Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 20, 1963

The Origin Of The "Social" Gospel

J. David Tant

Many writers and speakers have had much to say about the social gospel in recent years; and we have been witnessing the fruit of this social gospel in nearly all religious movements. We have seen the costly edifices, the emphasis on social work and activities, the growing rule of sports and recreation in religion, the building of many organizations to provide for the physical needs of various segments of society — all of this designated as the work of the church, and described as "the church at work."

These outward manifestations of an inner attitude have for many years been prevalent among many of the denominations of liberal tendencies. In more recent years they have evidenced themselves in the more fundamental denominations, such as the conservative Baptists and Nazarenes. And in still more recent years these materialistic tendencies have sprouted in churches of Christ, bringing tensions, general disorder and disunity among the churches.

Since the social gospel concept of Christianity is relatively new in the history of the religion of Christ, it might be well for us to consider its source, its wellspring.

In 1859, Charles Robert Darwin introduced to the general public his theory of organic evolution, publishing in that year his "Origin of Species." He was not the first to hold the evolutionary hypothesis, but he was the first to give it wide circulation. His unproven theory gained popularity almost over-night, and swept through the whole of England and the United States, as well as being widely acclaimed in nearly all the more civilized nations. It was considered a mark of intellectual attainment to adopt and advocate Darwin's view of the origin of species. Included in this tide of unrest and intellectual chaos were a considerable number of denominational preachers, as well as the laity of their congregations. Their faith in the Bible account of creation was badly shaken, as there was in their thinking no possible way at all by which the "facts" of evolution could be harmonized with the Biblical story. It naturally followed that their faith in the entire Bible was undermined. For if the Biblical story of creation was palpably in error, then perhaps other parts of the divine record were equally false! This led to a soul-searching on the part of a great host of denominational preachers who had adopted the evolutionary teaching of Darwin. Their reappraisal of their beliefs was agonizing, and in a great number of cases fatal to their faith. Many of them abandoned their calling and turned to secular pursuits.

But there were an appreciable number of badly shaken men who did not leave the ministry, but who were able to work out a compromise by which they could continue to serve. These men were fundamentally sincere and basically good men; they had been deeply troubled in conscience as they stood, week after week, to proclaim the spiritual blessings to be found in Christ, while trying at the same time to still the serious misgivings which were gnawing at their own souls concerning the whole matter. But they finally hit upon what must have seemed to them a very happy solution! They reasoned that a church exists not only for the "spiritual" services rendered, but it also has "social" or "temporal" services and duties.

This was the answer! Now, they could retain their jobs, receive their salaries, preserve their places of respect and leadership in the community, and in all good conscience continue their lives much as they had been before. All they had to do was to emphasize the "social" mission of the church and have little or nothing to say about its "spiritual" mission. Thus they began to encourage their congregations to place greater and greater emphasis on those "social" aspects of the gospel, such as building hospitals and orphan homes, establishing soup kitchens, organizing ball clubs, gymnasiums, recreational centers, homes for unwed mothers, fighting the liquor traffic, seeking to exert influence on law-making bodies to correct certain social evils, improving race relations, etc.

This Is The Social Gospel!

The movement grew out of the spiritual insecurity of men who had been shaken in their faith, and it has gradually spread now to the point where it is an accepted part of the religious life of America. Correspondingly, as this "temporal" emphasis has grown stronger, the "spiritual" emphasis has grown weaker and weaker. The practical application of all this is that churches are spending more and more money and effort trying to make this world a better place in which to live, and less and less time and effort and money in striving to prepare people to live in the world to come.

No doubt all the projects of the "social gospel" are worthy (certainly those mentioned are), and should have a respected place in the life of any community. But these things are not the work of the church. The church of Christ is a spiritual body composed of baptized believers. Its primary function is described by Peter as he says the members of the body, the church, are "living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 2:5) Paul speaks of the "perfecting (maturing) of the saints ....the work of ministering (caring for its own) — the building up of the body of Christ (converting sinners) " And this is defined as the mission of the church.

In reality, then, the social gospel sprang from a shaken faith in the Bible and its spiritual message and promises. It has given us a form of glamorized social clubs, aid societies, and what have you, in exchange for the simple gospel of Christ. Of that "gospel" Paul was not ashamed; for it was the power of God unto salvation.

— 2822 Snapflnger Road, Decatur, Geor;ia