Ever go bowling? I haven't in awhile, so I decided that I would go with my wife and a friend this weekend. We planned on hitting the lanes on Saturday night. I knew it would be fairly busy, but this is the city right? We got there to find that they were having league bowling - something that bowling alleys do, but seriously, on a Saturday night? The place had 40 lanes and 38 of them were being used for league. There were 2 lanes (yes, I said 2) if we wanted to wait in line. We didn't.
Why in the world would you have league bowling on the night of the week that you are most likely to get casual bowlers? I mean, do people just sit at the dinner table on a Thursday night and say "Hey, let's go bowling tonight!" Obviously I don't own a bowling alley, so I don't know how all of this works, apparently I'm stupid. Now, on with the show . . .
The Social Gospel
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the social gospel as "the application of Christian principles to social problems." It sounds simple, but the social gospel has caused just about as much trouble and controversy within various denominations as anything. Even today, emotions run high when the topic is discussed and it is often viewed as a liberal idea amongst evangelical Christians, particularly many Southern Baptists.
Former SBC President Bailey E. Smith discussed the social gospel during his 1982 Presidential Sermon, saying:
"We will not escape the deadness of the so-called social gospel that has done very little good for society and has no gospel. They speak of race relations, world hunger, temperance, and human ethics, but it has always been the evangelistic Bible-honoring church that has opened its doors to all races and put food on the table of the hungry."
Before I continue with this discussion, understand that I am not using this quote as a blanket statement for the view of all Southern Baptists, that would obviously be foolish. However, it would be just as foolish to assume that only a few fundamentalist Christians within the SBC view the social gospel as such, thus it would be good to take a look at the validity of a statement such as this, and what the Bible (particularly Jesus) has to say about it.
First, let's begin with the notion that the social gospel has done very little good for society. Is it really wise to assume that Christians who are in Africa right now providing medicine and clean water for the natives there are doing no good for the society? What about those seeking peace overseas in the midst of religious conflict? Are the people who arrive at the local kitchen at 5 a.m. every day to begin cooking breakfast for the homeless people in the streets of your city doing nothing more than bringing deadness to society? I don't believe that anyone would agree with that. Or have we forgotten the words of our Lord Jesus?
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." - Matthew 5:7
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." - Matthew 5:9
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'" - Matthew 25:41-45
I could go on, but I know you get the point. The fact of the matter is, Jesus spent an enormous amount of time during his earthly ministry healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and comforting the weak. Even more than that, he warned against those who fail to do just as he did! This isn't to say that the spoken word Gospel of the work of Jesus Christ be dismissed, but that it should not be given without action! The Pharisees were rebuked by Jesus for giving their offering to the church but neglecting justice and the love of God to those around them.
Secondly, is it really only the "evangelistic Bible-honoring church that has opened its doors to all races and put food on the table of the hungry"? I'm not sure how such a statement can be made. Certainly, some evangelistic Bible-honoring churches have done so, but many have not. Consider the Southern Baptist church near the U of L that I spoke of a couple of months ago that refuses to reach out to its community while the Church of Christ down the street draws 70 young people off the street every Wednesday night for a much needed meal and a dash of compassion. We would be dangerously arrogant to presume that ONLY evangelistic "Bible-honoring" churches care about society. What classifies "Bible-honoring" anyway? Are we seeking to honor the whole Bible or just the parts that are convenient enough for us?
Many Christians and churches around the world are opening their doors and their lives every day to meet the needs of needy people, who I might add are made in God's image. Where were you and I this morning at 5 a.m. while one of the men I met in Tulsa, OK, two years ago who runs an inner city kitchen called The Iron Gate fired up the burners to feed hundreds of homeless people who walk for miles for a hot meal? "Deadness"? I think not.
Let it be said as many times as need-be that work apart from the good news of Jesus Christ is not the true Gospel. Let it also be said that the spoken word Gospel without compassion and mercy in the form of social action ought to be raising just as many eyebrows. How dare we give them a Bible verse and yet walk away from their needs knowing full well that we have the means to provide for them.
I'm going to leave you with a quote that makes me swallow so hard it hurts. This is because I've seen this quote used as an excuse for not sharing the Gospel message of Jesus Christ with our mouths. Although I don't usually look to Roman Catholic friars for my theology, I wrestle quite often with this thought-provoking quote from St. Francis of Assisi.
"Preach the gospel everywhere you go, and, if necessary, use words."
As my wife pointed out to me, it is necessary to use words in order that God receives the glory, and not ourselves, however, words apart from action result in much of the same. The Gospel must be preached by both our words and actions. Like it or not, every one of us could use a dose of what it means to live out the Christian life by showing compassion and mercy to those around us. Those of us who do implement social action into our Christian lives are not abandoning the truth of the Bible and are certainly not replacing the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection with our actions. Unfortunately, it is difficult for many to comprehend how this is so. The social aspects of the Gospel are worth wrestling with and they're worth talking about. How do I know? Well, I think Jesus told us to.