Empty of power: The return of the social gospel

Our society is full of problems. We have the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, alcoholism and binge drinking is spiralling out of control, knife crime is on the rise, unemployment is increasing, debt is unmanageable, and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. Therefore, it’s very encouraging to see an expansion of Christian involvement in social action. We can be proud of forbears like William Wilberforce who did so much for the relief of poverty and reformation of society. However, there is a dark side. Sometimes social action turns into social gospel – which is no gospel at all. So why have evangelical Christians and organisations sometimes replaced the true gospel with the social gospel? Here are five of the most important reasons:

#1 An over-confidence in the goodness of humanity

A common theme is belief in ‘original goodness’. Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis and Faithworks charities, in his book The Lost Message of Jesus, claims that ‘Jesus believed in original goodness. God declared that all his creation, including humankind, was very good. And it’s this original goodness that Jesus seeks out in us’.

It’s certainly true that most people have numerous good qualities. Many are kind, generous, and care for their families and neighbourhoods. These qualities are not restricted to Christians, but are also seen in Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc. But the doctrine that explains this phenomenon is not ‘original goodness’ but common grace.

Those who believe in ‘original goodness’ argue that men and women are able to help themselves, and just need a little nudge from God. But this denies the fall and its consequences: sin, separation from God, and death. But common grace explains that although we are entirely corrupted by the fall, God is gracious to all, and by His grace gives us many things that we don’t deserve. This includes material blessings like food and shelter, but also personal qualities like love, kindness and generosity.

To avoid the trap of the social gospel, we must remember these things are a consequence of common grace not ‘original goodness’. God is not trying to find the good in us; He wants to give us the righteousness of Christ.

#2 A failure to understand the significance of the cross

Another common theme is a downplaying of the cross. A recent partnership called Community Mission has produced a document called ‘What is the gospel?’. (The partnership is between Tearfund and what used to be called The Shaftesbury Society; they have just launched a major initiative in association with the Evangelical Alliance.) The document starts with the question:  ‘When Jesus went from town to town and synagogue to synagogue, what did he preach?’.  It concludes (rightly) that Jesus wasn’t preaching about His death on the cross, and we’re told ‘We need to get back to the original message of the gospel’, by which they mean the message Jesus preached.

Modelling our ministry on the ministry of Jesus sounds commendable, but note what this means in practice: it means we should preach the gospel as if Jesus has not yet died. Modelling our ministry solely on the teaching of Jesus (and not the apostles) means we nullify the difference the cross, resurrection and coming of the Spirit made to Christian proclamation.

Other social gospel advocates argue our preaching should be like that of the Old Testament prophets. But this is similarly deficient. Yes, the prophets spoke of Christ, but His birth, death, and resurrection (and the coming of the Spirit), bring new clarity to our message. It is those things which are the focus of Christian proclamation in the book of Acts, the Epistles, and even the book of Revelation. Keeping the cross central will keep us from the social gospel.

#3 A failure to remember the uniqueness of Christ

There is a difference between the apostles’ preaching and Jesus’ preaching because Jesus is the Son of God, whilst the apostles are His witnesses. Put very simply, Jesus Christ was unique, and we are not to mimic all that He did.

The ‘What is the Gospel?’ document says, ‘Declarations of God’s love and desire to forgive you of your sins when you repent is not half as powerful as showing people his love and forgiveness by our actions… Jesus was not and is not simply concerned with “eternal” salvation and our heavenly future, but is acutely concerned with people’s situation in the here and now’. But this neglects to explain that Jesus shows forgiveness differently from the way we can. As Jesus demonstrated when He healed the paralysed man, only God has the authority to forgive sins.

This story also shows how Jesus dealt both with eternal salvation (He forgave the man) and his situation here and now (He healed him). But eternal salvation was Jesus’ primary concern. Forgiveness came first, and the healing acted as a sign, pointing to the greater miracle of God’s forgiveness. If the document had said ‘Jesus was concerned about eternal salvation and people’s situations now’, that would have expressed orthodox Christian belief. But to say that Jesus was not simply concerned with eternal salvation, but is concerned with people’s situation now, is pure social gospel.

Ideally we shouldn’t have to choose between people’s eternal needs and immediate needs – but where we do, the biblical pattern is clear. Forgiveness from God is our greatest need. And we need to proclaim the need for forgiveness and not merely show God’s forgiveness, because people need to receive forgiveness, not merely see it.

#4 A desire for acceptance in the world

I’m reluctant to suggest that a desire for acceptance is part of the attraction of the social gospel, but the evidence points in that direction. Steve Chalke’s profile on his Oasis charity website reads like an entry in Who’s Who?, proclaiming his MBE, his status as a Guinness World Record fundraiser, and his vast television experience. Likewise, Hope 08, a project that was set to up help churches ‘witness to their communities… communicating the Gospel through words and actions’, boasts prominently of its Government support, and its commendations from Chief Constables and MPs.

The ‘What is the Gospel?’ document helps us understand the thinking behind this: ‘Effective sharing of the gospel is… done not through blindly firing off messages about the cross… The starting point of the gospel is always to find out what will be good news to the hearer’.

Christians can sometimes be guilty of blindly firing off messages about the cross, and doing so is not sharing the gospel. But the alternative is not simply to preach what the hearer thinks is good news. Paul reminds us that ‘the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim. 4:3). His response to this is to ‘preach the Word… do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:2,5). If the word isn’t good news to our hearers, then we need to carefully and clearly explain why it’s good news. We should never find something else that will be good news and preach that instead.

#5 A lack of confidence in the word and the Spirit

The final reason why I believe some are attracted to the social gospel is that they do not have confidence in the foolishness of preaching. Here’s ‘What is the Gospel?’ again: ‘It’s all about connecting: Is there a point in having a perfectly sound theological or traditional explanation for why we approach evangelism the way we do, if it doesn’t connect… ’.

To effectively share the gospel we need to communicate – to people who are listening – the great message of the Bible. (If there is no-one listening, we must examine carefully whether our evangelistic methods really match up with the biblical mandate to go and make disciples. Surely we can all find people who will listen, somewhere.) But the gospel is ‘the message of the cross… is the power of God’ (1 Cor. 1:18). It is the message that Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised, in accordance with the Scriptures.

Social gospel advocates underline the importance of actions. And loving actions are important. But the most important actions are not our actions in showing concern for our community, but God’s redemptive acts in history. The Holy Spirit has promised to empower us as we fulfil our responsibility to be witnesses to those actions (John 14-16, Acts 1). Without words, we cannot fulfil that responsibility, nor know the Spirit’s power.

What then of social action? Although social action often slides into the social gospel, that slide is not inevitable, and it is not an excuse for failing to show compassion to those in need. Christians cannot cross by on the other side when faced with injustice and poverty. Our response must be to prioritise the cross-centred gospel – that means prioritising its preaching, and ensuring our lives reflect the change that the gospel makes.

Sometimes we can use our fear of the social gospel as an excuse to show no concern for others. But most of the time we do not have to choose between preaching the gospel and showing practical concern. And by understanding the wrong-thinking that leads to the social gospel, we can protect ourselves from error, whilst remaining committed to caring for others.