Friday, July 13, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The Social Gospel and Social Justice

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Immanuel Can, I’m going to quote from my favourite source of lowest common denominator info, Wikipedia, to get us started.

Wikipedia calls the Social Gospel a “protestant Christian intellectual movement” that “applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10): ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ ”

You know how I love words like “operationalize”. But would you say that’s a reasonably accurate description?

Missed the Best Before Date

Immanuel Can: Yes. But something else needs to be said right at the start: namely, that the heyday of the Social Gospel was the end of the 19th century. While the movement did not entirely disappear afterward, it never held the same level of plausibility regarding the public agenda after that. So it’s old news, in a way. In contrast, social justice is a comparatively new ideology devoid of avowed religious content, much more popular today and still an issue.

The two are not identical, as I’m sure you realize.

Tom: Absolutely. The Social Gospel gang were Christians (or at least religious people), many of them with a particular view of prophecy that led them to feel their primary job was to improve this world. But their intentions were largely benevolent, whether or not they were right about their mission and whether or not they succeeded.

The modern “social justice” movement (and even the term is usually a pejorative) is largely secular and looks to address many of the same issues (poverty, racism, etc.) but with radically different methodology. However, there are many modern liberal Christians (like Howard Bess, for instance) who are philosophically aligned with these folks even if they would not use the name.

Christians of either stripe have this in common: their minds are occupied with and their lives devoted to the reshaping of society.

A Conception of Justice

IC: So how do we deal with the two at once? Let’s see …

Well, obviously they’re linked in this way: that each, for its own reasons, assumes that we have some sort of ultimate moral responsibility to establish a particular conception of justice. But the differences are also significant: the Social Gospel assumes some kind of “Kingdom of God” conception, and the social justice people … well, they shill for various other conceptions, really based on whatever they may personally prefer.

Tom: There are significant differences, as you say.

Firstly, the Social Gospel folks were content to see all races recognized as equal before God, whereas the social justice crowd are primarily exercised to see religious people who self-identify as homosexuals and transsexuals accepted into the church. It seems to me this is not motivated so much by a concern for the glory of God or the better understanding of the teaching of Christ as a desire to be able to pat people on the back and say, “You’re okay just the way you are” and to be able to say, “Look how reasonable and modern the church has become.”

Secondly, where the Social Gospel seems to have arisen out of belief, social justice arises out of the ideological conviction that certain sorts of sexual aberration are natural rather than a consequence of sin, and seeks to reinterpret scripture as needed to justify ideology.

IC: Well, to be fair, the social justice advocates include far wider ideological interests than merely the promotion of sexual license. They include such diverse things as feminism, neo-Marxism, economic redistributionism, multiculturalism, ecological concerns, animal rights, postcolonialism, and so on.

A Broader Range

Were you thinking of focusing specifically on the segment represented by the sexual libertines, Tom? Or should we be thinking of the broader range?

Tom: Well, I’m not so much concerned with the social justice agenda in the world as in the church. So let’s see: multiculturalism is all but universally accepted even among conservative Christians today; the sexual libertines are definitely here, and making their case for inclusion; and I’ve encountered Christians who are redistributionists and feminists as well. I suspect the animal rights folks and maybe the postcolonialists are under-represented in Christendom, but perhaps I don’t Google enough. Maybe we’d better consider the whole social justice agenda.

But let me ask you this first: Is it our job to fix the world?

IC: I think yes and no.

Yes, it is our job as humans created by God to take stewardship responsibility for our world; and to the extent that we can do so legitimately, we should. We should, for example, be concerned with things like poverty, fairness and human rights, and preeminently with the right of people to have the chance to consider the truth and to make rational commitments of faith and free choices, even if in so doing they do not make the choices we think they should make. But no, we should never think that by political action we will permanently remedy sin, heal the world of its evils, or bring about the conditions of the Kingdom of God. There can be no Kingdom without Messiah first.

So we should be active for the good of the world, but not think that our goodness is the answer for the world.

Is that about what you think?

Need and the Apostolic Pattern

Tom: I don’t think we’re wildly different on this. We look for “a city whose designer and maker is God”. Our priority is spiritual, always. But in service of the advancement of the Lord’s spiritual work, we cannot belie the truth by failing to address practical concerns that cross our path. We cannot say “keep warm and well fed” while ignoring physical need. That is the pattern of the apostles.

That said, there is a distinction to be made between displaying Christlikeness in my life and in my church — through generosity, through refusing to use race, income or sex as excuses to belittle or reject my fellow human beings, through showing compassion and care for those who are damaged, even if they have damaged themselves, and so on — and, in the alternative, maneuvering politically to get the government to impose my view of justice on others.

Those two things are worlds apart.

