"Shouldn't we do more for the world?" : Is The Social Gospel Biblical? 

 

It is often questioned whether we are correct to place our emphasis on preaching and Bible study, and instead perhaps we ought to concentrate on reaching out to help the suffering in this world, preaching a social Gospel. But is this Biblical? There is no doubt that we have a duty to do good to all men, to show the love and grace of Christ to all men and all things we come into contact with in life- even animals. Our experience of that love, so great, so free, ought to influence us even down to our body language and the way we walk. And yet the question is, what should be the balance in our lives; should we concentrate mainly on loving the brotherhood, or showing love to the world generally? On preaching the social Gospel, or feeding the starving? 

There has been a very distinct trend in our community with regard to our social conscience about the world around us. When confronted with flood ruined Bangladesh, or drought smitten Somalia, the traditional response was firstly sorrow and sympathy, but then a most definite feeling that it was not for us to do anything practical to alleviate this suffering. " Let the potsherds of the earth strive with the potsherds of the earth" ; " let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the Gospel" were verses oft quoted at church business meetings (and the like) in my youth when these issues were raised. But many in our community now seem to have developed a genuine conscience about the world's suffering, feeling that as God has reached out into our spiritually desperate lives, so we should be moved with compassion by the world's sufferings. The following are purely personal responses to our dilemma (if it is that). 

- If we are the seed of the woman, we will be in constant, aggressive conflict with the seed of the snake; the world, structured as it is around the " Lusts" of human nature. Is this Biblically compatible with preaching a social gospel? In Christ we will have peace; but in the world, we will have tribulation, even as Christ did. Our pity for the world, the good deeds we should do to all men, must not lead us to love the world. For if we do that, it is impossible for us to love the Father (1 Jn. 2:15). The 'devil' refers both to our own internal lusts, and the world at large. The world is in our hearts, in this sense (Ecc. 3:11). Thus " the world" is paralleled with " the lust thereof" (1 Jn. 2:17). As there is a most pronounced conflict within our own beings between flesh and spirit, so there will be between us and the world. We are not to agape this world, to love with the love of Christian brethren. The agape we have for our brethren is something very special, and must not be shared with the world; if we do so, the love of the Father is not in us, because we are declaring the world to be the ecclesia (1 Jn. 2:15). It cannot therefore be true that we ought to show the same kind of love to the world as we show to our brethren. 

- Yet God loved the world- through giving Christ to enable their spiritual salvation. " God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son" (Jn. 3:16) implies that the love of God for the world was channelled through the work of Christ. Biblically, this Gospel was not a social Gospel. Note the import of the word " so" - not 'so much', but 'so, in this way...'. There are just so many connections between the love of God and the death of Christ, that it is easy to overlook them. For example, " God loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins...hereby ('in this') we perceive the love of God, because he laid down his life for us" (1 Jn. 4:10; 3:16). The love of God is " in Christ Jesus" . Likewise, the love of Christ is so often linked with His death. Christ " Loved us, and washed us from our sins" (Rev. 1:5). He gave His life so that the world might have life (Jn. 6:51); and yet He gave His life for us. My conclusion is that the love of Christ was not for the whole world, or for the physical planet. It was for us whom God has called out of this world to benefit from the Lord's sacrifice; for us who to God, from His perspective, constitute " the world" with which He deals. " The world" in John's Gospel often means the Jewish world. The Lord died for their salvation fundamentally (Gal. 4:5), and we only have access to this by becoming spiritual Israel through baptism. 

- If we are to show the love of God to the world, this will primarily (but not exclusively) be in terms of our spiritual help towards them, rather than a social gospel. Our response to God's love in Christ will also be expressed by laying down our lives " for the brethren" . The next verse helps define this as material, practical help (1 Jn. 3:16,17). Paul's conception of love to the world around him was clearly rooted in the need to preach to them, rather than provide material help. He felt he had a debt to love others (Rom. 13:8); yet also a debt to preach (Rom. 1:14). His debt was to love in the form of preaching. There is a trend within our community which deserves thought: as increasing numbers are baptized in poorer countries, far outstripping growth in the wealthier areas, the material need of our brotherhood is increasing. As opportunities for witness open, our missionary brethren are faced with colossal numbers of men and women who earnestly desire to be taught the Truth. But those very brethren (and sisters) are operating to tight budgets which are scarcely adequate. My conclusion is that in our financial giving, we should firstly remember the desperate needs of many of our brethren. But again, I emphasize, this is not to say that there is no place for showing practical love and good deeds to the world at large. 

