10 Jun The Gospel Is Not A Social Gospel
We live in an era that pays close attention to social issues. Especially with the advent of the Internet, everyone can get information and news directly, and at the same time give their comments. For this reason, social dynamics, social welfare, social rights, social justice, etc. are all topics that we modern people are very concerned about. Therefore, we have seen that in recent years, social issues have indeed affected and even stirred the hearts of many people. In the past two weeks, we saw how the whole of America erupted into racial protests due to a black man being accidentally killed by a few policemen. Last week, we also saw demonstrations in Hong Kong rising up again due to China’s implementation of further security law in Hong Kong. The Sino-US trade war also sparked off various discussions, and some believers asked what position they should take in those situations. Of course, the church has always been concerned about issues such as homosexuality, abortion, feminism, helping the poor, etc. For a socially-conscious generation, these issues have a relationship with our real immediate concerns. If the church does not care about these issues and also does not take a position, then the church will gradually become obsolete and impractical. But if the church pays too much attention and gets embroiled in these issues, then the church will fall into a crisis of “losing the concerns of the heavenly kingdom.” The church pulpit will gradually be taken over by these issues. The pure gospel given by Christ for salvation will also become a social gospel. So gradually, an abnormal and “much-too-close” relationship will develop between society and gospel, politics and church in this generation. We must know that this is one form of hidden works of the “antichrist”. The antichrist cannot destroy the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, nor can it abolish the truth brought by Christ. But its latent work (as mentioned last week) is to lead the church to a distorted ideology of the gospel through political influence, financial prosperity, and co-existence of religions. Social issues will certainly become one of the tools used by the antichrist to replace believers’ focus on the gospel. At that time, we will see that the church pulpit will bring people to social issues but not the gospel. Even though the church still preaches the gospel using the Bible, social issues take over the preaching of the gospel. The preacher is full of enthusiasm and certainty when bringing out social issues but when the gospel is preached, it is as diluted as water. Gradually, the status of the gospel in the church will be moved to the back seat, the sheep of the Lord will become weak, and the saints will be divided because of social issues and not be united because of the gospel. Indeed, this can happen so easily, but it is also a trap that many churches have fallen into today. If we look at social media today, we will see that over there, many believers are actively expressing their positions on political, economic, social, etc., issues. They care about human rights, or how the country helps the poor. They are very opinionated on racial discrimination. They argue fiercely over matters on homosexuality. Of course, we believers should firmly maintain some positions based on biblical principles. But think about it, do we believers feel very compelled by the Spirit because of the problem of human sin? Do we feel anxious about the false and distorted gospel? Do we care so much about the glory of God? Sometimes, after offering immediate help, have we ever thought about how we can really help the poor in this world walk out of the real poverty brought about by sin? After we have proven that a regime is authoritarian and corrupt, what do we want to do? Do we want to substitute the old regime with a new one? Do we want to encourage more people to go into protests? Or do we try to think of ways to preach the gospel that truly saves people from sin, to this governing regime and its people? This is like how the apostles in the Bible never got involved in political issues. Instead, they spoke clearly the gospel from heaven to save the souls of men. In fact, from a person’s ultimate concern and desire, it is not difficult to see how much he understands the gospel. In the whole of history, the church has two missions. One is to protect the purity of the gospel; the second is to preach the gospel of saving souls. Martin Luther said, “If we preach the gospel clearly and courageously, we will certainly be persecuted.” Perhaps we will first be persecuted by churches that have gone astray, then by the pagans whose interests are threatened. But if we are persecuted because the gospel we preach is full of social issues, or is used to promote our political stance, then this is our just deserts.
