Considering Christian Social Responsibility

by Matt Shrader

You do not have to go far to find discussions about Christian social responsibility. This term may not be used, but it is part of the same conversation: What is the Christian’s responsibility toward the evils around him? Quite often the discussion is framed in terms of the Christian’s responsibility of good works and its relationship to the gospel. Does the gospel contain a parallel message of good works? Is there an imperative for social responsibility for those who have accepted the gospel? Or, perhaps there is a gospel of social responsibility?

After all, Jesus did give the Great Commission to spread the gospel and also said in another passage that the second commandment was to love others (Matthew 22:34-40). Similarly, the apostle Paul stated in Galatians 6:9-10 to not grow weary in doing good and to do good to others as we have opportunity.

If all we need is an opportunity then we need merely to open our eyes to the pain in the world today. The fact that there are problems in the world has been apparent to virtually every observant mind in the history of mankind. Christians are no exception. In fact, Christians have presented a vast number of solutions over multiple centuries from several different perspectives.

As one studies these different Christian solutions, various themes arise which the Christian needs to consider when forming his own thoughts on this issue. One thing to consider is whether there is an apologetic benefit for the Christian to do good works. Another is whether there is a present-day kingdom mandate to perform good works (this will obviously depend on your view of the Kingdom of God). It also matters if you believe that the church by definition is supposed to be accomplishing various good works. And, does the Bible require “social responsibility” simply by calling for “good works” to be done?

When a Christian begins to develop an understanding of social responsibility these questions (and others) are answered either directly or indirectly. In other words, whether you think about these issues or not, your actions reveal what you implicitly think about them. For that reason, it is helpful to study different approaches that have been attempted in order to see how they have answered some of these questions so that we may learn to better implement these considerations into our own thinking.

Among the various approaches to this question perhaps the most famous answer is given by the American Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. While I find myself to vary considerably from the solution offered by such a movement, there is an extremely important piece of the Christian-social-responsibility puzzle that surfaces in the effort to grasp the rationale of this movement. In fact, this issue is almost always glossed over in popular discussions. The question is one of the relationship of experience to biblical authority and the methodology that your view of the Bible allows. One’s view on these issues will affect one’s definition of the gospel, the church, and therefore Christian social responsibility.

The Social Gospel of Rauschenbusch

There is perhaps no more famous name in American social Christianity than Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Rauschenbusch was the son of a German evangelical Baptist pastor and seminary professor. Rauschenbusch was educated in Germany at a “gymnasium.” He then came back to America and was enrolled at the institution where his father taught and he himself would later teach, Rochester College and Rochester Theological Seminary.1 Here Rauschenbusch sat under theological giant Augustus Hopkins Strong and other leading voices in Northern Baptist theology. While here Rauschenbusch was exposed to and accepted much German and American liberal theology.2

Rauschenbusch applied to become a missionary but was turned down despite his impressive record because a former professor expressed concern over his burgeoning liberal theology. Rauschenbusch eventually became pastor of Second German Baptist Church in New York City. This church was in an especially infamous section of the city called “Hell’s Kitchen.” While here, Rauschenbusch became intimately aware and acquainted with the real problems of industrialization. He began to question how his Christianity, and especially the gospel, should speak to the social ills that surrounded him.

The New Evangelism

In a 1904 article entitled, “The New Evangelism,” Rauschenbusch laid out what theology in the new age was to be. He was not satisfied with the individualistic emphasis of the old theology. He wanted a theology that could speak to the modern problems of the day. Rauschenbusch formulated an understanding of the gospel that could speak to these specific problems.

“The gospel of Christ is one and immutable; the comprehension and expression of it in history has been of infinite variety. No individual, no church, no age of history has ever comprehended the full scope of God’s saving purposes in Jesus Christ. Neither has any proclaimed it without foreign admixtures that clogged and thwarted it. A fuller and purer expression of the evangel has therefore always been possible.3

He is saying that the gospel is an evolving topic. If the gospel does not develop with the times, then it would become obsolete. The old evangelism with its emphasis on personal sin and regeneration did not speak to the social ills that Rauschenbusch saw. Rauschenbusch argued that one needed to grasp the ideals of Jesus and appropriate them to the contemporary situation. But what were the ideals of Jesus? Rauschenbusch would begin to answer that question in his first book.

