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The Threat to Your Wallet of the New Social Gospel

Gary North - March 28, 2013
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Reality Check

The new social gospel is the old social gospel, but dressed in conservative costumes. Its message: the federal government should steal from the rich and give to the poor -- minus 30% in handling costs (never mentioned).

This message began to be preached in mainline Protestant churches in the 1880s. Wherever denominations preached it, they eventually shrank. This is a good thing.

Now the promoters of the old social gospel are seeking new hosts. Every parasite needs a host when the old one dies.


What is the social gospel? It is a theological system based on the Progressive movement in the United States and Social Democracy in Western Europe. They all came into existence in the 1875-85 era. They were all products of the socialist movement.

Some advocates of the social gospel were outright socialists. Most were advocates of the welfare state. Most were associated with liberal Protestant theology, which denied the judicial authority of the Bible, especially the Mosaic law.

While this denial of the Mosaic law has been common in Protestantism, except for the Puritans, most Protestants have defended the free market as consistent with Christian ethics.

The social gospel movement peaked, along with the Progressive movement, in the 1920s. Its basic premises were adopted by the mainline churches' top hierarchies. To the extent that ministers preached about social justice, they adopted the social gospel. Theologically conservative ministers avoided preaching much on social injustice in economics. So, the social gospel won by default. It was dominant in the Federal Council of Churches, 1908-1950, which became the National Council of Churches in 1950.

The social gospel's promoters always have had a major problem. That problem is simple to state: the Bible opposes any concept of wealth redistribution by the civil government, other than for compensation for having committed a crime against property.

The Bible's foundational principle of civil law is this: equality before the law. It first appears in the chapter of the book of Exodus that provides the account of the exodus itself and the establishment of Passover: "One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you" (Exodus 12:49). Forty years later, Moses delivered a corollary principle: economic equality before the law.

Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

These twin legal principles were unique to the Mosaic law in the ancient Near East. They were also unique in the classical world. Only the Hebrews had such a legal order. This legal order was designed to preserve justice by restraining the state.

These twin legal principles are foundational to Western civilization. They did not come from classical Greece or classical Rome. They came from the Hebrews by way of the New Testament. Jesus did not announce the annulment of either of these twin principles of civil law. Neither did the apostles who wrote the New Testament epistles. These twin legal principles are the basis of liberty. Any attempt to undermine them is an assault on liberty.

These two principles cannot be reconciled with any system of graduated taxation. In matters regarding income taxation, the same principle apples as applies to the tithe: a flat rate. There is no such thing as graduated tithing in the Bible. Neither is there graduated taxation.

Those Protestants who promote the social gospel universally recommend the graduated income tax as a matter of moral principle. They also universally ignore Leviticus 19:15: no favoritism for either the rich or the poor.


For as long as churches have existed, they have been the targets of self-conscious revolutionaries who seek to infiltrate, lead people astray, and undermine the churches' very existence.

Of course, any important organization is going to suffer from this kind of self-conscious infiltration. People want something for nothing. They want to steal from others. They want to take advantage of other people's loyalty, because they think they can transfer this loyalty to new people who hold very different views. They seek to take over in the name of the organization's values, when in fact the infiltrators reject these values.

Churches have ways of dealing with infiltrators. They have some kind of loyalty oath. They have a confession of faith that must be taken by anyone who is in a position of authority. This is how churches screen out infiltrators. But when these creeds and confessions are not enforced, it is easy for enemies to creep in and take over. A good phrase for them is "wolves in sheep's clothing." They seek to devour the sheep.

There have been two major groups of infiltrators into the churches over the past two centuries. One group is known as higher critics of the Bible. They have also infiltrated Judaism. By challenging the authority of the Bible, they undermine faith in the creeds and traditions of the churches.

Although this is not well known, the original textual critics started writing in the mid-17th century. They were inside the Anglican church. They sought to reinterpret the Bible as if it were simply a collection of literary texts. This position was not widely shared, but it did exist. The book on this is Henning Graf Reventlow's The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (1980). In the early 19th century, German theologians began adopting higher criticism. This spread to the United States in 1875. It had been resisted up until that time. Then, almost overnight, liberals within the churches began preaching this doctrine.

A decade later, the next infiltration began. This was the movement known as the social gospel. It paralleled a political movement known as the Progressive movement. Both groups called for government intervention to regulate the economy. Both groups were in favor of an expanded federal government. The social gospel people baptized their views by means of a reinterpretation of biblical texts. Every Bible text that is in favor of charity was said by social gospel advocates to be a call for the creation of what we today call the welfare state.

Within 20 years, this outlook had spread to all of the major denominations in the North. The Methodist Church adopted it first in 1908. It spread to the other major mainline Protestant denominations through the first half of the 20th century. By the middle of the 20th century, all mainline denominations had many preachers in the pulpits who preached this doctrine.


