The Problem with Our Gospel #4: The (un)Social Gospel

Homelessness, poverty, racism, sexism, institutionalized greed: injustice. Our world is broken. And the fracture reveals itself both in the sin-shattered lives of individual humans and in the sin-shaped institutions that we create. We know the gospel has something to say about the former. But what about the latter? Does the gospel have anything to do with working toward more just societies, or is the gospel only about individual transformation?

Put differently, does your gospel story care about the victims of injustice in the world? Note that the question is not whether you care, but whether your gospel does. Does your gospel have anything to say about the problems of society?

I know that this is 4th post in my series on 3 key problems in our gospel. (Math may not be my strong suit, but I can count.) But I realized that I just couldn’t bring this series to a close without commenting on one further problem, one that really stems from the a combination of the other three. If the gospel that we tell is really about meeting my needs (Problem #1) so that I (Problem #2) can get into heaven (Problem #3), then it should come as no surprise that many don’t think the gospel has anything to do with meeting the broader needs of a broken world. The gospel is about personal salvation, not social action. Individual saved persons may certainly choose to try and meet the problems they encounter in society, but that is something other than the gospel. In that sense, the gospel is un-social.

Other people make the opposite mistake. They recognize that something must be wrong with such a clearly un-social gospel. They hear God’s repeated demands for his people to take care of the weak and poor in their midst, showing justice to all. And they rightly point out that we need to make some sense of the fact that Jesus repeatedly connected the gospel to God’s “kingdom” – i.e. the place where the whole world would manifest God’s glorious purposes. So they conclude that the gospel is the good news that, with hard work and diligent effort, God’s people can build God’s kingdom in the world right now. This is the oft-mentioned “social gospel.”

As with many things, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As I’ve argued throughout, we cannot reduce the gospel to a self-centered message about an individual getting into eternal life. (I think it’s worth saying again here that I think the gospel includes all of this; the problem comes when we make this the sum total of the gospel.) But if the gospel is about the larger story of God’s purposes for all of creation, the amazing reality of what God accomplish in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to accomplish those purposes, and the stunning fact that he has invited you and me to participate in that story, then the gospel absolutely must have something to do with the world around me.

But the “social gospel” isn’t the solution either. Here we make the mistake of thinking that the kingdom of God is something that we build. That was never the case. Even in the Garden of Eden, God’s kingdom was a gift. As soon as Adam and Eve tried to take over and do it themselves, everything fell apart. And, if we fast forward to the end, we see in Revelation that the future kingdom also comes as a gift. We don’t achieve it; we receive it.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything. The gospel is the good news that through Jesus we have been re-established as God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory wherever we go. We don’t build the kingdom, we manifest it.

I think you can see this idea at work in the stories about Robin Hood and his merry men. They seem to spend most of their time camping, drinking, wrestling, singing, and annoying rich people. To me, it always sounded like Peter Pan for adults.

At the heart of the Robin Hood story, however, rests something much more significant. The kingdom is broken. Richard the Lionhearted, England’s king, has been gone for many years. And, in his absence, Prince John, the king’s brother, and all of John’s cronies have taken over the kingdom, oppressing the people and pillaging the land. The land is now ruled by greed, power, violence, and hatred.

Robin Hood and his merry men have different vision of how things should be. They see a kingdom ruled by grace and peace, a kingdom where the rich help the poor, the strong serve the weak, and everything is as it should be. They see a kingdom where the king rules again.

In many ways, these are stories about faith and hope. Despite all of the problems that the kingdom has and all of the obstacles they run into, Robin Hood and his men continue to work for their vision of the kingdom. The king has been gone for so long, and many have begun to wonder if he will ever return. But Robin Hood’s men continue to long for what could be, what should be.

However, it all rests on the coming of the king. Robin and his men can trick Prince John all they want, and it won’t change anything. They can steal from the rich, give to the poor, and have all the forest parties their hearts desire. But without the king the kingdom will still be broken, evil powers will still control the way things go, people will still be oppressed, the vision will remain unrealized.

But when the king comes it will be different. That’s the hope at the center of the Robin Hood. That’s what makes Robin and his men work so hard. That’s what makes them “merry.” In the face of injustice and oppression, they have their vision of the kingdom and they live out that vision to the best of their ability in the forest, their outpost of how things should be.

When he comes, it will all be better. When he comes, the kingdom will be restored and things will be as they should be.

When he comes….