IC: Yet that’s the great concern about the social justice types. They see government as the means to impose their personal conception of fairness on other people, no matter what that involves. And sometimes it even involves such things as “redistributive justice”, by which money or other things are stolen from one group condemned as privileged and arbitrarily transferred to another group designated as victims. Sometimes it involves discriminatory quotas to rebalance perceived “historical inequities” or “systemic injustices” at the cost of creating new ones, and so on. Their axiom seems to be, “Speak loudly and carry a big stick”, and that big stick is the government.

God Rather Than Men

Tom: And this brand of government-regulated conformity to the preferred social agenda du jour is having a major impact on the church. We’re already seeing it the form of pastors being required to officiate homosexual unions if they officiate marriages. There’s a great deal more where that came from, because the SJWs of the world have an agenda as long as your arm and new items are going on their wish list almost daily as society capitulates to their previous set of demands. Once gay unions have universal acceptance, expect polygamy to be the next item on the agenda.

But that’s neither here nor there where the church is concerned; we ought to obey God rather than men whatever the consequences may be. What IS interesting to me is that there are these liberal voices in Christendom clamoring to open the church door to the invaders from the inside, if possible — alleged “Christians” who will happily sell out real believers in the interests of their idea of justice.

IC: And that’s interesting, because they must have in mind a sense of justice they regard as higher than the biblical one.

Tom: That’s another way to distinguish between the Social Gospel promoters and social justice advocates. Social justice attempts to impose modern social “norms” and their own peculiar sense of justice on Christians and read them into scripture, where they are manifestly nowhere to be found. Even Christian gay rights advocates admit there are “no examples in scripture ... explicitly supporting same sex relationships,” but they’ll then argue that because loving homosexual relationships and orientations are not expressly condemned, they must then be acceptable to God.

The Social Gospel at least pretended to derives its authority from an interpretation of scripture. One might question that interpretation, but those who held it seemed to genuinely want to help people.

Real-World Outcomes

You’re familiar with the Social Gospel. What did it produce historically?

IC: It produced a major pseudo-missionary movement on several fronts, incorporating such diverse concerns as alcoholism, poverty, foreign aid, medical missions, educational progressivism and prison reform. But being post-millennial in their theology, the Social Gospel advocates essentially held in common that by improving such social institutions we would usher in the Kingdom of God ourselves.

Then WW1 hit … and all the plausibility of increasing human goodness in a sort of automatic, evolutionary and progressive way went out the window. Most experts regard that as the end of its general credibility.

Tom: Leading someone to Christ looks easier than getting them off the street, curing their alcoholism, solving problems created by their perception of sexual identity, eliminating poverty or preventing others from judging them on the basis of the way they were born. Some might actually say getting saved doesn’t address what they perceive to be the real problem. But in fact it’s the much harder and much more important task.

I’m reminded of the Lord’s statement, “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” Of course it sounds easier to say “Your sins are forgiven.” But when he heals the man, he says it’s for this reason: “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. That spiritual need was his priority and the physical need was addressed because it stood in the way of dealing with the spiritual. But in a fallen world, not all physical need can be addressed completely or permanently.

And if we spend most or all of our energy and resources fixing the world around us, we’re leaving the biggest job undone.

The Perfect Society

IC: There’s really nothing new in social justice. Since Babel, mankind has been looking for arrangements through which the perfect society can be realized. But society has never been the answer to our need for justice … and you would imagine we would learn from our mistakes on that one.

It’s an oxymoron, really: “justice” is the idea of people individually getting what each deserves, whether of praise or blame, of poverty or riches, of liberty or constraint, of reward or of punishment. But when the instrument said to produce that “justice” is “society”, then the “social” part submerges all that into the collective, as if some single arrangement were able to produce “justice” for all.

There’s just no reasonable prospect it ever will.


  1. Food for thought:
    The longer I follow this discussion on this blog, doing my own research (often with the Wiki lowest common denominator) the more I am convinced that concepts of social justice, universal belief in Christ as the basis for social justice, social justice based on different belief systems, social justice without belief system, namely secular atheistic, represents one of the, or perhaps the, most intractable problem set(s) in human history. The disconcerting fact is of course that, if you belief in the reality of an interested deity, that deity must have known that this type of situation will be the order of the day. So, the real question that needs to be answered (and this is not an attempt to answer it) is therefore, given an interested deity, why logically proceed in such a manner? Now, if I am an atheist, it is perfectly logical to say this could all have been avoided, for example, with the following hypothetical scenario.

    All of a sudden God simultaneously appears to each individual on planet earth privately, slows time down for a while, while instructing you and I on what is really going on, straightens out misconceptions, provides encouragement, some practical help tailored to the individual's situation, etc.. Then he tells you that now is not the time for him to be here permanently, but that that time will surely come. Then he disappears leaving you with a small practical, material, token recognized by everyone as having to be due to supernatural intervention so everyone knows this really also happened to everyone else.

