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L. Nelson Bell on the “Social Gospel” (1947)

In L. Nelson Bell, Presbyterian Church in the U.S. [PCUS], Southern Presbyterian Journal on 26/05/2010 at 16:45

There appears to be a good bit of discussion on the so-called “social gospel” on several blogs currently.  So when I recently came across this brief letter to the Editor, with its accompanying reply by Dr. L. Nelson Bell, in an old issue of The Southern Presbyterian Journal, it seemed timely to post it here.  The error of the “social gospel” has of course been around for a long time.  Dr. Bell cuts to the heart of the matter with clarity and insight.


“Social Gospel”

Knoxville, Tenn.

The Editor, The Southern Presbyterian Journal:

We all remember the story of two dogs who got so intent in their fight over a bone, that they forgot the ‘bone and let a third dog slip in and get it. Can it be possible that while evangelicals (fundamentalists) and modernists (Federal Council) are wrangling over their differences, the devil may slip in and make off with an unchurched world?

Evangelicals decry the “social gospel.” The other folks lay great stress on it, while allowing many of their leaders to deny the deity of Christ whose supernatural power alone is aible to make a social gospel work in a human world.

But where do the evangelicals get their scorn for the social gospel? The whole New Testament is full of it. This same Jesus, whose divinity, atonement, resurrection and ascension they so firmly believe in, said: “Follow me, and I will; make you fishers of men.” Fishing for men—and catching them—is what the Church is here for. Evangelism is the heart of the Church. But if we follow Him, we will be compelled to “go around doing good.” And it won’t be doing good to those who are good to us, and whom we like. Sinners do that. Jesus was good to everybody, rich and poor, clean and dirty, to His enemies and His friends. He healed all that came to Him, regardless of race, color or what-not. He sent out no case-workers. He did not inquire into the I. Q. of those who came to Him. He took His disciples to a prayer meeting on top of a mountain, and then brought them down into the valley to heal an epileptic. He told the disciples the story of the Good Samaritan, and then told them to “go and do likewise.” He was so loving and kind to everybody, that everywhere people brought the sick, discouraged and distressed to Him, and He healed them of whatever wa3 wrong. He never talked religion to a man with an empty stomach or a broken leg or a blind eye. He had compassion on the multitude—the greater the need the greater the appeal. In Romans we are told that if we do not have this spirit of Christ—this concern for the “multitude” we are none of His. With this spirit as a yardstick, how many of us today will qualify as Christians? Finally, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew we are told that if we have failed to follow Him as He went about doing good (social gospel) we are to go to hell for eternity. This condemnation of the social gospel is driving many away from some of the evangelical churches because they believe that in this way Christ is being denied just as. surely as by the spoken denial in the other churches. “Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?” —K. G. Fleming.


In our judgment K. G. Fleming is confusing the “social gospel” (which is “another” gospel), with the application of the social principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by Christians.

This is not a distinction without a difference. It is a difference so vital it must be understood.

The “social gospel” is a gospel of good works. It is making social reform an end in itself. It is a work in which any humanitarian, whether he be Buddhist, Confucianist or other pagan, can and does participate. It is carried out for the sake of humanity, without reference to soul need. It denies or ignores sin as the underlying cause of social injustice. It completely ignores the redeeming work of Jesus Christ as the only ultimate solution of world needs.

On the other hand, Christian participation in and the application of the social implications of the Gospel puts the redemption of the individual soul from sin through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as of first importance and all social efforts as but a means to that end.

We are convinced that many evangelicals need to more properly evaluate the social implications of the Gospel and to act on them; and, we feel we should co-operate with all who put such work in its rightful relationship to the Gospel. In an editorial in the October 1st issue we wrote:

In our judgment, if the liberal would again place his first emphasis on soul winning, letting all who come under his ministry know without doubt that they individually must be cleansed from sin by the precious blood of Christ—then the gap between the conservative and the liberal would be largely bridged and the conservative would agree to the secondary emphasis on the social order.

But, our concern and our opposition is directed towards those who no longer look on a man out of Christ as a lost sinner. It is against those who look on sin, not as sin but as a maladjustment which can be eliminated by individual and co-operative effort, through education, improved environment and social uplift.

The Bible promises economic and social advantages, but they come only by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Has the Church, as such, the authority to offer these advantages in any other way?

–L. Nelson Bell, M.D., Editor, The Southern Presbyterian Journal