Churches of Christ vs. the Social Gospel

By Ron Halbrook

When Paul wrote to the saints in Rome, he relayed greetings from other “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). Each of these churches were made up of Christians in a given locality who gathered to worship God under the leadership of local bishops or elders, and with the help of special servants called deacons. Christ alone was head of each church without any interlocking structure, centralized agency, denominational bureau, or human headquarters (Phil. 1:1; Eph. 1:22-23). Each church was designed by God to sound out “the word of the Lord” both far and near. Several churches sometimes cooperated in supporting a gospel preacher in the field, but without centralizing their funds through a single church or any kind of human board (1 Thess. 1:8; 2 Cor. 11:8-9).

When the Lord planted these churches and equipped them to preach the gospel, society suffered from many social, economic, political, and educational problems. The Lord did not equip his church to conduct reform movements to resolve those crises. Whether those difficulties are solved or not, man must save his soul. “All have sinned” and Christ shed his blood “for the remission of sins” (Rom. 3:23-24; Matt. 26:28). As “the pillar and ground of the truth,” the church brings men face to face with the crucified and risen Savior (1 Tim. 3:15-16). Men must hear that they can be saved by grace through faith when they repent of their sins, confess Christ, and are baptized in water (Acts 2:38; 19:5; Eph. 2:8-9).

Restoration vs. Rise of Social Gospel

In the first half of the 1800s, many people turned away from denominationalism and lives of sin. They searched the Scriptures, obeyed the gospel in its original purity, and restored New Testament churches. During the same time period, social reform movements were being promoted by some traditional denominations, by rising liberals, and by secular rationalists. They had the idea that churches could both save souls and help to build a great American republic. An interchurch program in Boston in 1826 aimed to alleviate urban poverty. Educational reforms were emphasized and man church-related colleges organized. Other crusades included women’s rights, improved prisons, better hospitals, and a world peace movement. Many denominations got caught up in the national debate of the 1850s-70s over the nature of America’s political union, slavery and anti-slavery, the War Between the States, and the reconstruction era.

In the meantime, true churches of Christ kept preaching the gospel and saving souls as God ordained. They had no social agenda, no poverty program, no colleges, and no political platform. They preached Christ to rich and poor, high and low, male and female, free and slave, Northerner and Southerner, Easterner and Westerner.

During 1880-1920, urban poverty and other social problems increased with growing immigration and industrialization. Also, Darwin’s theory of evolution and other attacks on the accuracy of the Bible were becoming more popular. A full-fledged Social Gospel emerged. The Social Gospel shifted the emphasis of religion from the enduring problem of man’s sinful ways to the prospect of his perfectibility; from the Bible as the solution for man’s sinfulness to human sources of learning about how to improve mankind (study political science, economics, sociology, psychology, etc.); and from the goal of heaven as man’s all-consuming desire to the goal of better living conditions here and now. The Social Gospel “was always chiefly concerned to find out the truth about society, and on the basis of that knowledge to chart programs for ameliorating the country’s social woes” (Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1972], p. 796).

Although the Social Gospel movement of this period included spokesmen ranging from religious conservatives to moderates to socialists, it was the preeminent message of many theological liberals who denied the accuracy of the Bible. Not all liberals shared the Social Gospel vision of man’s perfectibility, but they generally shared its humanitarian impulse. Both liberalism and the Social Gospel exalt man, his carnal needs, and his rational powers at the expense of God. True churches of Christ have continued to oppose these false movements so that men may continue to hear and obey the gospel of Christ to the saving of their souls.

The Social Gospel Among Churches of Christ

The Lord organized local churches of Christians to focus on the work of spreading the gospel, worshiping God and edifying saints, and caring for needy brethren. The church is perfectly organized by the Bible pattern to accomplish the work God gave it to do, with elders, deacons, and other Christians cooperating together. God’s simple plan of local church organization is perfectly adapted to the mission of the church, and the mission perfectly suited to the divine plan of organization. More organization would be needed only if the mission were expanded beyond Bible limits, and expanding the mission would require additional organization.

The Holy Spirit warned through Paul that some elders would pervert the truth and lead brethren to practice error. Satan stays busy promoting apostasy in the church in every generation. Some who “depart from the faith” do not quit professing religion and claiming to be faithful to God (Acts 20:28-30; 2 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 4:1). Some ardently claim they are only adjusting the gospel to the times, expanding the mission of the church to win more people, and adapting the organization to meet the needs of modern culture. John condemned such “progress”: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 9).

Churches of Christ in the early decades of the 20th century roundly condemned the Social Gospel’s carnality, exaltation of man at God’s expense, and this-worldly focus. One phase of the Social Gospel movement was the “institutional” church, a term referring to the desire to organize committees, departments, experts, ministries, and services “to cover the entire life of man” (Aaron I. Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism 1865-1900 [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1943], p. 137). The broadest program opened the church doors all day every day to provide meals, entertainment, athletics, gymnastics, kindergarten, legal training, police matrons and rescue missions to keep people out of prisons, day nurseries, coffee houses, libraries, health and first-aid instructions, medical clinics, job training and employment bureaus, special services for immigrants – the list is endless.

Institutional churches organized services on local, regional, and even national bases through clubs, societies, boards, bureaus, leagues, and associations of every kind. Facilities were built for child care, abandoned women, schools, and summer vacations for the needy. Church architecture shifted from providing a place for the spiritual work of teaching and worship to accommodate the explosion of new services and programs. Doctrinal concerns were sacrificed in favor of interdenominational cooperation in social ministries and community services.

The Social Gospel and institutional church concepts left their mark on American religion, taking souls further away from New Testament Christianity. After World War II, many churches of Christ began drifting away from the Bible pattern into apostasy. Some have left the spiritual mission God gave his church and are doing anything and everything the denominations do – providing facilities for day care, secular education, gymnastics, and all sorts of social activities. The list is endless. One Texas church sends a van and team out to aid fire fighters on the scene. Churches conduct suppers, parties and banquets galore.

Some churches disguise their facilities for food, fun, and frolic under such names as “fellowship hall,” “all-purpose room,” or “family life center.” A Church of Christ in Angleton, Texas often promotes dinners, picnics, and banquets in its bulletin. A front page “gospel meeting” announcement emphasized before even giving the lesson subjects, “‘Sunday lunch after services for all our families and all our visitors!” After the church’s “Wild Game Dinner” and several other March meals, the editor exulted, “I believe we have eaten more meals as a congregation than we have eaten at home” (Angelton Accents, 21 Feb.-28 Mar. 1989 issues). Rubel Shelly tells the Woodmont Hills church in Nashville, Tenn. their new facility is not so much “a church building” as “a place to feed and house homeless people,” a place for “community service to take place all day, every day” (Love Lines, 15 Feb. 1989).

True churches of Christ must preach and practice the spiritual gospel of Christ, not the social gospel of man-made religions (Matt. 21:25).

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 7, pp. 206-207
April 4, 1991