The Fault in the World’s Social Gospel


As I compose this commentary, there remain segments within the American evangelical church that continue to advance and propagate the principles and tenets of the “gospel” of social justice. Increasing numbers of evangelical churches, pastors, and ministries are buying into what I consider merely a new presentation of an old soteriology: salvation by social activism.

One such organization, Evangelicals For Social Action, describes itself as “a catalyzing agent for Christ’s shalom via projects focused on cultural renewal, holistic ministry, political reflection and action, social justice and reconciliation, and creation care. Rather than a typical “think” tank, ESA is a “do” tank whose purpose is to mobilize movements for constructive social change.” Conversely, The Evangelical Network lists as one of its missional objectives to “offer a safe place for LGBT people and the evangelical church community to dialogue.”

There are other examples, of course, but I highlight the aforementioned not to single them out for any particular reason but in an effort to establish some context for what I am about to say.

Unlike previous embracements of this ideology by the church – because there is truly nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9) – this current adoration of the social gospel seems especially occupied and absorbed with the idea of personal identity. That is, a self-focused desire to be acknowledged and, perhaps even admired, not for who we are in Christ (Col. 3:1-3) but for who we are in ourselves and in what makes us unique apart from Him.

For evangelicals, the social gospel has traditionally been defined primarily in terms of the joining together of ecclesial and secular resources toward the (re)formation of systems and structures that are consistently just and equitable to all, but especially toward those who are deemed to have been unjustly oppressed and marginalized by those systems and structures. It is a visage that was shared by American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, an important yet veritably unknown figure in the social gospel movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, who once asserted that: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”

It is my contention that the “heaven on earth” theology to which Rauschenbusch subscribed is at the heart of the contemporary evangelical social justice movement.

Though his name may not be widely known, either in ecclesial or secular circles, the soteriology of Walter Rauschenbusch, an advocate of Christian socialism and a major influence on more notable social gospel adherents such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu, mirrors that of increasing numbers of evangelical Christians today. In Christianity and the Social Crisis, published in 1907, Rauschenbusch expressed the belief that: “the essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstituting them in accordance with the will of God.”

“‘You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” – Lev. 19:15 (NASB)

But in reflecting on what Rauschenbusch posits as the “purpose of Christianity”, I can’t help but notice that missing from among the requisite r-words that will supposedly accomplish the stated “transformation of human society”, namely “regenerating” and “reconstituting”, is the word repentance.

It is a significant omission, one that goes to the very core of what is so fundamentally deficient about the social gospel in that it argues that those who need the gospel in order to be transformed are somehow capable of transforming themselves apart from the gospel. It is a dichotomy that is best reflected in the words of theologian and social justician Reinhold Niebuhr who, with all due respect, declared rather naively, if not outright heretically, that: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Darrell B. Harrison