- Let us not be wilfully ignorant of the fact that 'giving to charity' as part of a social gospel has an element of appealing to the flesh in it. Now I am not saying that I am even tempted to suspect any of us as having this motivation in our giving to the surrounding world; I simply raise it as a caveat. And let's not equate true love with the mere act of giving aid to charities. We can give all our goods to feed the poor, but lack true love; the life of love, the love of Christ permeating all our being (1 Cor. 13:3 may well have been written by Paul with his mind on some in the early Jerusalem ecclesia, who did give all their goods to the ecclesial poor, but lacked a true love, and returned to Judaism). The 'world' is structured around the desires of the flesh, being comprised of people who are devoted to the selfishness of human nature. Whether nominally 'Christian' or not, they do not have the Biblical attributes of " love, joy, peace" etc.- for these are fruits developed by the word of Truth acting upon the mind of the believer. All those outside of Christ are active enemies of God, provoking His anger (Eph. 2:3-15), labourers standing spiritually idle in the market place (Mt. 20:7). For this reason, we should not necessarily feel 'shamed' by the example of their charity. The 'world' raises huge amounts of money to help its own people. For a good cause, some would even dare to die. But does this not exemplify the Lord's words, when He spoke of how the world loves its own? None of these are reasons not to give to charities. But we must watch our motivation; for it is evident that we should have different motives in our giving, to those of the 'world' around us.  

- The Old Covenant's command to love one's neighbour as oneself  was in the context of life in Israel. One's " neighbour" referred to others belonging to the Covenant people; not to those in the 'world' of the surrounding nations. New Testament quotation of this command totally supports this view; under the New Covenant, we must love those within the ecclesia as we love ourselves (Gal. 5:14). 1 Cor. 6:1 (R.V.) speaks of brethren within the ecclesia as " neighbours" . Again, this is not in itself proof that we should not give to (e.g.). famine relief. But it surely indicates that we are misguided in thinking that such action is fulfilling this command. However, there is copious evidence within the Law that Israel were to be considerate and concerned for the Gentile world around them.  But there is no Biblical evidence that Israel preached a social Gospel to them.

- The parable of the good Samaritan needs careful reflection before we see in it a command to concentrate on giving to the world.  It is used as Biblical evidence for a social gospel. The Samaritan was " neighbour unto him that fell among thieves" (Lk. 10:36)- i.e. the story shows how he fulfilled the command to love our neighbour. We have shown above that this command refers to love for those related to the Covenant. The Samaritan represented Christ. The mugged man was those He came to save; not the world generally, for they have not all accepted His healing. We must go and do likewise; in showing the love of Christ to the world. But we have earlier defined that love as being paramountly spiritual, and relating to the work of the cross. The parable was teaching the inability of the Law to save man spiritually, not materially. 

- The Samaritan " was moved with compassion" by the man's (spiritual) state (Lk. 10:33 R.V.). This is the same phrase as used concerning how Christ " was moved with compassion" by the multitudes. The connection with the good Samaritan parable would invite us to read the Lord's compassion as fundamentally spiritual. The reason for the miracles was to confirm the spoken word (Mk. 16:20), to lead men to see the wisdom of the message they were validating (Mk. 6:2). Are there any examples of Christ doing miracles for reasons unconnected with preaching? They often (always?) had symbolic meaning; and were designed to inculcate faith (Jn. 20:31) and repentance (Mt. 11:21). And in any case, His miracles were largely to benefit the Covenant people, or those closely associated with them. The apostles didn't do mass benefit miracles (e.g. feeding thousands of people) to back up their preaching in the Gentile world; even though they had the power to do " greater works" than did the Lord (Jn. 14:12). 'Charitable' giving ought to be associated with preaching, surely, if we are to follow the example of Christ's compassion with the multitudes.  In practice, the work of providing welfare and conducting fresh preaching is done by the same brethren in the mission field.  

