Perversions of the Gospel

By James P. Needham

Social gospelism invaded Protestant ism in the early 19th century in Europe and eventually spread throughout the Protestant churches everywhere. It followed on the heels of what is known as modernism. Modernism is a philosophy of biblical interpretation that denies that the Bible presents a divine pattern of authority, thus man is left to formulate his own concept of doctrine, church work, and worship.

The gospel as God revealed it is pure, unadulterated, unmixed, stand alone, self-sufficient, self-contained, independent, and man needs nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else. 

To know and appreciate the gos- pel one must be convinced of all the above. Throughout its history, how- ever, few have fully understood and accepted these salient facts. From the very beginning of the gospel men have mixed it with human philosophies and concepts in a vain and futile effort to help it out. Paul said to the Galatians, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6, 7).To pervert a thing is to add something to it that destroys its purity.

We must understand that the gospel is a divine revelation and the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose (Eph.3:10), and as such, when it was fully revealed it nullified and made all previous remedial systems obsolete and void and became absolutely sufficient and fully adequate in and of itself. Paul said, “The law was our school master to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith, but after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 1:6, 7). “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second” (Heb 10:9). The gospel is the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25), that was once for all de- livered (Jude 3), and it furnishes us completely unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16, 17), and makes available to us all things that pertain unto life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and makes one complete in Christ (Col 2:10). 

In this article I shall look at per- versions of the gospel throughout its history, and challenge all men to be satisfied with the gospel as God delivered it for only then is it “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Obviously, space prohibits extensive documentation or refutation of the perversions mentioned, though that has been done on many occasions. Most readers will be acquainted with what I shall mention. It should be understood that a perverted gospel is to the spiritual well-being of man what poison food is to his physical well-being.

Jewish Perversions

The Jews were likely the first to pervert the gospel. Early in the New Testament we find them intermingling the gospel with the Old Testament system. The epistles of Romans, Colossians, Galatians, and Hebrews deal with this problem. Almost every church of the first century was troubled by this perversion. The Jews tried to tell God whom he could save and how. Some of the “believing” Jews were willing to accept Gentiles into the church only if they would first become Jews, that is, be circumcised and keep the law. In the Book of Romans Paul says several times that “there is no difference” between Jews and Gentiles. (Rom 10:12) “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” The church at Antioch had much con- tention about this matter, and finally sent Paul and Silas to Jerusalem where they received a letter dictated by the Holy Spirit that exempted the Gentiles from such necessities. 

(a) The Essene perversion: The Essenes were a Jewish sect which held the belief that human flesh is evil. They were ascetic in their life style, separating themselves from the world. They ate only food that was prepared by consecrated hands, did no work on the Sabbath, abstained from the gratification of all natural urges as much as possible including marriage. They, therefore believed in salvation by sinless perfection. They thought if man could live the life of angels on earth he would be saved. Thus they believed man could be saved by his own righteousness.

Greek Perversions

The Grecian or Gentile world in the first and second centuries was contaminated by human philosophy. Grecian culture and society had wield- ed a powerful influence over the world long after the demise of the Grecian empire. Grecian philosophy is still studied in our colleges and universities. The Grecian philosophy which had the greatest impact on the gospel was Gnosticism. The word comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning to know. Gnosticism had two wings: the Docetics and the Cerinthians.

(a) The Docetics denied the actual humanity of Jesus. They believed that all matter is evil, and since the human body is matter, it is therefore evil. This led them to deny that God actually inhabited human flesh because God would not tabernacle in an evil human body. Jesus was just a transient apparition of Divine power, a phantom that flitted across the stage of time and was not God in the flesh.

(b) The Cerinthians distinguished between Jesus and the Christ. Jesus was a man, and Christ was the divine power which descended upon Jesus at his baptism and ascended from him on the cross. Thus, Christ did not die on the cross, Jesus the man did. 

