The Benevolent Empire versus The Social Gospel

I have often heard people speak of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a time when many within the Protestant church in the United States began to get distracted from its primary mission by a focus on social causes. 

If you are familiar with this discussion, you know that I am referring to the “social gospel” and its consequences. 

So say, if you are beginning to get interested in orphan work or working with those who are financially poor or in crisis situations, you will find that people will often say something like, be careful, because when people began to get interested in those kinds of things in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, they ended up losing the gospel. 

Now, there’s no question in my mind, the social gospel ended up being no gospel at all. 

It’s not a positive term. 

If you are serious about the mission of the church, the glory of God, and the making of disciples, you definitely don’t want to be described as someone who is into the social gospel. What’s more, if you want to really love people, you don’t want to be described as someone who is into the social gospel.

Because spiritual problems are people’s biggest problems. 

And as Jonathan Edwards once said, “Spiritual judgments are the greatest calamity that can befall a people.”

Therefore, obviously, it’s right to be wary of Christians losing their focus on the gospel and we do want to be careful that nothing distracts the church as an institution from her primary and most urgent mission.

I get that.

And really, as anyone gets interested in anything, it is helpful for others to warn them, as you do this, don’t lose sight of what is most vital and most urgent. Further, it’s especially important for us to be concerned that the church as an institution doesn’t lose its focus, because the church as an institution has been formed for a very special and unique purpose that she only can fulfill and Satan obviously in his war against God and His people wants to do anything he can to distract the church from that mission.

But still, with all that said, as we seek to keep the gospel primary as individuals and to guard the church’s unique purpose, it’s also probably important we help each other be accurate in how we speak as we do so. And I just don’t think it is accurate to speak as if it was only in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that Christians began to get seriously interested in these kinds of issues.

Now, I need to speak carefully, because obviously I don’t think most people would believe that it was.

Still, I have heard people imply that this period of history is somehow proof that when people in the church get interested in these kinds of issues, they lose sight of the gospel.

And, historically that’s simply not true.

There were those who called themselves Christians who did lose sight of the gospel during this time and certainly there were places that called themselves churches that were distracted in the middle of all this, I will assume and grant that, but I just can’t assume or grant that it was because of this new and intense focus on mercy ministries that did it. Whatever happened with the church as an institution and the social gospel during this time, I don’t think it was a new interest among individual Christians in ministering to people who were in crisis or addressing these problems that caused it. 

In fact, if you just go a hundred years before, you will see this is clearly not the case.

Believers in the early 1800’s were so well known for voluntarily joining together to address various issues, that one of the descriptions for the American church at this time, is “The Benevolent Empire.” They established something like five hundred colleges before the Civil War, were a major force in the abolition movement, began temperance societies and we could go on and on. 

And while I would guess historians could trace all kinds of different factors which influenced this benevolent movement, one of the factors, had to be the Great Awakening. As people were truly born again, they became more and more concerned about the needs of their neighbors. In other words, we might say, if people look to the early 1900’s and say that a focus on social problems can lead to an abandoning the gospel, one might just as well look to the early 1800’s and say that a focus on the gospel will often lead to a greater concern. 

Now obviously, it is important to think through how that concern should be shown as believers and it is important to think through what actually is motivating that concern and it’s important to think through what is the church as an institution’s specific role is, if any, in addressing these issues. I think we should guard that and be vigilant about that because it is complicated, there are dangers, the church as an institution’s role is too important, and you know, there are also plenty of selfish reasons to be concerned about these kinds of issues as well, but as we do all that thinking and talking and discussing, we should be careful that we don’t start speaking as if anyone who was seriously concerned about these kinds of issues is necessarily losing sight of the gospel, especially if we are using history as our proof, because the fact is, historically, it’s just as easy to make the opposite case.  

While some might look at people who are becoming more concerned and more involved in these kinds of problems as evidence that the church is losing sight of theology, it might actually be because the church is interested in theology that people are becoming more concerned and more involved instead. On the other hand, while some might look at a church that as an institution is intensely focused on teaching deep theology as proof they are not concerned about these kinds of activities, the reality may be, the opposite. Instead it may be they recognize if their members are going to effectively engage in these kind of ministries, they desperately need the church to be and remain a place where they are taught deep, biblical theology and are discipled to love others the way God loved them. 

One thought on “The Benevolent Empire versus The Social Gospel

  1. Great article…I always think of the line of Peter and John when they were confronted with the lame man, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” At the command of Jesus they were not to take money or possessions with them and their objective wasn’t to improve the socio-economic value of the people they came in contact with, but to preach the gospel using the supernatural gifts He granted to them to validate their authority. God was interested in the physical well being of people, but not at the expense of the gospel.

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