Social Gospel Redux

Craig Carter has picked up on my somewhat cheekily titled post, “The Social Gospel of Mars Hill?” and seeks to explain why Mars Hill is not doing anything that even remotely resembles the social gospel. First let’s get clear that what I mean by “social gospel” is the application of Christian principles to social problems. This has been done by churches, Christian individuals, and yes, sometimes even by lobbying government. Moreover, it’s been done by Christians of varying theological and political stripes – even conservatives! If you look on the Wikipedia entry for social gospel it lists Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical as a “Key Document” for the movement. Now, I guess you can go and see if you can edit the Wiki for this, but I’m going to assume that no one really questions Benedict’s bona fides as a conservative voice in Christianity.

Why I drew the parallel to the social gospel tradition in the case of Mars Hill is that men taking care of women and children was the first thing that AJ Hamilton mentioned as being a goal of MH in Albuquerque. Absent fathers are a social problem, just as alcoholic fathers were a social problem to another generation of social gospel advocates. The impression gathered from the video is one of MH prioritizing a particular social problem. This surprised me because MH almost always characterizes their goals as being about preaching Christ to the un-churched, to the exclusion of almost anything else when asked of their goals. Moreover, this is a church that, through its myriad of services, conferences, and other outputs surely generates hours of video every week, they put this particular clip all by themselves on their website. Their description of the emphases of their ministry, not mine.

Perhaps what’s most curious about Carter’s post is this section:

“Instead of depending on the work of the Holy Spirit, it proposes that we expect change to come from government regulation and funding. There is no need for repentence of sin, forgiveness on the basis of the shed blood of Christ on the cross or faith in Christ as the basis of salvation. In the social gospel, the world gets better through law, not through gospel. Hence, the social gospel is misnamed: it is not really gospel, but law.”

This is inaccurate because it ignores the non-governmental aspects of the social gospel movement and it is presumptuous since it supposes that someone working to effect a change in the laws of the land could not possibly be relying on the work of the Holy Spirit or believe in Christian salvation. This is not really different from telling people they should have faith that they will be healed miraculously and they shouldn’t rely on healing to come about by modern medicine.