When I Was Hungry You…Modern Progressive Social Gospel

In the first installment of this we took a brief look at the history of the social gospel movement and how it has had an effect into modern society on those who are both theological traditionalists and progressives using Matthew 25:31-46 as a back drop. Today I want to take some time with how this is understood by modern day progressives and how that has affected how scripture is viewed as well as how other Christians are viewed.

The idea of social salvation that was introduced by the social gospel movement is still alive and well over 100 years later. Today it is better known as social justice and has permeated politics and saturated society. One can not spend a day reading the news without coming across several stories dealing with social justice issues. In general, social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunity,  and privileges in society. To the progressive social gospel movement, this becomes the definition of justice and shapes their priorities and theology. Bringing justice to the world becomes the highest form Christian living. In the tradition of the social gospel, government is seen as an agent to bring about those changes. Because of this, when a passage such as the one in Matthew is read and understood, it is in the context of governmental action.

Because this understanding of the progressive social gospel is deeply tied to the governmental system, a distinction must be made. Those who support social safety net programs in America because they believe it is the responsibility of government to supply for the needy, or think that it benefits society in general, yet still maintain the belief that the commands of Christ to care for the least of these is directed toward Christians and the church, are not a part of the modern progressive social justice movement. They are likely politically liberal leaning, and may support many of the same causes as the modern progressive social gospel adherents, but they do not see social safety net programs as fulfilling the commands of Christ to His followers. For the progressive social gospel follower however, it is different. In the sign above, for example, a cut in the food stamp program is seen as being disobedient to the commands of Christ. By extension, anything and everything becomes an issue of justice and must be reformed and restored by governmental action because of the commands of Jesus. In essence, it becomes a sort of hybrid theocracy mashed together with a hybrid type of fundamentalism. The social gospel adherents would deny this I imagine. Fundamentalism is the mark of a religion that follows a strict literal interpretation of the words of their holy book. For our purposes, this is the Bible. The modern progressive social gospel adherent does this, but not with the entirety of scripture, but with the words of Jesus primarily, sprinkled with a liberal dose of Micah 6:8, and then combine it with governmental action. It is the progressive attempt at the city on a hill.

The passage in Matthew is about the final judgement and ultimate return of Christ. In it is of course the separation of the sheep and the goats. The implications here are fairly clear. If you support the justice initiatives , vote the correct way, and enact the policies that the movement embraces, then you are a sheep. If not, you are a goat. Faith in Jesus is in there somewhere perhaps, but what you do is the emphasis. It borders on a works based faith, if not crossing the line entirely. In truth, it ties your salvation to mandatory compliance with the policies of the state instead of grace, by faith, though the work of the cross. This strikes at the heart of the conflicts in American Christianity. Because of the unholy alliance of politics and religion, anyone of a different political stripe then becomes a heretic because they have voted the wrong way. The inevitable result of this, as is being demonstrated now, is that Christian activism looks no different than any other protest, and most of the time is no different, as that is understood to be the call of Christ. In all of this, for all of the good intentions, Jesus and the cross are lost in favor of Caesar and a voting booth.

To understand this type of belief, one has to understand that the lens in which scripture is viewed through becomes, by necessity, governmental action. Let’s look at how this affects some of the policies advocated for. In order to care for the least of these, the government needs to have revenue. That generally means taxes. How then should they get the money? Increase taxes on the wealthy to “pay their fair share”. How is this justified? “For to whomever much is given, of him much shall be required.” (Luke 12:48 in part) This makes acts of Christian charity compulsory, not voluntary, and requires those who are not Christian to perform them as well, under the threat of force. It empowers the state to act as a Christian moral agency and creates a pseudo theocracy which was the goal of the original social gospel followers. It is similar to trying to create the city on the hill.

Not to long ago, I had a conversation with an acquaintance about these things. I brought up the idea that it seemed to be contrary to the scripture to force a person into charity, and that if we are following Christ, we should not do this, as He would not do this. They responded that Jesus would most certainly force individuals to care for those in need, and would do so without hesitation. This was true of the wealthy especially. Our faith will intersect with politics, and that is always dicey and difficult. When our religion becomes wrapped up in the state however, that goes far beyond the line that should be drawn and leads to distorted beliefs, such as the belief that Jesus would force people to care for the poor. Christianity, and Christian charity in specific, can not be compulsory if the gospel is true. For that matter, it can not be charity as charity, by definition, is voluntary.

The ultimate question that we must ask is do these things glorify God. Ask yourself this. If an Atheist feeds the hungry, does that glorify God? If a wealthy business man is forced to clothe the naked, is God glorified? If Caesar cares for the sick, does that glorify God? The answer is no. God is glorified when His faithful live out His commands in submission to His will. Scripture also teaches us to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Taxation is Caesar’s, and both the credit, and the blame, of what is done with it are Caesar’s as well. Acts of Christian charity are God’s and should be rendered to Him. Charity is voluntary. This belief elevates Caesar as the agent of change in the world, not God, and indeed replaces voluntary Christian charity with compulsory government programs in the name of God. You can not force people into acts of charity, and the commands of Christ are to charity, not to compulsory programs. They should not be confused.

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