While it is rarely possible to say with certainty exactly when and where a word or phrase was first imagined or spoken, the now familiar phrase “social gospel” appears to have entered the lexicon of the church sometime in the late 19th century.
“Social gospel” names a way of following Jesus which seeks to address systemic injustices and inequities with organized efforts at social change. The phrase “social gospel” is shorthand for public, organized Christian solidarity with persons enduring hunger, homelessness, sickness, suffering, exclusion and pain.
The social gospel is kindness and compassion joined by advocacy and activism. It involves people of faith working for a more just world for all persons, all in the name of Jesus: the social gospel.
If the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, then the specific, practical responses to pressing human need which are central to the “social gospel” were central, also, to the life of Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus went about responding to pressing human need in specific, practical ways:
- Healing those who were sick (Matthew 11:2-5).
- Welcoming those who were excluded (Luke 7:36-50).
- Transcending his world’s versions of xenophobia and misogyny (John 4:1-30).
- Standing in solidarity with those who were living in poverty (Luke 14:12-14).
This is a very social gospel which Jesus embraced for himself when, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus identified himself with the anointed one in Isaiah 61, whose work was to sit down with and stand up for those who were living in oppression, poverty and prison.
And not only did Jesus embody what is now called, by some, the social gospel, he also called those who would follow him to do the same.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus declared that the central standard by which our lives will be measured on judgment day will not be what we believed about Christian doctrine but how we responded to suffering persons. This is the heart and soul of the gospel.
In Matthew 7:12, Jesus is reported to have said: “Treat all others as you wish all others to treat you; this is all the law and the prophets.” In Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus was asked to say which commandments matter most, he is reported to have named loving God with all that is in us and loving all others as we love ourselves as the things which matter most.
The gospel, at its most essential center, is about a life and how to live it and a love and how to give it. Love all persons as you wish to be loved. Treat all persons as you wish to be treated.
These are the things which Jesus is reported to have declared most basic, central and important.
Across 20 centuries of evolving, accumulating Christian doctrine, we have turned the gospel of Jesus into a gospel that is primarily about a problem (condemnation) and how to solve it (justification).
The “social gospel” has become an add-on to the “real gospel” work of rescuing souls for the next life, when what the Jesus of the Gospels calls us to do is to embody the love and care, empathy and justice of God in this life.
That is the gospel of Jesus; the gospel which calls us to let the love of God, which has come down to us, go out through us by sitting down with and standing up for those who are hungry and hurting, marginalized and ostracized, voiceless and powerless, without access to health care and shelter, welcome and rest.
Embodying Jesus’ gospel is about “working out our salvation” by doing acts of mercy and by working for the more just and equal world which ethical public policy helps to create and sustain.
Jesus’ followers should get up every morning seeking to answer, a little more every day, Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is the work of the gospel.
To speak of the gospel of the embodied love of God, the gospel of Jesus-shaped empathy and solidarity, as the “social gospel” is as redundant as speaking of cold snow or hot fire.
Just as there is no snow which is not cold and no fire which is not hot, there is no gospel which is not social.
One might even say that there is no social gospel. There is only the gospel, and it is social.
After 45 years of pastoral life, during which he served churches in Georgia, North Carolina,Washington DC, and Jackson,Mississippi, Poole retired in 2022. He is the author of eight books, including The Path to Depth (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022), as well as numerous published articles and the lyrics to three hymns.