The Social Gospel

What is it?

The Social Gospel movement has been called one of the most powerful religious movements in American history. Such a powerful movement needs to be understood and discussed so that we can consider its value or detriment to our work as a church and as individual Christians.

Some aspects of the social gospel have always been around, but in America its roots go back to the late 19th century - a time of strong industrial growth and immigration. During this period social suffering and injustice became more obvious, and so the Social Gospel was born in the United States.

Social Gospel activists took Christian principles and applied them to social problems (e.g. injustice, suffering, poverty, drugs, racial tensions, and even alcohol and hygiene). The Social Gospel movement emphasized the kingdom of God on earth, and the Christian’s responsibility to bring the kingdom of God to pass. The Social Gospel movement changed the purpose of the church from the preaching of good news of Christ crucified to improving the community through reforms in education and health care programs.

It is interesting to note that social gospel leaders were predominantly post-millennialist – believing that Christ could not return until the church had wiped out these social problems through their own efforts!


One of the earliest promoters of the Social Gospel was Charles Sheldon who wrote In His Steps (1897) and coined the now-popular phrase “What would Jesus Do?” Many church leaders (like New York City Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch) would later become active in Social Gospel reforms because they were influenced by Sheldon’s writings.

The foundation of the social gospel was taken from the teachings of Jesus (cf. Matthew 23) but also from the Old Testament prophets. Malachi wrote about dealing with social injustice: “‘And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness Against sorcerers, Against adulterers, Against perjurers, Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, And against those who turn away an alien––Because they do not fear Me’ Says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:5). We even find in the book of Acts a record of the early church’s care for widows and the poor.

The Neglect of the Gospel

All of these things are true. But this was not the church’s primary goal. The most important responsibility of the church is to preach the Gospel: Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). That this was not a message of social reform can be clearly seen in the message that was proclaimed by the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts. The entire focus of their message was on the person and the work of Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, not on social improvement. Individual salvation should never take a back seat to social improvement or reform!

It isn’t the church’s responsibility to address social issues. Certainly we can and should address such social concerns as individual Christians. But too many churches today are neglecting the preaching of Christ crucified in favor of participation in ever-increasing social and political causes. True Christian teaching is being watered down, and churches are failing to carry out Christ’s command to teach “them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

The result of not teaching the whole counsel of God faithfully is this: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). This is readily apparent within many churches right now! The church needs to return to its God-given directive of preaching the message of Christ crucified and all things He has commanded.

Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.

If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew