Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement.
Today’s social justice debate in the evangelical church feels eerily similar to the debate that led to division in the Protestant church in the early 20th century. Then, the debate didn’t center on social justice but the social gospel.
The Social Gospel Debate 100 Years Ago
Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement. Their profoundly un-Biblical mindset is nicely captured in this quote from social gospel advocate, journalist Horace Greeley:
“The heart of man is not depraved … his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their actions, produce evil. Evil flows only from social [inequality]. Give [people] full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result. … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have the perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven.”
In response, the fundamentalist movement rose up to defend the gospel and orthodox Biblical teaching. The fundamentalists rightly called out social gospel advocates for their compromised, heretical teaching. But in doing so, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Any talk of social and cultural transformation was now suspect. Fighting for justice was a distraction from preaching the gospel. The church should withdraw from secular culture and focus exclusively on personal holiness and evangelism.
What was lost in this tragic episode was the historic Biblical theology of justice and cultural engagement—the kind championed by Amy Carmichael, William Wilberforce, and William Carey, an approach to ministry that seamlessly links gospel proclamation and discipleship to social and cultural impact.
Carmichael (1867-1951) was one of the most respected missionaries of the first half of the 20th century, yet she had no problem “engaging the culture.” Among her other works, Carmichael established a ministry to protect, shelter, and educate temple prostitutes in India. Many of Carmichael’s fellow missionaries believed that her efforts to fight the injustice of temple prostitution in India were “worldly activities” that distracted her from the “saving of souls.” To this, she simply replied, “Souls are more or less firmly attached to bodies.”