- We must be careful what we mean when we feel that God looks down upon the human condition, and is " moved with compassion" towards men, and therefore comes to their aid. Scripture abounds with examples of God doing this for His people. But not once do we read of God physically intervening to alleviate the distress of, e.g., an earthquake which has affected unenlightened people, and sharing some kind of social Gospel with them. Indeed, should He do so, one is faced with the paradox of God bringing that " evil" upon those people, and then being moved with compassion and partially reversing that " evil" . The Spirit teaches that in our time of dying, human beings are the same as animals. It is tragically sad that animals are tortured and exterminated. But is there any higher degree of tragedy, in God's sight, in the suffering of unenlightened men? Because the Reubenites cried to God in faith, " there fell down many slain (of the Hagarites), because the war was of God" (1 Chron. 5:22). And consider how millions live and die or die in the womb, with God's full knowledge and allowance, never to have the invitation of the Gospel. Short of believing in a universal 'second chance', we just have to accept that human death does not mean to God what it does to us as men. A lion will be more touched by the sufferings of its fellow lion, than it will be by the cries of a lion-mauled human being. Likewise, we are more touched by the sufferings of our fellow man than by those of other species. But is there any evidence that God sees human suffering differently from that of the animal world? Is the manner of death significant to God? These are honest questions. 

- Gentile tribes had to obliterated in their entirety lest they provide temptation to God's people to turn to other gods (Dt. 20:18). God saw the spiritual welfare of His people as more important than the physical wellbeing of the unbelieving world around them- even though actually this command to exterminate the Gentile tribes in Canaan was occasioned by the very weakness of God's people, for whose spiritual sake it was done. This apparent justification of ethnic cleansing is indeed hard for us to grapple with.

- The whole language of our redemption and deliverance in Christ is based upon Israel's deliverance from Egypt. God was moved by the distress of those whom He was going to call into special relationship with Him; and therefore He was moved with compassion towards them. He did all that was possible to deliver them. But God was evidently not 'moved' in the same way by the sufferings of the Egyptians. The plagues brought about the equivalent devastation of the worst floods, earthquakes or volcanoes ever shown on TV. The economy was ruined, disease rampant (think of the plagues of blood, lice and flies, not to mention the huge numbers of rotting carcasses). This was all consciously brought about by God. And think of the death of the firstborn. 'All somebody's sons', as the Charity appeals often say; from sweet babies of happy young parents, to the strapping young men who were the pride and joy of middle age. It does us no harm to think of the physical and emotional carnage which God wrought. And the Israelites hardly had a whip round to help the poor old Egyptians who were in such a desperate crisis; in fact, God told them to do just the opposite. We must be fully aware that Israel's position exactly typifies our own. We have left the world of Egypt, a world which is heading for a like destruction. Those 'Egyptians' who wish can decide now to escape- by associating themselves with God's people. Indeed, the Mosaic Law stressed that any who showed any inclination to do this were to be treated with the utmost generosity; yet there seems to be no explicit command under the Law to encourage Israel to get involved in alleviating the problems of the surrounding nations. God's own Son made the point that He did not pray for the world, but for His own people (Jn. 17:9). The way He tells the Father this in prayer would seem to emphasize how strongly He felt about this. The commands to pray for the world are in the context of requesting that human Governments might permit God's people to live spiritual lives among them (Jer. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:2); not for the Governments etc. in themselves. 

