No one should doubt that we Christians are a race which cares for the needy. James said, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27). Everywhere the gospel has gone, the widows have been cared for, the orphans taken in, the hungry fed, and the needs of all met the best possible way.
Yet more requires to be said than this. Should this be the emphasis of the church, and how far should the church go in meeting the needs of man? Are we really to minister to the whole man? This article may answer those questions, but its design is to reprove and negate the so called “social gospel.”
Strictly speaking, the “social gospel” was a liberal theological movement whose leaders no longer believed that the purpose of religion was to deliver the soul from spiritual death. Rather it was to elevate people physically and promote social well-being. In the United States it was centered in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.
More generally, in the church, it is now a term which is used to describe the philosophy of brethren whose emphasis in the church is on the ills of this present life rather than life beyond the grave. I believe that when a church builds gyms, calls off worship on Super-Bowl night, has psychology films shown on Wednesday evening, and hires a pediatrician to speak to the young married couples, that church is right in the thick of the social gospel.
Those who are affected by the social gospel tend to de-emphasize certain things. They minimize, for example, truth. We hear “It is better to be righteous than right.” Now, how can you be righteous and wrong? They de-emphasize the blood of the covenant. The use of the word “blood” is most inelegant. Such liberals, in their usual urbane way, accuse conservatives of having a “slaughterhouse religion.” “Unto him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins by his blood” is not heard much from social gospel quarters. They are too genteel and sophisticated for all that.
There is a de-emphasis of the resurrection. First, the resurrection involves miracles, and they have a “sanctified” anti-supernatural bias. Second, to them, our resurrection is “pie in the sky by and by.” Peter was not as smart and suave as they, because he spoke of getting a “living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). One brother told me we were not given the great commission because the world was lost without it; we received it so that we could reach out to give them a better life here on earth!
Emphasis of the Social Gospel
What is the social gospel emphasis on? It is on psychology, interpersonal communication, physical health, social needs, the environment, fun and entertainment, and (with great relish) politics. They are interested in poverty more than purity, health rather than seeing God, education rather than Christian edification, South Africa instead of Jerusalem, the peace movement more than fighting the good fight (2 Tim. 4:7). Notice the biblical emphasis: “If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
If such has its way in the church, there will be a church of Christ little league team, a church of Christ boy scout troop, church of Christ fishing tourneys and tennis matches. There is a work of the church which is clearly specified in the Bible, and it doesn’t include any of these. Individual Christians as individuals may engage in these and many other good things, including politics. But these are not the work of the church. The church’s work is to evangelize (Mat. 28:18-20), edify (Acts 20:32), and care for the needy (Gal. 6:10).
Sin and the Social Gospel
According to the social gospel, there is a sickness but little sin, mental disease rather than wickedness. A criminal act and a broken leg are about the same. Delinquencies are misfortunes, not faults. Homosexuality can’t be helped. There are no rank sinners; there are only victims of circumstances. I tell you, brethren, there is such a thing as being sick, but there is also such a thing as wickedness—and the two are not same! Paul said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). Where will it all end? The emphasis is fun and games, the social, the physical. Shall we have gyms and fireplaces, and big cathedrals? Shall we have minister of jogging, minister of swimming, minister of firewood, a tape by a denominationalist, a film by Dobson, a young people’s class in Karate, auto mechanics for women, a ladies’ class on how to recycle old sweat shirts?! When I see all this I almost could wish that I myself were a legalist, and with but little persuasion they would fain make me a Pharisee!
The Emphasis in Religion
Preparing a meal for Jesus, Martha’s attitude was like the poem:
Lord of all pots and pans and things,
Since I’ve no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things,
Or watching late with Thee,
Or dreaming in the dawnlight.
Or storming heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
And washing up the plates.
Mary wanted to give attention to the words of the Lord. So Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: for Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
It seems Martha didn’t understand Jesus had “meat to eat” that she knew not of. The sad fact is, the emphasis on the physical can get in the way of the “good part.” Giving in to the items of the social gospel can send the wrong message to saint and sinner. As we get used to one thing, it breaks the ground for the next. And Jesus was so radical that He said to Martha, “One thing is necessary.”
Alas, some in the church see “the good part” as social and they crave entertainment. And when it is not forthcoming, godly elders are abused by the words, “You’re not meeting my needs.”
Jesus walked on the water after feeding the multitudes. On the morrow the multitudes found Him again and He said to them “Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life” (John 6:26-27). Yes, the natural pangs, even, are nothing when compared to spiritual needs, how much less entertainment programs. Indeed, this life is as nothing when compared to eternity.
The apostles knew where the emphasis should be. The Grecian Jews murmured against the Hebrews that the Grecian widows were neglected in the daily ministration. The apostles wanted others to see to the distribution. They said, It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables…But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).
In this life, churches are going to have to make some hard decisions. To keep the church pure and sound and with the proper emphasis, a congregation may have to witness a large drop in contribution and see up to 50 percent of its members leave. Yet priorities must be ordered (Luke 14:26-33), and first things put first (Mat. 6:33). Brethren must learn to deny themselves (Mark 8:34) and put up with persecution (Mat. 5:10-11). We must all fairly weigh this life against the next. When we reach the point where redemption is no longer our absorbing theme on earth, we forfeit it as our song in glory. We are no longer a congregation of the Lord; we have become a glorified social club, merely a close-knit, fun-loving bunch. May all elders arise! Awake! or be forever fallen.