Jesus and the “Social Gospel” – by Dr Reg Codrington

Originally posted on 1 June 2008

There was such a great response to a recent post of an article written by my father, that I thought I’d post something else by him. Anyone who grew up thinking that the “social gospel” was a problem would do well to read this.

Jesus and the “Social Gospel”

Dr Reg B Codrington

INTRODUCTION

When I was growing up, the denomination of which I was part used the term “Social Gospel” almost as a swear word. We were taught that “liberal” denominations who placed a focus on meeting social needs were guilty of, and I quote, “sending a well-fed sinner to hell”. The focus had to be on “saving souls” and everything else had to be subjugated to that aim.

Now let me make it clear at the outset that I still believe that the most important thing that can happen to a person is that he or she enters into a vital, living relationship with Christ and lives in accordance with His teachings, as revealed in the Word of God. But I have become increasingly convinced that what I was taught as a youngster was just a part of a much bigger picture which, sadly, I only began to understand nearly forty years later! What a serious responsibility lies in the hands of teachers of the Word to ensure that they teach the whole gospel to our young people!


WHAT CHANGED?

I suppose that one of the contributing factors to my changed understanding of the social gospel was the revelations after 1994 in South Africa about the horrific abuses perpetrated on people by the apartheid regime. What was such a wake-up call was that I had truly believed I was alert to the needs of the oppressed people in our country and had even spoken out on their behalf. I had been part of a deputation to a parliamentary sub-committee to urge the scrapping of the Mixed Marriages Act and had felt very virtuous about doing it. Yet when I look back now, I realize that many things were going on under my nose which I knew nothing about, and my abhorrence for a so-called “social gospel” kept me from doing what I could have done to alleviate the suffering of some around me.

As a pastor of a large church in Pretoria, I had been party to expanding our missions giving to nearly 30% of the budget, but paradoxically, it was my exit from pastoral ministry which truly brought me face to face with the needs of the people of South Africa. Working in a Christian school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, I came face to face with Black young people and adults who had no food because they had no jobs; who had no education because they had no proper facilities; who faced the AIDS pandemic with resignation because life had no hope anyway.

I then began to read what some of the Emerging Church writers were saying to the 21st century church about the importance of being relevant in the world and my wife and I found ourselves saying, “Yes, that’s it!” We could see that the church (with a few happy exceptions) had become a club so concerned with its own survival and comfort that it had forgotten its true mission. I recalled reading Dr Michael Griffiths’ stirring book, “Cinderella with Amnesia”, many years ago, in which he pointed out that if the church forgets its mission responsibility, it has lost its reason for existence. But I began to see that “mission” was a much broader concept than I had ever envisaged.

BACK TO THE SCRIPTURES

As much as anything, I suppose it was the reading of Philip Yancey’s amazing book, “The Jesus I never knew”, which caused me to re-read the Gospels in a new light. I began to ask serious questions about the “gospel” which Jesus taught and, if I were to take His opening sermon as a keynote message for His whole ministry, then somewhere along the line I had missed something vitally important. When Jesus was handed the scroll in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4), he chose to read from Isaiah 61 and announced His anointing as one who would proclaim good news, i.e. the “gospel”. All fine so far, except that His next statement would have been out of sync with the vast majority of evangelical preachers today. They would have said, “you need to turn from your sins and accept Jesus as your Saviour”.

Now Jesus knew that He had come to “save His people from their sins”, so more than anyone He would have desired the salvation of those who heard Him. Yet He chose to define His gospel in a different way. (All quotations from the English Standard Version) Note the elements of it:

  • It was good news to the poor
  • It included proclaiming liberty to the captives
  • It included recovering of sight to the blind
  • It included setting at liberty those who are oppressed
  • It included a proclamation of a type of “jubilee year” in which those whose land had been taken away must be returned.

What absolutely stunned me when I went back to study this passage was that this is not only the “social gospel”. It is also the “liberation theology” about which I was warned so strenuously by the spiritual elders! And I found that the convoluted “hermeneutical principle” of making this all spiritual rather than actual began to seem a little threadbare.

So, as a lover of the Old Testament prophets, I went back to study the context of Isaiah’s prophecies, only to find verses like, “I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong” (Isaiah 61:8); “They shall not build and another inhabit” (Isaiah 65:22); and of course the famous Micah 6:8 passage: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Back to the New Testament, only to find James defining pure, undefiled religion as visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27)

MY CONCLUSIONS

I was therefore left with no alternative but to deduce that the kind of Christianity which Jesus both taught and demonstrated included a large element of social upliftment, based on God’s unending desire that there should be justice, mercy, kindness, fairness and love among the peoples of the earth. I had to conclude that the only way millions of people will ever know that the spiritual Kingdom of God has come on earth is if they see the members of that Kingdom getting their hands dirty in feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, providing clothes for the needy, helping the sick, visiting those in prison … doesn’t this sound just vaguely like Matthew 25:31-46?

What finally stirred me to put laser printer to paper was the reading of Jeffrey Sachs’ mind-blowing book, “The End of Poverty”. Both he and Bono (who writes the foreword to the book) maintain that we have in our hands the means to end extreme poverty, as experienced by 1 billion people on the planet, by the year 2025. The figures he provides are convincing and shocking, especially when one reads that the United States spent $450 billion in 2004 on the military and just $15 billion on poverty alleviation!

But then I had to look closer to home. It’s very easy for all of us to sit in judgment on the wealthy nations for not doing more … and I certainly believe they should! But before we do that, we really need to ask what Christians are doing to participate in this poverty alleviation. We need to ask if our church really needed to buy that building next door, or put in new carpets, or upgrade the sound system, or have those lavish women’s and men’s breakfasts, when 15 000 people will die TODAY in Africa from preventable diseases – preventable, that is, if someone provides them with the money for the medication, or the mosquito nets, or simply the food to strengthen their bodies against any passing bug!

I recall criticism being levelled against the church leaders of Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg, during the apartheid era, for reaching out to meet the physical and emotional needs of the oppressed, when what they really needed was to “be saved”. May God forgive those who criticized, for that same church is now reaching out to the thousands of people displaced in our country through the current wave of xenophobic violence. I suspect that the leaders of this church have a far better understanding of what the gospel of Jesus Christ should really look like than hundreds of pastors who occupy the so-called evangelical pulpits of this land.

On several occasions in recent years I have visited the Salvation Army in Bournemouth, England, where Sundays include gospel preaching and open-airs, but all week long they are clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, cutting the hair and providing baths for the destitute, even taking hot soup to emergency workers attending to accidents or fires. If that’s the social gospel, we need more of it!

Hilton, South Africa
22nd May 2008

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