Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 18, 1960
NUMBER 15, PAGE 1,12-14a

The Social Gospel

Ed Harrell, Deland, Florida

(A lecture delivered March 23, 1960, at the Florida Christian College lecture program Tampa, Florida.)

The gospel is, in some respects at any rate, social. To deny that there are social implications in the teachings of Jesus and the writers of the New Testaments would be ridiculous. And yet the expression "social gospel" is being gingerly tossed around the brotherhood today like a hot potato that nobody wants to be caught eating. The obvious reason is that this hot potato smells of so many unscriptural connotations that it might well spoil the reputation of the cook who tries to serve it to the brotherhood. But what's wrong with being a social gospeler if the New Testament is full of teachings which have far-reaching social implications? This question can be answered fully only if we can determine just what it means to be a social gospeler and what the underlying assumptions involved in such a position are. Of course, a part of the answer is obvious, I think, from a look at the terms we have just been using. The thing implied by the phrase "social gospel" is that social problems as such constitute a primary concern of the scriptures. This is a far different thing from a gospel which, while it includes instructions which have far-reaching effects on society, has as its sole, primary purpose the spiritual salvation of man. It is easy to see how a little distortion can make a spiritual gospel with social by-products a social gospel with spiritual byproducts. This change can take place so subtly as to he almost imperceptible. However, as we progress with our study we shall see that there are areas of New Testament teaching where social gospel philosophy makes itself obvious enough. The ardent social gospeler will inevitably find social implications in the scriptures where there are none and will de-emphasize the spiritual content of the entire gospel message. But before going any further into the definition and implications of the social gospel, we need to consider briefly the historical development of the movement in America. We will then proceed with a broader development of the basic assumptions inherent in the social gospel and its importance in the church of the Lord today.

The "social gospel movement" is a phrase used by twentieth-century American historians to describe a socio-religious movement which began in the years following the Civil War and reached a climax in the years immediately preceding the First World War.

In the decades following the Civil War the United States was transformed from an agrarian-rural society into an industrial-urban one with such rapidity that there was little time to even consider the momentous social changes involved in such a revolution. In the 1870's and 1880's the leaders of American society suddenly realized that they were faced with overwhelming social problems. The industrial revolution in this country raised problems in business and political ethics, employer-employee relationships, economic competition, and the nature of poverty and its remedy which shocked many American social philosophers out of a well-worn complacency. No less serious were the social maladjustments connected with the unparalleled rise of huge cities. Slums, drunkenness, prostitution, organized crime, juvenile delinquency, abject poverty, and all the other problems of the sprawling, filthy cities were convincing realities that demanded that something be done. By the 1880's leaders in most of the vocal professions began to protest against the evils of industrial society and suggest possible solutions. Novelists, journalists, educators of every sort, social workers, and industrialists and labor leaders began a quest for social justice which continues into the present.

Out of this setting came the social gospel movement. Religious leaders were not the first to delve into these social evils but in the late 1870's and in the 1880's increasing numbers of them from almost every denomination began to offer suggestions for the solution of the new America's social dilemma. The names of men like Washington Gladden, Josiah Strong, William D. P. Bliss, George D. Herron, and Walter Rauschenbusch stand out as the leaders of the American social gospel movement but they were by no means alone in their concern for American society. The reformers of the social gospel movement came from many different religious groups, were motivated by many different sources, and offered many different solutions to the social and economic problems of the nation. Some were rank communists; others represented every phase of socialism, while others took only moderately liberal economic positions. Some were strongly influenced to join the movement by Darwinian philosophy, others by the rising liberal religious philosophies, others by the social teachings of Jesus, and others by same mixture of these and scores of other sources. For the purposes of our study, one broad generalization about the group should be sufficient: they were all concerned about the social injustices which they felt were present in the newly industrialized and unorganized America; they felt that a primary, and in many cases the primary, message of the gospel was social justice; and they felt that the church, as the institutional manifestation of Christianity, was obligated to do something about the contemporary social maladjustments. To many of the reformers social justice became the central message of Jesus and the good society synonymous with the kingdom of God. Others were what Henry G. May, a Harvard historian of the movement, calls "moderate social gospelers." They continued to preach the spiritual gospel with its emphasis on individual salvation and other worldliness but they agreed with the more avid social reformers that the gospel was equally and directly concerned with the betterment of society and that the churches ought to take their places alongside other reforming institutions in the crusade for social justice. It is this dual purpose concept of Christianity — that the gospel has two fundamental purposes to achieve — that explains leaders in Biblically conservative religious groups actively participating in the social gospel movement. To sum up, the social gospel was preached by religious leaders who believed that it was, at least partially, the function of the Christian religion acting through the church to actively champion social reform. The hard core which united all involved in the social gospel movement was their rejection of the idea that the gospel had only one primary intent and that that was spiritual. The idea that Christians bettered society simply by making more Christians who were thus better people was rejected as naive.

