The Answer of the Social Gospel
When the “Social Gospel” first made its appearance in theological circles, the true church heard it, repudiated it, and branded it plainly as liberalism. But today this social Gospel is having an influence on Christian ethics in an alarming way. This is mainly because we live at a time when all mankind is being drawn closely together by modern means of transportation and communication so that in our day we are confronted continually with the social needs of men in war-torn countries. The diehard social gospelers are making the most of the situation to pressure the church into taking the situation as her chief burden. And strangely enough, many Evangelical leaders who would repudiate liberalism to the uttermost, are being deeply affected emotionally by this propaganda. In turn they are stirring up the conscience of their followers along these lines. Consequently in many quarters the church is being taught that the age-old question, Who Is My Neighbor? must be answered with the dogma that any man in the world who is in need is the Christian’s neighbor.
These Christian leaders, who have never been certain of the answer, are, as we said, being deeply affected by conclusions of the natural, fallen reason, and so are allowing their conscience to be burdened with the world’s social problems. However, church history has taught us that the conscience can always be pressured into unbiblical action unless it is guided by the logic of Scripture. But such works which are done merely under the lash of conscience are dead works.
The “Rule of Faith”
In dealing with the question, “Who is our neighbor?” we are confronted with Scripture texts produced to prove opposite points of view. But Peter states that no Scripture is of private interpretation; every passage must take its rightful place in the whole scheme of truth as the stone in the building. Let us therefore study some of these texts according to this rule in order that we may know for sure what is meant by the term “neighbor” and also what is our relationship to the world’s pressing social problems.
The Scripture passage which is made to dominate the arguments of those who say that the church must solve the world’s social problems is the story of the good Samaritan who came to the aid of the man who fell among thieves. It is maintained that this episode in Scripture proves that the term “neighbor” can only be meant to embrace every man in need in the whole world. And this viewpoint is thought to be reinforced by the account of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31–36. Furthermore, it is felt that the statement, “Do good to all men but especially to those of the household of faith” clinches the argument.
But the Christian’s relation to the world’s social problems must also be studied in the light of other texts and especially in regard to the principle of Christian separation from the world (2 Corinthians 6: 14–18). This age, which precedes the eternal state, is called in Scripture “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4–K.J.V.). We ought therefore to start out with Paul’s statement about “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Galatians 6:14). This is Paul’s finale to his gracious doctrine, as set forth in the epistle to the Galatians, in which he reminds us that the children of God are those who have accepted Christ as their righteousness before God (Galatians 3:26) and are justified by God through faith alone. The children of the flesh, on the contrary, are presented as those who are trusting in being justified by their deeds. These two classes of people may live side by side but they live in two different kingdoms: one is in the kingdom of God, the other in the kingdoms of this world. And there is an antithesis: “He that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit” (Galatians 4:29).
Paul develops this idea in Romans. There he speaks of “the children of God,” or “the children of the promise,” as contrasted with the “children of the flesh” (9:8). He refers to these two classes also in chapter 8 as the carnally minded (“they that are after the flesh”) and the spiritually minded (“they that are after the Spirit”). And his climactic statement is this, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors not to the flesh to live after tile flesh” (v. 12 ). It is obvious that this conclusion has to do with the children of the flesh and the children of the Spirit as well as any other implications it has. Actually such a statement ought to be a conclusive one, and we may well understand it as meaning: “Ye are debtors not to [the children of] the flesh.” This is the thought of the Psalmist when he says: “My goodness extendeth not to thee but to the saints in the earth” (Psalm 16:3—K.J.V.).
Where “Neighbor” Means “Brother”
In both Ephesians and Galatians Paul uses the term neighbor to mean a Christian brother:
“Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor; for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25 ). “For ye, brethren, were called for fourteen freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:14–16).
Footnote: [In Matthew 5:43-47 Christ was discussing the Christian’s relation to the world and he divided the two camps into “neighbors” and “enemies.” There he definitely uses the term neighbor to mean our Christian brother.]
Paul stated the case forcefully when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Now, with this background let us come to a study of the story of the good Samaritan.
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? Jesus made answer and said, A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down that way; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And in like manner a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, he passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion and came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on them oil and wine; and he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow he took out two shillings and gave them to the host, and said, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, I, when I come back again, will repay thee. Which of these three, thinkest thou, proved neighbor unto him that fell among the robbers? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. And Jesus said unto him, Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:29–37).
Christ told this story to illustrate to the lawyer questioning him and to the Jews gathered around him who was meant by the term “neighbor.” The man who fell among thieves was obviously a Jew: he “went down from Jerusalem.” Highwaymen “beat him up.” Yet the Jew’s brethren-the priest and the Levite—who were of the same nation, passed him by. It was a man of another nation, a Samaritan, who came to his aid.
