Christ’s Church and the Social Gospel

By Robert F. Turner

The Minneapolis Star once published a survey made among people of all religious faiths, asking, “Which do you think is more important for the church to do – to convert people to a spiritual belief so that they can earn a happy life after death, or, to teach people how to live better every day with all other people?” Only 17 percent of those interviewed believed that conversion to a spiritual belief was more important. We would frame the question differently, and we believe Jesus knew the Christian life is best for both here and hereafter, but there is no doubt where he placed the emphasis. The response of so-called “religious” people is a clear indication of the extent to which the “social gospel” has compromised genuine Christianity.

Jesus taught, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . . No man can serve two masters . . . . Therefore . . . be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on . . . . Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:19f). Or consider this: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. . . . For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24,26) Jesus’ first concern was for the soul and eternity.

Many things have conspired to change this emphasis, but we will note two things in particular: the “social gospel” and the “whole man concept.” Roman Catholicism had a strangle hold on Western Europe prior to the Reformation. The “Church” crowned or deposed kings, and directed both social and religious life. When rebellion came it was not only religious, but political and social. As an example, the French Revolution overthrew “church” control and rejected moral restraint. But the people soon learned that “freedom” is not free. Without restraint anarchy reigned and life became intolerable. So-called godless France was forced to revise its stand toward religion; but her modernistic theologians changed its emphasis to meet “this world” needs. Compassion, work ethics, social concern, etc. (all inherent in Christianity, but not its goal) were given top billing, and the “social gospel” flourished.

Some time later in Germany (not necessarily related to the social gospel) some learned men developed the “whole man” concept of education. It became apparent to them that schooling must be more than the pouring of information into the students. The physical, social and spiritual side of man must be developed as well as his intellectual side; and this called for “whole man” education. I believe their concept was valid, and has done much to improve educational systems when kept in proper balance. But the “whole man” concept did not stop at the public schools. Through religious Teacher Training books and courses, often written or taught by people with secular education backgrounds, that “whole man” concept was brought into “our” Bible classes. It was a “natural” to blend this with what we had accepted of the “social gospel,” and conclude that “the church” was obligated to the “whole man.”

If you ask for Scripture you will probably get Luke 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom (intellectually) and stature (physically), and in favor with God (spiritually) and man (socially).” There you have it, with the usual comments in parentheses. Is there any doubt that Jesus grew in all these ways? Is there any doubt that all individuals should grow in these ways? No doubt in my mind! But what has this to do with the work of the organized church? It is pure and unwarranted assumption to use this passage to justify church support of secular schools, gymnasiums, and social clubs. It becomes an attack upon the distinctive role of the church.

Christianity does affect all human relations. In the domestic realm it makes for better husband or wife, and children. In the business world it makes for diligence and honesty (Col. 3:17f). It teaches respect for civil government (Rom. 13), and develops a proper understanding of neighborliness (Lk. 10:29f). But this is a far cry from putting the church into secular business, politics, or “Family Life Centers.” 1 Corinthians 11:22 (“Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in?”) shows we “despise” the church of God when we mix its worship role with domestic functions. The problem was not where they were (the church could meet for worship in a private dwelling); but why or for what they were assembled. The organized church is saints teamed in works peculiarly Christian.

The church, both distributively and collectively, has a teaching role (1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Cor. 11:7-8). It is the “pillar and ground” of divine truth, declaring by word and example the goods news of salvation in Christ. The association of saints promotes worship and edification (1 Cor. 11:18f; Heb. 10:24-25), and opportunity to pool resources for evangelism and benevolence (Phil. 4:15; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). The emphasis is spiritual, as is seen in the whole of Scriptures concerning the church at work. It is “a spiritual institution, to administer to spiritual needs.”

Scriptural contributions are (or should be) made with authorized purposes in mind; and we break trust with contributors and our Lord when we use these funds for something else. In civil government the fire department has specific reasons for being, and tax funds are assigned with those needs in mind, I fear some brethren might argue that since each citizen has other needs (the “whole man,”remember!) the fire department funds should be spent on all those needs. Of course we could end up with failure to prevent or cure fires – and it seems in many church circles the “fires” of eternal torment are nothing like as important as the fire under the coffee pot.

Brethren, Christianity makes for a better world today but its effect on this life is a by-product of its greater reason for being. Christianity aims and prepares us for life in heaven; and we must not allow the social gospel and the ‘whole man” concept to turn us from that eternal destiny.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 11, pp. 327-328
June 7, 1990