Early American historians of the social gospel movement emphasized the importance of liberal Protestant leaders in the movement. The rise of the social gospel in this country was simultaneous with the rise of Biblical liberalism and modernistic religion. It was quite natural that the leaders of the liberal religious movement should become active social gospelers. Indeed, the discovery of the church as a social institution filled a vacuum left by their rejection of the church as a significant spiritual institution. These liberals were also the most widely known clergymen of their day and when historians began to study the social gospel movement it was natural for them to emphasize the importance of the modernist proponents of social reform.

What was less obvious to the earlier historians of the movement was that conservative religious leaders during the same period were also promoting the Christian religion and the church as direct instruments of social reform. A recent book by Dr. Timothy L. Smith entitled Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America has done a great deal to fill this historical gap. Dr. Smith's widely recognized book, which won the Brewer Award from the American Society of Church History in 1855 as the outstanding book in America religious history, is a study of the development of the principles of the social gospel among the Holiness movement. Doctrinally conservative, many of the revivalist leaders of the last century readily adjusted the principles of the social gospel into their conservative theology. Speaking of these men Dr. Smith writes: "Far from disdaining earthly affairs, the evangelists played a key role in the widespread attack upon slavery, poverty, and greed. They thus helped prepare the way both in theory and in practice for what later became known as the social gospel." (p. 8) Other recent studies have shown a similar presence of social gospel devotees among such conservative religious groups as the Southern Baptists and Cumberland Presbyterians. By the 1880's social gospelism had invaded the restoration movement, Leaders of the Disciples of Christ, still Biblically conservative at this junction, such as Isaac Errett, Richard M. Bishop of Cincinnati, and Frederick Power of Washington D. C. participated in the earliest organized efforts of the social gospel leaders in the United States.

One point of all this, then is this: it is impossible to tell whether a man is a proponent of the social gospel simply by whether he is theologically conservative or liberal. Both liberal and conservatives were in the ranks of the movement — surely they had different motivations — but they were both there. The handiest escape route that many of the church of Christ preachers (and I use this expression to denote the clergymen of a denominational church of Christ which I believe exists today — a denomination which is still creedally conservative in its theology but pronouncedly liberal in its attitude toward the scriptures) the handiest escape route they have found for squirming out from under the enigma of being labeled a social gospeler is simply to say that they believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and, therefore, they could not be a social gospeler since they were all rank modernists. I believe that this is an unfortunate, unscholarly, and untruthful evasion for the sake of face or from a lack of understanding. I wrote an article some time ago accusing the brethren who took this dodge of being either ignorant or dishonest. The article was perhaps unkind — I have been told that by some whose judgment I respect. I agree that the choice of categories offered them was not very flattering. If it is unkind to say it in this way, I wish that I had or could or would have said it in some different way — but I am still convinced that it is true. Incidentally, and I don't intend to interject this into my talk, but I suppose that some of you know that I have been answered on this subject by a brother who asserts that when he originally wrote taking this position that he was ignorant but that he has since studied and found that his unenlightened opinion was right. I have no personal war to wage with this man or any other but unless he, or some one, can offer good evidence that the position of modern historians on the subject is wrong, it remains true that he, or I, or any other member of the church of the Lord could be intellectually devoted to the same attitudes toward the scriptures that lie at the base of every social gospeler's faith.