The emergence of social gospel
The rise of social gospel and its central ideology
Social gospel was a gospel movement which emerged in the 19th century, and it was widely prevalent in the early 20th century in United States and Canada. At that time, some church leaders especially used Christian ethics to deal with very common social problems, such as: economic inequality, alcoholism, crimes, poverty, racial conflicts, slums, child labor, unhygienic environment, lack of unionization, dangers of wars, etc. In recent times, the social gospel movement gradually widens its spheres of influence, to include homosexuality, abortion, environmental protection, freedom of speech, feminist movement, immigration policies, political rights, etc. These issues are what people are personally concerned about. Those who advocate social gospel particularly use <Mt 6:10>: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” as their central ideology. Furthermore, they are mostly postmillennialists, and believe that the second coming of Christ will happen after mankind’s social evils are removed. The theology of believers who promote social gospel is mostly inclined toward liberalism. Rather than being faithful to the truth, they are more inclined toward applying the truth.
Why is social gospel so attractive?
The most fundamental reason is we all have individual needs. Indeed, every one of us has personal concerns over our nationality, race, materials, benefits, interests, etc. Examples: Those who feel that their nationality is being discriminated will certainly want to promote the mutual love and equality that the gospel brings mankind, and use this to advocate racial harmony. Those who have burden to protect the environment will also naturally want to use biblical principles to advocate the necessity of protecting the environment. Women who feel that they cannot progress in the society will also use biblical viewpoints to promote gender equality. Likewise, there are homosexuals in the society, as well as those who oppose it; there are people who strongly advocate for human rights in this era, and also those who think that the government should control people’s rights. In the midst of this, Christians started to use Christian ethics to promote their own views or stick to their stand. Moreover, the gospel truth should be put into practice, then it can be considered as a faith that comes with deeds. Because of these reasons, social gospel started to occupy the church pulpit gradually. Many Christians mistakenly think that to be faithful to the truth is to be faithful to Christian ethics.
The dangers of social gospel
The most dangerous thing about social gospel is that it replaces the interpretations of the gospel with social issues. The gospel of God’s son is redemptive and universal. Throughout history, the worst problem of mankind is not wars, plagues, racial disharmony, etc., neither is it the issue of homosexuality, abortion, political unrest. The most serious problem of mankind is the problem of man being born in sin, living in sin and dying in sin. Think about it, why are there issues like wars, racial discrimination, homosexuality, etc.? All those originated from man’s sin of betraying God, and opposing the truth. When this sin continues to multiply, the human society falls into even more problems, the human heart is also filled with insatiable needs. The only solution to the problem of sin is not some government organization or any lobby group set up by the people, but the redemptive gospel of God’s son which the church should preach about, so that people can hear, believe, and die and resurrect together with Christ, such that they can live out the new life of the Christian faith. Perhaps some people may say, “After people heard and believed the gospel, there is still racial discrimination, there is still a lack of concern for human rights”, the main reason is because people have not understood the gospel they hear, such that their lives have no true transformation, so their hearts do not have God’s righteousness and love. Think about it, during the most flourishing time of Israel, which was when David became king until the early part of Solomon’s reign, Israel was full of moral righteousness. When David reigned in Israel, he did what was just and right for all his people <2 Sam 8:15>, Solomon also judged Israel’s affairs with righteousness and wisdom <1 Ki 3:16-28>. During the apostolic age, the daily distribution of food to the widows was overlooked, the Holy Spirit filled the apostles so that they did not neglect this matter but appointed 7 deacons to see to this matter <Ac 6:1-4>. However, when man casts aside the purity and value of the gospel and specially preaches social gospel, we will see the emergence of even more controversial issues. At that time, people with different backgrounds, conditions and needs will fight more and more fiercely, and the church will start to have divisions.
In preaching the gospel, is there totally no room for social issues?
