Every culture and generation has been tempted to capture Jesus for their own agenda. The Gnostics portrayed Jesus as a second-century figure (a dead give away) who was a Gnostic opposed to the church and the Christian gospel of free salvation from the wrath to come through faith alone in Christ alone. The Constantinian (post-4th century) church often portrayed Jesus as such a fearsome king and judge that the church began to search for other saviors and mediators. In the Modern era, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) re-made Jesus into his own rationalist image—he produced his own version of the New Testament stripped of supernaturalism. In the Carter 1970s and the Reagan 80s, as the baby-boomer-dominated culture turned inward, Jesus became a facilitator for our personal sense of well being. Now, with the rise of the Millennial generation, the product of the war against terror and a Carter-esque economic malaise, the concern is ostensibly other-centered but once again the Christian faith has become yet another vehicle to carry social concerns. There is renewed talk among young evangelicals and others of the so-called “social gospel.”
By social I mean broader cultural and civil concerns that are not ecclesiastical. It may refer to current events (e.g., Ferguson, Missouri, ISIS) or to persistent social ills (e.g., poverty or racism). By gospel I mean the message of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary suffering active obedience for his people, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. The expression “social gospel,” however refers to a distinctive movement and re-casting of the gospel message. Before I describe this movement, however, briefly let me say that I understand how such a re-casting happens. When I became a believer in the mid-1970s I did the same thing. I did not know Jeremiah from Matthew. I remember being surprised that there were “minor prophets” in the Bible. I was utterly ignorant of the Christian faith but upon coming to faith in Jesus I immediately imputed my (then leftist) social views to Jesus and criticized the visible church for its indifference to suffering. After all, who is more concerned about the poor and the downtrodden than Jesus? I began to argue with my new friends that the church should support feminism, environmentalism etc. I was a typical child of the social progressive movement and I baptized all my prior social convictions as I came to faith. It would take me a number of years to begin to be able to criticize my own social views, to learn that much of what I assumed to be biblical was not, that I had baptized covetousness and called it Christian. Only as I got to know Scripture more thoroughly, as I came to know a little bit more about the sources of the views I had inherited, as I came to learn the Christian faith on its own terms, was I able to see things a little more clearly.
One of the things I discovered, as I read the New Testament more closely, in its original language, against the background of its original context, is that there is no basis in it for the so-called “social gospel.” As a young, progressive evangelical I had been attracted to aspects of the message and ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), pioneer of the so-called “social gospel.” Rauschenbusch was the son of Pietists, one of the formative movements behind modern evangelicalism. As a young evangelical I was drawn into Pietism, even though we did not call it that. The Pietists were formally doctrinally orthodox, i.e., they affirmed the doctrines of the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed) and the Lutheran confessions (from which tradition they emerged) but among the things that really animated them were two great principles: the personal encounter with the risen Christ and social justice. In our (late-modern) time the agenda of the Pietists is known as the “Emergent Church” or sometimes the “Emerging Church.” 1
Rauschenbusch was a Northern Baptist born in Rochester, NY and educated in the USA and Germany.2 He became a pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City in the late 19th century. As the name implies, it was a greatly impoverished neighborhood. Like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) before him, Rauschenbusch’s Pietism had not equipped him to address the challenges before him. Like Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch turned to the liberals for answers. He synthesized his Pietist theology with Albrecht Ritschl’s theology of the Kingdom of God. The Social Gospel movement wanted to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Their optimistic eschatology (doctrine of last things) told them that they could do it. They were inspired by the Modern idea of the universal brotherhood of humanity and the universal fatherhood of God. As many others before them had done the Social Gospel movement harassed the Christian faith to their social agenda.
Other Christians, however, saw in this movement a dangerous re-definition of the gospel and revision of the Christian faith. The Social Gospel movement came to be identified primarily with the liberal (mainline) churches. The message of those churches became, through the course of the 20th century, almost exclusively social and less and less about biblical and historic Christianity so that one could predict what the mainline churches will teach simply by reading the editorial page of the newspaper and then waiting a few moments. The mainline churches, under the influence of the “social gospel,” gave up the biblical and Christian doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, and the church. They became just another progressive social institution so that today they are numerically declining at a remarkable rate. Most mainline churches have nothing to offer than cannot be found on Sunday morning talking head shows or on some website. Why watch an amateur social critic in the pulpit when one can watch professionals in the comfort of one’s home?
So there was a dialectical (P and not P) tension between the Pietist impulse to flee the world into a new monasticism and its opposite, to identify the Christian faith with present social concerns. Toward the end of World War II, some neo-evangelicals (e.g., Carl Henry) tried to re-engage the culture while holding to orthodox Christian doctrines and practices but that agenda did not remain stable. The children of the neo-evangelicals have tended toward Pietist retreat or toward liberalism.
About the same time that Rauschenbusch and others were preaching the social gospel there was a contemporary alternative, a minority view within what was then called fundamentalism, in the 1920s. It was articulated by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936). He taught and defended the old Reformed and Presbyterian idea that the visible church represents a spiritual kingdom on the earth (the spirituality of the church) and that Christians exist in what Calvin called a “twofold kingdom.” Using these categories, Machen engaged the culture and social concerns as an American citizen (from a more libertarian point of view) but, in his office as minister, he refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day. Social issues do intrude into the visible church in the NT but none of the Apostles prescribed social or civil remedies for them. They never commented on Nero’s abuses or upon Claudius’ policies. In the NT, Christians are taught how to think about their place in the world but they are never exhorted to flee the world into monasteries nor are they instructed how to transform it. Here’s a brief survey of the NT teaching on the Kingdom of God.
Under the rubric of Calvin’s “twofold kingdom” Christians do have a place to “engage the culture” and to speak to broader issues but they must be willing to do so in their capacity as private persons, as members of society, and not as representatives of the church. In other words, whatever social agenda a Christian pursues is one thing but leave the visible, institutional church out of it. The church, as a visible institution, as the embassy of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven, has no social agenda for the wider civil and cultural world. To use a World War II analogy, as an institution, the church as such is more like Switzerland than it is like Germany. Christians are free to form what the Dutch Reformed used to call societies (committees, organizations) to achieve this end or that but they are not free to impose those agendas on the visible, institutional church by way of programs or in public worship. Christian organizations must stand or fall on their own, without the endorsement of the visible church.
I have my (now more conservative and libertarian) social views, which I express in social media and elsewhere but I am constrained as a minister not to seek to use my office to achieve my social goals. This is not to say that the Christian faith has no social implications. It does but I am not free to use the pulpit or the congregational prayer to impose my social views on the congregation. When it comes to social issues, like everyone else, I must compete in the marketplace of ideas. I may persuade but I may not claim the sanction of the Christian faith or the authority of the Christian church for my interpretation of current events. The history of the church is clear. It is not possible to harness the Christian faith or Christ to some social agenda without imperiling the fundamental message, doctrines, and practices of the church. Such a harnessing has always threatened the mission of the church: the pure preaching of the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.
1. For more on this movement see “Whosever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason eds., Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 112–28.
2. This sketch is dependent on s.v., “Rauschenbusch, Walter” in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. See also the entry s.v., “Social Gospel.”