This post will probably raise more questions than provide answers, but the title is something I have been reflecting on lately.  It seems to me and especially in conservative evangelical circles, that ministries involved in the provision of services designed to address social deficiencies can likely get labeled as promoting a social gospel.  Maybe I am wrong about this but I know that I myself have made this connection.

The social gospel is a product of the liberal branch of Christianity that considers the main function of Christ’s earthly ministry to demonstrate humanitarian compassion and justice.  For those who deny the deity of Christ or his divine representation as the continuation of God’s story, Jesus was a man who taught what encapsulates the love of God and his desire for mankind to be the recipients of kind acts and social justice.   The supporter of the social gospel would contend that Scripture has demonstrated God’s concern for the down trodden and oppressed, and the correct response to demonstrate Christian virtues are to address the needs of society’s unfortunates.  In this way we love God by loving what he cares about.

The typical conservative evangelical response is that the gospel is built on the work and person of Jesus Christ, whose incarnation fulfills Old Testament prophecy.  His sacrificial death, burial and resurrection provides the means by which man can be reconciled to God.  In this way, God demonstrated his love for humanity, by sending his own Son and subjecting him to a brutal death.  This  consummates his story of redemption that his previous system of Mosaic regulation alluded to but now provides a permanent mechanism for salvation, appropriated to those who would believe.

Therefore, Jesus’ earthly ministry must be considered in context of his redemptive purpose.  When he addressed issues of social injustice and reached out towards those who had been rejected by society, it was not so much for the purpose to show acts we should emulate but a consideration of God’s redemptive program, such as:

  • God’s discontentment with the Jews that were more concerned with the mechanics of the Law than with compassion and justice
  • God was changing who was eligible for covenant promises and blessings – Gentiles would now be incorporated in as the people of God and those deemed unworthy could inherit these promises.
  • God was changing how one would obtain covenant promises and blessings – through belief in his Son
  • Jesus was demonstrating that he was fulfilling the Law (e.g., healing on the Sabbath, cleansing the leper)

Even in the book of Amos, which proponents of a social gospel would promote as God’s concern for social justice, the overall picture is that the grievance was covenant infractions and not transgressions against lower classes, per se.

In general, it is not that conservative evangelicals are dismissive of the social needs (or shouldn’t be), but that they are not equivalent to the purpose of the gospel, which is to proclaim Christ as savior and God, who provides redemption from sin for those who would believe in him.  Good humanitarian works cannot fulfill this salvific purpose nor be confused with the content of it.

However, I am not so sure that the conservative response should negate the need for addressing social concerns or necessarily tag ministries that are predominantly engaged with the provision of social programs or care as ones who promote a social gospel.  While I wholeheartedly agree that Jesus’ earthly ministry must be considered in context of his redemptive purpose, I don’t think the parameters should just be confined to the spiritual redress he came to correct. God is concerned with the total person and not just the state of our souls.  Moreover, I believe that Jesus’ earthly ministry demonstrated that people do have tangible needs and are apt to have a more positive response, when those tangible needs are met.

Given the typical conservative evangelical paradigm for Christianity, I think there is a tendency to spiritualize faith in Christ so that tangible needs are of secondary importance to spiritual ones.  I think many may feel that it is ok if we preach the gospel but not concern ourselves with any physical deficiencies that people may face.  I’m afraid I have confronted this attitude even amongst Christians, that walking by faith is far more important than having something tangible support that faith.  Maybe that’s why James had to tell the church that if we do not address the physical needs of our brothers and sisters but dismiss them with some exhortive word, there is a question if faith is indeed real (James 2:15-17).   James knew what I believe Christ demonstrated, that people have real needs.

I am not in favor of substituting humanitarian works for a clear message of redemption but neither do I think we can dismiss addressing social needs as carriers of that message.  I think Scripture has very much has demonstrated that social injustice is a reflection of the fallenness of humanity and something God cares deeply about because in the end, it is about the people he created.   And people need to know that they matter, especially the ones who seem to have gotten the short end of society’s stick.

So does doing social good equal a social gospel?  In some cases it might but it does not necessarily have to be the case.  But I do know that people have very real needs and to quote a very common cliche “we might be the only Jesus they know”.  What better way to demonstrate the gospel we espouse and possibly garner a better response to it by showing that we do indeed care about the people that God created.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    30 replies to "Does Social Good Equal Social Gospel?: Rethinking a Need for Tangibility"

    • Ed Kratz

      Well no, that’s not what I am saying since I did not put this in the context of political affiliations. But I suppose one might make that accusation although I think we should distinguish between theological and political paradigms. Just because one aligns with social politics does not mean they are liberal theologically.

