The Social Gospel Among Churches Of Christ

By Harold Fite

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines the “social gospel” as “a movement in American Protestant Christianity, esp. in the first part of the 20th century to bring the social order into conformity with Christian principles.”

The purpose of the social gospel is the improvement of living conditions and social problems. Its method is the application of “Christian principles” to social problems. The main thrust of the Social Gospel, therefore, is to alleviate the social inequities of the world. The “Church” becomes the instrument by which and through which the thrust or emphasis is made.

When the primary purpose of the gospel of Christ is diverted from the saving of the soul to the betterment of the physical man on earth, a social gospel has been created. Churches that believe, support, practice and proclaim it become nothing more than social institutions.

In the latter part of the 1800s this country was beset with many social problems. The influence of the common man on religion was reflected in the growing social consciousness of religious leaders. They began to offer solutions to the social injustices of that day. By making social injustice the main topic and purpose of the gospel of Christ, the social gospel was born in this country, and has continued to grow.

Today denominational leaders are concerned over the social and moral effects of unequal distribution of wealth; bleak and revolting slums (which prompts essays on “the dignity of man”); unemployment and oppression of racial minorities, etc. Churches have been involved in Urban Renewal and Housing, fair labor laws, and all types of social welfare agencies – some of which are subsidized by the government. Churches are adding trained counselors and other specialists to their staffs to perform a variety of functions in which religion and social work are combined.

These social programs of churches reflect the “whole man” concept. They see the necessity of meeting the whole needs of the whole man. It is a fusion where religion is interpreted broadly enough to embrace the individual’s physical, psychological and social rehabilitation along with the spiritual.

While the Social Gospel has been popular among denominations for many years, only since World War II has it found any appreciable acceptance among churches of Christ.

Brethren who are rather liberal and loose in their approach to the Bible have learned that the social gospel and social programs will draw more people than the pure gospel of Christ. To gain numbers (and keep them), appeal is made to the flesh. Through this method it is hoped the spiritual man will be strengthened (as if games, food and frolic can strengthen the inward man). One cannot substitute carnal and fleshly means for the Word and expect real spiritual strength to follow. A congregation can grow in number, but not in the “strength of his might.”

Churches of Christ are now putting elaborate kitchens and gymnasiums in their buildings. Church sponsored youth camps, retreats, and encampments are commonplace.

Schools, colleges and hospitals have been built and supported from congregational treasuries. Day-care centers, hobby classes, talent shows, nursing homes, homes for unwed mothers, boy scout troops, bowling teams, basketball teams, softball teams, track meets, skating parties and various social welfare programs are being supported by local churches under direction of their respective elders.

Seminars are conducted on such subjects as “The Problem of Aging”; “Family Relations and Child Development” (to teach children about themselves and how to reach out to others); “Marriage Enrichment” for couples, etc. Many in these churches have come to look on the church as an institution responsible for the social welfare needs of man. It is evident that a great percentage of churches of Christ (especially city churches) have accepted the “whole man” theory – that the church is responsible for the social, mental and physical development of the individual (a theory borrowed from secular education psychology).

Because of all these social projects, churches and colleges operated by brethren, are offering courses to equip men and women for these various ministries on the congregational level. Churches of Christ now have “Youth Ministers” (hired mainly to see that the young people’s social needs are met). “Medical Missionaries” and “Counselors” who do not primarily deal with matters pertaining to religious faith and practice, but with a variety of psychological and social adjustment problems, are also receiving church support.

Not one of these programs, or all combined, will save one soul! How many young people in these churches would remain if all these programs were removed and these churches went back to just being New Testament churches?

Where are the Scriptures which authorize churches involving themselves in recreational pursuits and setting themselves up as social services agencies?

Brethren generally opposed the social gospel concept forty years ago. There are those who opposed it then, but have completely embraced it now without saying as much as “excuse me.” Was N. B. Hardeman wrong in 1942 when he said, “It is not the work of the church to furnish entertainment for the members. I have never read anything in the Bible that indicated to me that such was the part of the work of the church. I am wholly ignorant of any scripture that even points in that direction.” Was B.C. Goodpasture in error in 1948, when he wrote in the Gospel Advocate, “For the church to turn aside from its divine work to furnish amusement and recreation is to pervert its mission. It is to degrade its mission. Amusement and recreation should stem from the home rather than the church.” If brethren were in error in opposing the social gospel then, all need to repent and embrace it now. But if they taught the truth then, it remains truth today, and those of the contrary part need to repent and turn to that truth.

The church was purchased for a higher purpose than the pampering of the body. Its purpose is eternal (Eph. 3:10, 11), having to do with the culture of the soul. To direct it into social gospel channels is to denominationalize it; to drain it of its strength; and to destroy its uniqueness. The physical (recreation), mental and social development of the child is the work of the home – not the church!

I agree with Roy H. Lanier, Jr. when he wrote, “if any man can come forward with Bible teaching for churches to get into the recreation business, I would welcome him with open arms. If men and churches cannot find such Bible teaching, I strongly plead that they get back into scriptural work for which they have explicit Bible teaching.”

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 6, pp. 172-173
March 17, 1983