When I Was Hungry You…A Brief Look At The Social Gospel

This sign has become a popular rallying point for some Democrats, and others that tend toward the more liberal side of the political spectrum. When challenged about the sign as a political tool, the typical response is that Christ directs these comments toward the nations and not toward individuals, so if you vote contrary to this, then you are either not a Christian, or you are so horrible that you shouldn’t be. In this way the religious left has become just as bad as the religious right. Still though, the sign makes a claim and it should be investigated and examined to insure that we have a proper understanding especially with the understanding that our faith is, by necessity political to some degree, but is not meant to be, nor can it properly be, expressed in a partisan manner. Fair warning, this is going to be a bit long.

To understand the context of this particular sign, and the type of thinking that it represents, we have to have some understanding of the social gospel movement in the 20th century. The movement was characterized by several things, not the least of which is the idea that the Kingdom of God can not be fully realized with the second coming of Christ until mankind has relieved itself of social evils by human effort. It is important to note that in it’s beginnings it was supported far more by clergy than laity, and almost exclusively by the liberal Christian movement and those progressive in their governmental views. Liberal here does not mean left wing politics, but in line with the liberal Christianity that arose out of the enlightenment. Walter Rauschenbusch would be the first to form a cogent systemic theology of the social gospel movement that would be inherited by liberation theology in a few short decades. This movement became the religious wing of the political progressives actively engaged in promotion of social safety net programs, prohibition, child labor laws, and all manner of public morality laws such as making swearing in public illegal and attempts to make illegal all vice, such as gambling and drinking. In the south, the white Baptists, who were by far the most conservative Christian group in the country, was also the most vocal in social gospel initiatives to make illegal and ban anything deemed immoral. Progressive philosophy at this time did not have a political party as it was a governmental philosophy. While today we tend to think of Democrats as the party of progressives, the first progressive president was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican. This era also gave rise to a growing number of Christian socialists in America. The Liberation Theology movement in America during the civil rights era owes a great deal to, and inherited much from the social gospel movement.


The liberal social gospel movement had some glaring fallacies, but these three sum them up well. First, the movement hinged on the idea that mankind wasn’t so bad, and that God really was not going to display any sort of wrath at any point. Richard Niebuhr summarized it best saying “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” The movement taught that the restoration of culture is the whole of the gospel. We see the effects of this today in things like the Christian culture wars. While we, as Christians most certainly need to engage the culture, Christ is the agent of change, not us. Finally, the movement taught that social salvation was superior to individual salvation, and in some cases the only salvation. The social gospel movement has it’s longest lasting effects in many areas, but most notably, the New Deal legislation and perhaps the question “What Would Jesus Do?” as proposed by Charles Sheldon. Sojourners is a good example of a modern Christian social justice group.

Poverty Grunge Background in Black Harsh Tones

Of course the social gospel movement did accomplish a great deal, some good, and some bad. Factory safety standards and child labor laws are a good thing after all. The net effect however was an alliance between faith and politics that has resulted in a great deal of the division that we see today. Whenever you hear that a Christian must vote for a certain political party because of Jesus, you can thank, or curse as the case may be, the social gospel. Now, finally, to the text that the sign represents.

The text we will look to is Matthew 25:31-46.  This is the end of Jesus’ final discourse that begins in chapter 23, and in this section He is making an eschatological prophecy regarding His second coming. While some view this as just another parable, it is properly understood as Jesus speaking prophetically about His return.   The phrase that ends up in question here is the beginning of verse 32, “And all nations shall be gathered before Him.” To be fair, there is some disagreement among scholars what the phrase means in this context. Some believe that this is speaking of a separate judgement toward gentiles, others believe that the phrase indicates all people in general, but virtually no scholarship exists, save for very modern scholarship that is out of line with the historic teachings of the church, that the judgement of nations passage here refers to a judgement on Earthly nations as a whole and not individuals. The contention of those who hold up these signs is that this passage is a judgement on the actions of Earthly nations and not individuals. This is a distinctly modern thought by and large that does not hold up under scrutiny. The phrase in question here most likely indicates that all people will be before the throne for judgement.

While there was a consensus on the meaning of the passage in Matthew for centuries, in the 1960s, that consensus had faded and the frankly unholy idea that God judges the nations and not the individuals was beginning to be perpetuated. While there was always some discussion over who was being judged in the passage, Gentiles only, Jews and Gentiles, etc. the idea that it was anything other than an individual judgement began in earnest in this time thanks to the decades of the social gospel movement morphing into an unholy alliance of Christianity and the state resulting in what is commonly referred to now as “Christian social justice”.