These philosophies had far-reaching implications. The Gnostics predicated salvation upon perfect knowledge in the inner man; the evil flesh did not matter; thus they often lived profligate lives. This was the result of believing that the body is evil, and since that was the case, let the body do what comes naturally because the sins of the outer man have no effect upon the inner man. As one can see, this was a forerunner of Calvin’s perseverance of the saints. Some Calvinists make the same argument in defense of the erroneous doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy.

Gnosticism means that Jesus died in vain, for if God’s Son did not die upon the cross, there is no redemption from sin. Gnosticism would emasculate the gospel, robbing it of its redemptive power which would leave man to roam free in the wilderness of sin and drink liberally from the evil springs of the wicked world.

The books of Colossians and First John are heavily weighted with refutations of this philosophy. Paul said to the Corinthians that “. . . the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain” (1 Cor3:19-20).

We can say then that the Gnos- tics believed in salvation by perfect knowledge and the Essenes believe in salvation by sinless perfection; or to put it another way, they both believed in salvation by human works, one by intellectual perfection and the other by moral perfection. Both conflict with plain Bible teaching (Eph. 2:8, 9; Tit. 3:5; Isa. 64:6). 

It is almost beyond belief that doc- trines similar to Gnosticism continue to trouble the church and pervert the gospel of Christ. The belief that Jesus was “just an ordinary guy like you and me” is exceedingly close to Gnosticism.

Pagan Perversions

True religion has nearly always existed in a pagan world, and has been frequently invaded by it. We are all familiar with the Israelites’ frequent adoption of pagan gods in Old Testament times. The religion of Christ was born into a society steeped in pagan- ism. Early Christians were constantly warned to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21), and those things which pertained unto it, like the eating of its sacrificial meats under certain circumstances, the keeping of its festivals, and its profligate lifestyle (fornication was an act of pagan worship). Nearly all the epistles make reference to these matters (compare the First Corinthian letter, particularly chapter 5).

Paganism had a tremendous influence in the apostasy that culminated in Roman Catholicism. Pagan Rome was Christianity’s most vehement persecutor because the Christians refused to worship the emperor who was thought to be divine. His image was erected throughout the empire, and Roman citizens were expected to burn incense to it. Christians refused to do this, considering it to be idolatry, thus were looked upon as subversives and were called atheists. It was difficult for Christians to make a living in the Roman Empire because of this. To prosper in the Roman Empire one had to be a member of the trade guilds (unions), membership in which depended upon one’s worshiping the emperor. Since Christians refused to do so, they were bared from the guilds, and thus could not ply their trades in Roman society (Rev. 13:17). Many Christians had their personal assets confiscated as enemies of the state (Heb 10:34), and many thousands were killed.

While the situation looked hopeless from a human standpoint, all things are possible with God and human persistence. Pagan Rome was eventually conquered by “Christianity” when Constantine, “the first Christian emperor,” came to power in A.D. 321. He favored the Christians, outlawed their persecution, abolished crucifixion, and declared Sunday a national holiday. “Christianity” became the state religion of the empire. While this looks great from the standpoint of the Christians, it was a fatal day for the church. Unconverted pagans poured into the church by the thousands to be members of the same religious group approved by the emperor! Pagan temples became church buildings, and as time went on, doctrine and practice accommodated the pagan’s festivals, images, holy days, etc. This is the origin of Christmas, Easter, the adoration of the virgin Mary in imitation of the feminine goddesses of paganism, and a host of other practices and observances of the Catholic Church. Gradually the organization of the church copied the organization of the Roman Empire, and eventually a religious dictator (the pope) was appointed by an evil Roman emperor in imitation of Pagan Rome. Thus the gospel was mixed with paganism and a dictatorial political system and the rest is history! Catholic literature admits that Catholic doctrine and practice is an admixture of paganism, “Christianity,” and Roman politics.