The Ideals of Jesus

Rauschenbusch wrote his blockbuster, Christianity and the Social Crisis, in 1907. It laid out exactly what he had hinted at in the New Evangelism. He argued that there is an essential religion of Christianity that should be followed today. The essential religion is found in the prophets and was revived in Jesus. Rauschenbusch explains: “The essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstituting them in accordance with the will of God.”4

Rauschenbusch agreed that the prophets and Jesus recognized that there was a personal religious need but the end of it was social. This is because there is solidarity among all people and God. Sin then becomes selfishness or the unwillingness to socialize oneself.

Rauschenbusch wrote about the social gospel for the rest of his life. In his last and greatest book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, he states concerning personal salvation: “Salvation is the voluntary socializing of the soul.”5This conception of individual salvation was quickly and necessarily swallowed by his understanding of social salvation.

The social constructs of the day can be redeemed by departing from the Kingdom of Evil and entering the Kingdom of God. The church is to be the social factor of salvation. Its responsibility is to establish the law of Christ in the world. Social salvation is the realization of solidarity on a grand scale. Humanity is to become socialized and influence others to realize their social potential to live out the principles of Christ.

The Kingdom of God was the place where Rauschenbusch was able to coalesce all he wanted his theology to be. The Kingdom of God was the concept of what things are going to be like when God is in complete control and everything is perfect. The Kingdom of God is to be implemented now by Christianizing the social order.6 Both the personal and social aspects of salvation work together to bring in the Christianized social order, which is the only approximation of the Kingdom of God the present world can experience. And beyond this, the Kingdom of God provided a future, heavenly hope.

The responsibility of the Christian was to try and bring in the Kingdom of God, or to Christianize the Social Order. In a short work entitled, Dare We Be Christians, Rauschenbusch elaborates on what it means to be a Christian. “A man is a Christian in the degree in which he shares the spirit and consciousness of Jesus Christ, conceiving God as Jesus knew him and seeing human life as Jesus realized it. None of us has ever done this fully, but on the other hand there is no man within the domain of Christendom who has not been influenced by Christ in some way.”7

The mandate of the social gospel is to attempt the social gospel. Or, in other words, to attempt to Christianize the social order. This is the Kingdom of God now. But it must be remembered: “At best there is always but an approximation to a perfect social order. The Kingdom of God is always but coming.”8

Rauschenbusch’s Methodology 

A brief look at the methodology of Rauschenbusch is instructive. Rauschenbusch started by recognizing the social ills of his day. He famously stated that his social concern came from when he was in New York City:

“It came through personal contact with poverty, and when I saw how men toiled all their life long, hard, toilsome lives, and at the end had almost nothing to show for it; how strong men begged for work and could not get it in the hard times; how little children died—oh, the children’s funerals! They gripped my heart—that was one of the things I always went away thinking about—why did the children have to die?”9 

He required a theology that could speak to his problems. This was to be found in the ideals of Jesus. The gospel, sin, salvation, and the Kingdom of God were all redefined in order to fit within this theological need. His experience, by necessity, shaped his theology. The Bible was not an authority that transcends eras or that could speak directly to problems of any day. It contained the prophetic religion of significant luminaries like the prophets and Jesus. The religion of Rauschenbusch had to be flexible enough to adapt to contemporary needs. When the old theology proved to be incompatible with his requirements, it was replaced.

After the source for theology had been understood and his methodology was delineated, Rauschenbusch could explain his understanding of classic Christian categories like the gospel and salvation. Each of these was explained in the purview of social responsibility. His determination of what theology had to be resulted in a definition of the gospel and salvation which was geared toward providing an answer to social ills. Also, his understanding of the responsibility of the church under the umbrella of the Kingdom of God was determined under this rubric.