The end result of all of this is that those who are a part of the alliance, whether conservative (we must oppose anything morally objectionable to God in civil law, such as same sex marriage because, you know, Jesus), or progressive (we must feed the poor by forcing people to pay increased taxes because, you know, Jesus) by the necessity of their sincere faith, must not only question the faith of, but in some cases outright deny the faith of, those who disagree with them on political initiatives. The faith becomes tethered to society instead of scripture, and to political activism instead of Jesus. Worst of all, it is the highest form of idolatry as it sets up mankind as the agent of change in the world replacing God as such. In the Wesleyan tradition, that means that mankind is the agent of the restoration of the world, and not God. When this happens then, the way that we view scripture changes drastically thus the commands of scripture change as well.


There can be no doubt that in the scripture from Matthew, the command to care for the least of these is clear. Who the least of these are has been a matter of some debate throughout the course of the church however, and it is worth noting this. Up until the end of the 19th century, the predominated view was that the least of these referred to Christians, primarily missionaries and those in need within the community of faith. A more universal view of this passage emerged, and is indeed the predominate thought today, that the least of these refers to anyone in need. This understanding, while still the majority thought, has again become challenged today where the least of these refers to those in the brotherhood of faith within your own tribe. The question of who is being judged, and what the basis for the judgement actually is, becomes the flash point between the social gospel movements, the nationalistic faith, and the faith of the church catholic.

If it is mankind that is the agent of change, and indeed, if the Kingdom can not come in it’s fullness with the return of Christ until such restoration is accomplished, then the faith demands that the highest imperative becomes social changes eliminating the ills of society in general. For the alliance of the political and theological left, this often takes the form of social safety net programs, sin taxes and outright bans on things deemed harmful to society such as smoking, or the recent backlash in vaping, gun control, protections for vulnerable classes, and really anything that causes a situation that is contrary to how they understand the Kingdom of God to look like. They believe that the government is central in bringing about the restoration of the world. For the alliance of the political right and theological right, it often takes the form of trying to shape the moral fabric of society with legislation such as the blue laws, opposition to legal same sex marriage in the civil sphere, abortion restrictions, the elevation of Christian values as they understand them above any other, and really any belief or action that they deem to be immoral in the Kingdom of God. They believe that the government is central in the protection of society from moral ills. Both sides tend to support restricting the speech and expression of their rivals in the public sphere. While it looks different, it is really the same type of social justice activism that was going on in the early 1900s taken to it’s logical conclusion. While Christians can, and do, support many of the above without falling into the trap, it can not be argued that in the current climate they are either a minority, or a silent majority. It’s hard to tell which,but I lean toward a minority.

This is longer than I usually ramble on, and I realize that we have not yet delved into the passage and it’s meaning, but the background of how the passage is viewed by some is necessary to understanding the interpretations of the religious/political left, the religious/political right, and what the church catholic actually understands the scripture to say. In the next installment we will examine what this passage actually says.

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3 Replies to “When I Was Hungry You…A Brief Look At The Social Gospel”

  1. Scott, while I found this informative, it seemed ultimately lacking. It too easily dismisses Jesus’s role in politics by referencing the historical social gospel movement. While you may find some who believe we should vote our morals to bring about the Kingdom of God, that is not a common view.

    The article suggests you hold the traditional “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” model, where a Christian’s duty ends at the national level, effectively separating church and state. Please consider, however, that America is a democracy: we, the people, rule collectively, with no Caesars but ourselves. We can speak and demonstrate and convince others. And of course, ultimately, we have the right to vote.

    Even if you disregard the concept of “societal sin”, we individuals must still follow Christ’s moral teachings in how we contribute to and change our society. To rely only on “natural law” when deciding how to vote is to forget God’s foremost law: Love Thy Neighbor.

    Many of our neighbors are suffering, poor, and hungry. As a nation we can care for the least of us, if we choose. Or, we can ignore our ability to vote our conscience, turn a blind eye to the unfortunates in the ditch, and ride on, presuming it is someone else’s job to make sure they are comforted, clothed, and fed. Surely, Jesus wasn’t talking about me, right?

