The Inadequacy of the Social Gospel

By Phil T. Arnold

After feeding the five thousand, Jesus took opportunity of the people’s interest and inquiry to tell them about the true “bread of life.” John records for us the following words of Jesus:

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven, if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world . . . . Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn. 6:45-51,53).

Many people, at the witnessing of his miraculous provision, had determined that Jesus was in fact just the kind of Messiah they were longing and looking for. He could feed an army from next to nothing by his mere words! So they flocked after Jesus for the loaves and the fishes, but they would not become his flock for they followed him for the wrong reason and in ignorance of what he really was all about. Jesus told them that his ministry was not about physical bread but spiritual. The truth that he proclaimed was that something was more important than physical bread. Man needs something more than “soap and soup.” He needs the salvation found only in Jesus.

We live today in a society and in a religious climate that would say that it is the work of the church to house the homeless, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, prepare the underprivileged for employment, and champion the right political causes. This is commonly spoken of as “the social gospel,” and this is quite obviously becoming even increasingly popular among those once counted as brethren. If we would make of this the purpose of the church, then we have failed miserably. Jesus had just fed five thousand people. Yet, they left him like rats leaving a sinking ship. Jesus had to turn to his disciples and say, “Do you also want to go away?” (Jn. 6:67b)

Man says, “Change the environment and you’ll change the man, Give people a better chance!” Man does not primarily need a better environment. He needs Jesus! He doesn’t just need bread. He needs Christ! To those who would think social change (an improved environment) to be the solution to man’s problems, we would ask, “If environment is the answer, what happened to Adam and Eve?” We’ll never find or create a better environment than the garden of Eden. It wasn’t in the slums that Adam and Eve fell, but rather it was in the garden paradise prepared by God. The “social gospel” misses the whole point. I am not saying that individual Christians ought not to be interested in feeding the hungry, housing the needy, and assisting the less fortunate. If we are truly Christians, we will (see Matt. 25:34-40). But I am saying that it is not the collective work of the church nor is it in any way adequate as a substitute for the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The church of Jesus Christ is to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is to make known “the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10). The “social gospel” would perhaps improve man’s environment, but the gospel of Jesus Christ will improve man’s eternity. What difference will it make if people live in beautiful houses and eat the most nutritious food if they die and go to hell. At the 84th Street church of Christ we do not have social programs nor do we champion political causes, but we do preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ and of that we are unashamed – “for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). God be thanked for people who long and look for nothing more and will settle for nothing less.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 5, p. 133
March 7, 1991