    • Susan

      This is well put, Lisa. I’ve tended to feel that our church has had a social gospel leaning over the past few years primarily because all of the emphasis on doing is directed at social good works to the exclusion of emphasizing our responsibility to share the message of Christ’s redemption…that which can change lives eternally. Helping with physical needs is a great way to open doors to share the gospel, but in and of itself it is a way to help improve people’s lives only physically and temporarily. The deeper transforming power of the spoken message of the gospel need to be proclaimed…and is the primary mission of the church. On the other hand, one can not turn a blind eye to the physical needs of others and expect that the gospel message will be as readily received. Ideally the two can be integrated. In scripture though, we see that we are to prioritize meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ….before the needs of those who are not saved. Jesus said, “…for as much as you have done it unto one of the least of these brothers of mine you have done it unto me…” (rough translation from memory!).

    • Dave Z

      I think it’s a shame that evangelicalism defaulted on the social elements of the Gospel and left it for the theological liberals to own, whilst the theological neocons (if I may steal the term and apply it to theology) sneered down their noses at those who took Christ’s commands about the poor literally.

      (OK, I’m overstating my view a tad, but I’m just sucking up to Xulon a little. Didja like the neocon reference?)

      I think we’re seeing the situation be rectified a little in some evangelical circles. My denomination (ahem, we’re an association, not a denomination), the EFCA, revised our statement of faith a couple of years ago and added an article on social responsibility. Our local church has recently formed a group to look into how we can effectively accomplish something along these lines, but we have run into attitudes from some who do not think it is necessary; not a part of the Gospel.

      If love is the fulfillment of the law, then I’m even more thankful for grace, because we ain’t been fulfilling very well.

      So, I appreciate your article Lisa. If evangelicalism is fixing this, let’s hope we don’t allow the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.

      And it’s always good to finish off with a trite little cliche:
      “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
      Amazing how true those trite sayings can be!

    • mbaker

      I don’t think you can separate the two, except as a salvation issue. It is true we are saved by grace, though faith, so that none of us can boast of that we are favored because of our works. However, I think it is too often made an either or thing when it comes to actual life application of Christ’s practical principles to love others as ourselves. Doing so requires more than just preaching to others sometimes, but a real life example of His love.

      if we are going to separate the two into a social gospel versus a salvation gospel, I think we are missing the real message.

      Christ showed the grace of God in deed as well, and that is where I think we need to be. The second is a natural outpouring of the first.

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      The post proposes the most balanced approach to the subject I’ve ever read!!

    • Lisa,

      One thing that struck me as I read your article, was that while the theologically liberal lost their focus on the true gospel with its emphasis on the social gospel, the theologically conservative lost their focus on the gospel through their emphasis on being anti-gay and anti-abortion. In both cases the message of Christ got lost, and the church has suffered as a result.

    • Susan

      The last thing our enemy wants is for us to share, verbally, the inherently powerful live-changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything he can do to side-track us….to delude us into believing we are doing our part to spread the gospel…by how we live…without actually speaking the fundamental basics of the gospel….he will do.

    • Nightraptor


      “The last thing our enemy wants is for us to share, verbally, the inherently powerful live-changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything he can do to side-track us….to delude us into believing we are doing our part to spread the gospel…by how we live…without actually speaking the fundamental basics of the gospel….he will do.”

      What’s your point here??? We shouldn’t have any concern for the physical needs of the poor and downtrodden or something – just throw Bibles at them???

    • Hodge

      I don’t think we should confuse the issues here. Social activity and the Social Gospel are two different categories. One is something a person does and the other is something a person believes.
      Now, it may be that what a person does, in going out and feeding the poor, he is deploying the works of a belief; but what belief would that be? He could believe the Social Gospel and think that he is doing all that needs to be done in the world by Christians, or he could be including it in a host of good works, which include the preaching of the gospel as primary, that work toward the preservation of life because of his firm belief in that theological and verbal message. The issue, as some have pointed out, is that we have split down the middle, to some degree, concerning the message and the works that result from it. Liberals have historically emphasized the work as the gospel and thus lost the gospel. Conservatives today have emphasized the preaching of the gospel, but that gospel tends to be focused on the “not yet” instead of the “already, not yet”; and thus, evangelicals tend to leave out the necessity of doing good works as a result of their transformation in Christ. To put it simply, the liberal churches I have attended tend to emphasize Eph 2:10 at the expense of Eph 2:8-9, and the conservatives tend to the exact opposite (or they see works as personal holiness, i.e., not doing evil instead of understanding that they ought also to be doing good).

