As a student at fundamentalist Bob Jones University I can remember the preachers inveighing against what they called “the social gospel”. This was a watered down version of Christianity which avoided talk of sin and salvation, repentance and redemption. The cross and resurrection were studiously avoided to portray a compassionate Jesus who lived among the poor and whose chief ministry was healing the sick, preaching against the rich, criticizing the religious hypocrites. The “social gospellers” were all “liberals” who were forsaking the true message of the gospel in favor of soup kitchen Christianity. They were all for giving people bread, but not the bread of heaven. They were all for helping the poor have a better life, but not concerned about eternal life.
The problem with those who promote the social gospel is not that they feed the poor, are activists for justice and are work for healing and reconciliation, but that they put these things before the primary message of the gospel which is the old, old story of a fallen humanity in need of forgiveness and a loving God who sends his own Son into enemy territory to seek and to save that which was lost. Those who follow a social gospel reduce the life and work of Jesus Christ to that of an inspired healer–a social worker and a pacifist activist. Usually their activism and concern for the poor is linked with a political ideology, a desire to make the world a better place and the heresy of universalism i.e. “everybody will be saved by God’s mercy and love so we don’t have to preach repentance and salvation of souls or such a thing as heaven and hell.
The social gospel is a heresy, and like every heresy, it is not completely wrong. It is only half right. We are supposed to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick and work for justice and peace, but this is the fruit of our faith in Christ. It is the result of our redemption, not the primary point of our faith. The first objective is the salvation of our souls, and from this faith in Christ we are transformed into his likeness, and as we are transformed into his likeness we begin to do his work in the world. If we jump straight to the good works, then we are guilty of the old heresy of Pelagianism: trying to be good enough under our own steam.
The reason I say this is a problem for the new pope is not because I think he teaches the social gospel, but because it will be perceived and promoted that he does. I am convinced (despite the worries of some of my friends) that Pope Francis is God’s man for the church today. I’m convinced that he is fully orthodox, and that he will not compromise the Catholic faith at all, but instead will build up Christ’s church and be a wonderful global evangelist.
What concerns me is that the man and his message will be hi jacked Read More