Perversions of Protestantism

The 16th century Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther and others was an effort to return to the Bible, but he and others never arrived at the truth. Luther became disgusted with the corruption he found in Catholicism and its doctrine of salvation by human works, and swung to the other extreme and taught the doctrine of salvation by faith without works (faith only) and mixed the gospel with his own theology. The Protestants never completely severed themselves in doctrine and practice from the Catholicism they were protesting because they retained much that was peculiar to Catholicism.

Much of the theology of the Protestants finds its roots in the works of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and others. These were the formulators of Catholic theology: Total depravity, predestination, faith only, sprinkling and pouring for bap tism, etc. Protestantism had no thoroughly organized and integrated theology until the time of John Calvin. At age 23 he wrote his Institutes of Religion, and put it all together and formulated the basis of all Protestant religion. Calvin summarized his theology under five cardinal points:

1. Man is born guilty of Adam’s sin, is spiritually dead, unable to think a good thought or do a good deed without the grace of God preventing — Total depravity.

2. God determined before the creation of the world which men and angels would be saved and which would be lost, and the number is so fixed that not one cannot be added to it or taken from it; the non-elect are reprobated and doomed for hell without remedy; the elect will be saved regardless of how they live — Unconditional election.

3. Christ atoned only for the elect; did not die for all men, only the elect — Limited atonement.

4. Since man is born spiritually dead, he cannot act, so cannot believe, so since he cannot think a good thought or do a good deed without the grace of God preventing, the only way he can ever believe is for God to give him the gift of faith which he does by sending the Holy Spirit to change his depraved heart — Irresistible grace.

5. Since man is unable to do anything in his own salvation, being spiritually dead, God has to do everything. So, since God does all the saving, if one of the elect is ever lost it would be God’s fault, and we can’t have that, so once man is saved he can never be lost — Perseverance of the saints (impossibility of apostasy).

Originally, nearly all Protestant churches bought this whole package, but with the passing of time and with much dissension, parts of it have been dropped, but just about 100 percent of today’s Protestant churches are influenced to a large degree by Calvinian theology, particularly the doctrines of total depravity, the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, sprinkling for baptism, and salvation by faith only.

Thus, the gospel has been and is perverted by human theology, largely Calvinism. Human theology is the pure word of God strained through the fine mesh of human opinion! Theologians are described by Paul when he speaks of those who are “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).

Social Gospel Perversions

Social gospelism invaded Protestantism in the early 19th century in Europe and eventually spread throughout the Protestant churches everywhere. It followed on the heels of what is known as modernism. Modernism is a philosophy of biblical interpretation that denies that the Bible presents a divine pattern of authority, thus man is left to formulate his own concept of doctrine, church work, and worship. Modernism denies the verbal inspiration of the Bible, all miracles, and sees Christ only as a great teacher and philanthropist, thus the primary mission of the church is to make this world a better place in which to live rather than look for pie in the sky by and by! This gave rise to churches building soup kitchens, gymnasiums and other recreational facilities, orphan and old folks homes, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, counseling centers, apartment complexes, etc. all to minister more to the flesh while neglecting the spirit. Social betterment became the primary mission of the church, and man’s need for salvation from sin was minimized.

Perversions of the Gospel Within the Church

If you have ever wondered about the origin of such things among churches of Christ, there you have it. It did not come from the Bible, but from modernism and Protestantism. Just as unconverted pagans brought into the church their pagan practices, so half-converted Protestants brought into the church the social gospel and other denominational concepts and philosophies. When the church brings half-taught people into the church they sow the seeds of apostasy. As time goes on these half-taught persons become Bible class teachers, elders, deacons, and even preachers. The results of this are self-evident; witness our history over the last 50 years. Most of the above mentioned social gospel projects found in the churches of Christ had their origin in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Lord’s church was brought to the Americas by European immigrants. Those who planted it on this continent came from the British Isles, and had been influenced by brethren there before coming here.

Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others came out of Calvinistic denominations and planted the church in the new world. They preached and wrote against denominationalism in terms that many of their descendants would consider too harsh, and which many now try to soft-peddle as they vainly try to rewrite history. These brethren were exceedingly successful in communicating the pure gospel to multitudes of people, and thousands and thousands abandoned their denominational heritage and embraced the truth. It is a disservice to these valiant men to say that they were trying to unite men in denominationalism. They called men out of denominationalism to the one church built by Jesus on the basis of the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. They did not promote unity in diversity, or try to persuade men to agree to disagree.

(a) The missionary society: Alexander Campbell who had spoken so harshly of denominationalism and its societies became enamored with world evangelism and what the “universal church” could do to effect it. He argued that since God did not specify a universal organization for the church, that meant that he intended for us to formulate our own. This was in direct contradiction to his former teaching. His rationale was that all the churches banded together can do what no single church can do, so he be- came the first president of the missionary society formed in Cincinnati, Ohio on October 21, 1849. Thus the die was cast and a philosophy postulated, namely, what God has not specified we are at liberty to do. This, of course, is the concept that the silence of the Scriptures is not restrictive. This philosophy led to all kinds of innovations in the years that followed.

(b) Benevolent societies. Following the formation of the missionary society, a human institution to do evangelism for the churches, a benevolent society was created, though not much was said about it, being overshadowed by the enthusiasm for the missionary society.

(c) Instrumental music: It is impossible to open the silence of-the-Scriptures gate to admit only one innovation. Logically, if we are at liberty to practice one thing on the basis of the silence of the Scriptures, we are at liberty to practice everything the scriptures do not mention. The sky is the limit! So, in 1860, the first instrument of music was introduced at Midway, Kentucky. As time went by, it be- came the wedge that divided churches all over the country, thus the origin of the Christian Church which, using this philosophy, returned to denominationalism. Many innovations followed on the heels of the missionary society and instrumental music. With the passing of time the Christian church became too liberal for many, and so it split into the Disciples of Christ denomination and the conservative churches called “churches of Christ” which gave up the missionary society and the ultraliberal views but kept instrumental music. While they oppose the missionary society of the Disciples of Christ denomination, they have something just as unscriptural, namely, the North American Christian Convention of the churches of Christ. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference in principle between this and the old missionary society.

The Institutional and Congregational Cooperation Perversions

The division over the missionary society and instrumental music left the churches of Christ small and struggling. By means of legal action, the Christian Church brethren took away most of the buildings and the majority of the brethren. They predicted that the “non-progressives” would soon die on the vine, and be non-existent. They under estimated the resilience and resolve of the brethren they despised and left behind. Few in number and poor financially, these brethren put their shoulders to the wheel and preached the gospel in school houses, brush arbors, and anywhere else they had opportunity, and within a few years they outnumbered the “progressive” churches in number of members and congregations. The Christian Churches dwindled in membership for lack of a distinctive plea and gradually came to admit to being just another denomination.

The conservative churches of Christ (non-instrumental) became a powerful force following the division. There was a tremendous up-surge following World War II, and at one time reportedly was rated the fastest growing church in the United States. But as in the 1800s, they could not stand prosperity, and so repeated the same mistakes of the past. It is said that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Many brethren proved this with a vengeance as I shall show.

(a) Benevolent societies: One or two orphan homes even- tually were founded by brethren who survived the Christian Church division. None of them antedating the turn of the 20th century. Churches were lulled into supporting them without ever detecting the parallel between them and the missionary society which they had vehemently opposed. There were a few voices raised against them on this basis, but hardly anyone took notice of it until the 1940s when this point was brought clearly into focus.

(b) Church contributions to colleges: In the 1940s a controversy arose over putting the colleges operated by brethren in the budgets of the churches. This controversy was sparked by G.C. Brewer, N.B. Hardeman and others. It reached its peak in a lengthy exchange of articles between Foy E. Wallace, Jr. and N.B. Hardeman in the Bible Banner and the Gospel Advocate. This controversy was taken to a new level and involved the orphan and old folks homes when Hardeman drew a parallel between church contribu- tions to these benevolent societies and church contributions to the colleges, arguing that “they stand or fall together.” The advancement of this idea brought to the forefront the issue of church support of orphan homes, and so the controversy focused upon that issue only to return to the college issue later.