    • Hodge

      As a side to this, this may ruffle some feathers, but the question I would pose instead is whether we are to be involved in the secular world’s social issues, or whether we ought to be involved instead with only the Church’s.

    • Dave Z

      Hodge, I gots a problem and I’m all confused. Suddenly I find myself agreeing with you. A lot. Wasn’t it just last week we were butting heads over something?

      Anyway, comment 10 is great. That first paragraph is an insightful and well-put summation of the difference.

      Comment 11 doesn’t ruffle my feathers, but is something our church is struggling with right now. I think the answer is both – first Jerusalem, then Judea, so to speak. Our first responsibility is to our own, but the Good Samaritan certainly went beyond that.

    • Ed Kratz

      Dave, I agree about Hodges comment (#10) and does get right to the heart of the matter. I think its because, in general, conservative evangelicals have been so concerned with distancing from a liberal paradigm that the social attention has been neglected.

      As to Hodges second comment (#11), I’m reminded of Gal 6:10 – “so then, while we have the opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith”. Christ demonstrated that Christians should be concerned about the poor and neglected and to the extent that we can assist we should but not to the neglect of the local body.

      But I think Hodges question may also raise the issue if the church has an obligation to address society’s needs. I’m not sure you can distinguish between the commendation to do good and not have an obligation. To the extent that a local assembly can, I’m thinking they should. But is that an obligation? I’d be interested in what others have to say.

    • kwilson

      All good, Lisa, as long as one never, ever gives the impression that any of this good work will contribute anything when it comes to one’s salvation. The danger is that someone will miss-interpret even a little of this work as meritorious in that respect, earning them some amount of saving grace. This robs them of the truth of sovereign grace alone.

    • mbaker

      Social good as I see it defined by many in the church anymore equals social relevance. I.e., let’s serve the community coffee, provide the kids with video games out in the lobby if they don’t want to participate in the service, because their parents aren’t saved you know. Trust me, this goes on in one of the largest churches in my area, and by a pastor who teaches at at a seminary here. Meanwhile there are folks in that area who are in genuine need and are losing their jobs and homes, only to be told when they ask for help from the congregation they are a member of that times are tough.

      God help us if we consider this the gospel as Jesus preached it.

    • Hodge

      Lisa and Dave,

      I think we agree here. My question was really whether it is practically impossible to serve secular social issues after we make sure the Church’s issues are taken care of first. I would see a delineation of responsibility: immediate family, possibly extended family, elders, poor in the local congregation, poor in the surrounding local congregations, poor in congregations abroad, poor outside of congregations or the “secular” poor. I don’t really see in Scripture where we’re called to the last one for a couple of reasons.

      The first is that it is practically impossible. In all reality, there is no end to the poor within the Church, so it really can’t be satisfied to where one can then go beyond it.

      The second is that I’m not sure if God wants His people supporting those who may be enemies of the gospel. That’s an open question, since we are to bless our enemies, but what that entails may look very different than what the Social Gospel may have imagined.

      Instead, we know for a fact that the Christian poor is to be taken care of. They will know us by our love for one another. I would actually take the verse you quoted, Lisa, and posit that this is referring to all Christians instead of all people. I take malista in the NT as a type of specification of the thing just named rather than a superlative specification which indicates that the thing just named is a larger group to the smaller subclass. In other words, “do good to all people, specifically speaking, to those who are of the household of faith.” I think this delineation that we seem to all agree upon above is also what Paul is getting at in 1 Timothy. Obviously, if there are provisions left over, I would use those to help others outside the body of Christ, but I would still want to think deeply about how I should go about doing that.

    • Hodge


      What a tragedy and an indictment of our modern churches. It reminds me of Luther’s condemnation of Leo, who had built St. Peters by swindling money from the poor. Yet, we are doing the exact same things. Building larger buildings (sometimes justified, but many times not), pouring money into programs and novelties to make our churches “the place to be,” all at the expense of helping the poor. There are so many people in need right now, and what are most churches doing? Denying Christ a place to stay and food to eat so that they can honor Him with a better sound system and projector for powerpoint. Woe to us.

    • Hodge

      “Hodge, I gots a problem and I’m all confused. Suddenly I find myself agreeing with you. A lot. Wasn’t it just last week we were butting heads over something?”

