Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Social Gospel?

I’ve claimed Christianity as my faith since I was a child, but for the first 20 or so years of my life it was what I like to call a “hereditary faith.” I was raised in a “Christian household”, so being a Christian was just one of the things that was expected of me: clean your room, do your homework, confess Jesus Christ as Lord, take out the trash, etc.

Scripture was the language that we spoke in this world, and so I dedicated several of my childhood years to diligently memorizing Scripture. A lovely program called AWANA (Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed) encouraged this habit by giving me pins and ribbons whenever I memorized a certain amount of Scripture. I was a Bible Quiz champion. I was encouraged in my reading and memorizing of the Bible, and everyone who knew me at church knew that I was destined to do great things for the faith.

Then, something happened. I read the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. And, even as a kid, I was really disturbed by what I read. I didn’t understand why God would command the deaths of entire nations of people. But, being a kid, I kind of brushed it off and kept reading and memorizing.

Fast forward to my 20s, and suddenly those questions mattered a great deal. They mattered so much, and I received so few satisfactory answers, that I gave up. I quit reading the Bible. I quit going to church. If this was the only way to read the Bible (which I had been taught), then I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Then, something else happened. When I was 29 years old, I began to read again. This time, I started with the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and I read them as separate accounts, rather than as just four chapters in the grand volume of the Bible. And I discovered something that blew my mind and revolutionized the way I viewed Christianity.

I discovered that the Gospel wasn’t about me. It was about everyone.

I soon discovered that I wasn’t alone in this discovery. Lots of people understood this, and there was even a term for what I now understood – “Social Gospel.” The Social Gospel was based on the idea that Jesus didn’t come specifically or specially to die for my personal sins, but that He came to teach and eat and drink with the poor and the outcasts, and that He died for those very same people.

So, I started to talk about the Social Gospel. I started to write about the Social Gospel. I started to preach about the Social Gospel. I wanted to share this new understanding with every Christian that I had ever known.

It has not made me many friends.

To be fair, many people that I knew in church back in the days of yore that were the 1980s and 1990s have come on similar journeys. Not every single one of them responded negatively to my new understanding. But, enough of my old friends and family have been “concerned” and “prayerful” for my newfound heresy understanding that it began to hurt a little. And then there’s the Internet. (Lord, save us from online comments.) Suddenly, I wasn’t the approved workman that I had always been praised as. I was a dangerous false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a dirty heretic who just wanted to ignore all the important parts of the Bible (like the parts that tell us who not to have sex with) and “cherry pick” the parts that felt really good (like the part where Jesus says to deny yourself and take up a cross.)

Why are we all so afraid of a Social Gospel?

Even good-hearted, community-minded Christians that I know don’t want to hear too much about it. They want a Social Gospel sermon once a month, maybe once a quarter. The rest of the time, they want to hear about the “regular Gospel”, the one that says that you alone were so special to God that He came and died on a cross so that you wouldn’t have to. He punished Himself to avoid punishing you. And, because He did that, we can all go to Heaven instead of Hell and sing all 7 verses of Amazing Grace in front of the Throne forever and ever, world without end. All we have to do is believe that God did that… and make sure that we keep our genitals in line, because, you know, Leviticus.

That’s what makes the Social Gospel so terrifying to people. Because it means that the Gospel isn’t about you. When you read the words that came out of the mouth of Jesus and just… let them sink in… you realize that the Gospel isn’t about you avoiding punishment. What you understand instead is that the Gospel is about rescuing the oppressed, the powerless, the hungry, the naked, the prisoners… and exalting them.

None of us are comfortable with that. None of us should be comfortable with that. When you make the Gospel about everyone else, instead of being about you, then you suddenly realize that the sins that really upset God are the ones that we’re all too prone to: the sins of indifference, of greed, of grasping at power, of exalting ourselves above others. Suddenly, all that personal righteousness seems less important, when you realize that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is only truly expressed in our relationship with “the least of these.”

Suddenly, you feel a crushing responsibility. Suddenly, that old man or woman holding a sign that you passed on the road doesn’t look like a drug-addicted, dirty bum anymore – that person looks like Jesus. Instead of someone just looking for a free handout, that person looks like your salvation, your redemption.

These people suddenly look like the nobility of the Kingdom of God.

You realize, when you understand this Gospel, that your only opportunity to be considered “great” in the eyes of God is to make yourself least. You have to get in the dirt with the poor, into the cells with the prisoners, into the cardboard boxes and park benches with the homeless. You have to take all that power and prestige and influence that you’ve spent your whole life grasping at… and give it all up.

If the Gospel makes anything clear, it’s this: it is the poor, oppressed and powerless – the least, the last and the lost – who have the best seats at God’s table. Those who spent their lives gaining power and using it to oppress and denigrate, those who spent their lives gaining wealth and failing to care for their fellow people… well, I don’t think they’re going to Hell. But, Jesus seems to say that you’ll be lucky to be eating the scraps that fall from the feast.

That’s terrifying. We want to shy away from that, get back to the Gospel of Me, really believe that if we were the only person on Earth, Jesus would have died for our sins. We don’t want to think about the Gospel of Us, the Gospel of We, the Gospel of the Poor, the Gospel of the Oppressed.

People have told me that I only read the Bible the way that I do because I want license to sin. Well, if you think that the Social Gospel is an easier Gospel to follow, then you don’t understand it at all. Because, now I sin every time I pass a homeless man on the street without stopping to talk, or get him a cup of coffee, or give him some food. I sin every time I refuse to help someone in need. I sin every time I refuse to visit someone in prison. I sin every time I eat too much while others starve. I sin every time I buy a luxury that I don’t need while others go without their basic needs.

If anything, my potential to sin has increased.

But, where sin abounds, so does Grace. But, it’s a liberating grace, a costly grace, not a cheap and easy grace given by a few simple words said and a belief held. It’s a grace that demands as much as it gives. We’re saved by this Grace, so that we can take that same Grace and save others.

The Gospel isn’t a formula for salvation. The Gospel isn’t a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. The Gospel isn’t about the death of Jesus, with a bunch of unimportant stuff happening before it.

The Gospel is Good News. It’s the key to every chain. It’s the power of God to go forth and feed, clothe, house and care for the needy.

The Gospel is freedom, both from the very real oppression that people do to others… and from the oppression of our selfish, grasping natures and the slow death that those natures bring.

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.”

Believe it. Believe it with your life, not just your heart.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Michael Brian Woywood