The Social Gospel of the Churches of Christ (1)

By Mike Willis

The history of denominations has a rather clearly distinguishable period in which these churches became involved in attempting to improve the society around them. This movement has been identified as the “social gospel” and began to show itself in American denominations in the late years of the nineteenth century. During these years, a new era of social consciousness was developing. These were the years during which major labor movements were organizing into unions for strike potential and other forces were being organized to deal with social injustices.

The names of Washington Gladden (1836-1918) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) stand at the head of the list of men who led American denominations into the social gospel. Their concept of the kingdom of God differed from that of those around them. Those who opposed the social gospel movement treated the problems of the society through converting the individual; when the individual was converted to Christ, he would conduct himself as a proper employer or employee, be a statesman rather than a politician, act properly toward his landlord or tenant as the case may be, etc. The social gospel movement involved the corporate body, the religious denomination, in correcting these problems through organization of city missions for relief, rescue missions for homeless men, and other programs to care for the poor and unfortunate in life.

Early nineteenth-century Protestantism had expressed its social concerns largely in individualistic terms, stressing charity and moral reform, but the social gospel focused attention on the corporate aspects of modern life and on the achievement of social justice. Great attention was devoted to the relations between capital and labor, and the movement influenced the shortening of the working day. Dedicated to the building of the kingdom of God on earth, the social gospel was especially prominent in the life and work of the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists of the North, and among congregationalists and Episcopalians. Courses on social ethics were added to seminary curricula, and denominational departments of social action were founded under social Christian influence. A number of social settlements in underprivileged areas were founded under Protestant auspices, and many institutional churches to bring social services to the urban masses were erected. The social emphasis was strongly felt on the mission field, where agricultural, medical, and educational missions were expanded (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 518).

The difference in approach to social problems between those accepting the social gospel and those not accepting it can often be related to the difference in their concepts of the kingdom of God. Many, but not all, of those who were involved in the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth had already given up any hope for everlasting life in heaven; they threw this out the window at the same time that they denied the inspiration of the Scriptures. Other denominationalists with more conservative theological moorings got caught up in the enthusiasm for social reform and by means of this here-and-now emphasis eventually became the victims of liberal theology.

The problem of social ills produced a confrontation in Protestantism. Different methods of handling these problems of society were taught.

To return to the mainstream evangelical churches, the tensions between conservative and liberal trends within evangelical Protestantism were further heightened in this period by varying reactions to the many social problems that were coming into prominence. The individualistic laissez-faire social philosophy that seemed so familiar and right to Protestants reared in rural and small-town middle-class America offered few resources for dealing with the social ills of the spreading slums or with the needs of the swelling ranks of inadequately paid working people. Confronted with the reality of human suffering, many Protestants became aware that there were serious maladjustments in the society they prized so highly . . . .

Many Protestant leaders attempted to deal with the social question in essentially conservative terms. They urged cautious reforms of a voluntary type and resisted socialism in any of its forms. Characteristically, they sought to help the victims of social maladjustments as individual cases, especially through the development of the relief programs of city mission societies, the founding of rescue missions where homeless men could be fed and cared for, and the shaping of extensive parish programs in which the poor and unfortunate could be aided . . . .

The social gospel was developed by those who felt that such remedial measures were simply not enough. For the most part the proponents of the social gospel came from the ranks of the evangelical liberals, and they challenged the individualistic `clerical laissez-faire’ perspective by emphasizing the social concerns they found in the prophets of the Old Testament and in the Savior of the New Testament, and in the various Christian reform movements over the centuries. Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a Congregational minister who had been much influenced by Horace Bushnell, became an outspoken advocate of the right of labor to organize during a long pastorate in Columbus, Ohio. He was also a champion of liberal theology, advocating the historical approach to the Scriptures and preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God in history in the near future. Often called `the father of the social gospel’, he developed a Christian version of progressive economic and social views that by the turn of the century was a rising force in the churches (Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, pp. 299-302).

Hence, a change in thinking was occurring within Protestant denominationalism in the early years of the twentieth century. More and more, the church was becoming involved in matters pertaining to this society. There was both a logical and a historical relationship between the doctrinal beliefs and the involvement; those who took a more liberal approach to the Scriptures were more inclined to involve the churches in the social problems. And, visa-versa, many with conservative backgrounds who involved the churches in social programs found theological liberalism increasingly attractive.

