Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 21, 1959
NUMBER 3, PAGE 1,6b-7a

The Social Gospel Among Churches Of Christ

Robert Atkinson, Miami, Florida

What is the "Social Gospel?" Does it pervert the gospel of Christ? What are the practices of those who believe in a social gospel? To what extent has the social gospel invaded the churches of Christ? The answers to the above questions become increasingly important as trends toward a predominately social program become increasingly apparent in some churches of Christ. The pendulum of emphasis is swinging away from the spiritual matters which are necessary to a restoration of New Testament Christianity. This backward swing of the pendulum is still gaining momentum in a few areas and is leaving in its wake a frightful picture of destruction. Churches have been divided, friends have been alienated, and the spirit and doctrine of New Testament Christianity have been all but abolished in many localities. Some of the forces which have wrought this destruction and have succeeded in arresting the glorious attempt to promote the unity of the New Testament Church are of infidel origin. I refer to the attitudes and practices of the promoters of the social gospel. A comparison of the social gospel with the gospel of Christ will conclusively demonstrate that the beliefs and practices of the former are squarely opposed to those of the latter.

The Gospel Of Christ

The gospel of Christ is intended to save man from his sins. It is God's power to accomplish the redemption of fallen man. The gospel means "good news" and the news referred to is that we may be reconciled to God in one body by the cross of Christ. (Eph. 2:16.) The facts and true purpose of the gospel are set forth in I Cor. 15:1-4:

Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand: By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures ...

Infidels have always regarded this gospel to be foolish and inadequate. They regard it to be foolish because it insists upon a belief in the supernatural, and they regard it as inadequate because it does not emphasize the betterment of man's social conditions in this present world. The gospel teaches that the things of this earth are passing and vain, and that the truly wise and mature individual attaches more importance to his spiritual and eternal welfare than to his social and material welfare.

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. (Col. 2:14.)

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr calls the viewpoint expressed above "transcendental irresponsibility" by which he means that it neglects the task of improving this present world. Other men hurl less-scholarly brickbats at the gospel and ridicule it by suggesting that it contains the vain hope of "pie in the sky by and by." But the gospel has always appeared to be foolishness to the "wise" of this world, and in answer, God says, "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God." (I Cor. 1:18.) Thus, the Apostle Paul said of his preaching and work among them, "For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (I Cor. 2:2.) Paul's preaching and work was centered around that which was able to save the souls of men and women, the cross of Christ. His "church program" was definitely lacking in many of the activities which characterize many "church programs" today. But it did possess an unbounded confidence in the power of the gospel of Christ. Eternal life was held before sinners as a reward for yielding their hearts to the drawing power of the gospel. The people who believed the facts of the gospel were called upon to obey the commandments of the gospel, and to such obedient believers were given the promises and spiritual blessings which are in Christ. This is readily apparent through the whole of the Book of Acts and from the following words of the Son of God:

Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come unto me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. (Jno. 6:43-48)

The Social Gospel

This writer is content to allow some of the promoters of the social gospel to introduce themselves and then proceed to define their attitudes toward Christ and present their concept of the gospel. Dr. Shailer Mathews, former Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago, claims the dubious honor of being the first to earnestly study and promote the social gospel in America. In making this claim, he brings to the reader's attention the names of many other men who have achieved a measure of prominence in promoting this particular brand of modernism.

Interest in the social implications of the Christian religion has greatly broadened since 1895 when I began the publication of a series of articles on Christian Sociology in the American Journal Of Sociology. These articles, after changes, were published as The Social Teaching Of Jesus in 1897. Although Freemantle, Westcott. Abbott, Strong. Ely, Herron, Hill. and Gladden had aroused the conscience of the church to its social obligations, so far as I know this volume was the first attempt in America to study systematically and exegetically the bearing of the gospel material upon social institutions. The interest in the subject was extended by the notable works of Peabody, Rauschenbusch, Vedder and Ward. At the same time social science was rapidly developing and the place of religion among social forces and controls was being more sharply defined in a considerable literature, both sociological and psychological. As important as these two types of studies was the application of historical methods to the study of the New Testament in order to appreciate the social/religious forces which affected its authors and the early stages of the Christian movement.

It is at once apparent that the man who sets himself forth as the dean of the advocates of the social gospel in America, also sets forth an endorsement of the view that the New Testament is the product of human forces rather than a product of the Mind of God. The method of study which he endorses is similar to the widely-hailed method of scientific inquiry which has as a basic law the assumption that everything observed by man has a natural (as opposed to supernatural) cause.

Dr. Shailer, What Think Ye Of Jesus Christ?

"In the year 27 — or was it 29 — of the era to which he was to give his name, a carpenter, just entering full maturity, closed the door of his shop in Nazareth and stepped into history. Two hundred years later men were to believe that he was the incarnation of God born without earthly father. In a thousand years they were to regard him as the God-man who by his death made it possible for God to forgive those whom he selected from a rebellious and lost humanity."

A more blatant infidelity than that expressed above would be difficult to find. Nonetheless, all of the recognized leaders in this area of modernism share with Dr. Mathews the belief that Jesus was NOT the Son of God.

The next article in this series will deal further with the attitudes and practices advocated by those who endorse the infidel social gospel.