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.