The Impact Of The “Social Gospel” On The Church

By Sewell Hall

One of the largest trading companies in West Africa began as a religious mission sent from Switzerland to preach to the Africans. The evangelists had to bring their own supplies and they brought extra quantities to sell to the natives. As time went on these mercantile activities increased while their religious work diminished. Today, the only vestige of their original purpose is a 10% discount given to missionaries of other denominations.

Under the influence of the social gospel, many religious institutions have changed goals and activities as dramatically as that Swiss mission. Their change has not been as noticeable because they have continued to be called churches and operate under a religious banner. When all around us are changing it is easy for us to change without realizing it. “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard lest we drift away” (Heb. 2:1).

The Gospel Of Christ

Readers of this magazine do not need to be reminded that the gospel of Christ was good news of salvation from sin by the vicarious death, burial d resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Its major concerns were eternal, not temporal – heavenly, not earthly (Col. 3:1-4). Its purpose, as far as this life is concerned, was to transform the spirits of individuals into the image of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). Whatever impact it was to have in correcting social evils was to be accomplished as a by-product of this transforming of individuals.

The gospel of Christ provided for no organization other than the local church with its “bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1: 1). This was sufficient for all that the gospel was intended to accomplish in remolding individual character. Achieving these goals did not require multi-million dollar multi-purpose buildings; a place for worship and teaching sufficed.

Modernism And The Social Gospel

The ancient world “did not like to retain God in their knowledge” and “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Rom. 1:28, 23). In much the same way, men in recent centuries became dissatisfied with the gospel of Christ.

In the great universities of Germany, scientific objections to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith gained such credenc e in intellectual circles that theologians were forced to re-examine their traditional views. The historic creeds, which rested their claims to authority on the Holy Scriptures, were scrapped or reinterpreted in terms of evolutionary naturalism or divine immanence. Abandoned to the new culture were the inspiration of the Scriptures, the unique deity of Christ, the miracles, the atonement for sin, the bodily resurrection, the individual resurrection of the saints, the second coming of Christ unto final judgment, heaven, hell, and every vestige of the supernatural elements of the Christian faith. The mind of man was made the court of final appeal (James DeForest Murch, Christians Only, p. 224).

This development, commonly called “modernism,” spread rapidly through the Protestant world. Obviously, a rejection of the basic facts of the gospel and of its promises and warnings made the gospel altogether obsolete and irrelevant.

What were the theologians and their churches to do, now that they had renounced their creeds and the gospel on which they were based? Should they close up shop? This was most unlikely. Old institutions seldom die; they just change directions. And new directions were at that very moment demanding attention.

The industrial revolution in the country raised problems in business and political ethics, employer-employee relationships, economic competition, and the nature of poverty and its remedy which shocked many American social philosophers out of a well-worn complacency. No less serious were the social maladjustments connected with the unparalleled rise of huge cities. Slums, drunkenness, prostitution, organized crime, juvenile delinquency, abject poverty, and all the other problems of the sprawling, filthy cities were convincing realities that demanded that something be done (Ed Harrell, Gospel Guardian, Vol. XII, p. 225).

The theologians responded with the “social gospel,” defined by Webster’s New International Dictionary as “a movement in American Protestant Christianity initiated at the end of the 19th Century and reaching its zenith in the first part of the 20th Century and dedicated to the purpose of bringing the social order into conformity with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

There is no question that Jesus taught some things relevant to these issues but He provided for no organized approach to such problems and they certainly did not form the burden of His gospel. On one occasion, when approached with a question of social injustice, He refused even on a personal level to be involved, telling the one who addressed Him to “beware of covetousness” (Lk. 12:13-21).

Implications Of The Social Gospel

Since the social gospel was dealing with new problems, it required bold new approaches and imaginative solutions. The provisions of the ancient gospel of Christ were not sufficient. And having abandoned their faith in that gospel the proponents of the new gospel had no qualms in redesigning its provisions.

Local congregations may have been adequate for transforming individuals, but social problems were too large for any one assembly to tackle. The central organizations of the various denominations took on new significance as they multiplied departments and agencies through which local churches could do their work. And even this was not enough. The Federal Council of Churches of Christ was formed to unite the efforts of the denominations for more effective impact.

