What Makes Something Heresy?

Why is the Social Gospel Heretical?

In a series of posts over at the Patheos blog Faith, Justice, and Culture, Southern California pastor Andy Gill, asks why what is known as the “social gospel” is considered to be heretical. 

There are a couple of things that need to be defined here, such as “social gospel” and “heresy”. Let’s take the latter first. 

The most general definition of the term “heresy” is, “an opinion, doctrine, or practice contrary to the truth or to generally accepted beliefs or standards.” That assumes that there are certain beliefs that are held to be definitional or necessary for coherence. Heresy would enter in when certain beliefs are denied, such denial of the Trinity makes Oneness heretical, the denial of the eternal preexistence of Christ makes Arianism heretical. There are some beliefs that can be sub-orthodox that can potentially be heretical, such as the relationship between baptism and salvation where some denominations hold to baptismal regeneration. The key element that needs to be considered when stating that a belief is heretical is that it denies or over-emphasizes a key belief and makes that definitional. So, what is the “social gospel”? 

Historically, this was a Christian movement that declared that membership in the Kingdom of God, “[required] social as well as individual salvation and sought the betterment of industrialized society through application of the biblical principles of charity and justice.” It could be argued that there is a measure of orthodoxy in that statement, even though it divides two connected elements, the individual and society, so it could be stated that the social gospel began as a sub-orthodox movement. However, to argue that the social gospel of the 19th century has anything to do with what is currently being forwarded by “progressive” Christianity involves a measure of dishonesty. 

The industrialization of the economy caused incredible social stratification in the late 19th and early 20th century. This stratification led to certain inequities and even injustices, no question. One of the earliest proponents, of the social gospel, a Congregationalist pastor named Bouck White, even coined his own version of the Apostles Creed, saying,

“I believe in God, the Master most mighty, stirrer-up of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, born of the proletarian Mary, toiled at the work bench, descended into labor’s hell, suffered under Roman tyranny at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. The power not of ourselves which makes for freedom, he rose again from the dead to be lord of the democratic advance, sworn foe of stagnancy, maker of folk upheavals. I believe in work, the self-respecting toiler, the holiness of beauty, freeborn producers, the communion of comrades, the resurrection of workers, and the industrial commonwealth, the cooperative kingdom eternal.” (1)

Looking at this, one cannot help but conclude, if we were to take White’s words as a circumspect statement of the entire movement, that it is indeed heretical. God is not identified as the, “Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth,” he is reduced to a “stirrer-up”. Jesus is not called God’s “only-begotten”, which speaks of his unique relationship to God; nor is he called “Christ”, which speaks of his relationship to man, he’s reduced to his mere humanity. Everything about White’s creed undoes and undermines the truth of the gospel. In White’s opinion, man doesn’t need to be saved from the wrath of a holy and just God because of his sin, man needs to be saved from the drudgery of life. But that is merely one man’s opinion.

It should also be noted that the social gospel arose in a time where two competing sociological  beliefs were also emerging: the gospel of wealth and social Darwinism. The gospel of wealth, not to be confused with the prosperity gospel or word of faith movement, was a belief that, “…wealth [was] a sign of divine favor rooted in personal virtue.”(2) Social Darwinism, on the other hand, “…applied Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest to modern life: only those most able to ‘get ahead’ and get along deserved to survive the industrial economy.”(3) It could be said that the social gospel sought to combine the two, seeking to harmonize the scientific belief that while man was a product of evolution, his moral and spiritual essences needed to evolve as well, which was a view promoted by the Christian sociologist John Bascom. Bascom’s philosophical reach penetrated future politicians, and many of the arguments that they forwarded, including the concept of a “living wage”(4).

Gill, in the second part of his article, begins to dive into the “whys” of the modern social gospel. Under the heading “Why is the social gospel considered to be heretical?,” he writes,

Faith cannot be separated from works and good works done by man cannot be separated from God’s grace… simple, right?