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading. I enjoy civil and polite feed back. I am writing largely in the context of America, as that is where I live, so there may be differing examples from across the globe, but they are beyond the scope of this piece.
      I do not dismiss Jesus’ role in politics at all. The moment that He announces the Kingdom, it is a political statement in an occupied Israel. I think that you have read something into this that I did not intend. The historic movement was steeped in the idea that one had to eliminate the societal sins of the world for Christ to return. That is evident in the writings of it’s primary influences. What the motivation may be currently, is another mater entirely. That said, yes, I have met a great many Christians of all political stripes that believe this, but I make no claim other than that is the historic beginning of the movement, and that it is an idolatrous theology. While the Christian faith is, by necessity, political, it is not, nor should it be, partisan. To it’s credit, the original social gospel movement wasn’t, but it’s modern successors certainly are unfortunately.
      As to our government, we are not a democracy but a republic. That matters as there are several differences between the two. There are constitutional protections for both free expression of faith but also to keep the government from the undue influence of religion. The rights that we have as citizens are not in doubt, at least from me. A christian’s duty does not end period. As the saying goes, we are called until we are recalled. I do reject to the use of government as a Christian moral agency. That is the pseudo theocracy of the Puritans, and there are many good reasons why it does not work well.
      I also do not reject the concept of societal sin in the least, though I suspect that we think of it in two very different ways. The modern concepts of social sin stem from Israel and the struggles that the nation/people had with faithfulness. We are not Israel, nor are we close. I reject the notion that America is the “city on a hill” of the Puritans, and I reject the notion that we were founded as some sort of religious nation with a pseudo theocratic goal. As this nation is not theocratic, the notions of social sin in a theocratic society do not apply here on a national level. They do however apply to the Kingdom of Heaven that all of the faithful belong to. So, when we, as the church catholic, do not make attempts to alleviate human suffering, we have committed social sin. The key here is the church alleviating it, without compelling others to do so by force. I do believe that we have to account for the sins of our kingdom, but our kingdom is not America, or any other nation, but the Kingdom of Heaven in it’s current, imperfect form.
      Yes, we as individual Christian must indeed try to better society. The simple question for me in guiding that change is this. Who would Jesus force? Use of Law is force. Christ does not call us to force others to feed the hungry, He calls us to not only voluntarily do so, but to do so with joy for the glory of God. If the government feeds the hungry it is for the glory of Caesar. Caesar being the euphemism for earthly kingdoms. The natural law/natural rights that this nation is founded upon are not the guiding principals for Christians of course. We are not a Christian nation. Our foundations as Christians is God’s unchanging moral law which is preexistent and woven into all of creation deeply in need of restoration. Indeed we are to love our neighbor as Christ reminds us, and his original Jewish audience. That was not a revolutionary concept when Jesus said it however. He paraphrases the holiness code found in Leviticus which speaks of how we, as the faithful, should conduct our lives in a manner that pleases God. We, as faithful Christians should indeed follow the commands of Christ, be He calls His faithful to these actions, not a governments of men. If a person is voting for social safety net programs thinking that it is following Christ’s commands, they are mistaken. In no way does how we vote fulfill our obligations as Christians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.
      “As a nation we can care for the least of us, if we choose. Or, we can ignore our ability to vote our conscience, turn a blind eye to the unfortunates in the ditch, and ride on, presuming it is someone else’s job to make sure they are comforted, clothed, and fed. Surely, Jesus wasn’t talking about me, right?”
      This is a false dichotomy. I have spent a fair amount of space here explaining why. It is precisely because Jesus was talking about me that voting to force another to do so is such a fallacy. Now, if as a society, we determine that voting this way or that is beneficial to society as a whole, then so be it, I have no issue with it, but it is not a fulfillment of the commands of Christ to His faithful. I do vote my morals. My morals say that I am not entitled to the fruits of another’s labor, so I should not vote in a way that deprives a man of their labors. I also live my faith by doing what I am able through my church and other organizations, as well as in my neighborhood, to alleviate suffering and to proclaim the gospel.
      I want to end with the Great Commission. “16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” IF the government is the agency responsible for fulfilling the commands of Christ then the government must also teach Christian faith, baptize, etc. and we as Christians would then, by necessity, have to vote that the government do these things or risk not fulfilling the commands of Christ. To say otherwise is a level of cognitive dissonance that I can not fathom. If however we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the commands of Christ apply to us, then it is us, as individuals, and as the church catholic, that must do these things and not Caesar.
      I hope that you take the time to read the posts on this topic that follow as well. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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