Not long after announcing to my home church my intention to enter the ministry, one of the senior deacons came to me with some advice. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “We’re all real proud of your decision. There’s just one thing you need to be careful about. Be sure you don’t preach a social gospel.”
At the time I did not know what he meant. Having only my blue-collar roots to draw from, I assumed he was warning me about the dangers of the church becoming a country club for “socialites.” It was only later that I learned what he was really talking about.
The term “social gospel” describes a movement that emerged within Protestantism in the late 19th century. The basic idea of the social gospel was this: The gospel of Jesus Christ is not just about personal salvation and life after death. The gospel of Jesus is about justice. The gospel aims to transform the social order so that justice and fairness are available for all people.
Followers of the social gospel movement were in the forefront on issues such as slavery, child labor and worker’s rights. Through the years they have been branded with every sort of negative label you can imagine – from abolitionists to socialists.
During the civil rights movement, they were “outside agitators.” My guess is it was this manifestation of the social gospel that my deacon friend was concerned I not adopt.
The issue is worth pursuing. Is the gospel purely personal, having only to do with individual salvation and life after death? Or is there a social component to the gospel? Does the message of Jesus have anything to say about economics and politics?
Ironically, there is a sort of social gospel at work these days. The current manifestation even claims a certain kinship to the civil rights movement. I refer, of course, to the effort of many Christians to promote a more visible role for faith in our public life. They are the ones who lobby for prayer in schools and public displays of Scripture or religious symbols. The social gospel they proclaim is all about token acknowledgement of the faith by the state.
In an amazing turnabout, however, these modern social gospel advocates reject the idea that Jesus has anything to say about the way we treat the poor and homeless in this country. They regularly lobby for lower taxes for the wealthy, and they support cuts in social welfare.
They advocate against abortion, but support capital punishment and war.
They are for strong penalties for illegal drug users, but don’t seem to be concerned about the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs.
In other words, this new social gospel supports the status quo. The weak and the vulnerable, the ones Jesus called the “least of these of my family,” are discounted while the privileged and secure are promoted.
It’s hard to square this with the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said the poor were blessed, and he pronounced woes on the rich – the exact opposite of our current social values. It’s hard to read the red-letter parts of the New Testament and not see Jesus’ social interests.
Of course, detractors of the social gospel will argue that Jesus never advocated for the government to get involved with the needs of the needy. But in our system, where government is by the people and for the people, that argument seems fairly lame, and grossly anti-Jesus.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.