For several years the controversy over the right of churches to support orphan homes was heatedly discussed in the major journals and orally by well-known brethren from both sides. Those opposed were portrayed in the most reprehensible terms. They were called orphan haters, and people who would let poor little orphans starve before they would give it a cold biscuit, anti’s, etc. All this resulted in the breaking down of the brethren’s resistance to the church’s working through separate human organizations and led to an escalation of orphan homes and church contributions to them.

I am safe in saying that at the end of the Wallace-Harde- man discussion of the college-in-the-church-budget issue only a few brethren agreed with Hardeman. Some leading men who agreed with him on church support of orphan homes never agreed with him on the college issue, notably, Guy N. Woods, and others of similar stature. Brother Woods became their “champion” debater on the orphan’s home issue, but remained opposed, though not vociferously, to church contributions to colleges. In order to keep his stand- ing among the liberal churches, he had to put his views on the college question on the “back burner,” though, to my knowledge, he held them until his death.

A return to the college-in-the-church-budget issue was inevitable, because, as Hardeman stated, “The college and the orphan homes stand or fall together.” The prolonged and heated discussion of the right of churches to support the orphan homes had tremendous emotional impact upon the brethren’s opposition to church contributions to colleges. They were not willing to give up church support of orphan homes, so they had to swallow church support of the colleges or be convicted of inconsistency. Hardeman’s statement that “they stand or fall together” had now come full circle, and feeling that the time was ripe, Batsell Barrett Baxter, head of the Bible department at David Lipscomb College, floated this balloon again, quoting Hardeman’s statement in an article in the Gospel Advocate in a plea for church support of the colleges. Among his fellow-travelers, hardly an opposing voice was raised, though there was some slight opposition, which, seemingly, had very little, if any, impact. The bottom line of all this is that many of the churches aligned with the ultraliberal persuasion now contribute regularly to the colleges, as well as to orphan homes. It is quite significant that those among the ultraliberals, who in the past have opposed church support of the colleges, are as silent as a tomb on the subject these days.

(c) The congregational cooperation perversion. Following World War II, there was an upsurge of interest in world evangelism. The war had devastated Europe and Japan in the defeat of Hitler and godless Naziism and Japanese imperialism. The church in America was growing by leaps and bounds, and much enthusiasm was generated for taking the gospel to Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some of the larger American churches jumped into the forefront and sought to take charge of “mission” work in given areas. Broadway in Lubbock became the sponsoring church for Germany, Union Avenue in Memphis for the work in Japan, etc. Their idea was that since they had assumed the oversight of the work in a given area, any other churches that wanted to help in those areas must funnel their contributions through them. They would choose the preachers, define their territory of labor, set their compensation, and oversee their work and send reports to the supporting churches.

Sponsoring churches were not a new idea. Such arrangements were the forerunners of the missionary society in the 1800s, and reared their heads again about the turn of the century in West Tennessee, Texas, and perhaps some other localities. These were strongly opposed by David Lipscomb and others. Opposition to church contributions to orphan and old folks homes and the sponsoring churches dominated the scene from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, or there about.

The sponsoring church arrangement was a perversion of the organization of the church, and the orphan and old folks homes were a perversion its mission. Controversy over these matters ran parallel both in time and intensity. The periodicals were filled with opposing articles, and several debates were conducted by able brethren from both sides, some of which are still in print.

(d) Current perversions: Perversions of the gospel are always a work in progress; they never cease. Man is determined to make God in his own image, and his law into that which will serve his own purposes and justify his own actions and desires. The churches and brethren who fought the battles of the 1940s, 50s and 60s have done a good job of defending the gospel from those who would pervert it. Those of the second and third generation from those struggles bear no battle scars, and feel no pain from the heat of the struggle. Many of them have no appreciation of their heritage, but gradually are gravitating toward the errors of the past. Unfortunately and unexplainably, they have the leadership and encouragement from some who were engaged in the struggles of the past and who were quite active in it as their writings will testify.