Relationship between the gospel and social issues
Because the gospel concerns all peoples, it of course includes matters of the society. Thus, when the gospel is being preached, it will naturally extend to Christian ethical views. Therefore, it also has a stand in social issues. However, it will bring out its stand within the chief purpose of preaching the gospel which can save people’s souls. Examples: In the matter of homosexuality, the creation principle in the Bible already gives a clear stand, which is what God had created was one man and one woman. Yet, Christians are certainly not using this to put down homosexuals, or magnify their sin, but to bring them before the love of Christ, so that they can eventually surrender to the God-determined principle of creation. With regard to the unrest in Hong Kong, the gospel tells us the basic rights and freedom that we humans should possess, which is what people or political powers cannot take away. However, we cannot bring this issue to God’s pulpit every day to stir up people’s hearts with this matter. If that is the case, then political issues will replace the message of the gospel which can save people. Moreover, many of the Lord’s sheep may not be concerned about such matters. Perhaps they need to be taught and shepherded in many other things, which shepherds must not neglect too. In addition, let us consider the recent protests and race riots in United States. Of course, the police officer who killed the black man should be brought to justice. However, we must not be influenced by the media and some politicians, to regard this unintended killing case as a matter of racial discrimination, even considering this black man as a martyr of the African Americans. In the midst of this, many liberalists also seem to approve of the violence and looting acts of the protestors. This is in fact irrational. This goes to show that sometimes, when people’s emotions are stirred up, they will magnify their prejudice. In the midst of this, there are cunning people as well as foolish people. However, all these also show how scary sin is. The sin in human heart makes man cunning and make use of others, it also makes man foolish and so be used by others. Therefore, we know that there is clarity in the gospel. Those who know the gospel will not be affected by world news or what the world advocates. In all these, we must finally understand that if we do not preach the love and holiness of Christ’s redemption and do not teach believers how to rely on the Lord in all things, then the tendency to repay evil with evil, a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, will grow more and more.
The main reasons why God permits social issues to be greatly advocated in this era
(1) So that the gospel can be spread. The social issues which the society is concerned about can provide an opportunity for we saints to bring out the gospel. Just as when the novel coronavirus came, everyone talks about it. However, the church which truly understands God’s heart will tap on this issue to bring people to gospel contents, so that people can know the problem of sin, the worth of Christ’s gospel, how fleeting this life is, the value of eternal life, the glory of living for the Lord, etc. Of course, in the midst of these, we also bring out God’s righteousness, love, wisdom, holiness, etc. Through this, many people with different conditions, backgrounds and statuses will hear the gospel. Thus, social issue is merely a tool, but it is not the main subject It is a dish, but not the main course. The gospel of God’s Son is the main subject and main course.
(2) So that saints can rely more on the Lord. Every time an issue arises, mankind once again face new challenges and divisions. Indeed, not one issue can be resolved by human methods. Once some people advocate a certain stand, another alternative stand will emerge. This reveals that sin will eventually bring nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. Human love will also gradually grow cold because of this. In such a situation, the people who truly belong to the Lord will feel helpless, then they will call on the Lord and rely on the Lord. In the midst of this, many lost sheep of the Lord will also return to the fold.
(3) So that the church will know that the day of the Lord is drawing near, thus will love each other deeply. Although the church lives within the society, her true identity is the bride of the Lord, so she continues to long for the return of the Lord. Sometimes, when certain very controversial issues arise in the society, such as homosexuality, family planning, feminist movement, co-existence of religions, etc., we know that these are humanistic movements which greatly harm the church. They will slowly change the entire form of the church, such that the church completely walks the path of the world. When we see such movements gradually grow, influencing the next generation, and the church has no way to stop the world from heading toward those trends, the hearts of the saints will cry out to the Lord. At the same time, this reveals that the day of the Lord is drawing near. This is just as what Peter said when the church went through great persecutions, “The end of all things is near…Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” <1 Pe 4:7-8> When the world gradually tries to devour the church, believers will realise that besides spreading the gospel, the most important thing is to protect each other by loving one another.
