Can churches create compassionate social ministries in their communities without inadvertently becoming sidetracked from their essential gospel motivation?

The question is not new—a promising young German seminarian slipped down this path in the 1880s. “The idea came to me that I ought to be a preacher, and help to save souls. I wanted to go out as a foreign missionary—I wanted to do hard work for God,” Walter Rauschenbusch said in 1913. “Indeed, one of the great thoughts that came upon me was that I ought to follow Jesus Christ in my personal life, and die over again his death, . . . and it was that thought that gave my life its fundamental direction in the doing of Christian work” (Rauschenbusch, “The Kingdom of God” in The Social Gospel in America, 1870–1920).

Rauschenbusch, who began his ministry with an orthodox view of salvation, would later become known as “the father of the social gospel.” Regrettably, once he became pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City, he preached a different gospel, altering his Biblical message to address social ills such as poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition. In the process, Rauschenbusch lost his emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for the sinner.

Even today Christians tamper with the gospel message, as Rauschenbusch did, applying his ideas to our modern problems.

This is not what the New Testament teaches. The command by Jesus to “make disciples” does not imply a change in the gospel, but rather a proclamation of the good news, which Paul affirmed to the church of Corinth: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).

Yet our disciple-making does not happen in a social vacuum. Cities are filled with poverty, hunger, and unemployment. Public schools become drop-out factories, leading to teen pregnancies, abortion, and AIDS. In response, the urban church has tangible opportunities to “love our neighbors” in their need, adorning the gospel as salt and light in our communities, using social ministry as a platform for the proclamation of the gospel.

But sponsoring social ministries can pose troublesome questions for churches that wish to proclaim traditional, orthodox beliefs. Doesn’t focusing on social issues detract us from the true gospel? Won’t our social involvement lead to the social gospel?

It is my experience that some Regular Baptists fear a social gospel for the wrong reasons. The danger does not come from churches providing a community-wide food pantry for the poor or helping single mothers find employment. Rather, the hazard sets in when we let our theological guard down by not aggressively applying the doctrines of our faith to the social crises of our day. If churches are to create compassionate social ministries in their communities, they must have a robust theology actively functioning as boundary lines. If not, the social gospel will eventually do away with the good news that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” In this writing, I will briefly unpack three articles of faith deconstructed by the current form of social gospel. This deconstruction inevitably leads to theological compromise within the church.

Total Depravity

Supervising a neighborhood recreation program almost two decades ago, I encountered unspeakable evil. My coworker who lived in the projects shared with me the story of her crack-addicted neighbor. Teenage drug dealers who were attending our program had abused and humiliated this single mom because they had grown tired of trading drugs for sex with her. At once I began to comprehend what the Scriptures mean when they say that God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

I realized that sin is so much more than “societal selfishness” toward fellow human beings, Walter Rauschenbusch’s definition in A Theology of the Social Gospel. Humanity’s interaction with sin is more than “a story about the downside of ‘progress’ . . . the human intention toward evil,” as Brian McLaren states in A New Kind of Christianity (a denial of the historical event of the Fall and the inherited sin nature from Adam).

What about sin as open rebellion against God? What about the reality that because humans inherited the sin nature from Adam, we are born sinners totally depraved and we, too, are guilty and under condemnation? Did those teenagers have only an intention toward evil, or did their sin spring from evil hearts, which they always had before God? Belief in original sin and total depravity goes so much deeper than the naivety that Rauschenbusch and McLaren have proposed.

Moreover, Adam’s sin nature is found in all people. This may seem obvious, but our basic beliefs about total depravity are increasingly downplayed by my evangelical urban ministry colleagues, who are greatly influenced by Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. His semiautobiographical book describes his work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, during which he began to refer to the lepers as “Jesus in disguise.” Claiming Scriptural support from the “least of these” found in Matthew 25:31–46, Claiborne teaches a sacramental view of the poor, where street ministry is like a liturgical act by which the believer earns sanctification. Such ideas have Roman Catholic roots in the theology of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Martin of Tours.

Viewing the poor as “Jesus in disguise” leads to significant theological problems. As a result, those who serve Christ from this motivation often romanticize the poor and oppressed, believing they are mystically encountering Jesus. But Jesus had no sin. And since Jesus had no sin, those who minister from this motivation have no cause to lovingly share the gospel with the poor. They are left with social action, but no gospel.