But this is true to the history of past apostasies. Nobody ever spoke more decisively against denominationalism and its human societies than did Alexander Campbell, and yet he came to urge the missionary society upon the brethren and became its first president. Those who led in the battles of the 1940s to the 1960s against churches contributing to human organizations came to urge churches to contribute to a legal defense fund (a brotherhood treasury) which they would administer to try to rescue a brother’s trust fund (a human organization) from the liberals, and in so doing, compromised and surrendered the principles for which they had contended for the last 40 or so years. In the course of that skirmish some of the brethren who supposedly were well grounded in these principles defended that proposal. I have often said, and firmly believe, that crises or issues don’t make a man, they define him. In writing about this situation I asked the question, “Who will lead the church into the next apostasy?” I answered, “Probably some of those who led us in opposition to the last one.” Sadly that prediction is coming true. At this point in my life and after some 50 years of preaching the gospel, I have to ask myself the question, “Who, really, is sound in the faith?” I have found that brethren don’t always deserve the reputations they have. It is truthfully said, “Reputation is what men think of you; character is what God knows about you.” I am convinced that some brethren’s opposition to error depends upon who espouses it. I know this to be true because when a well-known and beloved brother espoused and publicly advocated error on the marriage question he was defended on the bases of his reputation and how much good he had done. It seems as though one can, by reputation and well doing, earn doctrinal immunity, so he can teach whatever he pleases without being called a false teacher and be kept in the fellowship of the brethren with impunity.

Today we are being told by those who should know better, that the marriage, divorce, and remarriage controversy should be settled by the principles of Romans 14. That is, we should just agree to disagree; draw no lines of fellowship, and let each believe and practice what he pleases. That is to say that God cares not what we believe on this question. If this question belongs in Romans 14, then it matters not to God what one believes on it as long as he doesn’t try to press it on others. One wonders if they would also put homosexualism and homosexual “marriages” in Romans 14. Will they put church contributions to human institutions and sponsoring churches there also, and what about instrumental music and premillennialism, and if not, why not? If one thing that matters to God can be put in Romans 14, then anything that matters to him can be placed there. The man doesn’t live who can prove otherwise, and he who thinks he can is obligated to list the things that can be governed by the principles of Romans 14, and those which cannot.


It is easy to see the devastating effects of perverting the gospel. The matter is clear cut: the gospel delivered by divine inspiration is complete and all-sufficient, or it is worthless. If any part of it can be subtracted from it or added to it, who is to decide what can be subtracted or added? If you can subtract or add something, so can everyone else, so the gospel becomes useless and every man becomes a law unto himself and nothing is prohibited. This is why the gospel is complete and final and man is forbidden to tamper with it in any way (Gal. 1:8,9).

It is difficult for the church to avoid being invaded and influenced by the society in which it exists as history abundantly proves. Without unwavering and childlike faith in the all-sufficiency of the gospel, man’s inventions look better than God’s stipulations. Without this faith, centralized control of authority and resources looks better than congregational autonomy and independence; church- furnished recreation and general benevolence look better than evangelism, edification, and benevolence from the church limited to needy saints; instrumental music, choirs, solos, and special group singing look better than teaching the pure gospel, contributing on the first day of the week, singing, prayer and the communion; Human institutions to do the work of the church look better than each church quietly planning and doing its own work; Unity in diversity is more pleasant than buckling on the whole armor of God and contending earnestly for the faith; Fellowshipping the denominations while ignoring their false doctrines looks better than constantly exposing their errors; defending brethren who teach error looks better than exposing them; and unity in diversity among brethren looks better than standing for the purity of the church.

But if one possesses the child-like faith in the all-sufficiency of the gospel as God revealed it, these innovations are absurd and repugnant. These errors have been borrowed from Protestantism thus originate in human wisdom which is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 3:19).