The social gospel, then, consisted of religious leaders of every sort who, during the decades following the Civil War, become concerned with certain specific social problems. But as far as social gospelism is concerned the specific problems are less important than the fundamental concept of the gospel which allowed these men to enlist Christianity and eventually the church under the banner of social reform. As we have pointed out the heart of social gospelism is this: one fundamental purpose of the gospel is the improving the social circumstances of mankind and the church should be used as a tool to aid in his work. The specific social problems to be dealt with will change through the years but the fundamental attitude toward the gospel which lies at the heart of this socio-religious philosophy must have had an independent existence through the centuries. When we understand the scriptural attitude that lies behind the actions of the social gospeler, we can envision that they must have always existed and they probably always will — through the name given them might change from era to era. Encamped across the battle line from these men has always stood the proponent of the spiritual gospel. To him the only primary purpose of the scriptures is the spiritual salvation of men's souls.

It all boils down to a problem of firsts, emphasis, and attitudes. So much of the testing of Christianity must be done in these difficult areas of intangible attitudes.

In the category of Christian living it is difficult to dogmatically determine whether a man's attitude toward the gospel is social or spiritual. The Biblical principles of self-abasement and other directed love, which for the foundation for all Christian living have thousands of everyday applications, both spiritual and social. A Christian teaching his neighbor the doctrine of Christ or giving the same neighbor a needed meal would be acting in harmony with Biblical principles and would be doing what he ought to do in both cases. Countless other illustrations of social and spiritual applications of Christianity probably come to your mind. In the case just mentioned one of the duties noticed was spiritual in emphasis and the other social. Is one more important than the other? Certainly not as far as the Christian is concerned — he is under obligation to be of a mind to do them both. But as far as the fundamental design of Christianity is concerned, the spiritual act is more important. Ultimately and eternally the man who has been fed has received nothing. It is true that he now may be more subject to accept teaching — there is no doubt that there is great truth in the adage that Christian lives are great sermons but the fact remains that the only truly important thing occurs, as far as the neighbor is eternally concerned, when the spiritual act of teaching the gospel is consummated. Really, whether a sinner eats or starves, lives or dies, is unimportant as far as he is concerned (though it is important to the Christian who might have obligations to him) but whether he hears the gospel is all important.

Every Christian ought to understand this distinction in the fundamental differences in the nature of his obligations — spiritual and social. We have obligations in both areas. It would be wrong to try to lighten any of our obligations in both areas. It would be wrong to try to lighten any of our obligations but at the same time it is essential that we understand that the heart and core of the meaning of the gospel of Christ is spiritual. But, when all is said and done, it would be pretty hard to tell whether a man was a proponent of a social gospel simply by observing his individual Christian actions.

When we move into the area of the work and mission of the church the social gospeler is not so difficult to identify. The man whose attitude toward the scriptures would lead him to emphasize the social, This-worldly teachings of the New Testament out of their rightful proportions (although he might be difficult to spot in the fulfillment of individual Christian duties) could hardly be expected to accept the church solely on the spiritual terms which the gospel requires.

I understand Jesus' conception of the church to have been totally spiritual when he told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. (Jno. 18:36) It would be totally incongruous with this spiritual conception of the church to envision the kingdom of our Lord sapping its strength thrashing about trying to cope with the many social injustices in the kingdom of man — problems which the church of the Lord cannot begin to solve if it expends the last ounce of its energy. If Jesus Christ intended for His church to solve the world problems of poverty, delinquency, starvation, the helpless aged and the homeless orphans, he not only gave the church a problem to solve far beyond its ability to succeed (indeed, the whole so-called "Christian world" has not touched the hem of the garment) but he also completely misunderstood the nature of the kingdom he was establishing. The kingdom is spiritual: the Lord designed it that way; he intended for it to be that way; it was that way. Worship and communion with God and the proclamation of his message to mankind encompass the totality of the meaning of the spiritual kingdom as revealed in the New Testament.

