The Social Responsibility of Christians

We fundies in our insular little blog world have had a bit of discussion regarding social responsibility recently. You can catch some of the discussion at My Two Cents, and additional posts on Pensees and Paleoevangelical.

I think that perhaps the argument we are having among ourselves is somewhat affected by not carefully defining terms. When I say “social action”, does it mean the same thing as Bob Bixby means? I am not altogether sure that it does.

In thinking about this, I did a little skimming in The Fundamentals this evening. There might be some oblique references to a social agenda of some kind in the chapters on missions, though they were not explicit enough to warrant a quote. Other than those chapters, I cannot find much reference to the issue in that source. I think I’ll have to do some digging amongst the older fundies writings to see if they address such issues at all.

The next thing I did was to look up the Wikipedia entry on the Social Gospel. Here is their definition:

The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Social Gospel principles continue to inspire newer movements such as Christians Against Poverty. The movement applies Christian principles to social problems, especially poverty, liquor, drugs, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospel leaders were overwhelmingly post-millennialist. That is they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. For the most part, they rejected pre-millennialist theology (which was predominant in the Southern United States), according to which the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and Christians should devote their energies to preparing for it rather than addressing the issue of social evils. Their millennial views are very similar to those shared by Christian Reconstructionists, except that Social Gospel leaders are predominently liberal politically and religiously (in contrast to the Reconstructionists, who tend to hold politically liberatarian and religiously fundamentalist views).

The Canadian Encyclopedia (an effort by a noted Canadian socialist) has this entry:

The Social Gospel is an attempt to apply Christianity to the collective ills of an industrializing society, and was a major force in Canadian religious, social and political life from the 1890s through the 1930s. It drew its unusual strength from the remarkable expansion of Protestant, especially EVANGELICAL, churches in the latter part of the 19th century. For several decades the prevalent expression of evangelical nationalism, the Social Gospel was equally a secularizing force in its readiness to adopt such contemporary ideas as liberal progressivism, reform Darwinism, biblical criticism and philosophical idealism as vehicles for its message of social salvation. It developed, however, a distinctive spirituality elevating social involvement to a religious significance expressed in prayers, hymns, poems and novels of “social awakening.” Its central belief was that God was at work in social change, creating moral order and social justice. It held an optimistic view of human nature and entertained high prospects for social reform. Leaders reworked such traditional Christian doctrines as sin, atonement, salvation and the Kingdom of God to emphasize a social content relevant to an increasingly collective society.

Well, I could quote more sites, but you can do the Google search yourself. These are probably already too long! And perhaps they are not precise enough…

But just a few thoughts on this:

  1. The Social Gospel had its impetus from socialism which found a ready and willing market for its ideas in churches that were dispensing with orthodoxy and embracing religious liberalism.
  2. The Social Gospel, as I understand it, became a substitute for the real Gospel in the ‘ministries’ of the mainline ‘churches’. They saw the church’s mission to champion the cause of the working man, especially against the evils of capitalism.
  3. In Canada, this found its expression in the politics of Tommy Douglas and the CCF political party, later the NDP (New Democratic Party, which I like to say is neither new nor democratic and they are such a bunch of sourpusses, it isn’t much of a party, either.) These are the folks that brought us universal health care. [A great system as long as you don’t get sick.]
  4. The problem with the social action of the Social Gospelers is that in general they have succeeded only in perpetuating the problems rather than empowering the individuals they are supposed to help. We see this expressed in all kinds of ways in the liberal welfare state, where the mainline churches have often joined hands with secular socialists to achieve social ends.

Since the Social Gospel is inextricably linked with religious liberalism on the one hand, and socialism on the other, I can understand why fundamentalists have resisted any support of its aims in any way.

In the new-evangelical compromise of the 1950s, one of the pillars of New Evangelicalism was to change the approach of the evangelical church to social problems.

“Third, Ockenga also issued a ‘summons to social involvement’ and a ‘new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life.’”
Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line, p. 117-118

Well, given the history of the relationship between Fundamentalists and the (New) Evangelicals, it isn’t hard to see why fundamentalists have tended to resist this point of view as well.

Some are arguing today that Fundamentalists have separated themselves out from any social involvement, that they have gone too far. Yet others will point out that Fundamentalists have run Rescue Missions, Crisis Pregnancy Centres, homes for drug-addicted teens and adults, schools for the handicapped, and many other efforts devoted to meeting social needs, with a gospel-centered approach. (By gospel-centered, I mean that when we engage in such activities, our goal is to reach the inner man with the gospel and to help with the particular social problems individuals might have, and not the other way around.)

In fact I believe that the charge against Fundamentalism is baseless. Fundamentalists may not have the numbers or the resources (overall) that other larger Christian groups have, but their efforts do exist and are attempting to impact their communities for good.

In general, there are some things that I would consider acceptable social action, and others that I wouldn’t endorse. These are my opinions only, I am not coming to hard and fast dogmatic conclusions.

  • Activities that promote the ideas of socialism and leftist political agendas are unacceptable.
  • Activities that primarily involve the handout of cash or some sort of direct or indirect financial assistance to poverty stricken people without an incentive for personal initiative is not acceptable. “A hand up, not a hand out” as they say.
  • A philosophy of social action that exalts the social action as the end rather than a means is unacceptable. We don’t do good to feel good, we do good to genuinely help.
  • Disaster relief and emergency aid are one thing, ongoing welfare is another.
  • Churches and Christian individuals should be most involved in efforts that reach men at their deepest points of need. Although I generally don’t think the church has a ministry responsibility for social action, I don’t have a problem with churches being involved in gospel-centered mission works such as I mentioned earlier.

Well, those are just a few thoughts for today. The whole topic is rather large and impossible to write a comprehensive philosophy without a great deal of study. Since we are having this conversation rather consistently, I suggest that someone is going to have to do some heavy lifting in the study of this topic to help settle the questions that keep coming up.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    I’m glad you’re writing about this, and we have similar thinking, Don. I believe we are responsible for a brother in need. God uses “disasters” to cause people to wake up, and who are we to “deliver” them from something physically that God intends to get their attention. It may habe already been written, but someone would do well to write a book on this subject, a Biblical theology of social work of sorts.

  2. Derek Makri says:

    I totally agree with your thoughts. I do not think we should promote a social gospel, but I will say that I think God blesses when we seek to help the needy, etc. The Bible does have much to say about helping the needy, caring for the fatherless, visiting those in prison, etc. For example, our church has a food pantry, but it is really for needy people within our church, not so much people outside the church.