The truth is neither the un-social gospel nor the social gospel, but the gospel of the kingdom.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

13 thoughts on “The Problem with Our Gospel #4: The (un)Social Gospel

  1. Hello Marc,
    I must admit before going any further that I didn’t read your other relevent post on the Gospel. Marc, you ask in your blog, does the gospel have anything to do with working toward more just societies, or is the gospel only about inividual transformation?

    I would answer that question by lookinhg very closely at the book of Acts; it is here that we see how the Gospel is defined.

    The early chruch preached the good news (gospel) to men and women who were seperated from God because of sin. The gospel instrcucted those who were seperated from God, giving a clear picture of how to be reconciled with God.

    The gospel called men and women to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ—as a result of changed lives social transfromation happened. Social transfromation will always happen when a person or group of people are born-again.

    While good works and social mindedness are foundational to Christian living—-I would argue they are not the primary or the foundational priniples of the Gospel. It can be stated like the faith and works issue—what saves a person fatih or works? We know that a perosn is saved by faith —but works are apart of salvation.

    I did a series on the mission of the church on my blog that looks at this issue from a different angle, stop by and leave some thoughts:

    In Christ,
    Brian Osisek

    1. Brian, thanks for a great comment. And I think the other posts in the series might help clear up a few of your questions. I’m definitely not trying to say that personal transformation isn’t part of the gospel. But the gist of the series has been to argue that personal transformation is not the sum total of the gospel. And I think that we only appreciate how amazingly great the gospel is for me as an individual when we understand it in the context of God’s purposes for all of creation.

      Acts is a great place to go for understanding the gospel. And I think you’ll see there that the outpouring of the spirit is meant to be read against the larger background of OT promises regarding God pouring out his spirit on his people so that they will again be all that he intended them to be from the very beginning – his image bearers manifesting his glory in his creation. Granted, Acts does tend to focus on how the spirit comes on and transforms individuals, I don’t think we should read those stories in isolation from everything that the Bible has said about what the outpouring of the spirit means. (I’d also question why we wouldn’t also look at other places in the NT where the gospel is clearly about more than just personal transformation – e.g. Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom”).

      And I definitely don’t want to be read as supporting some form of works salvation here. Indeed, that’s exactly why I rejected the idea that we should think of ourselves as “building” the kingdom. God’s gifts are always gifts, and the kingdom is a gift. But I don’t think we can/should separate the good news of how you enter salvation from the good news of what you’ve entered. I’m not even entirely certain how you understand the former without some concept of the latter. They are distinguishable concepts, but they are both a part of the good news.

      1. Within the framework of Acts, I think we only give it a superficial reading if we don’t think ‘social action’ is integral to the Gospel. Acts is linked to Malachi and the last chapter is a stern rebuke to those who don’t care for widows, orphans, sick and the refugee.

        Within the framework of the OT setting we see that the church raises up to care for its self and those outside the church family. The Apostles recognise it as an inherent part of the gospel and therefore diligently set out to ordain a ministry that will specifically work within that social care environment.

        The Gospel message cannot be defined in mere words. Its the whole narrative story of Christ and I therefore we are also called to join in that narrative story through our lives and how we live as individuals and how we engage in society.

  2. Thank you, Marc.

    We live and work downtown, and were confronted daily (and nightly, via the constant drum of helicopters!) by the Occupy Portland movement, and its attempt to to force a just “kingdom” apart from submitting to the King. A few friends and members of our church were drawn into the fray; some camped out, so it’s close to home for Grace Bible Church. The experience has left me with a couple of conclusions regarding the gospel in its social dynamics:

    1. Everyone wants a certain kind of kingdom to live in. They want it to be fair and just. (Some, to be sure, want an unfair kingdom, but only if the unfairness is experienced by other people, not themselves, and only because such an unfair kingdom seems to give them what they want at the moment.)

    2. Very few people want the only King that is able to usher in such a kingdom. The problem with this is that you have to wait for the full, geo-political aspects of the coming Kingdom–and most people do not do “waiting” as well as they do getting, fighting, gaining, earning, etc. As a result, we fight for what we want the kingdom to be, but rarely look to and wait for the King, let alone ask others to wait, too.

    3. It is a tragic loss when present members of His Kingdom fail to point to and insist on the subjection of all to that King, BEFORE there can be any talk of kingdom-justice. In other words, when the church (many Christians down here went public in their identification with and support of the Occupy Portland movement, including many pastors) abandons its message, and the primacy of its proclamation, or dovetails it into the message of non-Christians (be they rich, poor, right or wrong), it stops being a church (called out and called to), and simply becomes a team-member to the great (non-Christian) cause de jour–a type of chaplain to the movement (meeting a spiritual need for the good and success of the organization), instead of a confront-er to the entire non-Christian culture.

