One hundred years ago, when the Social Gospel was well on the way to infiltrating and taking control of many of the major Christian denominations of North America, my father was already 24 years old. It has lately dawned on me that because I was born when he was 50 I have a window on that long-ago era that most people today know nothing about.
My father was a Methodist, but the social gospel changed that denomination into something he no longer recognized. He told of visiting Edmonton in 1925, and attending a Methodist church there. The minister had much to say about the social responsibility of Christians, but it became evident as he spoke that the Bible’s accounts of creation, the miracles, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were just mythology, allegories meant to teach moral lessons. My father walked out into the street after the service and wept.
A few years later the Methodists, Congregationalists and half the Presbyterians merged to form the United Church of Canada. This was by far the largest protestant denomination in Canada and it was dedicated to ministering to the social and materiel needs of all those oppressed by the evils of our society. The belief that the greatest need of each person was to find forgiveness of sins and peace with God was dismissed as a childish amusement that diverted people’s attention from more important concerns.
In subsequent years, the Anglican Church of Canada and some Baptist, Mennonite and Lutheran churches have also embraced the Social Gospel. It is worthy of note that the social gospel churches have all experienced precipitous declines in membership. People are either turned off by the social gospel or decide that the battles can be more effectively fought outside the churches.
The social gospel movement was the main impetus behind the co-operative movement. People were taught that the private ownership of business was a great injustice that deprived them of the fruits of their labour. They formed co-operatives to buy grain from farmers and to provide the supplies they needed, co-operative retail stores and co-operative banks (credit unions).
For many years the grain co-ops were the dominant agricultural businesses in Western Canada. They calculated patronage dividends for their farmer-owners, based on the amount of business they did with them, but retained the money to provide working capital. Farmers were able to withdraw their patronage dividends upon retirement. Then difficult times came and the co-ops suffered financial reverses. All the prairies grain co-ops merged into one, reorganized as a shareholder owned corporation, then sold out to a Swiss investment company. In the process, the patronage dividends evaporated into thin air. There is no evidence that farmers have suffered from losing the opportunity to sell to the co-operatives.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was a political party born of the social gospel. It promised to bring about a more just society by limiting the depredations of privately owned businesses, so that resources were more evenly shared between all people. This party (now known as the NDP) formed the government of my home province for the best part of 60 years. They did many good things, but the social gospel ideals of economic equality created an atmospherics of suspicion of anyone who appeared to prosper more than the average. The result was economic stagnation, leading to an increase in unemployment and poverty – very much the opposite of the promised result.
My father saw the fatal flaw in the social gospel long before I was born. Time has proved him right – in church, in business and in politics. But the social gospel message still has power to seduce well-meaning people into expending great efforts on activities that will not produce the promised results.
Now we hear people who once were evangelical Christians proclaiming that our highest duty is to reach out to the suffering members of society. There is an element of truth in this, but if one listens closely it becomes evident that the social, emotional and economic needs are their sole concern and the spiritual needs of people are forgotten. This is simply the social gospel warmed over for a new generation who are not aware of history and are not aware that the promises of the social gospel are doomed to fail.
I am not trying to say that we need to forget everything else and just preach the gospel. After all, James said “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” If we are blind to the material, emotional and social needs of others, we are not going to present a complete gospel. But the spiritual distress of people around us cannot be relieved by only ministering to their outward needs.
My concern is that if we trim our sails to catch the latest wind of doctrine and ride the wave of what is highly thought of in the world, we will end up far from where we thought we were going.