    Now, this, according to every camp would then be sufficient to usher in social justice in a way and with an understanding that would (should) satisfy everyone and every faction. Yes, no? Isn't the real mystery to be answered and the real issue to be addressed why this is not happening? Why have a problematic situation from the start when it could/can be avoided with a little clarity? (Of course, now we are back to the Proof of God concept, but this would satisfy the nonbeliever and clear up that concept, yes/no?). Because this could so clearly proof that God really exists and take care of all misunderstanding and disagreement it is one more demonstration that God probably does not exist and that social justice must be implemented as best as humanity can by itself?

  2. Not answering your statement fully except for two points from the scripture:
    1) God is not hidden. Deut. 4:29 "but from there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul."
    Prov 8:17 "I love those who love me and those who seek me diligently will find me." (though it is "wisdom" that is "speaking" here but what wisdom except God's is better to seek? We can't have His wisdom without His person. We have wisdom from our experiences in life to be sure but do I not want to pursue and seek the wisdom from above? Wisdom is based on Truth. Truth is found in Christ).
    Any who are wanting more than an intellectual argument and are wanting actual truth (Jesus being "The Truth" - the Way, the Life), He is findable to anyone/everyone. Of course one of the "jobs" of the Holy Spirit is that He convicts the sinner of their need for a Savour; He reveals/shows the sinner Truth. The Holy Spirit "prompts" first (we didn't start the process) and we then respond. The Christian can say "we love Him because He first loved us." It all starts with God but our response either opens the door wider or we can desperately try shutting the door to His love and His revealing Himself to us.

    2) we have a similar appeal to God ("why doesn't God just show Himself to everyone individually?") directly with the account of Lazarus and the rich man (luke 16:19-31) with Lazarus and the rich man having left this earth in death. The rich man in hades appealing to "father Abraham" to send Lazarus from the dead (the rich man doesn't ask that it be himself sent for he absolutely knows he is where he justly deserves to be because of his own rejection of God and scripture's truths) to bring the truth of God to his brothers. The rich man knows his brothes too are ones who are rejecting God and they will end badly unless they repent. The answer comes back (v 29) no, "they have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them" and (v 31) "if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead." Of course we more today than the rich man had: we have the whole of the Word of God and One has been raised from the dead.

    1. Agreed, except for the fact that you, I, and others here are arguing a bit from a view into the rearview mirror. You can say, been there, done that, and so it makes sense to you. Clearly, from a process engineering point of view, the most qualified process engineer thinks that the process put in place is the correct one, and who are we to argue that point. Our responsibility, I think, is to realize that in whatever little way, we are part of the process and, like all human beings, have the assignment to contribute to it in a mostly positive, incremental manner. In other words, we do not have the privilege of a complete overview of God's plans but we are given somewhat of an outline. Now, my point was that it seems obvious that even knocking heads together would not be sufficient to cause people to recognize and interpret the outline correctly. What you and others have implied here is that that is probably mostly due to humanity existing after the fall (even though that was also the case before in paradise, actually resulting in the fall). So, the most significant single factor that drops out of all this, as always, is the existence of free will on our part and the fact that it is actually impaired free will.

      In short, what I proffered before was a Walt Disney world scenario. The real world is much tougher than that and obviously God thinks that the way things are progressing is the way to go. My personal observation and conclusion is that God allows for competing processes for whatever reason (mostly free will) and that by the nature of this competition the best one will ultimately (have to) win. That would seem unavoidable and always built in in such a competition (see what's currently happening with Islam). The only caveat being Christ's warning about him returning and who he will still find believing then.

  3. Qman: Actually, that last line is the key one, I think.

    The biggest difference between real Christianity and the Social Gospel/ Social Justice set is not over whether the world is a place with injustices in it (it clearly is, as everyone knows). There are the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the victimized and the excluded on every side -- no one doubts that, and even a great many secular persons claim to want to see these things addressed.

    The question really is this: can we ever have actual justice in this world without the personal presence of the Prince of Peace?

    The Christian answer is obviously "No."

    So while we as Christians should do our all to create as much justice in this world as we can, the justice of God ought to be our measuring stick. According to the Lord, the primary need of every person is not merely food and clothing, legitimate as those needs are (as the Lord Himself said), but rather that men and women should "not live by bread alone," but by entering into living relationship with the Heavenly Father through His appointed means, His Son, Jesus Messiah. So as we strive for justice, we must remember that verse Scripture uses four times: "the just shall live by faith."

    "Without faith, it is impossible to please God," the Scripture also says. And our first "justice" need is to be made just ourselves, but giving up all hope of ever receiving justice, or of imparting it, apart from being declared just by our God -- that is, by being forgiven for our sins through faith in The Just One, Jesus Christ.

    After that primary need is met, we can think also of imparting justice to others, by forgiving as we have been forgiven, giving as we have received, obeying the call of our Redeemer to seek the lost, the poor, the sick and the persecuted and bring them relief too.

    But secular social justice will never come on any terms, because it assumes that justice can be achieved through fallen, human means; that is, through the manipulation of social structures by unregenerate man.

    That's a vain hope.