The social gospel is not new. There have always been those who gravitated to the more man-centered part of the message of Jesus. With the rise of the Emerging church and a mini-backlash against those who seem to espouse only a moral gospel, the social gospel has come back into focus.
A few of the more left and centrist leaders in Evangelicalism have been pushing to counter the moralists. Men like Jim Wallis, Tom Sine, and Tony Campolo are increasingly speaking to the disconnect that has formed within the ranks of Christians between what we believe and endorse and what we actually get out and do.
Let me say that I wholeheartedly believe we need to be not only working for moral righteousness, but also social righteousness as well.
The “as well” there is key. As much as we need to hear the messages of Wallis, Sine, and Campolo, we cannot forget that Christianity is not one gospel or the other, it is The Gospel. Strip any pieces off of it an attempt to stand them on their own and you have a corrupted message or action. The Lord does not intend for us to be hearers only. Nor does He wish for us to simply do for doing sake.
In addressing some recent statements made by Bono of the band U2—a huge proponent of the social gospel—Jared over at The Thinklings nails this dichotomy perfectly (and references Bonhoeffer in the process, always an astute decision) in “No Ethos Without the Theos“:
Kingdom behavior cannot create kingdom hearts. It is the other way around. For the former approach puts the focus on man, while the latter gives the glory to God. This is more, I suspect than many of Bono’s acolytes would be willing to accept. Bono says, “To me, faith in Jesus Christ that is not aligned with social justice, that is not aligned with the poor — it’s nothing.” But the reverse— “Social justice that is not aligned with faith in Jesus Christ is nothing”—is just as true, is in fact truer. Why is it not preached except by those accused of bigotry and judgmentalism and putting conditions on the Gospel? Because most of us, Christians included, want the glory without the cross.
The evangelical, conservative church is not exempt from this error either. I think the Church makes the same mistake, despite its explicit acceptance of the exclusivity of Jesus. The Church reduces the Jesus ethic to pious sentimentalities, as well, equating “doing good” with “being good,” decontextualizing the teachings of Jesus until they become little more than baptized proverbs. Discipleship is about self-improvement, taking up one’s cross is about staying positive through a rough time, etc. We are just as guilty, because we are drunk on self-help and our own potential and discovering the champion in ourselves. We too want the glory without the cross. Bonhoeffer had a phrase for that: cheap grace.
No sentimentality without (the) sacrifice.
No justice without holiness.
No right behavior without righteous character.
No ethos without theos.
Kingdom actions without kingdom character are rubbish.
To this I say, “Amen.” We can’t filter out the parts of the Gospel that stick in our throats. The Gospel is always true—all of it. We are the ones that must be bent to it, not the other way around. There are not two gospels, only one. Folks who advocate for a piece of it are wrongly dividing the Gospel.
Once again, the reality of the Christian walk is found only in the balance.