God's World

The implication of some of the points listed above is that God is believer-centric; to Him, His 'world' is the believers, and the rest count for almost nothing, relatively speaking (1). The following Biblical evidence needs to be considered before we opt for a social gospel. He speaks of " Macedonia and Achaia" as meaning 'the believers in Macedonia and Achaia' (Rom. 15:26). The whole creation which praises God is defined as God’s saints (Ps. 145:10 NIV). God thereby reveals Himself as 'believer-centric'. Thus often Scripture speaks as if " all men" will be raised. Rom. 2:6-9 speaks of " every man" being judged at the second coming. We know that literally " all men" will not be. But the believers are " all things" to God and Christ. The head of “every man is Christ” only in the sense that “every [believing] man” has this relationship with Him. “Every man” to God is therefore those in Christ. “All” shall be made alive at the Lord’s return- i.e. all “that are Christ’s” (1 Cor. 15:22,23). " All things" is a title of the church in Ephesians and Colossians, and " any man" evidently means 'any believer' in 1 Cor. 8:10. “All men...every man” means ‘all that believed’ in Acts 2:44,45. Christ died a ransom “for all”, and yet more specifically “a ransom for many”, i.e. not all (1 Tim. 2:5 cp. Mk. 10:45). The Lord said that He did not pray for the world (relevant to joining in 'days of prayer' etc.?), but for " all mine...them which thou gavest me out of the world" . The believers will " all" be raised. There are times, too, when Paul speaks as if " all" who are raised will be saved. Again, we know that this is not true. But once we appreciate that he saw " all" men as referring to the faithful, problems disappear. The " every man" who had material gave it for the construction of the tabernacle, according to Ex. 35:23; although this " every man" is elsewhere defined as " every one whom his spirit made willing" to donate (Ex. 35:21). In like manner, Rom. 3:19 (A.V.mg.) defines " all the world" as those " subject to the judgment of God" - which is only the responsible. " Every knee shall bow to me...every tongue shall confess...so then every one of us shall give account" (Rom. 14:11,12) is another example- 'all men', 'every man' means 'every one of us the responsible'. “The dead” will be judged (Rev. 11:18)- not everyone who ever died, but the dead who, God counts responsible. " The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared unto all men" (Tit. 2:11)- certainly not to every human being that has ever lived; but to the " all men" of the new creation. The Lord tasted death " for every man" (Heb. 2:9)- for every one who has a representative part in His sacrifice through baptism. Christ " reconciled the world" in that He obtained forgiveness for us (2 Cor. 5:19)- we are " the world" which was reconciled, we are the " all things" purged by His blood (Heb. 9:22). “The Gentiles” is put for ‘the Gentiles who believe’ (Rom. 2:14; 3 Jn. 7). 1 Cor. 4:9 seems to make a difference between " the world" and " men" , as if Paul is using " the world" here as meaning 'the world of believers'. The Lord was " a ransom for all" (1 Tim. 2:6), although it was only us, the redeemed, who were ransomed by Him out of sin's slavery (Lk. 1:68; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:18; Rom. 8:13; Rev. 5:9; 14:3,4). The " all men" of our 'world' should therefore be limited to those who constitute God's world, as here defined. The real solution to being 'too inward looking' is to go out into the highways and byways, and compel men to come in to the covenants of promise.  

The risen Lord has filled " all things" with His spirituality, " the whole universe" , i.e. the believers (Eph. 3:19; 4:10 NIV). This is based on God's attitude in the OT; that Israel were His people, His 'world', and the other nations were " not a people" ; effectively, they weren't people, in God's eyes (Dt. 32:21). Is this Biblical evidence for a social Gospel? These words are true of all those who are out of covenant relationship with Him, including those who have fallen away. Thus Elisha told the apostate king of Israel: " Were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee" (2 Kings 3:14). In some passages, it would seem that God's word is written specifically for His people, and has no meaning for the world at large- e.g. 2 Tim. 1:9,10: " Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling...which was given us in Christ...but is now made manifest [unto us] by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death [for us], and hath brought life and immortality to light [for us] through the Gospel" .  