In an era where social issues are being advocated excessively, believers should all the more be able to discern right and wrong and be a blameless person
Should restore the same identity, same concern and same mission in Christ
First, we must know that we do not belong to the world. Thus, the Bible instructs us in <1 Jn 2:15-17>: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Thus, when facing all the issues of this world, we must not seek our own interests, but God’s will. What we yearn for should be God’s glory, instead of the world’s glory. Hence, if we do not seek the Lord’s will, we will be lured by earthly benefits, concerns and interests. Indeed, a believer who is very clear about his identity and belonging will surely be faithful to what the gospel entrusts to him, which is to bring the gospel to everyone around him. If he does not confirm more in this area and advance with the Great Commission the gospel gives him, he will easily fall into traps, and be overwhelmed by social issues. The people of the world will find it reasonable for them to be involved in social issues as this is the meaning of their living, but this is meaningless to a born-again Christian who believes in the Lord. Instead, he will eventually realize that he is enthusiastic for nothing.
When we live with brethren of different nationalities, backgrounds, conditions and cultures in the church, we should all the more learn to love each other
Man’s spiritual problem is self-centredness; thus, he sees many things from his own point of view. Because of this, we will sometimes have the you-me divide. <Col 3:11> tells us that in Christ, there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, in church living, one area in which we (from leaders to lay brethren) must be most careful about is not to cause divisions because of nationalities, backgrounds, conditions and cultures. Paul never treated the Gentiles as second-class citizens. Among his closest co-workers, there were Silas the Jew, Titus the Gentile, as well as, half-Jew, half-Gentile Timothy. In particular, when all kinds of social issues arise, we must not enter into disagreements because of different nationalities or political backgrounds. Some churches have people from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. All these three are Chinese people, but they easily get into disagreements because of certain political factors. Thus, we all the more should be one people of the heavenly kingdom, then we can love each other deeply. Sometimes, even if we all come from different church backgrounds (some traditional, some charismatic), if we are all faithful to the truth, those different backgrounds will bring benefits instead of harms.
We must do shepherding work well, helping those among us who are needy
Because we humans all have our individual needs, social gospel will leverage such human weakness. Examples: Some people care very much for single mothers, some have a huge burden for people of their same nationality, some are very compassionate toward ex-offenders, etc. Of course, these are the different burdens God has given each of us, in order to help some brethren who are in the church, so that their personal needs can be met. Thus, as we continue to spread the gospel and the church gradually grows, people with different needs will surely come among us. We should learn from the example of the apostles, and help those who are needy, such as: those who are particularly poor, those who came from a foreign land, those with family problems, those with mental issues, or those with thorny issues at hand. Of course, the church should also handle these with wisdom. The church must see clear evidences of the gospel in the lives of these people, then help them in physical and practical problems. Because the church is not a social welfare organization, but a place to spread the gospel. Perhaps the best model is the relief and social work done by William Booth of The Salvation Army. He did not begin his ministry with humanitarian support, but he first spread the gospel, then saw that those who believed in the Lord also had survival needs, thus he tried to train them in survival skills and prepared jobs for them. (Testimony: When the novel coronavirus hit Wuhan, we also took up the suggestion of some brethren in China and sent some financial assistance to Wuhan residents, but generally speaking, we still put the priority on gospel work; we still set our chief focus on distributing gospel tracts and books to the Lord’s various churches around the world, if possible.)
With regard to social issues, must still maintain the fundamental biblical stand
Because the Bible gives us the code of living, Christians also cannot have no stand about the issues people are concerned about. Especially with regard to things which can influence people’s thinking, values and morals, the church should at least have a stand. Examples: The church should certainly express its stand to oppose the opening of casinos and the legalization of homosexuality. The church can also use biblical principles to advocate some values which are beneficial to the family and society. If there is any injustice in the country, we can also appropriately express our protests. However, we must be careful not to let these things occupy the church pulpit, and not let our hearts and minds be over-influenced by these issues. No matter how vile the world’s evils are, they are not viler than the sin in human heart. No matter how important the relief efforts of this world, they are not more important than the gospel’s redemptive work. Thus, after we state our stand or voice out our protests against certain issues, we should still commit everything to the Lord who executes justice. What is most important for the church is still to spread the full gospel which can save human souls, and preach it with all our heart and strength.