Oversimplification, maybe. The relationship between faith and works in Christianity has long been debated, I mean it was the spark that lit the fire of the Reformation. I think, trying to bring this subject in is going to pose problems for him later on, because of Gill’s associative support of what is known as the “Reclaiming Jesus Movement”, and even those who say it doesn’t go far enough. 

I think Andy is missing the point—even some of the critics included. I mean, when it comes to the question of whether or not the social gospel is heretical, it is a salvation issue, but it’s not a question of faith and works, it’s a question of the gospel.

Responding to the criticism that the social gospel is heretical because, “…it blames sin on the societal structures rather than human nature…” Gill writes,

[…]Rauschenbusch argued that our salvation will then impact others; there is the push for socio-political action for the sole purpose of changing the greater system.

I would say that is a partly true statement: if a person is saved then that salvation–as it is worked out with fear and trembling–will impact others, in God bringing them to salvation. There is, however, nothing that logically moves that into the socio-political realm. Indeed there will be a change, because God’s law affects that change, but it does so in identifying and declaring what God has declared to be just and true through the proclamation of his word. Gill complains,

From one perspective it could seem as if proponents of preserving various forms of systematic theology at the cost of helping others. Ironically, if you as a masochist and decide to read through Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” you’ll find there is only but a few lines having to do with social justice.

Well, yes. Because Calvin was concerned about the gospel. The gospel defines what is just. The gospel defines the limits of the social interaction. Once you shift from what God has defined as just, you have no justice, socially or otherwise. The social justice movement actually argues that it knows what is best and good, rather than the God who made and sustains the universe.

In response to the objection, “The social Gospel places too much emphasis on cultural restoration of society…” Gill argues,

As the third critique from detractors of the social gospel they despised the amount of cultural involvement…

Well, that depends upon a number of things. I would argue that modern Christianity, because of the social gospel, has sought to spread itself through politics. In order to do this it has had to shed the core of the gospel proclamation: repentance from sin and faith in Christ.

While I agree with some of what this article from the Berean Call argues in regard to the heresy that is the social gospel, especially in its most modern iteration, I won’t blame a particular eschatological bent or a particular theological conclusion for it, I will blame supposedly well-meaning men.

The social gospel is heretical because it denies the power of the gospel, that is it blasphemes the Spirit of God. It is heretical because it shifts the focus of the gospel from the saving of souls to the promotion of a particular socio-political ideology. Lastly, the social gospel is heretical because it denies the reality and pervasiveness of sin in the lives of men of women, going so far as to encourage them to continue in sin.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world. One of the tremendous faults of Christians is to associate Christ with a particular political or economic system. Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of lords, and those who rule, if not submitted to his rule will rule unjustly, that’s an unfortunate fact, regardless of their position in any earthly kingdom. The psalmist is correct when he writes, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.” Whereas, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, warned his judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the LORD. He is with you in giving judgment. Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.” 

Christians are to be involved in the culture, we are to be salt and light, preserving the culture and bringing illumination so that the lost can find their way home, but we are not to be consumed by the world, that is we are not to be like the world. Those who adhere to the social gospel seek to be friends to the world, and in doing so, make themselves to be enemies of God. What is important to remember is that the revealed word of God speaks but the only way that it can be heard is through clear, consistent, and precise proclamation.


  1. as quoted by Janine Giordano Drake in her article, “Wealth, Socialism, and Jesus: CHURCHES IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY WERE DIVIDED ON HOW TO REACH THOSE AFFECTED BY THE NEW ECONOMY” in Christian History Magazine, issue 104, page 6.
  2. From the article, “The Life and Times of John Bascom: HOW SOCIAL GOSPELERS APPLIED THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS TO ECONOMIC ISSUES” by William Kostlevy in Christian History Magazine, issue 104, page 13.
  3. Ibid 
  4. Ibid, page 15.


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