What’s wrong with the “social gospel” is the implication that you can have a gospel that is not social.
The Social Gospel. You may be unfamiliar with the term. Here is the super quick, too brief, backstory. The term gospel means good news, and it references the good news that God came to save and redeem our badly fractured world through Jesus. Some people claim that the gospel is a message of ideas about Jesus to be believed and trusted. The gospel is a message you give. Other people insist that the gospel is a way of treating people like Jesus–things like feeding the hungry and fighting racial injustice and caring for orphans. The gospel is compassion you live.
This second group was a huge concern to people in the church in which I grew up, and we had a label for them. They were “social gospel” people. This was a serious indictment. Very Serious. Social gospel equaled false gospel. Distorted gospel. Corrupted gospel. Truncated gospel. No gospel. And I believe that. A gospel that is all live and no give is a false gospel.
Unfortunately, the church I knew and loved expunged the social from the gospel and embraced our own false gospel. It is a serious indictment, I know, but the words of the Bible leave me no choice. In Matthew 25, Jesus’s story suggests that those who have embraced the gospel of the kingdom can be identified by their social care, and vice versa. A failure to live out social care marks those who have not embraced the gospel of the kingdom.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36, NIV)
Jesus goes on to clarify that they “fed him” when they fed the hungry. That’s what the gospel of the kingdom does. It feeds. It welcomes the immigrant. It supplies water. It provides clothing. It is a common Bible theme:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27, NIV)
The genuine religion God loves will care for orphans and widows. There is no such thing as genuine faith without compassionate care. God asks this poignant question through the Apostle John:
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (1 John 3:17, NIV)
You can’t separate embracing the gospel from living out the compassion of the gospel. They are inseparable. Embrace either on its own, and you have a false gospel. The gospel is something that you give, but it is also something that you live. The gospel is something that you glive. Why yes, I am creating a new word, thank you. Glive. It’s a great word. No-one glived the gospel better than Jesus did.
John says that Jesus came from the Father to us, full of grace and truth. Full of live and give. He lived grace and he gave truth. He gave grace and lived truth. He glived the gospel. So, in John chapter 4, he goes to a Samaritan village and sits down to talk with and enjoy a drink of water with a Samaritan woman. He shatters cultural patterns of dismissing women and “halfbreed” Samaritans. It is unmistakable, and she is stunned by the grace of the gospel lived. Then Jesus gives her the gospel—his power to entirely transform her life and reconcile her to the Father. And she embraces the gospel He glived.
I want to be gracious and fair to my childhood church. We did not entirely dismiss feeding the hungry or loving the marginalized; we simply divorced such care from the gospel. It was related to the gospel but not intrinsic to it. Mind you, it could be a path to share the gospel, so you might hear someone say “a hungry belly can’t hear the gospel.” Feed people and you have their ear. You might feed people, then, in order to give the gospel.
This made caring for people or feeding the hungry strategic and helpful. It also made such care optional. Feeding people could open a door for the gospel, if you chose that strategy. Pursuing justice for minorities could perk up their ears, so you might want to consider that option.
But this is not the sense I get from Jesus at all. Pushing through walls that marginalized women and ethnic minorities was not a tactic to help the gospel. It was part of the gospel. It was the gospel glived. Core to the gospel message is the God who desperately loves His runaway kids and wants them to come back home. Core to our invitation to embrace the love of the Father is to live the love of the Father.
You can’t have give without live. You can’t have the “make disciples” without the “teaching them to observe.” You can’t have “enter the kingdom” without “taking in strangers.” You can’t have the religion God loves without caring for orphans. You can’t have truth without grace. You can’t have give without live.
So, let’s glive the gospel.
[Feature Photo Credit: Leroy_Skalstad at Pixabay]