Many have recognized the lasting significance of Walter Rauschenbusch to be his discovery and explanation of social Christianity. Martin Luther King Jr. noted some problems with Rauschenbusch before offering this final summarization of his lasting contribution:

“The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.10 

This starting point for theology has been the significant contribution of the social gospel movement. Rauschenbusch was the clearest and perhaps best spokesman for this movement. But as you can see, in this conception of religion there is very little of Christianity left over. It is notable that Rauschenbusch’s grandson and famous “neo-pragmatist” philosopher, Richard Rorty, comments that what secular humanists like himself appreciate most about Rauschenbusch is his “dismissal of the Pauline claim that we are corrupt and in desperate need of purification.”11 Rauschenbusch finds fellow-laborers in hostile non-Christians because they share the central idea that our primary problem is a need for a better society.

Considering Social Responsibility

One of the principles to be learned is not so much whether there are problems in the world that Christians are to respond to. But rather, where does the Christian’s response to these problems fit in with other important teachings? Is it part of one’s understanding of the gospel? Is it part of the definition of the church? When there is little more than an emotional reaction to get involved in solving social issues, you run the risk of implicitly agreeing with dangerous assumptions.

An obvious example is simply to say that my church is going to perform a social good because there is an obvious problem. While there may be nothing wrong with doing good, are certain theological categories being redefined based on the authority of this need? Has this church implicitly shown that they believe the church’s mission is social betterment? Or worse, that they believe Christian experience demands a place for social action in the definition of the church or maybe even the gospel?

Letting an experience or circumstance be the driving force runs the risk of the Rauschenbusch folly. To be biblical (inerrancy affirmed) is to not succumb to such authorities. Many Christians have no intention of downplaying their commitment to the authority of the inerrant Scriptures. However, when the only rationale given for Christian social responsibility is “there is a problem, so we get involved,” confusion about a number of issues is sure to follow. If this is the only reason given for social action or if this reason begins to determine other issues such as your definition of the gospel, then the difference between this and Rauschenbusch begins to fade.

And So…

As is the case with most really good questions, a short answer is almost never adequate. Since the Bible does say much about the definition of the gospel, the church, the Kingdom of God, the purpose of apologetics, along with many other pertinent issues, then our answer ought to include serious reflection on the interdependency of these issues. While we recognize that we cannot understand all things and cannot hope to be infallible in all our practices, let us approach these issues with diligence and excitement as we seek a properly biblical answer.


1. For biographical information on Rauschenbusch see the most recent biography, written by Christopher H. Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2004).

2. For an excellent treatment of the liberal influences upon Rauschenbusch while at Rochester, see: Jeffrey Paul Straub, “The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Religious Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life, 1870-1920” (Ph.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2004), 150-7.

3. Walter Rauschenbusch, “The New Evangelism,” The Independent LVI (Jan.-June 1904), 1054-5; reprinted in Winthrop S. Hudson, Walter Rauschenbusch: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 137. 

4. Idem, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1907), xiii.  

5. Idem, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1918; repr., Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2011), 99. 

6. Idem, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912; reprint, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010). 

7. Idem, Dare We Be Christians (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1914; reprint, 1993), 43-4. 

8. Idem, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 421. 

9. Idem, “The Kingdom of God,” Cleveland’s Young Men, XXVII (January 9, 1913), reprinted in: Robert T. Handy, ed., The Social Gospel in America: 1870-1920: Gladden, Ely, Rauschenbusch, 264-7 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 265-6. 

10. Martin Luther King Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” The Christian Century 77 no 15 (Apr. 13, 1960), 440. 

11. Richard Rorty, “Buds That Never Opened,” In Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church, ed. by Paul Raushenbush (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 347.

Note: For a more in depth look at Rauschenbusch and his presentation of Christian social responsibility, see the “articles of interest” tab on our website.