But the question is asked, "Did not the Testament church engage in benevolent work? It is true that the citizens of the kingdom were protected from the extremes of deprivation by the charity of the kingdom. But this is a far cry from making the kingdom a social utopia with social objectives. We should understand, however, that there is clear scriptural authority for the physical care of the saints as a, kingdom function. The question I would raise is whether the purpose behind this provision is social or spiritual. But first, even if the Lord's intention in establishing this provision were to spare the saints the extremes in human suffering for the simple sake of sparing them the suffering (if the purpose were wholly and totally social), this would be the one and only God-authorized social function of an otherwise solely and completely spiritual kingdom. But really I have every reason to doubt that the Lord cares whether we eat or are hungry, are housed or homeless, or live or die simply for the sake of our own physical well-being. I have every idea that many have prospered spiritually because they were hungry physically and that the Lord was happy with their circumstances. It is my belief that even the social provisions of the gospel which provide for the physical care of needy saints by the church have deep spiritual undertones. The physical well-being of the church could have well been provided for by the Lord to insure its ability to accomplish its spiritual purpose. I find it far easier to believe that the physical needs of impoverished Christians in Jerusalem were provided for by the churches elsewhere so that they would have the human vitality to accomplish its spiritual purpose. I find it far easier to believe that the physical needs of impoverished Christians in Jerusalem were provided for by the churches elsewhere so that they would have the human vitality to accomplish their heavenly objectives rather than that they were simply fed so that their human bodies would not suffer and die. But, whatever view you might take on the purpose of congregational benevolence, the primary fact remains clear — the nature of the church as stated by Jesus and illustrated by the disciples was spiritual.

The expanding of the social emphasis into the spiritual kingdom is everywhere evident. The attitude at the heart of such action is pure and simple social gospelism. Educational institutions, youth camps, church parties, boy scout troops, mechanized church buildings (including kitchens and gymnasiums), old folks homes, orphan homes, hobby shops, and hospitals, and who knows how many other socially oriented institutions and activities have bounced themselves squarely into the lap of the church of the Lord — or perhaps we should say they have been tossed there by some rather prodigious pitching preachers. There is nothing wrong with much of the preceding list as such (though some inherently connect their social activity with the church and thus become wrong), but they are all social in their nature and their connection with the spiritual church cannot be justified. Such institutions and practices have as much place being associated with the church of the Lord as the Lord's Supper has being observed in the Tuesday morning meeting of the local Woman's Club. But such is the beginning of the perversion of the social gospeler. Mark my word, this is not the end — this is the beginning. The variety of manifestations springing from a social gospel heart is limited only by the ingenuity of the promoter — and there are some pretty ingenious church of Christers today. The end is not yet.

There is yet one quibble that needs to be dealt with. It is sometimes said by those who promote such church activities that these things are done simply to implement the spiritual progress of the church. In other words, church socials and church kitchens will draw more people to hear the gospel and church schools and church hospitals will aid the church the church in converting people. The presumptuousness of such a philosophy is worthy of a Roman Catholic. If the gospel is not sufficient to convert the world and the church is not sufficient to implement its spread woe unto our lost and dying world — as the saying goes. They will all be Methodists.

I'm sure that it has been saddening and shocking to each one of us as we slowly came to the realization that there are those among us who have perverted the pure and spiritual meaning of the gospel and the church of our Lord Jesus Christ into a sickening social humanitarianism. Sad we ought to be but I suppose that those of us who were shocked lack something of the hard realism that ought to become a part of our understanding. As I think over the subject now I realize that I should be shocked if this thing had not happened and if it does not happen again and again as long as the church shall have a history. The process of perverting the heavenly and spiritual gospel of Christ into a gospel of worldly humanitarianism will undoubtedly go on constantly in the hearts of man. Jesus said: "The kingdom of God is within you." It is within the unreadable mind of man that the progress of the kingdom is truly traced. I have been asked the question time and time again in the past few months of whether I thought the church would split. Of course, I don't think it will split for there would then be two churches but I do think that the time will come — or has come, depending on where you live — when there will be another general disfellowshipping among those who claim to be members of the body of Christ. But this will really be an unimportant and anticlimactic step. The dividing will have already been accomplished in the mind of Him who can read the mind of man for it is within the hearts of men and their attitude toward God and his word that the essence of the kingdom lays. There must have always been those enlisted on the outward roles of the earthly church who did not have the kingdom of God within them. It is only when the outward manifestations of an unrighteous inward attitude toward the word of God become obvious that the purified roles of the earthly church come once again closer to the great master list in heaven. It has happened before; it will happen again; but there are yet prophets in Israel.