      See Dave, we were really just best friends the whole time. 🙂

    • Nightraptor

      Wow you didn’t seem to take to many practical considerations into account in the earlier debate on the place of women. I’m surprised to hear such practical advice on this issue lol (ok I know that’s a low blow – but I think it does make a point). For what it’s worth I agree with you that there is a practical issue with social issues and who we give to first etc. For instance in my personal giving I don’t think I have ever given any money to secular agencies such as the Red Cross. Instead I give to my local church and then to organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse or Compassion International which are concerned with using whatever social good they accomplish to actually preach and teach the Gospel.

      That being said I also wonder, again on a practical level, given that resource are limited how do we divide those resources? At what point do we say that the needs or our own congregation are met before we start giving to people in other congregations? Is it just the basics such as food and clothing? Or is it greater then that such as having a working car and furniture in our house or something even more like having a new LCD TV in the church lobby? Obviously this is a matter which requires a great amount of discernment on the behalf of the church leadership. I just want to make a point that it is sometimes far too easy to become selfish and take items which are desires and wants and elevate them to the level of needs and necessities.

    • Susan

      Nightraptor, maybe you didn’t read my first post (#3)?

    • Hodge

      I disagreed on the other post that complementarianism can’t be practically worked out. That’s why I didn’t buy it. I actually think the opposite. One must always choose to “submit” to the other if no compromise can be met. Hence, I don’t think egalitarianism can ever be practically worked out in real life.

      Here it’s a little different. If we are called to do A, but not explicitly called to do B, and doing A will practically prevent us from doing B, then doing B seems irrelevant. If I believed, however, that God called us to both then I would have to ex my hierarchy of spheres and just try to help everyone; but that of course would just deplete funds and take away from one group in order to give to another.

      So I do think they’re two different issues. I start first with what we’re commanded and then work out the practical implications, not vice versa.

    • Hodge

      Doing good has to do with preserving and aiding the preservation of life, so I would include anything that had to do with that. Conveniences don’t count. I don’t believe in a communism that says everyone must be made equal, but a communal effort that seeks to preserve the life and well-being of its fellow members.

    • Ed Kratz

      Hodge said

      “Doing good has to do with preserving and aiding the preservation of life, so I would include anything that had to do with that. Conveniences don’t count. I don’t believe in a communism that says everyone must be made equal, but a communal effort that seeks to preserve the life and well-being of its fellow members.”

      But that is what we are talking about aren’t we, the preservation of life? And wouldn’t it be a stretch to equate tending to the needs of the poor and otherwise unfortunate as communism?

    • Hodge

      Yes, Lisa, it would be. I wasn’t equating them. I was saying that the idea that someone should provide an lcd to someone else who didn’t have one, or supply conveniences to others in an effort to bring us all to the same financial situation is different than the Church’s mandate to make a communal effort to preserve the lives of its members. So I wasn’t equating them. I was saying they were two different things.

    • […] Social good = social gospel? […]

    • C Skiles

      Very balanced post, Lisa. Christianity in practice seems very often to be lop sided. We must not ignore either side of human needs. Spiritual or physical.

    • Jason C

      When Julian the Apostate wanted to increase the popularity of paganism he told those he supported to take a lesson from the Christians who were almost foolish in their willingness to help, not only those within their circle but, anyone at all.

      When Christianity was officially decriminalised under Constantine the Christians began a massive work of charity that focused on fasting one day a week in order to put that food and money towards feeding the poor. At the peak of demand they were providing about ten thousand meals a day by this.

      Caring for others is a part of the Christian tradition, where it falls down is when it becomes the main focus of a church. As William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) put it, we could have focused on feeding the poor, but instead we focused on preaching the gospel. As a byproduct we also fed many thousands of people. (paraphrase)

      We preach the gospel of God’s righteousness and judgement, atonement and salvation. While doing so we also feed the hungry and heal the sick.

    • Ben

      Since James was mentioned, I think it’s appropriate to point out that many people take some passages about performing acts of love for others out of context. While social acts of love certainly can often soften the heart of a lost one towards God, James is talking to believers about performing such acts for one another. I believe we often underestimate the power of the biblical unction to care for one another within the family of Christ, for “they (the lost) will know we are Christians by our love (one for another).” Should we reach out in compassion to the poor and downtrodden? Certainly. But the context in James is specifically reaching out to a brother or sister (a fellow disciple of Christ). This love demonstrated within the Church is a powerful witness for our Savior.
      I may note that often the LACK of demonstrated love in the church is also what chases many people AWAY from Christ.


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