The Church and the Social Gospel

By Dr. Gary Scott Smith & Dr. J.D. Wyneken

Should churches and individual Christians seek to help people with material problems and social needs, remedy social ills, and improve social institutions? Throughout history many congregations, Christian organizations, and individual believers have labored to do these things. Today, however, some political conservatives denounce the "social gospel" as misguided and unbiblical and counsel Christians to avoid or leave congregations that stress social justice.

Television talk show host Glenn Beck urges Christians to run away as fast as they can from all churches that use "’social justice’ or ‘economic justice’" on their websites. Rather than expressing the mission of these churches to reduce poverty and promote human rights, Beck asserts, these terms are simply "code words" for communism and Nazism. Social justice, he claims, is "a perversion of the gospel."

Kim Moreland, a research associate for Charles Colson’s BreakPoint, argues that adherents of the social gospel believe they can "completely eradicate poverty and other types of social ills" largely by using the political process. Instead of preaching "the good news of the Gospel," they allegedly argue that laws and government programs can create the good society.

In "The Shameful Social Gospel" T. A. McMahon, president of The Berean Call ministry, accuses proponents of the social gospel of assuming that Christians can best win people to their faith by alleviating the human suffering produced by poverty, disease, social injustice, and civil rights abuses. The social gospel is "a deadly disease" that reinforces "belief that salvation can be attained by doing good works" and acting morally and sacrificially. Every time Christians have undertaken practical actions to benefit humanity, McMahon contends, they have "compromised biblical faith and dishonored God" because the Bible does not command the "church to fix the problems of the world."

These commentators and others who censure the church’s social mission misread both history and the Bible. Certainly, some social gospel advocates have ignored evangelism and individual piety, and others have rejected Christian orthodoxy. However, many other Christians have endeavored both to save souls andhelp the poor and oppressed. They have often argued that these two missions are integrally related. William Wilberforce and other members of the Clapham Sect worked zealously in England in the early 1800s to abolish slavery, make work safer and better compensated, and assist the indigent. At the same time, leaders of the Second Great Awakening created numerous reform societies in America to achieve these same ends and to help other troubled groups. Many of the evangelicals who espoused social Christianity in the years between 1880 and 1920 labored to improve working conditions, management-labor relationships, and patterns of social interaction, renovate slums, reduce crime, abolish child labor, and increase racial justice. While working to win converts and plant churches around the world, thousands of Christian missionaries have also built hospitals and schools and tried to abolish slavery, end social abuses, and create more just societies.

Second, the Bible clearly commands Christians to care for the sick, feed the hungry, protect the environment, and insure political and social justice. Quoting from Isaiah 61, Jesus summarized His earthly mission as preaching "good news to the poor," setting prisoners free, helping the blind regain their sight, and liberating the oppressed (Lk. 4:18-19). In the parable of the sheep and goats, He declared that those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in strangers, and visited the sick and imprisoned—"the least of these"—are assisting Him (Mt. 25:31-46).

How can God’s love truly abide in anyone, the apostle John asked, who has substantial possessions and refuses to help the needy? "Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action," he adds (I John 3:17-18). Faith without works, James declares, is dead. He exhorts us to show our faith by our acts of compassion and generosity (2:14-18).

The Old Testament prophets echoed these themes. Isaiah 58, for example, commands us to "loose the chains of injustice," "set the oppressed free," share food with the hungry, and provide shelter and clothing for the poor (vv. 6-7). The Bible mentions justice about 700 times, more than almost any other topic, testifying to God’s passion for justice in the political, social, and economic spheres.

Identifying the Christian faith with a political platform, program, or party is dangerous. It can distract Christians from their primary calling—to love and serve God in all aspects of our lives and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—and no one platform, program, or party fully expresses God’s design for earthly life. Churches should refrain from endorsing political candidates or adopting positions on most specific political issues. However, as individuals and members of parachurch groups, Christians can take political stances and lobby for legislation we believe accords with biblical principles. Moreover, we should fight to remedy social ills and end injustices.

In a world filled with social ills—where 27 million people are still enslaved, one-sixth of the population is malnourished, billions suffer from disease, unemployment, illiteracy, and oppression, where war, racism, and sexism are rampant—and where billions do not know Christ, we must stop debating whether the Bible enjoins us to help meet people’s material and physical needs or to focus exclusively on their spiritual needs. Instead, as Jesus did, we must address both types of needs.

Editor’s note: The key debate is not over whether to help the poor and oppressed
but how best to do so. Smith and Wyneken will discuss this issue in a sequel.

— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is author of "The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925" (Lexington Books). He is also a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. Dr. J.D. Wyneken is associate professor of history at Grove City College.