This fact has significance far beyond the subject of mere nationality or kindred. The nation of Israel was a church-state. It was tile church of the Old Testament. Israel was a people who had been separated unto God from all other nations. They had been delivered from the bondage of Egypt to be a light in the world. Hence all the men in this nation were related to one another as church members are today. True, all that were of Israel were not the true Israel—the true church. Nevertheless, this nation was the visible church in the world. The parable of Dives and Lazarus must be studied in the light of the same background. Unlike our relation to beggars on the streets, the Israelites knew one another’s background; they could easily inquire into the sincerity of poor and rich and whether or not they were in real need. Thus the Israelites were all brethren in this visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God in the Old Testament.
The Point of the Story
The point of the story of the good Samaritan was, then, to be understood in the light of this background. The point was that the Israelites, bound together as a visible people of God in the world, had failed to bear one another’s burdens; and the ma.n in need had been ministered to by one outside of the church. This reminds us of Paul’s statement: “If therefore the uncircumcised keep the ordinances of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision? And shall not the uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who with the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the law” (Romans 2:26–27)? The Israelites had failed in their testimony to the world. It was this very point which Christ stressed later when he said to these who would found the church of the New Testament, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another….By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples” (John 13:34–35).
Did not Christ call the Jews the “children” as over against the outsiders whom he called “dogs,” in his metaphorical statement to the woman of Canaan who came to have her daughter healed (Matthew 15:26)? He maintained his miracles were for God’s people. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was teaching “the children” their proper behavior one to another. He was putting them to shame for the fact that their needy brethren had to look for kindness from one outside the theocracy.
Christ’s teaching was given to the nation of Israel only. He came to “redeem those under the law.” The law had been given on Mount Sinai to this people called out of Egypt to be the people of God in the world; and it outlined their behavior toward him, and toward each other. The preface to the Ten Commandments showed that the law was given to a redeemed people. It was because he was their God and had been a God to them, in taking them out from among their enemies with great miracles, that he could ask for this kind of behavior. The Ten Commandments are not bald ethics removable from this setting. And Christ’s teaching, given to this people of God, mainly consisted in a deeper application of the law of God given to Moses.
To return to the account of the good Samaritan, in this light of the fact that Israel was the church of the Old Testament, we can see that it was given to teach the Israelite his obligations to all in his own nation, all members of the theocracy, the church-state. The Israelite is thus reminded by Christ not to neglect his own poor, that every man must bear his brother’s burden. A man’s neighbor was one who was in the same spiritual fellowship of the visible church. An Israelite’s neighbor was not just the Israelite next door hut every Israelite in need.
This was the idea behind the practice, immediately after Pentecost, that the brethren had all things in common, because they were such a small handful in the midst of a pagan world, with the very “church” of their day against them too.
Why We Should Do Good to All
Perhaps at this point someone will remind us of the universality implied in the statement: “As ye have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). This is also akin to the command to the Israelite to meet the needs of any stranger in his midst. But this is also related to Christ’s statement to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. The Christian is not to be known as one with a double standard, one who tells the truth to his own Christian brethren but may deceive a pagan, nor one who is kind to some and a dangerous character to others. He is to bear a good character wherever he goes. He is to be a citizen with a good character that is a light to all. Furthermore, the story of the good Samaritan shows us that the Christian church does not need to organize special social programs to find the needy. The individual members shall find them in their pathway as ordained of God “as you have opportunity.” Our good works are ordained from the foundations of the world that we should walk in them. Therefore providences in the life of the individual and opportunities that come with the church’s missionary program bring these opportunities.
Christ was not without compassion for the material needs of men and women, but he always urged them to “seek first the kingdom of God,” promising that all other things would be added unto them. He had the power to feed people miraculously without money, and yet how seldom he fed the hungry. On one occasion the multitude followed him for three days without anything to eat before he fed them. Those people really sought the bread from heaven and such seekers were worth feeding.
Our tendency is to fail to leave room for the truth that “life is more than meat.” We overfeed our children and make them strong to express their depravity. The Bible urges men to beware lest, when they are full, they deny him. And this is the great danger in America.
As to our home mission work, there is hardly any need for social work by the churches as an accompaniment to the gospel, conSidering the number of welfare agencies operated by the world, by the Salvation Army, and other benevolent organizations. Let the churches bend all their energies toward saving the souls of lost men and women.
