When Will They Ever Learn?

By Daniel H. King

A few years back a song of political protest repeatedly echoed the chorus, “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” The endless circle of human folly and ill-consideration were elucidated and made light of in a list of specifics in the song. Political malcontents, though, are not the only ones who have somewhat to say about the redundancy of human experience in returning over and over again to the same mistakes. without ever seeming to learn. History is often said to “repeat itself.” The wise-man Solomon noted this human trait in Ecclesiastes 1:9-11: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there by any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” Israel of old was reminded time and time again by the prophets of God that her repeated faithless actions would lead to disaster. It was not until her people found themselves in a foreign land among strangers that they awoke to the reality that God’s wisdom is not to be taken lightly (Isa. 55:8, 9; Jer. 10: 23).

With the brethren, it seems that they always must take up some old worn and tattered philosophy or practice which is just about to go out of style among the denominations, and at just about the time that the denominations are beginning to see their blunder and lay it down. History testifies of many specifics to this generalization. But one that is with us now is the Social Gospel concept. The Social Gospel movement was initiated by liberal theologians of the last century who had lost their faith in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. They claimed that this was the actual Gospel preached and practiced by Jesus-but even they knew better. They “demythologized” the Bible, completely humanized the Christ, and watered down His Gospel to the point that it could not even be recognized. The emphasis upon this world which characterized the thinking of its proponents is quite easy to explain: these people had lost heir hope that there would be a life after this one. What is difficult to understand is how the thinking of Social Gospelism came to be accepted by conservative religious people. They did not accept the major premise (that the Bible is a human book), but swallowed the minor premise whose acceptance should have been conditioned upon the former. So, who said that people are logical? Explain it as you will, the movement gained impetus and the banner of Social Gospelism was raised by many conservative denominational groups. Social concerns: education, integration, starvation, depravation, recreation, etc., were the order (disorder!) of the day.

The pervasiveness of this kind of thinking became so strong that we saw priests getting into politics, preachers leading civil rights demonstrations, and religious bodies becoming socially conscious in every way. Throughout this period only a blind man would say that the church of the Lord was able to stay pure and undefiled. It is now a fact of history and honest historical reflection that the Gospel was diluted by this putrid, malodorous, men-pleasing and God-dishonoring human philosophy (Col. 2:8). I remember one of my teachers at David Lipscomb College telling of how a Baptist man had once shamed him for not being more socially conscious and for not encouraging Churches of Christ to be socially concerned. I have always thought that he told the story for my benefit, since I was the only one in the class that objected to their many “good works”. He was, however, (though unawares) making a most valid objection to his cause. He was allowing the thinking of the denominational world, personified in that one man, to shame him into disregarding the law of God in this matter. That teacher, along with many like him, has led brethren and churches away from the Bible and into apostasy by following the line of least resistance on this point. Think of what an awful and harrowing experience it must have been to him to admit that our time was so taken up by preaching the Gospel and lifting lost humanity out of the muck and mire of godlessness and denominationalism that we do not have the time to waste on being “socially conscious” in the sense intended! I am not sorry to say that I have no apology to offer. People who are brought out of the wretched state of poverty of spirit (damnation) to become rich toward God (saved) will be better people and will make for a better society. I will try to preach the Gospel to them and save their souls and then encourage them to live an exemplary life before the world. There is no greater favor nor service that I could ever do them. As I have opportunity I will attempt to work that which is good toward all men (Gal. 6:10). Aside from this I have very little social consciousness. This is so for the same reason that I have only a minimum of political consciousness. What small amount that I can conscientiously and scripturally do to make this a better country in which to live and a better government under which to function-that, God being my helper, I shall attempt to do. But I am aware that kingdoms and governments rise and fall and along with them the societies that existed within their domains. Jesus and his apostles were neither political activists nor social workers. Their work had its influence in both spheres as it did in every other phase of human existence, but to place a false emphasis on either for that reason is certainly out of order.

Yet Social Gospelism, one of the factors that has split the church and alienated brethren all over the world, is going out of style. It still is in its heyday within the church. But some of the denominations are beginning to see that while they are pouring millions of dollars and endless hours into social causes their numbers are dwindling and the thinking of their leaders is ranging ever-farther afield from any kind of Biblical approach to anything.

In the February 10, 1975 issue of Time magazine, under the title, “The Hartford Heresies,” this influential publication reported a “document of theological protest” which was issued at Hartford, Connecticut by eighteen prominent theologians from nine denominations. Called also an “Appeal for Theological Affirmation,” the document condemns thirteen pervasive ideas said to undermine the concept of “transcendence,” i.e., the idea that God and His kingdom have a real, autonomous existence apart from the thoughts and efforts of humanity. Their statement takes issue with some of the most popular liberal fashions of recent years, including secular Christianity, political eschatology and the human potential movement. Three, of the assertions (there are thirteen in all) are particularly interesting, since they call into question the thinking present in Social Gospelism. They condemned as “false and debilitating” the theses that:

10. “The world must set the agenda for the church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the church’s mission in the world.

11. “An emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

12. “The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.”

Here we have a clear admission that “social, political and economic programs” in the church are merely instances of “letting the world set the agenda for the church.” That’s what we have been saying all along! We knew that the Bible did not command any purpose for the church other than evangelism, edification, and benevolence to needy saints (Eph. 4:11; 12). We have been rightly saying that the world was the source of this new “Gospel” and not the Bible (Gal.1:8,9). It looks like some of the denominational folks, having nearly drowned in it, are now admitting that the Social Gospel is not from the Bible and are renouncing it, while some of our gullible brethren are still wading up to their necks in it. “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

Truth Magazine, XX:16, p. 7-8
April 16, 1976