The social gospel


The “social gospel” is the teaching that the purpose of Christianity is to work for a just society by changing political structures.  It had its origins in the 19th century–particularly in “post-millennialism,” the view that human beings are to establish the millennial golden age on earth, after which Christ will come again–and developed into the political activism of 20th and 21st century liberal churches.  Now some evangelicals are discovering these concepts and are redefining their mission away from saving souls for eternity to improving conditions for the poor and rebuilding society.

An article by Christopher Evans, linked after the jump, gives a good account of the movement and its various permutations, showing the historical and theological background of today’s “religious left.”  He thinks that recovering the social gospel can help bring disaffected young people back into the church.

Some theses for consideration and discussion:

(1)  The social gospel is not gospel.  It is law, replacing personal moralism with social and political moralism.  It has little to say about forgiveness.  Sinners–that is, political oppressors–are not forgiven.  They are crudely demonized and are considered worthy of a secular kind of damnation.

(2)  The social gospel is not THE gospel.  It has little interest in Jesus Christ atoning for the sins of the world and offering grace, forgiveness, and eternal life to those with faith in Him.  Those who believe in the social gospel are interested in this world, not the next.  Salvation has to do with improving society, not redeeming an individual so that he or she can experience everlasting life after death.

(3)  Though originally the creation of mainstream Protestants, many Catholics too now support a social gospel.

(4)  There is a social gospel of the right, as well as of the left.

Photograph of Walter Rauschenbusch, a key theologian of the social gospel.  See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Liturgy for transgender transitions?



There are liturgies that go with birth, coming of age, getting married, and dying.  Now it is being proposed to develop a liturgy to mark gender transitions.

The Church of England has voted to affirm transgendered individuals and to study developing a liturgy that would solemnize the decision or medical procedures whereby a man assumes a new identity as a woman, or a woman assumes a new identity as a man.

This would seem to stop short of re-baptism, as some transgender activists have called for.

This could go along with other liturgies for contemporary culture.  Some churches offer divorce ceremonies.  What other occasions might call for a liturgical blessing from liberal churches?

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From preoccupation with society to preoccupation with the self


Still more things I’ve picked up from Kenneth L. Woodward’s  Getting Religion:  Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.  (See my earlier posts on Woodward’s book here and here and here.)

After the disillusionment with “the secular city,” liberal theology turned to a new frontier.  It was the Sixties.  Lucy was in the Sky with Diamonds.  The Maharishi was on television.  And in the academic world new frontiers of psychology were apparently opening up.

Liberal theology went “experiential.”  This, according to Woodward, “was the antithesis” of the social gospel “and reflected disillusionment with protest politics and social reform.  What mattered was transformation of self rather than of society; myth and metaphysics rather than morality; expanded (or altered or higher) consciousness rather than appeals to conscience” (p. 256). [Read more…]

“When the secular was sacred”


I grew up in a liberal mainline denomination in the 1950s and 1960s, going to the conventions and participating in the youth conferences.  Reading Kenneth L. Woodward’s account of this phase of church history in Getting Religion:  Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama explains a lot of things that I witnessed and had to go through.  (See my earlier posts on Woodward’s book here and here.)

Woodward, the religious editor for Newsweek, tells about the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on mainline Protestant pastors and church people.  In addition to giving them a truly righteous cause, it introduced them to the black church, which seemed to be a truly socially relevant institution, unlike their own church bodies.  The excitement soon extended to other kinds of social activism.  And then came the Kennedy euphoria.

It seemed to many mainline Protestant theologians that the secular world–not the church–was where the real action is.  Also the real virtues, the real meaning, the realm where God was truly working.

As Woodward puts it, “the nation’s liberal Protestant leadership came to embrace the secular as sacred:  that is, to assume that if God is to be found anywhere, it is in the secular world, not the church” (p. 96). [Read more…]

Does mainline liberal Protestantism have just 23 years left?

512px-Ruins_of_Holyrood_Abbey,_EdinburghMore on the plight of mainline liberal Protestantism. . . .

Evangelical scholar Ed Stetzer calculates that at the current rate of decline, mainline liberal Protestant churches will cease to exist in 23 years.

He crunches the numbers and suggests the reasons.  For example, “Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed ‘offensive’ to the surrounding culture,” but that strategy doesn’t work.

Wait a minute:  Isn’t that the sort of thing that we have been hearing from the evangelical church growth movement?

Stetzer doesn’t really believe that these churches will cease to exist and he laments their decline.  But would it be good if they cease to exist, or is a liberal church better than nothing?  Is there a point to institutional religion without the religion?  Doesn’t that leave just an institution–with all its trappings of bureaucracy, self-protection, and regulation–without a purpose?

I would say that the rumors of the death of mainline churches may be greatly exaggerated.  There still have their Christian pastors, theologians, congregations, and members. But their future may be in their becoming more conservative.  This may be happening.  The Methodists, for example, have embraced the pro-life cause and show some skepticism about the gay agenda, though the church is still torn over those issues.  Conservatives in those denominations often struggle over they should stay and fight–until they are thrown out–or leave, thereby abandoning their church to the liberals.  And it is theoretically possible that some of today’s secularists might start attending the increasingly secularist church bodies.
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Shouldn’t liberals be going to liberal churches?

6209348934_ccf5e3159a_zMainstream liberal Protestantism is dying, with a decreasing number of people bothering to go to their churches anymore.  This is ironic because, in many ways, the message of those liberal congregations is now widely shared among our cultural elite:  be tolerant of all; be progressive; don’t worry about the supernatural; conform to the culture.  But though the cultural elite has embraced the social gospel of liberal Protestantism, hardly any of them bother with liberal churches.

Ross Douthat, himself a conservative Catholic, argues in the New York Times that those who are liberal politically and culturally should start attending a liberal church.  Even out-and-out non-believers in the supernatural will experience little conflicts with their beliefs.  And there are benefits to church attendance that would be good for them.

Douthat says that it would be good for the cause of liberalism to be grounded once again in some kind of church.  Liberalism, to have an impact, needs an institutional home.  He also throws out this priceless line, referring to recent tendencies:  “Liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor.”

Read what he says, excerpted and linked after the jump, but then consider:  Why is it that liberals tend not to go to liberal churches?  Can you have the benefits of going to a church without holding to its beliefs?  Why is mainline liberal Protestantism in such a state of decline?  What happens to a Christianity purged of its supernatural elements?

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