The New Evangelical Social Gospel – ‘Mercy Ministry’ and ‘Social Justice’

Mercy ministry is plainly taught in the Bible as a gift of the Spirit and a necessary outworking of local church life. Zealous efforts to help the poor are wonderful. When such enthusiasm impinges on the meaning of the gospel or the mission of the church, we have a reason to become alarmed.

This article is the Preface and a portion of Chapter 1 in Roger Smalling’s latest book, The New Evangelical Social Gospel. It assesses and refutes a new and unbiblical mindset rapidly gaining ground in our midst.

A brush fire is sweeping through evangelical circles, scorching the fine edges of the words “gospel” and “gospel ministry.”

Couched in appealing language and ambiguous slogans, it finds kindling in a new generation steeped in a popular liberal mindset, ungrounded in sound New Testament theology. It is gathering droves of Christians who see it as a balanced approach to ministry.

In past years, it was called the social gospel. Today, those who label this wildfire by that term, risk being viewed as unprogressive, compassionless or throwbacks to an epoch of fundamentalist isolationism.

In this book, we will show how a version of the social gospel is being revived under the guise of new emphases on mercy ministry and social justice.

This new form transcends any call to more involvement with the needs of society. It is a theological system of its own, a worldview that redefines the mission of the church, the kingdom of God, Christian living and even the content of the word “gospel” itself. It is almost a religion of its own.

Mercy ministry is plainly taught in the Bible as a gift of the Spirit and a necessary outworking of local church life. Zealous efforts to help the poor are wonderful. When such enthusiasm impinges on the meaning of the gospel or the mission of the church, we have a reason to become alarmed.

Flirting With Fallacy (A part of Chapter 1)

Sectors of the evangelical community, led by well-meaning people, are beginning to flirt with the fine edges of heresy.

This new movement claims a mandate on Christians exists to focus on the needs of the poor and transform social institutions into a just and equitable society.

According to the movement, the gospel message itself embodies not only a call to personal salvation but also a commitment the physical needs of humanity at large, the poor in particular and not just within the church. Rectifying social injustice is an inseparable part of the mission of the church and a key factor in defining the spirituality of its members.

Without these, they say, the gospel itself is truncated, incomplete and unbalanced. This alone is the authentic gospel.

Such teaching is actually a new version of the failed social gospel of the early part of the 20th century, dressed up to appeal to conservatives.

How does the new differ from the old social gospel?

The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially social justice, inequality,…etc. Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing [of politics]…and most were theologically liberal[i][i]

The difference between the two is simply liberal versus conservative. The new social gospel is really the old, dusted off, dressed in new language and presented to Christians as a fresh call for social justice.

How the new views the old

The current social gospel has its own perspective on the old.

It goes something like this:

When the original social gospel movement started, liberalism was its bedfellow. Conservatives reacted by concentrating solely on evangelism. Apart from liberalism, nothing was particularly wrong with the movement. If evangelicals today add back the pursuit of social justice, it will result in a powerhouse movement that the world will notice. [ii][ii]

This historical scenario sounds perfectly reasonable. It is also dead wrong. While liberalism in the old social gospel was indeed erroneous, this is not the issue we must consider now.

Liberalism or no, it was still wrong for two reasons:

Ø A false definition of the gospel.

Ø An unbiblical mission of the church.

The same thing is wrong with the new version today; falsely defining the gospel as two indispensable halves, preaching plus service to the poor. This includes creating a just and equitable society through Christianizing governmental institutions, along with environmental concerns.

The new social gospel conservatives have bought in to these wrong definitions while considering themselves distinct from the old version, solely because they reject the liberalism This is self-deceptive. The definitions themselves are blatantly liberal and woefully unbiblical.

For both the old and new, meeting the material needs of mankind is just as much a part of the mission of the church as meeting the spiritual needs. All we need to do is balance our current emphasis on evangelism with social justice and we will have a holistic gospel that will advance the kingdom of God and stun the world.

This is why we say, as kindly and firmly as we can, that the new social gospel is merely the old, repackaged for conservatives.

The book is now available on KINDLE reader for $1.99 at New Evangelical Social Gospel

Dr. Roger Smalling and his wife Dianne are PCA missionaries to Latin America. He is director of Visión R.E.A.L., (Reformación En América Latina), dedicated to training Latin American Christians in biblical leadership. You can read more about Roger, his ministry and writings here.