As a matter of fact, those who accepted church involvement in the social gospel considered anything else as being less than the kind of church which God demands that one be. Some interpreters tried to tie their ideals to the Bible picture of the church. Others – more honest – admitted that social work cannot be found in the Bible picture, but claimed that God had revealed a new demand for social work through the circumstances of experiences of modern society. Hence, both interpretations contended that the church ought to, not can be, involved in remedying the social ills around us. Walter Rauschenbusch defended his beliefs along this line in the following quotation:

The contributions made by Christianity to the working efficiency and the constructive social abilities of humanity in the past have been mainly indirect. The main aim set before Christians was to save souls from eternal woe, to have communion with God now and hereafter, and to live God-fearing lives. It was individualistic religion, concentrated on the life to come. Its social effectiveness was largely a by-product. What, now, would have been the result if Christianity had placed an equally strong emphasis on the Kingdom of God, the ideal social order? (The Social Principles of Jesus, pp. 73-74).

Rauschenbusch continued to argue that Christianity would have had a more potent impact on the life of man if it had been active in trying to establish an ideal social order, i.e., to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Hence, he stated that the church should have been involved in shaping the workings of industry and trade.

What the world of Christian men and women needs is to have a great social objective set before them and laid on their conscience with the authority of religion. Then religion would get behind social evolution in earnest (Ibid.).

The kingdom of God on earth, according to these people, was not the restoration of the New Testament church; rather, it was the removal of all the problems of earth-life in order to make this earth a heaven-on-earth.

One of the points which needs to be made pertains to categorizing those who accept or reject the social gospel. Though the social gospel originated in modernism, it is by no means confined to modernists. It is impossible to tell whether a man is a proponent of the social gospel simply by determining whether he is theologically conservative or liberal. The critical point is whether or not one involves the church in social works. If the church is involved in social works, it is preaching the social gospel to the extent that it is involved in these activities. They conceive of involvement in social works as an avenue to doing spiritual work. Yet history has repeatedly shown that social involvement is a transitional sign of a movement toward liberalism, even among those who have vigorously denied any inclination toward liberalism.

Doctrinal Errors of the Social Gospel

1. It was borne in infidelity. Though not implicating solely of itself, the fact that the social gospel was borne largely in infidelity needs to be noticed. Those who had lost faith in the Bible as the all-sufficient revelation of God to mankind, in Jesus as the all-sufficient and only Savior of the world, and in man as created in the image of God (rather than as an evolved being) were the men who most fully developed the social gospel. They had ceased to believe in a heaven; consequently, they turned to make heaven on this earth. Although good things can be done by infidels, one should notice that much of the social gospel’s origins are rooted in unbelief.

2. It perverts the nature of the mission of Christ. Christ came into this world to save man from his sins (Lk. 2:10; Mt. 1:21; 1, Tim. 1:15; Lk., 24:46, 47). The only manner in which man could be saved from his sins was through the shedding of the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Redemption of mankind refers to saving mankind from his sirs (Eph. 1:7), not saving him from social ills. To save mankind from his social problems does not demand the shedding of Jesus’ precious blood. Hence, the concept of the social gospel, in which the works of Jesus is viewed as God saving mankind from the social ills of the world through Jesus Christ, destroys. the heart of the gospel message. It makes nonsense of the vicarious suffering and death of our Savior.

To consider the kingdom of God as God’s ideal arrangement of society :, proper housing, provisions of education and recreation, abolition of child labor, regulation of women labor, protection of workers from occupational hazards, concern for health, etc.) rather than as God’s spiritual kingdom is also a perversion of the mission of Christ. Christ came to build a kingdom which was not of this world (Jn. 18:36, 37). This kingdom was purchased with His precious blood (Acts 20:28). The establishment of Jesus’ kingdom had nothing to do with giving men jobs, proper housing, relief from material poverty, and other social ills. The Lord’s kingdom is not the vison of a future paradise on earth but is a present spiritual reality in the midst of a sinful and broken world. The redemption which Christ provides for mankind is eternal and not temporal.

