A reader chided me recently for promoting what he called a social gospel. It’s a complaint I have heard before. The social gospel is the idea that the church should make social applications of the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Social-gospelers have accomplished some amazing things. They helped abolish slavery in the 19th century. After the Civil War the social gospel movement helped pass child labor laws, worked for humane work conditions for labor in general and advocated for the poor. Promoters of the social gospel were active in the 1960s war on poverty, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the civil rights movement.
There has always been resistance to a social application of the gospel. Evangelicals, even before they were called that, expressed suspicion about the idea of “social evil.” In the world of evangelical theology everything depends on the individual and his or her personal decision for or against Jesus. Salvation for the world depends on the one at a time salvation of every individual person.
This is one reason evangelicals have no problem engaging social issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, pornography, gambling, sexual practices and abortion. All of these represent individual behaviors, which evangelicals feel enormously empowered to address and condemn. And in some instances they are right. What alcohol abuse, gambling and pornography have done to marriages and families is well attested.
But their failure to appreciate how social forces contribute to these issues makes their efforts to combat them ineffective and in many cases just plain mean. Men and women trapped in destructive behaviors are not always helped by a just-say-no message of condemnation. What does help is to learn that God cares for them and is at work trying to change the situation that contributes to their misery.
The way this plays out in practical terms may sound something like this. Poverty is not the result of flaws in the economy or unfairness in the market place, the evangelicals tell us. Poverty exists because individual persons make bad financial decisions. There is obviously some truth to this claim, but it does not account for all poverty. There are also social forces at work that create and maintain poverty.
The failure to see these forces reduces our efforts to do anything about their effects. Our efforts on behalf of the poor get reduced to mere charity. And while charity may help in the short run, it cannot break the forces that create and sustain poverty in the first place. The apostle Paul understood this. He wrote that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but rather with powers that lie beyond the reach of individual decision.
Ideally we should be able to hold both pieces together. Clearly there is a personal side to religious devotion. Spiritual truth and discipline begin as individual decisions, but they survive and thrive because of the support of a believing community. We may see ourselves as lonely pilgrims on a journey of faith, but if we look around, the traffic is pretty heavy on the road we travel.
Frightening powers of hate, greed and prejudice thrive in our society and have an impact on us greater than our individual efforts to resist them. Only a force of equal or greater strength will be able to stare these demons down.
I believe that force is found in a believing community committed to both personal piety and social justice. Consequently, a promoter of a social gospel I will remain.
James L. Evans is pastor of First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.