The Father of the Social Gospel

This is the fourth article in a series on the Social Justice Gospel.

Hell’s Kitchen earned its name.  The story goes that a police officer once said “This place is Hell.”  “No,” responded another cop, “Hell is too mild of a climate.  This is Hell’s Kitchen.” [1] That was in the 1800’s, and it stuck.  The history of this notorious city in New York is rife with unparalleled violence, poverty and misery.  It was here that the “Father of the Social Gospel”, Walter Rauschenbusch, pastored for a time during the late 1800’s.  And it was here that his heart was broken while witnessing the brutal hardships of his congregation and community.  Kids as young as 5 years old that should have been playing around town worked in dangerous factories 12-16 hours a day.  Women who should have been able to be home with those kids worked alongside them.  Violent gangs ran the streets.  An honest cop couldn’t be found.  Brothels and prostitutes littered the neighborhoods.  It was the poorest of the poor, the slum of slums.  It was heartbreaking.

Out of this experience, Rauschenbusch was determined to make the Church the answer to these social problems.  While rejecting the violent and atheistic aspects of Marxism he still saw in Marx’s economic ideas gifts to the Christian Church.  It would not be exaggerating to say Rauschenbusch considered Marx a social prophet whose ideas just needed a Christian baptism – Marx needed theology.  In writing A Theology For The Social Gospel Rauschenbusch set out to give such a theological basis for these ideas.  His first words declare:  

“We have a social gospel.  We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it.  That is the main proposition of this book.” [2]

This theme is repeated throughout the book.  The problem, as Rauschenbusch saw it, was that Christian doctrine had been interpreted too narrowly to allow for a social gospel.  Therefore those doctrines must change.  He says,

“If we seek to keep Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment” [3]

“It [the social gospel] is bound to become one of the permanent and commanding ingredients of theology” [4]

“If theology is to offer an adequate doctrinal basis for the social gospel it must not only make room for the doctrine of the Kingdom of God [5], but give it a central place and revise all other doctrines so that they will articulate organically with it.” [6]

Remarkably, a book on theology has fewer Bible verses than you have fingers on one hand. 

Remarkably, a book on theology has fewer Bible verses than you have fingers on one hand.  Virtually none are meaningfully explained. In my mind, if not yours, this begins to suggest his ideas are not coming from Scripture, but rather he is bringing them to Scripture.  

Understanding that the social gospel is not in the Bible, Rauschenbusch decided he must put it in.  He falls on this point.  Coming to the Bible with an a priori commitment to a social gospel he was forced to abandon either the social gospel or the Bible.  He chose the latter.  That abandonment was not by closing it never to open it again.  Rather he abandoned the Bible when chose to change it to suit his ideas.  He abandoned the Bible when he no longer saw the Bible as having its own independent meaning apart from his ideas.

As faithful Christians we see the Bible as our source of truth.  It shapes our understanding.  We don’t shape it.

Later in the book he asserts these extra-Biblical ideas actually come from God through modern social justice “prophets” [7].  This is Rauschenbusch obliquely admitting the Scriptures do not prescribe a social gospel.  This forces him to attack the doctrines of Biblical inspiration and infallibility [8] in order to shift the authority of our ideas about God and the Church away from the Bible.  Understanding would not come through the Holy Canon but rather a group’s contemporary social context:

The changes in the Hebrew conception of God were the result of the historical experiences of the nation and its leaders.  The Christian idea of God has also had its ups and downs in the long and varied history of the Church.” [9]

Why would Rauschenbusch do this?  The answer is that he was exposed to something called “higher criticism”.  According to the New World Encyclopedia, higher criticism

treats the Bible as a text created by human beings at a particular historical time and for various human motives, in contrast with the treatment of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. [10]

Every careful disciple of Jesus has red flags going up here.  “Created by human beings”?  Not God?  But notice the next words in that definition:  “at a particular historical time and for various human motives.”  That is exactly what Rauschenbusch thought about the Bible.  It was a product of man at a certain time in history to meet the needs of that time for those men.  Ancient prophets spoke to ancient times.  History has moved on, and Rauschenbusch was convinced we should not be confined to obsolete revelation:

We are under no obligation to accept the mythical ideas and cosmic speculations of the Hebrew people, their limited geography, their primitive astronomy

Therefore, as Rauschenbusch saw it, we need new revelation from new prophets of God.  We need them for our time and our modern social justice needs.  He says, 

The social gospel is not a doctrine turned backward to the sources of authority [written Bible]…it cries aloud for an inspired word of God to give faith and power and guidance [11]