Is. 60:2 speaks of the sun rising upon Zion- as if Zion was the whole earth to God. Ps. 89:12 shows how God reckons the points of the compass with reference to Jerusalem: " The north and the south thou hast created them: Tabor (in the west) and Hermon (in the east) shall rejoice" . Likewise " the sea" is often used to show that the west is intended, the Mediterranean being to the west of Jerusalem (Num. 2:18; Josh. 16:5,6; Ez. 42:19). " The east" is put for Persia, Media and the lands east of Jerusalem (Ez. 25:4; Mt. 2:1); " the south" for Egypt, south of Canaan (Jer. 13:19; Dan. 11:5), or for the negev, the hill country south of Jerusalem (Gen. 12:9; 13:1,3; Ez. 20:46,47); " the north" is put for Babylon (Jer. 1:13-15 etc.). This would all explain why Is. 20:6 (Heb.) describes Israel as an island in God’s eyes. This, to Him, was ‘the world’. Abraham was promised eternal inheritance of Israel, but Paul saw this as inheritance of “the world” (Rom. 4:13). 

However, there is a strong and powerful corollary to all this. Those among God's people who break their covenant with Him, He sees as the world. Thus Moses prophesied of an apostate Israel: " They have dealt corruptly with [God], they are no longer his children because of their blemish; they are a perverse and crooked generation" (Dt. 32:5 RSV). These very words are used by Paul regarding the Gentile world (Phil. 2:15). Apostate Israel are the   pagan world (2); and therefore the rejected at the day of judgment will be condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:32). The disciples were to shake off the dust of their feet against unbelieving Israel (Mt. 10:14; Mk. 6:11; Acts 8:51), in allusion to the Rabbinic teaching that the dust of Gentile lands caused defilement. Israel who rejected the Gospel were thus to be treated as Gentiles. God sees the world as actively evil: " this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4), under His condemnation (1 Cor. 11:32); he that is not with the Lord Jesus is seen as actively against Him, not just passively indifferent (Lk. 11:23). It is absolutely fundamental that our separation from this world is related to our salvation. The act of baptism is a saving of ourselves not only from our sins, but all from " this untoward generation" in which we once lived (Acts 2:40).  

Throughout Scripture, the opposition between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God is highlighted. After the establishment of the first ecclesia in Jerusalem, the Acts record seems to emphasize the pointed conflict between the ecclesia and the world. Being " of one accord" was a hallmark of the early brethren (Acts 1:14; 2:1,46; 4:24; 5:12; 15:25); but the world were in " one accord" in their opposition to that united ecclesia (Acts 7:57; 12:20; 18:12; 19:29).  

We ought to be deeply, deeply moved by the fact that we have been called into God's world, into His sphere of vision. He even created the different types of meats " to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth" (1 Tim. 4:3); they were made for us, not the world, and therefore we ought to give thanks for our food with this realization. Appreciating this is the most powerful motivator for us to be separate from this world. God destroyed Moab because they said that Judah was just like any other heathen nation (Ez. 25:8). Even though in reality this was true, this was so abhorrent for Yahweh to hear. There is a Biblical theme that the rejected saints will be punished along with the world around them (1 Cor. 11:32). If we are not separate from this world now, we will not be separated form them when the judgments fall. This was foreshadowed by the way apostate Israel were treated like the surrounding Gentile world in the time of their judgments (e.g. Jer. 4:7; Am. 9:7).  

The love of God for " the world" was in giving Christ so that whoever believed in Him might have eternal life. Jn. 3:16 suggests a parallel between " the world" and whoever believes in Christ. This seems Biblical evidence to reject a social Gospel. Dan. 7:21 cp. 23 parallels the saints with “the whole earth”. Christ died so that the sins of not only John and his readers might be forgiven, but also those " of the whole world" (1 Jn. 2:2). If this means literally everyone, it would follow that God would give the whole world the opportunity to know His Son and repent, but He has not done this. It therefore follows that " the whole world" refers to those God has called to salvation. We are " all things" to Him, as He and the things of His Truth should be " all things" to us. The Lord died so that the world may have life (Jn. 6:51); but only those who eat His words and assimilate the true meaning of His cross will share this life; therefore " the world" refers to all who would believe. It is for them (us, by His grace), not even for those who respond but ultimately fall away, that the Lord gave His all. We are " the world" to Him. Let's not dilute the specialness of His love and the wonder of our calling to these things.


Notes

(1) This idea is also discussed in The Language of God.

(2) Many examples of this are given in The Last Days , Appendix 3.