Five years ago as I paused for a stop sign while driving through my inner-city neighborhood, a young drug dealer on the corner pulled out his gun with a laser scope and aimed its red dot at my forehead. With a pull of his trigger I would’ve been a dead man, but out of sheer terror my body jolted with fear, causing him to double up with laughter (allowing me to drive away!). The gunman was not the high-level pusher seen in movies or music videos. He didn’t have flashy clothes, a Hummer, a mansion for a “crib,” or an assortment of scantily clad women by his side. No, he was like many other young adult men in my community: a jobless, desperate dropout lacking marketable skills, and most likely addicted to the drugs he was selling. In other words, he was poor.

So if Shane Claiborne is right, and the presence of Jesus mystically resides in the poor, was this drug dealer actually Jesus in disguise? Would Jesus have terrorized and mocked me in this manner?

Or what about when I saw one homeless person beating another homeless person nearly to death? If the “least of these” were actually “Jesus in disguise,” wouldn’t we have to claim that somehow Jesus was criminally assaulting Jesus in some mystical way? This illogical conclusion—stemming directly from Shane Claiborne’s teaching—often leads to discouragement among young urban workers as they begin to question whether they are really encountering Jesus among the poor.

Scripture offers a different conclusion. The poor (and all of humanity) have been broken and maimed by sin. And unless they repent and believe the gospel, the poor and the rest of humanity are still under condemnation because of sin.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

When people see sin as more societal than personal, more as selfishness toward fellow human beings than an offense before a holy God, or more as a human intention toward evil than having an evil heart, when they overlook sin because somehow the mystical Presence resides in the “least of these,” their atonement remedy for sin often veers away from penal-substitution and embraces a form of moral example.

With accusations of divine child abuse, certain Christians have spurned penal-substitution for a more nonviolent view of the atonement. Rauschenbusch, for instance, saw the atonement as more of a demonstration of public evils, which he revealed as religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt (A Theology of the Social Gospel). Consequently, Rauschenbusch believed that the atonement was an ultimate demonstration of love by Jesus. “The life of Jesus was a life of love and service. At every moment his life was going out toward God and men. His death, then, had the same significance. It was the culmination of his life, its most luminous point, the most dramatic expression of his personality, the consistent assertion of the purpose and law which had ruled him and formed him.”

In the same vein, McLaren advocates a form of moral example, highlighted through vulnerability and sacrifice: “By becoming vulnerable on the cross, by accepting suffering from everyone, . . . Jesus is showing God’s loving heart, which wants forgiveness, not revenge, for everyone” (McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In).

Both Rauschenbusch and McLaren rejected substitutionary atonement in favor of the Cross as God’s love for us so that we could sacrificially love others. But an atonement that only sets a loving example for us to follow does not deal with the problem of our totally depraved sin nature that is a violation before a holy God. Only Jesus, Who bore our sins as our perfect substitute on the cross, can remove the guilt and absorb the punishment for our sins. Since the punishment of sin is death, which Jesus took upon Himself on the cross, those who reject Christ in this lifetime must pay it themselves in the future life. Yet for social gospelers, future judgment does not depend on belief in the atoning work of Christ, especially when original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement are denied.

Final Judgment

Walter Rauschenbusch straddled the fence contemplating whether or not a future Hell exists. But in The Last Word and the Word after That, Brian McLaren looks to “deconstruct our conventional concepts of hell,” by creating a straw man argument against the traditional belief of Hell, which he summarizes as, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the prescribed way, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse forever.” McLaren can imagine a final judgment that “will not involve God . . . pulling down our pants to check for circumcision or scanning our brains for certain beliefs. . . . God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christlikeness—for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful” (A New Kind of Christianity). McLaren describes the final judgment as “not merely retributive . . . but reconciling and restoring.”

McLaren teaches universalism with his assertion of a future judgment where God eventually saves all of humanity anyway and where the differences between the righteous and wicked are downplayed.

But why would the final destination of the righteous and the wicked even matter if essential doctrines such as original sin and total depravity are denied and Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is disregarded? Thus, the timeless words of H. Richard Niebuhr acutely apply to both Rauschenbusch and McLaren: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America).

As long as people distort the doctrines of the Christian faith, there will be a social gospel. Yet believers do not need to be wary of church-based compassionate social ministries that may compel a pagan world “by [our] good works which they observe, [to] glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Rather we should fear the consequences of ignoring sound doctrine and refusing to apply our theology to the social issues that plague our world.

Joel Shaffer (MA, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is director of Urban Transformation Ministries, Grand Rapids, Mich.