That “inspired word of God” he mentions comes from new modern day prophets, 

The social gospel, on the other hand, feels the need of present inspiration and of living prophetic spirits in order to lead humanity toward the Kingdom of God. [12]

You should look again and see if you can find the Holy Spirit mentioned in that definition of inspiration.  He’s not.  For Rauschenbusch, instead of the Holy Spirit it is modern man who is the source of inspiration:

Genuine prophecy springs up where fervent religious experience combines with a democratic spirit, strong social feelings and free utterance [13]

Rauschenbush is presenting us with a choice:  his word or God’s.  His word contradicts the Bible regarding who gives inspiration:

All Scripture is God-breathed….Above all you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-1)

Yet, in ignoring Scripture Rauschenbusch places the source of prophecy in man, whom he thinks is carried along by excitement over socialist ideas more so than the Holy Spirit.  “The social gospel”, his last line reads, “is the voice of prophecy in modern life”.

Question:  Does the Bible change us or do we change the Bible?   How we answer that question may indicate whether we really are Christians or not.  True Christians change themselves to be consistent with the Bible.  False Christians change the Bible.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book:  If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.  If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and the and in the holy city, which are described in this book.  (Revelation 22:18-9)

Every word of God is flawless…do not add to His words or He will rebuke you and prove you a liar.  (Proverbs 30:6)

Even from among your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.  (Acts 20:30)

Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the Gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!  As we have already said, so now I say again:  If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:7-9) 

True Christians change themselves to be consistent with the Bible.  False Christians change the Bible.

Has Walter Rauschenbusch influenced the Social Justice movement in the Church after him?  Absolutely.  He is credited as the Father of the Social Gospel.  Martin Luther King Jr said, “His writings have left an indelible imprint on my thinking”.  His highly influential book Christianity and the Social Crisis was republished recently as Christianity and the Social Crisis:  The Classic That Woke Up The Church.  This republished edition is distinct in that it contains commentary from eight popular social justice Christian leaders of our day.  Jim Wallis, Cornel West, Tony Campolo, Phylis Trible and others give tribute to Rauschenbusch chapter after chapter.  

These are Marxists who like Rauschenbusch deny the inspiration, infallibility and authority of Scripture.  Also like their forebear they switch the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross for a social justice interpretation:  Jesus did not die for our individual sins, but, rather, he died for institutional sins and to identify with poor oppressed people.  His resurrection proved that liberty from oppressive groups is God’s purpose.  Among them  you will find the LGBTQ lifestyle affirmed as consistent with Christianity [14].  None of these popular and well-known “evangelicals” are evangelical.  Their careers and history have shown an undeniable rejection of Biblical Christianity and a simultaneous agenda to reinterpret Christianity in a Marxist paradigm.  What that means (if you haven’t read the previous three articles) is that Christianity is the institution that is to aid the oppressed classes in overturning the oppressive classes and create a fully egalitarian and equal society – a “Christian society” [15].  Borrowing from the Bible, like Rauschenbusch did, they call this the “Kingdom of God.” [16]

You might say what Marx needed was a suitable helper.  Rauschenbusch thought so, and he came to see the Church as Marx’s Bride more so than Christ’s.

Actually, as Rauschenbusch saw it – and modern social justice Christians do to – Marx and the Church need each other. [17]  Marx got the Church started out again on the right course to change society, but his system lacked the moral and theological power to reach the goal.  That power was in religion according to the Social Gospel – what Marx mistook as “the opiate of the masses”.  You might say what Marx needed was a suitable helper.  [18] Rauschenbusch thought so, and he came to see the Church as Marx’s Bride more so than Christ’s. [19]  In divorcing Jesus the Church no longer has to wait for Him to bring the Kingdom.  Remarrying Marx the Church can now bring it about on its own.  Hell’s Kitchen could become Heaven’s.  


  2. pg 1
  3. pg 7
  4. pg 30
  5. Rauschenbusch’s conception of the Kingdom of God as a mirror image of his Socialist ideas of society.
  6. pg 131
  7. pg 194-6
  8. pg 141
  9. pg 168
  11. pg 196
  12. pg 194
  13. pg 195
  15. pg 131-45
  16. pg  142-3
  17.  “God had to raise up socialism because the organized Church was too blind, or too slow, to realize God’s ends” (; consider also, as mentioned in Marx Marches On, many Christian seminaries are using Marxism as an “analytical tool”
  18. Genesis 2:18
  19. Ephesians 5:21-4

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