Obviously, “evangelists, pastors and teachers” were out of their element in dealing with complex social problems, so each church now needed youth directors, welfare workers’ marriage counselors, educators, activity directors, and a host of other “ministers” on its staff.

The old buildings with their simple facilities for worship and Bible teachings were quickly outmoded. New multi-purpose buildings were required if the church was to minister to “the whole man.” Lester McAllister, an author favorable to these developments writes:

The idea of making a congregation the center of community services came from the social gospel movement. . . . Among the features emphasized by an institutional church were libraries, meals for those persons needing them, gymnasiums and other recreation facilities for youth. Some congregations sponsored a “labor exchange” to help find employment for the unemployed (Journey in Faith, pp. 287-88).

Furthermore, social revolution which was the object of this social gospel required more than preaching. It required political action, media campaigns, boycotts, marches and a host of other pressure tactics to accomplish its purpose. It did not take long to involve the churches in such activities.

Churches of Christ

Have churches of Christ been influenced by the social gospel movement? Who could deny it? Was it not at the very zenith of the movement (as identified in the dictionary definition above) that the very first institutions for social service were built and attached to the churches. And the number now has multiplied. A directory of churches of 1983 lists 19 liberal arts colleges and universities, 96 child care agencies and facilities, and 37 senior citizen care facilities, most of which receive church support in one way or another. The directory does not even undertake to list the day care centers, kindergartens, elementary and high schools operated and supported by churches. None of these existed before the beginning of the social gospel movement.

The staff of many a “Church of Christ” has been expanded to include every kind of “minister” found in any other social gospel oriented church. The schools now offer training for “church workers” in an astounding variety of fields. Look at the new buildings being erected with offices for various counselors and ministers, kitchen and banquet facilities, family life centers and gymnasiums equipped for everything from basketball to video games. Such things were unheard of before the advent of the social gospel and were seldom seen even 20 years ago.

Consider the national publicity recently given to “Church of Christ opposition to pornography.” How was it opposed? By teaching each individual Christian to keep his “heart with all diligence” and to control his TV or radio? Doubtless some of this is being done. But the national publicity has been given to the combined efforts of many congregations in organizing political action, boycotts, and letter writing campaigns that have been directed at pornography as a social evil – clearly a social gospel approach.

In all fairness it must be stated that these churches did not travel the same route as the major denominations. Most have not denied the heart of the gospel and most still believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures. These influences have come through two channels: First, a host of young preachers have been trained by teachers who in turn received their training in modernistic senimaries where the social gospel was fully accepted. Second, the congregations to which they preach are largely second and third generation Christians who have done little study of the New Testament pattern and get their ideas of what a church should be from their neighbors. Indeed, they are a bit embarrassed if the “Church of Christ” does not have all the facilities, staff, programs and institutions of which their neighbors boast.

Still desiring to be scriptural in their practices, batteries of preachers search diligently to justify these innovations by the Scriptures, and they succeed to the satisfaction of the innovators. But alas, their arguments, like the practices they defend, were unheard of among churches of Christ for the first 1900 years of their existence. It is clear that these concepts and practices originated in the mind of men, not in the mind of God.

Not one of us is beyond the reach of social gospel influence. Those of us who have not most strongly resisted some facets of it may well be tempted by others. Our strong feelings about abortion, communism, pornography, sale of alcohol, and other social evils can easily tempt us to involve the church in a social gospel type of attack, rather than being content to deal with them on an individual basis as the church was designed to do. We can find ourselves more concerned with finding some scriptural way to deal with social problems such as starvation in Ethiopia than we are with using the obviously scriptural approach to the problem of lost souls in that and other countries.


The real problems of the world are spiritual. The local church is God’s organization for dealing with such problems and the gospel of Christ is the means He has given us with which to confront them. Ten thousand other organizations are addressing the social problems of our day, using every conceivable resource. It is urgent that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from our unique mission nor disillusioned with God’s unique method.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than that we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).

Guardian of Truth XXX: 1, pp. 11-12
January 2, 1986