    4. All that being said, of course there are societal evils that all Christians should not participate in, but should even purposefully and strategically expose. But the beginning of such restorative/confrontational living must be with the personal participation in the restoration of the soul to God–and should proceed with the proclaimed gospel, in all its exclusivity, held high as the vanguard of the movement, not as a mere silent partner.

    1. Ken, thanks for the interesting comment. I’m curious, though, how much you think what you have said is different from I’ve said. I think I made it pretty clear in the post that I think the kingdom is always a gift and that I would reject any attempt to identify the kingdom with a particular social movement. If not, I’ll say it again. You cannot build the kingdom.

      So i think we might be on similar pages. But I would be a bit more careful with “wait” language. If all you mean by that is that we cannot build the kingdom and that we can only receive it as a gift, ultimately receiving its final fulfillment at the return of Christ, then great. That’s what I mean too. But “wait” language often gets heard as meaning that the gospel really has nothing to do with these issues and that we shouldn’t get involved, which simply supports the status quo. Instead, I’d prefer that we talk in terms of faithfully manifesting kingdom values wherever we are. That, of course, gets us into a discussion of what qualifies as “kingdom values” (i.e. Are the various “occupy” movements legitimate expressions of the kingdom). But I find that to be a much more profitable discussion than the question of whether the gospel even has anything to say about these issues.

      As I’ve said throughout this series: the gospel includes the story of personal salvation. That must remain a parts of our gospel. But that is not the sum total of the gospel. The gospel of the kingdom is bigger than me.

      1. Sorry, Marc. Looks like I was not clear. I was in agreement with your piece, and was intended to lend a voice of agreement! Of course the gospel is about more than individual salvation, although it seems a bit artificial to me to conceive of an individual experiencing that salvation without a corresponding passion to see it spread into all aspects of his/her community and world.

        1. I thought that was the case, but I just wanted to make sure. And I still think your connection with the Occupy movement was a good one. It raises in a very specific way how this discussion relates to everyday situations.

  3. First, I love the Robin Hood analogy. I never looked at it that way, but it’s a perfect fit (with the exception that we, of course, should not do illegal things like robbing one to give to another in the name of The King… but I know that’s not what you meant 🙂 ).

    Second, I think I finally get what you’ve been trying to say. I have to admit that through this series of posts I found myself scratching my head a bit, wondering where you were going. I admit I was uncomfortable because you were trying to pull the focus away from individual salvation. But now I see that what you are saying (at least I think) is that while personal salvation is extremely important, God’s ultimate goal is to restore His Kingdom. The time we have on earth, the time we have to transform individually and to help lead others to salvation, is temporary. God’s Kingdom is eternal, and He is returning to establish His perfect Kingdom. He wants us there… but everything, including our salvation, is to the Glory of God and His Kingdom.

    1. Yes, that’s very much the direction that I’m trying to take things. You pointed out that you were nervous because I was takings the focus off individual salvation. Absolutely! That’s not to say that individual salvation isn’t important – it definitely is – but it isn’t the focus. god and his kingdom is the focus, with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the center. That’s where our primary attention needs to rest. Everything else flows out of that.

  4. In an attempt to keep this subject – the key problems with our gospel – going, I’d like to suggest some other problems you could possibly blog about.

    In no particular order:

    1. The gospel is about the redemption of all of creation and not just humans, an element of the gospel that gives divine worth to the physical universal universe, and a reasonable argument for participating in good stewardship (sustainable and healthy practices) of our planet and its components.

    2. The gospel is about the ultimate defeat (or removal) of evil from God’s presence. The gospel is the ultimate story of good vs. evil. This gospel of justice is effectively the source and final word on all thoughts and practices on justice today.

  5. Marc –

    Thanks for a great series of posts on what on the surface seems like an easy subject. Each installment has piqued not only an interest, but a desire to examine my own paradigm with which I view the Gospel. This last post, at least for me, ties it all together. When I think of a “social gospel,” I immediately think of Matthew 25:31-46. Make no mistake, the King will come back, and He will want a reckoning of our service. We will have to give an account. Mind you, we cannot work our way into Heaven; this is not what that passage is ultimately about. We will work to help others, not to be saved, but because we are saved. James said that we will demonstrate our faith by our works. Therefore, a social gospel is not the sum of the Gospel, but rather a building block of the Gospel. In more Wesleyan terms, after we are justified through God’s grace at our conversion, we begin to grow in sanctifying grace. It is through our sanctifying grace that we reach out to the world, and through that reaching, we reflect God’s light into this dark world.

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