I don't know who first coined the term "social gospel." But it's generally understood among conservative evangelicals to be an American theological aberration. The social gospel rose to prominence during the 1960s, when preachers strayed from the gospel of the grace of God and started proclaiming a message of salvation through "good works." The social gospel essentially advocates redemption based on social action, without teaching the necessity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
No one who understands the Holy Scriptures would deny our Lord calls us to good works or to social action. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches such should be wedded with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. Corporate or societal righteousness is actually an outgrowth of the masses coming to know Jesus Christ.
I consider the social gospel something to be considered anathema -- something to be shunned and reviled. The danger it poses, however, pales in comparison to another, more recent, very popular approach to the gospel today that is extremely deadly. It too, I believe, is a theological aberration. We might call it a "celebrity gospel."
A celebrity gospel is when a preacher compromises the gospel of Christ in order to achieve or sustain a celebrity status. When a preacher proclaims a celebrity gospel, offenses are stringently avoided. There is no need to carry a Cross -- no need to take a stand theologically or politically. Christ is preached, but without preaching against sin. The good news of Jesus Christ is set forth in vague generalities designed to keep from dividing the audience. The hope or objective of a celebrity gospel is that people might feel helped and encouraged, not condemned or judged.
Two good examples of preachers proclaiming a celebrity gospel of late are Dr. Billy Graham and Joel Osteen. Please understand it troubles me deeply to speak negatively of either one of these ministers. I consider myself unworthy to even shine their shoes. Dr. Graham has preached to more people in the world than any other evangelist in history. Joel Osteen serves the largest church in America, has a national television ministry, and has had a book on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks. But I have witnessed compromises to the gospel of Christ by these two that I can only assume are driven by their desire to protect their celebrity.
For instance, talk-show host Larry King, on CNN's Larry King Live, recently interviewed both men separately and in so many words asked them if they believed people of faith outside of Christ would go to heaven. Graham's answer: "That's in God's hands. I can't be the judge." Osteen responded: "Here's my thing .... I think it's wrong when you go around saying, you're saying you're not going, you're not going, you're not going, because it's not exactly my way." Both acknowledged their own faith in Christ, but wouldn't clearly delineate that there is only one mediator of salvation between God and man -- Jesus Christ (I Timothy. 2:5).
When King asked Graham and Osteen about involvement by preachers in politics, both expressed their own reluctance to do it. Graham said, "I'm trying to stay out of politics. And I've been queried quite a bit lately, why I don't take a stand on certain issues." Later in the same interview, King asked Graham whether he believed people were born homosexuals or not. Graham would only say, "Well, that's a big debate." King then pressed the issue and asked, "But if it's not a choice, it can't be a sin. Right?" To which Graham replied, "Well maybe. God will make that judgment, not me. I'm not deciding who's a sinner and who is not." When Osteen was asked by King about issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, he said he believed same-sex marriage was not what God intended, neither was abortion the best, but he wasn't going to call anyone a sinner. He added he doesn't even use the word "sinner."
Why is this a matter of concern? It's a matter of great significance because it's a breaking away from sound Christian doctrine. When preachers fail to make central to their message what Christ said of himself -- "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me" (John. 14:6) -- they have compromised the gospel and left their audience with no certain means to find their way home. We would all do well to consider the example of the early Christians, who lived in a pluralistic and liberal-minded city like Rome, yet wouldn't take a pinch of incense and place it on a fire before a graven image of Caesar because they were unwilling for Jesus to be considered just another god in a Roman pantheon. They believed Jesus was the one true God and that only He was Lord, not Caesar. For that faith they were willing to die of unspeakable tortures. Moreover, any gospel message that fails to deal with sin -- messages that fail to specifically address sin -- are not setting forth the need for people to be reconciled to God. Such messages fail to address why one needs to be saved.
The message of the Cross is not simply a message about God's love. It's also a message about God's anger at sinners. The message of the Cross contends that God has been offended. Sin is so vial in God's eyes it necessitated the violent and bloody death of His own Son to assuage His wrath. It says no matter how good you may think you are, this is what you deserve: what Christ experienced on the Cross. Christ died in your place to pay the penalty for your sin and there is no other way to be saved except through Him. The apostle Paul referred to this as "the offence of the Cross" (Galatians 5:1) -- a message no preacher has a right to neglect.
Lastly, preachers unwilling to address political matters of moral import are derelict in their duty to obey Christ's command to be "salt and light" (Matthew 5:13,14). What is more, their neutrality in such matters is a departure from the example of early church leaders like Telemachus, who gave his own life to stop the gladiator games in Rome. Then there's John Knox, who changed all of Scotland in his lifetime. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, whose sermons often addressed issues like indentured servitude, rampant drunkenness, slavery, and the poor health of the peasant class. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, sought by law to destroy the prostitution racket in London during his day. And let's not forget the Black Regiment -- those ministers who wore black robes and contended from the pulpit for freedom during the days of the American Revolution. Without them there would have never been an America.
Though it may be very popular and garner the support of thousands -- though it may bring in the big crowds, result in high praise and the adulation of most -- the preaching of a "celebrity gospel" is not acceptable with God. W. Philip Keller summed up the matter when he wrote: "The high calling to which God calls those chosen ones to speak on His behalf is not only a holy duty but also a lonely life. It is to be very much among the suffering and sorrows of our society but also (more often than not) somewhat alone in bearing the burdens -- frequently misunderstood and often wrongly accused. Christ came to us as the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. So it is to be expected that those who follow Him will taste the same suffering and endure the same disdain. This is inevitable."
A "celebrity gospel" should be deemed for what it is: anathema -- something to be shunned and reviled by the faithful.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.