused when some evangelicals are quick to label as “social gospel” any social action or concern done by the body of Christ. Evangelicals can disagree about whether the church’s outward mission is primarily evangelistic, or whether it’s actually multi-focused. This debate, among conservative gospel-believing followers of Christ, though, is not a debate between the social gospel and the gospel. This doesn’t mean the debate is not important; just that it’s a different debate. Some evangelicals might wrongly suspect concern for poverty, for example, or orphan care or spousal abuse as a kind of “social gospel.”

The social gospel isn’t in the ministries of those who—transformed by Jesus—share with him his burden for the “least of these, my brothers.” It is seen, instead, in the teachings of those who seek to replace a gospel of justification with a program of justice, those who seek to de-emphasize the new birth in favor of social action. That is definitely resurgent.

Brian McLaren, for instance, caricatures the “legal view” of personal forgiveness of sin through the atonement of Christ as part of what must change about Christianity. Doug Pagitt calls on contemporary Christianity to abandon a “sin-centric” gospel which has turned the faith into, in his words, “a pessimistic, evil-obsessed religion of sin management.” And Rob Bell tells us that Jesus’ gospel never made “claims about one religion being better than all other religions.” Instead, Bell writes, following Jesus is “the best possible way to live.”

Some on the left wing of the “emerging church” spend an awful lot of time telling us that Christianity is about more than a collection of doctrines, and I agree. Some of them insist, loudly, that the gospel is about more than “going to heaven when you die” and that the kingdom of God addresses the whole of life, and again, I agree. The problem is that these teachers often seem to be doing more than speaking about the “more” of the gospel of the kingdom that some evangelicals miss; that is, they downplay the historic core of the good news of the kingdom—an announcement about Jesus that is a historical reality of incarnation, atonement, and triumph and an announcement about us that says, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3).

Too often, the doctrinal left wing of the “emerging” movement isn’t clarifying the doctrinal content of Christianity, but using, it seems, cunning words to downplay this doctrinal content in order to substitute a social program there instead. This can—and has—happened on the political right as well as on the political left, and with the same kind of wreckage left in its wake.

Ultimately, the social gospel of the early twentieth century was self-defeating, and I predict the same for any reincarnation of it. Without that which makes Christianity unique—the scandal of the cross—people will keep the social program but substitute a religion, whether secular or pagan, that better allows them to “continue in sin that grace may abound.” This is why those groups that embraced the social gospel last century are now burned-over shells of previously Christian conviction.

The social gospels of yesterday and today are correct that an isolationist, separatist Christianity fails to see the wholeness of kingdom salvation. They are right that “apolitical” churches or Christian movements are typically the most political of all—in supporting the status quo (think, for instance, of those “simple gospel preaching” churches of the Jim Crow South). They are wrong, though, in seeing the jettisoning of personal sin, personal redemption, and personal reconciliation as the way to redeem a kingdom identity.

THE HISTORIC GOSPEL: COSMIC AND PERSONAL

The gospel of historic Christianity is cosmic. In Jesus, God reconciles “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). That means we must be concerned, as Jesus is, with the whole of human experience, recognizing the curse of sin in human suffering as well as in human guilt.

But the gospel of historic Christianity is also personal. We love our fellow humans and serve them in their suffering precisely because we believe that God loves not just “humanity” but individual humans, that Jesus died for persons, that God’s wrath is propitiated against persons, and that persons will be raised, individually and collectively, in the flesh on the last day.

Any “gospel” that evacuates the cross of judgment against sin, that alienates the gospel from personal reconciliation with God and with others, is something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And any Christianity that turns us away from the truths handed down about Jesus—his deity, his humanity, virgin birth, his suffering at Golgotha, his bodily resurrection, his future return, his authority in Scripture, his building of the church—is pointing us to some different Messiah.

Let’s remember that the gospel is social but the social gospel isn’t good news. And a church that embraces it, “emerging” or otherwise, will not long be a church.

So let’s speak truth to power, even as John the Baptist did to King Herod (and sometimes with the same results). Let’s feed the poor, house the homeless, adopt the orphan, shelter the widow, advocate for the unborn, and respect the environment. But, most importantly, let’s preach peace and justice, for the individual and for the whole world, found in the bloody cross and empty tomb of Jesus.

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