What is the Social Gospel?

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21

For the life of me, I can't understand why the Social Gospel gets such a bad rap. Yet, conservative Christian leaders commonly condemn the social part of the gospel as heretical. Nonsense! The truth is that if you don't believe in the Social Gospel, and live it out, then you don't believe in the gospel that Jesus proclaimed.

What is the Social Gospel?

What is the Social Gospel? It's the part of the gospel that involves action -- here on earth.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. Teacher, he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

What is written in the Law? he replied. How do you read it?

He answered, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

You have answered correctly Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.

Luke 10:25-28 [Repeated at Matthew 22: 37-40 and Mark 12:30-31]

Do this and you will live...Do this and you will live...Do this and you will live.

Those are not my words. Those are the words of Jesus. And, they are not an aberration. The plain truth is that for every time Jesus said "believe and be saved" he said "do and be saved" three times more often.

That's the social gospel. It's the "do" part of the gospel. It does not supercede the "faith" or "belief" or "grace" part of the gospel. It does not say people can gain their individual, spiritual salvation through their own efforts or "works." Nevertheless, it is an essential, too often overlooked, part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As discussed at What is the Gospel? there are two sides to the gospel coin. There is the individual salvation side and the social salvation or redemption side. Jesus came to save our individual souls; but he also came to change our world and how we relate to each other. The two sides of the coin are inextricably linked. This article is about the "social gospel" side of the coin.

Here's more of Jesus' radical social gospel:

He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. Looking at his disciples, he said:

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
  • Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
  • Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
  • Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
  • Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
  • But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
  • Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
  • Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
  • Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:17-36

The social gospel is all about blessings on the poor, the hungry, the oppressed. Woe to the rich, the comfortable, the well-fed. Love your enemies; do good to them; lend to them without expecting anything in return. Give to everyone who asks. Do to others as you'd have them do to you. Be merciful. In so doing, we can join in the Kingdom of God.

As Jim Evans has said:

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.

We, as Christ-followers, should gladly embrace a "holistic gospel that not only promises eternal life to individuals but also offers hope for dramatic postive changes in our present social order." Tony Campolo in his essay A Response by an Evangelical contained in Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church, pg. 75.

The thing is, the passage above is not an isolated scripture. There are "more than two thousand biblical admonitions to seek justice and well-being for those whom Jesus called "the least of these" (quoted from Campolo's work linked above, pg. 77). God talks more about this then any other topic. The prophets of the Bible, all of them, from Isaiah to Amos mourn the mistreatment of the poor and condemn the injustice of the rich. Over and over they call for a return to righteousness and justice. Isaiah and Ezekiel specifically warn that God may punish Israel, as He did Sodom, for mistreatment of the poor.

John the Baptist called for "repentance for the forgiveness of sins." The people asked:

What should we do then? John answered, Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. Even tax collectors came to be baptized. Teacher, they asked, what should we do? Don't collect any more than you are required to, he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, And what should we do? He replied, Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.

Luke 3:10-14

Finally, we have Jesus -- who so often quoted the prophets when he spoke of justice, righteousness and the Kingdom of God. The social gospel has, unfortunately, become a rather controversial topic in modern America. Conservative pundits and leaders like Glenn Beck rail against it. But, conservative religious folks in Jesus' day were similarly upset when Jesus said:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Matthew 23:23

They tested Jesus with questions like these:

One of the Pharisees tested Jesus with a question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Matthew 22:36-40


On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

What is written in the Law? he replied. How do you read it?

He answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself."

You have answered correctly, Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, Go and do likewise.

Luke 10:25-37

Despite complaints from many conservatives, down through the ages, the fact of the matter is that the "Social Gospel" is nothing more or less than an essential part of the full gospel of Jesus Christ. Commitment to the social gospel is a natural outgrowth of acceptance of the individual gospel. In no way does either the individual or social gospel challenge or conflict with the other. The gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to believe, live and preach both the individual and social parts of the gospel.