Social Service Subordinate to Mission Work
In New Testament times our attitude to the world’s social problems must be bound up with the Gospel commission: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.” The primary need of mankind is salvation from the penalty and power of sin. What satisfaction can it be to anyone to find that a beggar he has enriched died in a drunken condition the next day without having heard the Gospel message? Men everywhere must be confronted with the Gospel that the Gocl of grace may be glorified. Death always dogs the fallen man’s steps. Therefore a man’s material need must never be separated from his need of a Savior. The social work of the Christian must not be disassociated from missions. And certainly it has ever been the aim of Christian missions to meet the material along with the spiritual needs of those to whom they minister the Gospel. Have we not always sent missionary doctors and nurses along with Our missionaries of the Gospel? Have we not supplemented Bible teaching with vocational education? And have our missionaries not always tried to raise the standard of living of those to whom they minister? But if, as a church, or an individual we make our aim to meet the material needs and raise the standard of living apart from the Gospel, then we only strengthen the kingdom of Satan and possibly lessen the desire of the unconverted to turn from sin and to find their all-sufficiency in the Triune God of Christianity. We must beware of furthering the prosperity of the kingdoms of this world. The body healed, the stomach fed, without the soul being confronted with the truth regarding a judgment day and man’s obligation to get right with his Creator—that may only mean living on longer in defiance of God and more satisfaction with life without a Savior.
In the Bible we find our good works pointed out specifically: “If any provideth not for his own…he is worse than an unbeliever” (I Timothy 5:8). The parents, we are told, should lay up for the children (II Corinthians 12:14). “But if any widow hath children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety towards their own family, and to requite their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God” (I Timothy 5:4). Then there is the collection for the poor saints referred to so often, and the church’s obligation to old people who are of good reputation, and who have no one to support them. There is also the admonition to individual members to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27).
The world has been so influenced by the Christian grace of charity in the ways mentioned that it has formed social organizations for ministering to the material needs of mankind. These no doubt are the product of the common influences of the Spirit of God on all creatures. And this is Goers way of providing for his creatures outside of Christ (Acts 14:16–17). Governments, too, also provide for the destitute with relief measures, with unemployment insurance, old age pensions, children’s allowances, as a result of Christians’ influence.
The Christian’s Giving to Non-Christians
It is certain also that the Christian man should not appear to the world to be merciless. The Christian is not forbidden to respond to the needs of the creatures of God outside of the kingdom of God. He may make contributions to charitable organizations if he is able to do so after he has carried out his obligations as a church member. He may send to non-Christians any clothing that he has to spare after the needs of the Christians have been met, and he may contribute something to the fund that sends underprivileged children in our cities to the country in summer that they may be lifted out of the sordid atmosphere of slums that cultivate sin so quickly. He may contribute something to cancer funds and soup kitchen funds. Even very small amounts will show his good will toward the world. But the Christian cannot possibly contribute to everything. And his Christian brother in need comes before anything else. And besides, there are enough uncoverted men to meet the world’s needs. Those whose religion centers only around good works are in the majority and they are glad to have an opportunity to still a restless conscience.
We know only too well that indiscriminate giving, where a surface need appears, often results in administering vitamins to the constitution of the murderer and so increasing his skill in the execution of crime. Furthermore we may drop a coin into the beggar’s hand on the street whereas many of these men have a personal fortune and practice this as a profession.
Who Are the “Brethren” in Matthew 25?
The final argument of those who would burden the Christian with the world’s social problems is drawn from the prophecy of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31–46. It is argued that this means that the whole world is divided into two groups—sheep and goats. The sheep, it is taught by this school, are those who ministered to anyone in prison, sick, or hungry; the goats are those who were indifferent to the sufferings of mankind in general.
Taking the broadest possible interpretation of this passage, without giving it a special eschatological interpretation, we can see that the good works were done to “my . brethren.”
We must take for granted that this term refers to Christians, for Christ called those his brethren who did the will of God (Luke 8:21). And after his resurrection he told Mary to go to “my brethren” (John 20:17), meaning the disciples. It is evident then that men were not cast away because they did not do their charitable works to pagans in need but because they did not do them to Christ’s brethren. This would be supported by John’s statement, “Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth” (I John 3:17, 18). And since the Christian’s works are ordained before the foundations of the world we know that it will not be the Christians who come into the class of those who do not meet the needs of their Christian brother.
Incidentally we cannot allow this passage to trouble Christians as it did Samuel Johnson—so much so in fact that it deprived him almost to the end of his life of all his comfort in salvation through faith alone in the finished work of Christ. For we ought to note that if this passage proposes a works-foundation; for salvation then we may well ask what works were done by “these my brethren” who were the objects of the charity! This saying of Christ was intended to show that an evil tree (the unconverted man) cannot bear good fruit. Those out of Christ will be judged according to their works, and this is the standard by which they will be judged. They did not succor the Christian, of course not. “He that is born after the flesh persecutes him that is born after the Spirit.” True, they do mere conscience works at times, stirred up by some emotional appeal. But they have no love nOr care for the sheep, his brethren. Rather they would choose Barabbas every time. “The world knoweth us not” (I John 3:1).