Arts & Culture & Public Square & Theology 101

Three Fallacies of the Social Gospel

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Walter Rauschenbusch – Courtesy of John Hans

Individualism means tyranny.

Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch famously preached these words in Christian opposition to the evils of capitalism and big business. Of course, the opposite is true: individualism is freedom from tyranny. But he firmly believed the Gospel promoted a form of Christian socialism that is somewhat reminiscent in some Emerging Church circles today.

In the early 20th century, the Social Gospel movement was driven by the belief that the Second Coming of Christ could not happen until humanity rid itself of all social evils by human effort. Followers applied Christian ethics to social justice issues, especially as it related to economic policy.

Similar to the way Marxism twisted Scripture, as I pointed out in one of my recent posts, the Social Gospel Movement was guilty of three major theological fallacies:

1.     Man is not so bad, and God is not so mad.

In his book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr criticized the liberal Social Gospel describing its message as,

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

Rauschenbusch and his followers tended to blame sin on societal structures rather than human nature. According to Kyle Potter in a Georgetown College article, they believed individuals could not leave a life of sin until they were freed from the social and economic situation that drove them into sin in the first place. This view plainly contradicts the Biblical concept of original sin.

2. Cultural restoration is the Gospel.

Social Gospel adherents seemed to believe the Gospel was centered on cultural involvement: if people transformed culture, only then would Christ be revealed. But this understanding of the Gospel is too narrow.

Christians are absolutely called to engage culture—that is the heart of the Cultural Mandate—but the Gospel is larger than that. It is the story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and the final restoration. Rauschenbusch seemed to over-emphasize cultural restoration and minimize Christ as the agent of cultural transformation.

3. Social salvation is superior to individual salvation.

Conservative theologians saw redemption as a matter strictly between each individual and God, but Discover the Networks says progressives in the Social Gospel Movement,

held that redemption could only be achieved collectively, by means of unified, social and political activism.

Though Rauschenbusch saw individual salvation as important, he always considered it secondary to social reform. In a recent interview with the Gospel Coalition, Tim Keller rejects this notion:

…individual salvation needs to be kept central.

Though the Social Gospel movement has since fizzled, similar theology has appeared in Emerging Church circles today. Pastor Rick Warren referred to the Social Gospel supported by many of the mainline churches as “Marxism in Christian clothing.” But Warren points out we shouldn’t choose between cultural restoration and personal salvation. The Gospel contains both with Christ at the center.

So What Does It All Mean?

As you work towards developing a biblical perspective on work, it’s important to keep in mind these fallacies of the Social Gospel movement. As we labor on behalf of the Kingdom, it’s easy for Social Gospel ideas to shape how we think about certain aspects of faith and vocation:

  • Like the Social Gospel, it’s easy to start treating cultural transformation as an end in and of itself.
  • If cultural restoration becomes our gospel, we begin to think that the Kingdom is built by us.

Regarding cultural transformation, the Social Gospel rightly recognizes that it is important. However, it’s not the end goal. Everything we do, all the transformation we work towards, should point to the glory of God. In his post “Kingdom Work,” Hugh Whelchel makes this point by quoting Bill Edgar:

Our cultural involvements are the reflection of the deeper reality of our relationship with God.

This more nuanced view of cultural transformation strikes a balance between outward work and inner salvation.

Another common yet subtle idea implied from Social Gospel teachings is that God’s Kingdom is built by us. It’s not. Every part of the Kingdom, from its establishment to its construction and eventual consummation is carried out by Christ. He uses us as his tools in this endeavor. It’s a subtle distinction. We aren’t building the Kingdom. God is building it and using us.

Tim Keller explains it this way (emphasis added):

Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.

In order for us to have a correct, biblical perspective on work, we need to understand that Christ drives the process, on both the individual and societal levels. He “accomplishes our salvation,” and uses us to restore His creation.

In my next post, I will examine liberation theology as a radical Marxist attempt to promote the Social Gospel.

What do you think? What is your understanding of the Social Gospel?

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  • Nancy Coppock

    Ms. Amyx,

    I am very intrigued with this series and will continue to read the rest of the articles. However, one thing I think economists miss is by referencing everyone as a consumer/customer as if we actually lived in complete liberty…even Christian Liberty.

    We do not.
    I’m not an expert, but I have experienced certain things in life that are much in line with the evil/wickedness that best describes The Road to Serfdom by Hayek. Wicked deeds – because they are in opposition to God’s laws and commands – enacted by centralized government ripple poverty throughout the culture. It turns everything upside down….the incompetent rides upon the back of the competent, the competent are removed from the workforce because they serve the principles of God, not the principles of man, and anyone who esteems to encourage achievement as a means of self-interest in others are villified more than a real criminal.
    I agree that unless the discussion of economics includes Christian ethics (joyful obedience to God’s laws and precepts) there will be no improvement in our quality of appreciating peace and prosperity as the by-product of practicing godliness. Does that make sense to you?

    Maybe you cover these thoughts in later articles.

  • Monty Na

    Comment removed

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