An article recently appeared in the Christian Post entitled, “Why is the country moving left? The social gospel”. In this article, Nathan Cherry argues that the American church and society has moved to the “left” as a result of mainline churches embracing what is known as the “Social Gospel”. He also states that the Social Gospel is a “reimagining” or “replacement” for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mr. Cherry says:
Many years ago, mainline Protestant churches began to embrace what is now understood as the social gospel. This reimagined understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ centered on social and economic equality, as well as racial reconciliation and poverty. This new gospel replaced the atoning work of Christ on the cross for the sins of people with a politically charged version of the gospel in which correcting social ills was the highest good and ultimate goal.
I want to offer a brief rebuttal to Mr. Cherry’s article. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has and will always be partially political or social, and the Social Gospel is not a replacement for the Gospel.
First, I think we should review a bit of history. The Social Gospel is a movement that was common within Protestant churches from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, but the influence of this movement can continue to be felt today. The idea behind the Social Gospel is really rather simple — one cannot claim to “bless the poor” (Luke 6:20) or “love your neighbor” (Mark 12:31) if they are struggling to survive or dying prematurely due to unsafe working conditions. You cannot claim that “in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28) while systemic racism and sexism are in full force in society. There is a clear contradiction between our faith and our action if we turn a blind eye to the issues in society that contradict the justice of God.
As a result of the Social Gospel, many mainline denominations issued social statements or social creeds to define the places where they believe that the Gospel has clear implications for society. Two prominent examples include the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. However, the “Social Gospel” isn’t limited to just the Social Gospel movement within mainline Protestantism that Cherry talks about.
The Church has a long history of making social statements and commenting upon the issues in society. This goes back to the fourth century bishops and emperor Constantine who sponsored the first council of Nicaea, or Justinian who reformed Roman law in light of Christian theology. That historic tradition of political theology continues today with Catholic Social Teaching and the Social Ethos of Orthodox Christians. To say that the Social Gospel is something new or leftist that contradicts historic Christianity is simply false.
Having said that, let us look to the Bible. While Christian history clearly shows that the Church has something to say about society, sometimes the Church has a tendency to act against the principles outlined by the example of Jesus or the Scriptures. Does the Bible support the idea that the Gospel is only about individual salvation and not collective salvation too?
Cherry says that there aren’t any Gospel-centric passages of Scripture that support a Social Gospel. I think there are some obvious examples to the contrary, such as Matthew 25 where Jesus commands us to care for the “least of these my brethren”. It seems that logically one cannot vote against welcoming immigrants and strangers while also confessing faith in a Bible that says to welcome immigrants and strangers. One cannot vote against poverty-relief efforts while claiming to believe in a Savior who teaches us to help the poor.
But I want to look at something a bit less obvious. One of our most popular Gospel-centric passages is John 3:16-17, which says:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
This passage is constantly listed as one of the most popular. It is also commonly used as a summary statement of the Gospel. Notice how it does not say that Jesus came to save individuals. It says that Jesus came to save the world. However, the word translated as “world” (κόσμος) in most English Bibles means more than just the human race or the earth. Rather, this term has additional meanings for the cosmos, the world-system, the government, the world order, and so on. When John writes that Jesus is coming to save the world, he is talking about the entire ordered creation. The use of this term strongly implies that there is a social dimension to the Gospel, and we are saved as a whole rather than on a merely individual basis.
I think this makes perfect sense considering that Christianity is rooted in Judaism — in which we have the concept of a people of God who are collectively saved by God from numerous instances of social evils like poverty, famine, slavery, and imperial oppression. The God of the Gospel is also the God of the Exodus. The same God who taught the Jubilee in the Torah also teaches us the forgiveness of debts in the Gospel. It is one and the same God!
Cherry concludes his article with this statement:
The truth is that our society and culture are not the problem, the problem is found in the sinful hearts of rebellious people that continue to shake their fist at God.
Sinful people pass laws. Sinful people control global markets and economies. Sinful people are in power. Sinful people use that power and influence to create systemic, social sins. For example, it isn’t uncommon for corporations to use unethical, immoral labor practices in order to turn a quick profit.
The 1908 Social Creed of the Methodist Church calls “For the suppression of the ‘sweating system'”. We call these sweatshops today. They are commonly used by global corporations to exploit workers from developing nations in order to increase the profit margins for goods sold to developed nations. Sweatshops are the reasons we have so many cheap consumer goods (such as electronics and clothes) in North American and Europe. We used to have sweatshops in the US too, until the labor movement – with the backing of the Social Gospel movement – helped to pass better labor laws. Sweatshops are sinful. They deny the divine image and human dignity of the worker. They only exist to line the pockets of corporate executives. This is a global, systemic sin that is the direct result of sinful people having all of the power.
Cherry’s perspective is common among white conservative Christians. White conservative Christians have had a lot of power in the history of the modern world. Having that perspective of historic privilege, they tend to be blind to the issues facing the poor and marginalized, and how this hyper-individualistic, Anglo-American Christianity has been used to ignore gross evils and systemic sins. St. Paul advises us to “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16). I think Mr. Cherry should follow Paul’s advice. One cannot preach salvation to the poor or marginalized and it mean anything unless it also includes social liberation. You cannot give Communion to the starving.
Rev. Kevin R. Daugherty is an Elder (Priest) in the Convergent Christian Communion, Abbot for Kindling Fires: A New Monastic Order, Curate (Assistant Pastor) for Solomon’s Porch, and works as a clerk in Elizabeth, PA.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!