Skip to comments.The Fault in Their (Social) Gospel: Churches should not buy into salvation by social activism.
Posted on 09/06/2018 11:25:30 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
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 consistentlyjust 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."
It should not be too difficult for any professing Christian who properly understands the doctrine of Original Sin to realize that what Niebuhr is espousing is not the gospel, "social" or otherwise, but a type of secular humanism. And yet, it is this same worldly soteriology of salvation-by-activism that many advocates of the social gospel are propagating in evangelical churches and ministries across America.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the 16th-century French reformer, John Calvin, asserts that: "Nearly all the wisdom we possess that is to say, true and sound wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves."
But there is an inherent and disturbing irony in Niebuhr's suggestion that human beings "probe more deeply" so as to "know" ourselves. For if we were to genuinely embark on such an introspective inquiry through the penetrating lens of the gospel (Heb. 4:12), we would not like what we would find. As the 17th-century Puritan theologian, Thomas Manton, wrote: "There is in man a mint always at work: his mind coining evil thoughts, his heart, evil desires and carnal emotion; and his memory is the closet and storehouse wherein they are kept."
For all its good intentions, the so-called "social gospel" fundamentally denies the one principle that is most fundamental to the gospel, namely, that mankind is innately sinful and in desperate need of a Savior (Gen. 4:7, 6:5, 8:21b; Jn. 3:16-17; 1 Tim. 1:15). As theologian and author Timothy Keller writes in The Reason For God: Belief In An Age of Skepticism, "There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, our religion, the harder it is to not feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them."
Notwithstanding the fault in their theological stars, to borrow a phrase from a popular book and film, I would concur with both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr that human society is in need of regeneration.
Absolutely it is.
The question, however, is what kind of regeneration does society require?
The Scriptures clearly declare that "the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth until now (Rom. 8:22)." This sobering reality that sin is so pervasive and universal as to affect every aspect of our existence and experience as human beings is not often considered in the ongoing discourse about social justice. Consequently, we continually find ourselves forging ahead on our righteously indignant treadmill, choosing to expend our energies debating this issue from the standpoint of the societal effects of injustice as opposed to the spiritual causes of it (Mk. 7:17-23). The gospel mandates that we invert that perspective (Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23). Toward that end, and as I conclude this commentary, I pray this exhortation from the 5th-century church father John Chrysostum, who even in his day was no stranger to the social gospel, will prove helpful:
"Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person's gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people's hearts firstand then they will joyfully share their wealth."
Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr are wrong.
Ultimately, the struggle for justice is a struggle from within ourselves, not from without.
Though the effects of injustice are material, the origin of all injustice is spiritual. The systems and institutions through which unjust policies and practices prove sinfully discriminatory are not created in a vacuum, but by human hearts that deliberately and volitionally choose to disobey God and His Word concerning the equitable treatment of those who bear His image (Gen. 1:27).
Darrell Harrison is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He currently resides in Covington, Georgia (about 45 miles east of Atlanta). Darrell attends Rockdale Community Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation located in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia. Darrell is a 2013 Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a 2015 graduate of the Theology and Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darrell studied at the undergraduate level at Liberty University, where he maintained a 4.0 GPA majoring in Psychology with a specialization in Christian Counseling. Darrell was the first African-American to be ordained as a Deacon in the 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia) where he attended from 2009 to 2015.
Jesus never talked about social justice. He talked about making disciples.
Mainline churches here are about to celebrate Do Justice Sunday. Irritates the hell out of me.
Of course, St. Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates.
St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"
"Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service."
"Terrific!" says St. Peter. "That's certainly worth a point."
"One point!?!!" "I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. "Two points!?!! "Exasperated, the man cries.
"At this rate the only way I'll get into heaven is by the grace of God."
"Bingo, 100 points! Come on in!"
We often try to fix problems with WD-40 and duct tape. God did it with a nail.
James White has been talking about this a lot lately. This is being pushed hard in the Southern Baptist Convention and was the source of much controversy at their last convention. They believe a color blind theology is racist. They don’t believe in the authority or inerrancy of scripture. Essentially they want to bring the divisiveness and conflict of secular racial politics and critical race theory into the church. You are going to be hearing a lot more on this.
What is "social justice" anyway?
I don’t think it’s that people think social activism is a way to “be saved” but that it is an easier, visible alternative of living out their witness. Social justice work draws no controversy from non-believers. Everybody loved Mother Theresa’s work in India — but do you think they would like her if her pro-life views took center stage?
Hence why it’s easier to latch the faith label onto the fashionable and trendy causes of the day that we plus the secular world can all agree on...
There’s a phenomenon aptly titled “The Tragic Neglect of the Old Testament.” Western Christians today limit the character of GOD to a select few passages of the New Testament. Anything a Beatles or John Lennon song can agree with like “All you need is love.”
Everything “offensive” or “judgmental” they leave out. Even from the New Testament! Like when Jesus said:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” ~ Luke 12:51
Problem: how can we truly LOVE GOD if we don’t LOVE *ALL* of Him in His fullness?
How can we appreciate our salvation in Christ if we do not grasp the JUDGMENT He is saving us FROM?
Whenever “justice” requires a modifier, it ain’t justice they are talking about.
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10)
Both Old and New Testaments are clear that we are to respect God, and even more important, OBEY him. And yet the most fundamental things the Bible teaches we are to obey God in, particularly our morality and behavior, especially sexual behavior, are not only ignored but mocked, especially among most Mainline church leaders. (Exhibit A: the Episcopal “Church”, although almost all the mainlines fit within this now.)
No manner of “social justice” is going to overcome the fact people are just doing those things to mask the reality they are living in disobedience to God’s commands.
The same goes for conservatism (for example, "compassionate conservatism").
“transformation of human society”
This is not something Yeshua had as His own commission or that He commissioned his followers to carryout in his name in any direct sense.
Any observable transfortion of “scoiety” is a consequence of transformation of the individual - of individuals - and how the Christ-centered individual contributes to society.
And, in the end, as the book of revelation points out, the society in general in the end, or by its end, WILL not be “transformed” but will instead be more non-Christ-like than ever.
It is secular Christian Liberal/Marxist/Progressive hubris that thinks it is acting to “transform society” as a “Christian” mission. That error is why Liberal/Marxist/Progressive “Christians” are so Liberal/Marxist/Progressive politically - to be part of an all controlly government, as if THAT is a means to a Christian end.
Transform individuals, help save individuals yes, but “society”? No.
A Lutheran church near me has a sign out front that says “Joseph and Mary were refugees.” No they weren’t.
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