The problem that the social gospel people faced came not from inside the church, but from outside. World War I dealt a serious blow to the optimism of the older theological and political liberalism. What World War I did not undermine, World War II did. Germany had been the hotbed of theological liberalism for over a hundred years. But theological liberalism was impotent in the early political resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis. It looked as though sweetness and light would not automatically come from higher education. The Germans had the most rigorous academic educations in the world, yet the nation fell for a Satanic demagogue.

In reaction against the social gospel's optimism, theologians began to adopt a new theology of withdrawal from politics. They began to separate theology from anything political. The Germans pioneered this, but it spread to the United States. My professor at seminary, Cornelius Van Til, called this movement "the new modernism." There was a self-conscious withdrawal from political affairs in the name of Christianity. These people were generally political liberals, but they stopped baptizing political liberalism in the name of the church. So, inside the camp of theological liberalism, there were two camps: the social gospel advocates and liberal pietists, who opposed the idea of Christian political action.

This same dualism is found inside the conservative wings of the church. Most preachers want to avoid politics. They probably are fairly conservative politically, but they keep politics out of the pulpit. This goes back to Lutheranism in the 16th century. There is a rigorous separation of church and state in the United States, but there is also a fairly rigorous separation between Christianity and state. This is not simply a liberal theological doctrine; it is also a conservative theological doctrine.

So, political activists tend not to do very well in the churches. Most pastors want to avoid getting involved in politics. They do not want to lose donations from alienated members who leave because of disagreements over politics. This is why theological liberalism is never as consistently liberal politically as conservatives like to believe. Pastors are basically fearful men, and they do not want any extra controversy. It is safer to avoid talking about political matters, even if you are a liberal. Where politics is the center of religion, we always find shrinking congregations. This is why theological liberalism has lost ground since about 1960. Mainline Protestant denominations went liberal, and then after 1960, they began to shrink. Pastors do not like shrinking congregations. Shrinking congregations lead to shrinking salaries and shrinking retirement portfolios.


In the 1970s, a new social gospel movement appeared. It appeared at the same time that mainline Protestant denominations visibly began to shrink in membership. Decades before, these denominations had all moved away from the public advocacy of the free market and toward the social gospel. That market was visibly shrinking in 1970.

The new social gospel targets the growing churches, namely the evangelical Protestant churches. It is therefore less open about its rejection of the Bible's authority. It is also less open about its rejection of those passages in the Mosaic law that affirm private property. Its strategy is to ignore these passages, not refute them. It also claims to be consistent with biblical ethics, but its ethics is taken from the Progressive movement. It supports an extension of the welfare state.

Its best-known promoter was Ronald. J. Sider, whose book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977), sold over 300,000 copies. David Chilton refuted it line by line in 1981. I hired him to write the book. I gave it its title: Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators. You can download it for free here.

Sider revised his book in 1982, but never mentioned Chilton's book. Chilton revised his book to counter it. Then Sider revised his book again. So did Chilton. The debate ended in 1996. In that year, in the fourth edition, Sider completely revised his book, dropping all of his class-war rhetoric. He even adopted some of Chilton's recommendations. But he never mentioned Chilton by name. Chilton died in 1996.

Today, the best-known representative of the new social gospel is Jim Wallis. I have devoted an entire department to refuting him. He is recruiting followers in Christian colleges and seminaries. He gets a lot of publicity from the humanist media, because his view of economics is essentially theirs. He wants a welfare state.

On the whole, most pastors in the evangelical churches are not adopting his views. I do not think his ideas are ever going to be widely accepted in evangelical churches. But he is making inroads in some of these churches.

The new social gospel appeals to the idea that people with wealth ought to help the poor, and if they refuse to help the poor, the state should force them to help the poor. There is no understanding of the fact that the Bible forbids such coercion in favor of wealth redistribution. This fact is not taught in seminaries. This is actively resisted in the seminaries, because some of the faculty members are in fact defenders of the new social gospel, and the others are pietists who want to keep Christianity confined to individual salvation, family building, and church growth programs. They do not want controversy regarding politics or economics.

So, the new social gospel people win by default on campus. To the extent that they do make converts, they make them generally among people who have gone to a Christian college, or who are involved in Christian ministries that favor helping the poor, and which are looking for government money to help expand their ministries.


The lure of free money from the federal government is like a trap. It affects every social group. Everybody wants to get his hands into the till. Everybody thinks his movement deserves federal support. Everybody wants to use coercion against the other guy, all in the name of righteousness. Everybody thinks his claim on the other guy's money is legitimate. So, the new social gospel works well in deluding Christians into believing that stolen money by the federal government is legitimate, and that there are no strings attached.

This is why I spend so much time on Jim Wallis. It is not because Wallis is an important thinker. He is paid $197,000 a year not to be a great thinker. He is a political activist and an apologist for the welfare state. But the ideas that he represents are a threat to both politics and the church.

Every group is threatened by an invasion of people who sound as though they really care about the goals of the group, but who are in fact infiltrating it for their own purposes. They have their own agendas. When these agendas are funded by federal money, it is very difficult to resist the temptation.

Resist the temptation.

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