3. It perverts the nature of the gospel. The nature of the gospel is spiritual (1 Cor. 9:11). The goal of the gospel is salvation (Rom. 1:16). It makes the justification of man, the freedom of guilt for his sins, possible. It seeks to turn man from sin for righteousness and to purify his heart by faith (Acts 3:25, 26; 15:7-9)..The basic facts of the gospel are the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The promises of the gospel are forgiveness of sins and the blessed salvation of heaven (Acts 2:38; Col. 1:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:4-5). The changing of the gospel into a means of improving society on earth, nothing more or less, distorts the nature of the gospel.

4. It perverts the nature of the mission of the church. The work of the church, so far as I am able to read it in my Bible, is threefold: (a) to evangelize the world (1 Tim. 3:15; M~. – 16:15-16; Matt. 28:18-19); (b) to relieve the the benevolent needs of its members (cf. Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 4:1 0; 11:27-30; etc.); (c) to edify its members (Eph. 4:14-16; Acts 20:28-32; etc.). I cannot read of the church being involved in any other works than these in my Bible. I cannot read of the church building hospitals, schools, recreational facilities, or any other work related to life on this earth. Where is the Scripture which demonstrated that the church was responsible for abolishing slavery, cleaning up the ghettos, and marching for racial equality?

The manner in which social problems were affected in the New Testament was through the preaching of the gospel. Helping social problems was a by-product of Christianity, not its primary message. When the gospel sank into a man’s heart and he obeyed it, he became a better citizen in the community, a better employee or employer, a better father, a better neighbor, etc. However, these changes came because he became a disciple of Jesus Christ, not because the work of the church was to become involved in labor/management decisions, in building hospitals, or in politics. Rather, these changes which occurred in the man came as a by-product of him becoming a Christian.

Some brethren among us believe that the fruits which the individual Christian bears justifies the church becoming involved in such social works. They make particular application of this to church support of orphan homes and colleges and appeal to such passages as Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27 to prove this. It should be noticed that if individual involvement in these works justifies the church supporting them, then individual activity of any kind which is authorized of God would demand church involvement as well. Hence, we would have just as much Bible authority for a church supported hospital, recreation, and other activities as we have for church supported orphan homes.

It is true that society will be improved as a by-product of the preaching of the gospel in the same manner as saw dust is produced at a lumber mill. This, however, does not justify a lumber mill in sawing timber just to produce saw dust. One man made this following comparison: “A man who made a living for his family as a blacksmith found that, as a by-product, he developed a strong right arm.

Finding a way to sit at home and build up his right arm while relaxing in a rocking chair would not make provision for his family.” Neither does the fact that the by-product of preaching the gospel is beneficial to society justify church involvement in the social gospel.

5. It perverts the nature of the one hope of the gospel. The one hope of the gospel is the incorruptible reward of heaven (Eph.4:4). It is an inheritance which is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1Pet. 1:3-5). It is the “building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).

The one hope of the social gospel is to make life on earth better. It is not concerned with a “pie-in-the-sky in the sweet by and by.” It wants to make its heaven right here on earth. All of its labors are directed toward this goal. Hence, the hope of the gospel has been perverted by the social gospel.


The social gospel is not the saving gospel of Christ; it is another gospel which cannot properly be called a gospel. As such it falls under the condemnation of God as a perverted gospel. Paul warned, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). The social gospel is another gospel; those who preach it and those who follow it are accursed of God.


  1. When did the movement identified as the “social gospel” begin to show itself in American denominationalism?
  2. What two names stand at the head of the list of men who led American denominations into the social gospel?
  3. How does converting an individual affect the social problems of a given society?
  4. How does the social gospel movement propose to correct these problems?
  5. Name and discuss five doctrinal errors of the social gospel.
  6. Is the social gospel confined to modernists?
  7. Is it possible to tell whether a man is a proponent of the social gospel by determining whether he is theologically conservative or liberal?
  8. What is the critical point for determining involvement in the social gospel?
  9. What did Paul warn about those who preach another gospel? Is the social gospel another gospel?
  10. What is the hope of the social gospel? Is it possible to attain?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 1, pp. 25-27
January 3, 1980