As the great theologian and Baptist pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch, put it so eloquently (as he did everything) a century ago:

I have entire sympathy with the conservative instinct which shrinks from giving up any of the dear possessions which have made life holy for us. We have none too much of them left. It is a comfort to me to know that the changes required to make room for the social gospel are not destructive but constructive. They involve addition and not subtraction. The social gospel calls for an expansion in the scope of salvation and for more religious dynamic to do the work of God. It requires more faith and not less. It offers a more thorough and durable salvation. It is able to create a more searching sense of sin and to preach repentance to the respectable and mighty who have ridden humanity to the mouth of hell.

A Theology for the Social Gospel, pg. 10 - 11.

The individual and social parts of the gospel are linked by our individual responsibility and accountability for the sins of the corrupt social structures we participate in and allow to thrive. There are many corrupt social (human) structures that cause injustice in our land, but I suppose the political and economic corruption we hear about on the news nearly every day is the most obvious. We are have become complicit because mostly and usually we stand idly by and do nothing about it.

No man is a follower of Jesus in the full sense who has not through him entered into the same life with God. But on the other hand no man shares his life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all relations of his life and reconstructs everything that it touches. Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church, pg. 42.

We live in a wealthy society, where the rich have never been richer, and yet we have record or near record poverty, homelessness, foreclosures, hunger, etc. The primary cause of the suffering is greed and laziness. We have enough for ourselves; and so, most of us, including Christians, stand idly by and don't care about trouble for "the least of these." It is sinful to stand by, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, and do nothing when we see corruption and injustice in our society. Jesus wouldn't.

So far, I've been thinking as I write mostly about how rich people use their money to corrupt society (government, economy, etc) to benefit themselves. And, how we are culpable if we don't do anything about it. But, it gets worse.

What is the Social Gospel?

What of the choices we make to buy the cheapest energy we can get (i.e. gasoline for instance); knowing of the harm it does to God's creation when we burn it? We could pay a bit more and drive a hybrid instead. Or, we could support a small raise in the gasoline tax to support development of alternative energy sources.

What about when we buy the most inexpensive clothing or other products; not caring how they are made? Not thinking about whether slaves or child labor was used to make the products. Not considering whether by paying a bit more, we could support companies that do business more ethically.

Those are just examples of our own direct "social sins" that we often overlook. Of course, I know that everyone has different circumanstances. It's possible that in your circumstances it is better (even for God's creation) for you to drive, for instance, one enormous old gas-guzzling SUV than to purchase two small hybrids. And, you may not be able to afford the more expensive (but ethically produced) clothing. So, we all have our own individual circumanstances and I certainly am throwing no stones.

Still, shouldn't these be things Christians think about? Shouldn't concern for these sorts of social sins be part of what is unique, different, about followers of Jesus? Isn't that what led Christians of an earlier time to oppose slavery and oppressive child labor; advocate for workers rights, the right of women to vote and (some Christians at least) civil rights for blacks?

Again, I'll quote Rauschenbusch, pg. 5, of A Theology for the Social Gospel (linked to above):

The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.

Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls on us for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.

But, it's not just in the New Testament that we read about the social gospel. It's also taught in the Old Testament. Robert Linthicum has a great book about this called Building a People of Power. In it he says that the Scripture teaches that the people of God are to transform the world into what God intended. God's Salvation is not merely individual, but corporate. He says this is an understanding that is muted or lost in modern Christianity, but needs to be recovered. Salvation, he argues, is not just redemption of the individual, but the entire created order.

Linthicum refers to Jeremiah 29:7 when he argues that we are to "work for the [shalom] of the city where I sent you." This is lived out as the Church "become[s] God's presence in your city," "pray[s] for the city, " and "work[s] for justice."

Hopefully, there is no doubt, that Jesus' social gospel is not only relevant to our personal relationships, but also to our view of society as a whole; including politics and government.

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