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True Social Gospel


True Social Gospel

As we have worked our way through the Gospel of Luke at Southwood recently, I’ve been surprised at how much Jesus seems to care about something so seemingly “un-spiritual” as who I eat with. Jesus seems to say that issues like who is at my dinner table or on my party invitation list, how I relate to the materially poor or the marginalized, how I approach systemic injustice in my community or in the world, and many others are inextricably linked to my relationship with him and ultimately my eternal destiny (See Luke 14:1-24 for a prime example).

It has reminded me recently that Paul once opposed Peter to his face because Peter was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Peter wasn’t teaching bad theology; he was merely eating at the wrong dinner table. But the gospel itself was at stake in Peter’s choice of dinner companions.

As someone who grew up in a theologically conservative church and now pastors one, this has challenged me at times and at other times made me downright uncomfortable. It’s a big deal to me that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – how do such “unspiritual” concerns as who I eat with fit with that understanding of the gospel? I’m convinced they do – and must – but before I tell you some of what I believe the true gospel calls us to individually and as a church, let me give you some historical perspective on why I think this can be so hard for us to grasp.

The “Social Gospel”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a theological movement developed and became known over time as the “social gospel.” Many noble impulses contributed to the thinking, and many involved in its leadership over the years have been great lovers of Jesus. But over time a desire to see Christianity address social ills – as it always has – developed into a belief that societal evil (not so much Adam’s “original sin”) was the root problem man faced, and thus salvation would come through cultural restoration and political activism.
One of the most harmful results of this line of thinking to the message of the biblical gospel was that to many, Jesus’ primary role in such a salvation was not his atoning death on the cross as a substitute for sinners but rather his example of a social revolutionary who came to make right all that was wrong in the Roman and Jewish cultures of his day. He became seen as a leader who upended power structures, liberated women and other marginalized groups, and taught the rich how to engage with the poor. So, Jesus was still important in the redemption and restoration process, but fundamentally this version of the Christian gospel offers him as an exemplar for many human saviors of society rather than as the Savior for many human sinners and a broken world.
In some circles this focus on the temporal and physical at the expense of the eternal and spiritual led to Christians and even pastors not being required to affirm traditionally foundational elements of the Christian gospel, such as Jesus’ virgin birth, his substitutionary atonement, and his bodily resurrection. What was of prime importance was that one believed Jesus to teach and demonstrate the proper societal practices and cultural values (defined differently by different “social gospel” groups at different times).

The “Un-Social Gospel”
As is often the case with theological movements in the Church, many have reacted against the social gospel movement and pointed out some of its pitfalls. In fact, concerns with the social gospel and some of its theologically liberal teachings were key factors, among others, in the 1973 formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination of which Southwood is a part. While there has remained an interesting strand that tends to place hope in the next president or to focus on the protection of family values in our society, I will leave that discussion for another day and say that by and large the desire was to reclaim those foundational biblical beliefs being abandoned and to focus on Jesus as the Savior of sinners (spiritual priorities over/against social concerns).
In an effort to do that, however, I think we have found that sometimes pendulums swing and overcorrection is quite easy. From the noble impulse to keep the Church focused on preaching Christ and him crucified, we sometimes function as though Jesus came only to save us from hell and take us to heaven. In other words, we sometimes accept the social gospel’s false dichotomy between eternal and temporal, spiritual and social, and neglect how Jesus transforms society, too. Corporately we tend to avoid involving the church in community or political activism and often teach our people to avoid society rather than engage it. Individually, many of us want to worship Jesus on Sunday and then do business, throw parties, develop friendships, and raise our children however we please. And whenever we do so, we separate two things never meant to be divorced.

The True Social Gospel
Jesus says there’s actually a third way He calls his Church and his people to follow. Jesus comes as the King of a new kingdom, and he invites people into that kingdom based solely on their relationship with him through his life, death, and resurrection. And at the same time, he invites them into a kingdom not alone but in a new community – a society with new values, new ways of relating to each other, new priorities – because He is coming to redeem his people and to restore his creation. In other words, the good news of Jesus as Savior and King is inherently social and revolutionary. He changes everything!

The good news starts with declaring a new King and Lord – not Caesar or self but Jesus – which is intensely political and personal. The same message of the cross that accomplishes my personal salvation and restores my relationship with God then also breaks down long-standing barriers and restores my relationship with former enemies and strangers (Ephesians 2:11-22). Jesus teaches his followers to long for heaven and at the same time to pray for the kingdom of their Heavenly Father to come here on earth (Matthew 6:9-10).
Just as the Bible says salvation is by faith alone but never faith without works, just as it teaches the root must be addressed but the fruit never neglected, so Jesus must be Savior but never without being Lord of all of life and society. By inviting the sick, the poor, the blind, and the lame to eat at his table, God has created a new community that must function differently, feel new, and taste like heaven to the world. Jesus rescues sinners, restores them to relationship with the Father, and empowers them by his Holy Spirit to transform society – among themselves and beyond themselves. The true gospel must rightly be called in that sense a social gospel.

The True Social Gospel for Southwood
Hopefully, thinking this way inspires your heart and enlivens your brain to consider all the ways God might call his redeemed people at Southwood to live as a redeemed community. I’d love to hear your ideas, but here are three general applications that stick out to me:

1) Always keep the word-and-deed nature of the kingdom united. Don’t let Jesus or the people in whom He dwells be isolated from current social issues. At the same time, don’t let a particular social issue get separated from the broader gospel. The ways we pursue racial reconciliation, consider why someone lives in government housing or a trailer park or where such housing is located, and approach our schools’ desegregation order are gospel issues. They are not in themselves the whole gospel, but they are certainly not optional add-ons that we can choose to ignore as less than spiritual matters. 

2) We must ask ourselves how Huntsville is different because we are here. This doesn’t mean how can we make Huntsville more like us but rather more like the kingdom – as God makes us also more like his kingdom. How are we as a body corporately a taste of the kingdom to Huntsville that makes those around us long to know the King whose reign is marked by justice, mercy, and peace like this?

3) To finish where we started, with whom should we find ourselves around a dinner table? If Jesus is truly my King, I will regularly share a table with, enjoy life-giving conversation with, and celebrate parties with people I don’t naturally get along with, people of different ethnicities, people of different religious backgrounds, and people who make less money than I do. As genuine relationships develop across such barriers, we’ll care for each other and experience Jesus – my friends, fellow broken imagebearers, will learn there’s good news of great joy: a Savior. For all people. Who changes everything.