The community gospel part 1: A powerful and dangerous formula

On 7 May, 1867, a man called Alfred Nobel obtained patents for a very powerful and potentially very dangerous formula:

3 parts nitroglycerin—C3H5(NO3)3

+ one part diatomaceous earth

+ a small admixture of sodium carbonate—Na2CO3

This is the classic formula for dynamite. Used properly, it can move mountains. But unless it is handled with care, it can destroy lives.

Similarly, but far more seriously, there is another powerful and potentially dangerous formula:

A need in the world

+ an implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Used properly, this formula can achieve wonderful results for God’s glory. I know a missionary doctor who has had many great opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, through the establishment of a maternity clinic. Many women in the vicinity of the clinic desperately need good maternity care. An implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we should care for the vulnerable (e.g. Jas 1:27). This combination of a worldly need plus an implication of the gospel is positively powerful in this case. Women come to the clinic; they are helped and healed, and their children are born safely (which, of course, is immensely valuable in itself); and, even better, as they come to know the hospital staff, they are given explicit opportunities to hear about and respond to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.

But there is always a danger with this formula. The danger is that the particular implication of the gospel has the potential to claim centre stage and become a new gospel. The problem occurs when the worldly need is seen as so great—so urgent—so important—that everything else must be made to serve it. This hasn’t happened in the example I mentioned above (praise God!). But it has happened at many times and in many places—especially over the last hundred years. The now-familiar ‘social gospel’, for example, is a deliberate attempt to take what should be an implication of the gospel and make it the centre of the gospel. The social gospel says that providing care and justice for the vulnerable is not merely a response to our salvation, it is the central concern of the gospel. According to the social gospel, the key task of Christians is to transform society in line with this end. The key concerns of the Bible—our sin against our creator, the personal judgement it deserves, Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice, his resurrection, trust in him as the only way to be right before God, our future hope—drift away as irrelevant or at least not ‘central’ to the message.

I’m not going to go into detail here about the relationship between the gospel and social action here; many others have done this in more depth and detail than I can possibly cover here (see also this Briefing series). I do, however, want to make an observation about another, perhaps more recent, example of this formula. I want to speak about the possible dangers—not of the ‘social gospel’, but of what we might call the “community gospel”. In the interests of space, I’ll talk about the community gospel in my next post.

9 thoughts on “The community gospel part 1: A powerful and dangerous formula

  1. Hi Lionel,

    I get where you are coming from


    1. I’m not really a fan of ‘the danger of’ argument. In essence it is telling someone to be wary of something good or true because of how someone else has misused it. This is basically telling people to be wary of all and every action they take, as all sin in the misuse of something good. 

    2. And I think I would find this warning easier to hear if just occasionally our tribe warned us of the opposite. That is, in an effort to stop elevating an implication to the centre, we are just as likely to proclaim a centre without implications. As one of my friends puts it, ‘Sometimes the only thing we say about good works is that the’re bad’.


  2. ah the formidable slippery slope Lionel

    you have already struck fear into me as to where this might head !

    dare I ask what might be the great danger of all the other good things that might become an idol…..

  3. Hi Tim,

    Just quickly, in response to your first point: it always has been and always will be important for Christians to warn one another of the dangers of drifting away from our centre in the gospel. This task is particularly urgent when the thing we are tempted to focus our entire energy on is the very thing the world around us will love us for. The history of Israel and the history of the church teach us to do it. So I make no apologies for at least trying to do it, even if imperfectly.

    I gave the example of the “social gospel” in this post as an example of something that I think is a historical, not contemporary, example. My next post will deal with something that I see as very contemporary, and which I believe right now is certainly leading Christians away from their centre in the gospel, and is quite urgent.

    In response to your second point, I’m not sure exactly what you have in mind by “our tribe” – but if you want to limit the critique to the Sola Panel itself, I don’t think it holds water. Not just occasionally, but frequently there are examples of people proclaiming the implications of the gospel – and in answer to your charge that “we” only say that good works are bad, check out (to give just one example) Paul’s fine post The Gospel Is All About Morality.

    And Shane – in what way do you think that my post has a “slippery slope” argument? I’m simply baffled by your claim!

  4. Shane – having thought about it a little more, I can see where you might be thinking I have a slippery slope argument.

    As I understand it, a “slippery slope” argument is of the form: even though X is fine in itself, we must nevertheless avoid X at all costs because it might lead in the end down the slippery slope to Y, which is bad.

    So all I can think of is that you might be reading my post and think I’m saying something: “even though caring for the vulnerable is a good thing to do, we must avoid caring for the vulnerable at all costs because it might in the end lead to the gospel being marginalised”.

    Well, if this is what you’re thinking, let me strenuously deny it. Let me also point to the fact that in my post I said that caring for the vulnerable is positively powerful in the case of my missionary friend, and that I used the analogy of dynamite because I believe that dynamite is good and powerful and should certainly (in its more modernised forms!) be used to, e.g., “move mountains”.

    My post was intended to be a “be careful” argument, not at all a “slippery slope” one. Anyway, have I read you wrong? Did you have something else in mind?

  5. Hi Lionel,

    Well I may have confused the slippery slope argument with the be careful argument.

    Although I think the guts of what I was trying to say stays the same.

    As I understand it you believe –

    There is a centre – the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf

    And that centre has implications – to love our neighbour, for example

    And further that following through on those implications can have a significant influence on mission.

    And not only do you think this, but I have heard it preached and seen it written but evangelicals in Sydney.

    But you went the extra step of asking us to be careful because it is possible for some who get obsessed with the implications can replace the centre with the implications.

    I agree

    But I have heard that warning countless times.

    I have never heard the warning that if I ignore the implications, that if I don’t take them seriously enough, that if I withhold love for the poor, and so on, that I will threaten my hold on the centre. That I will truncate the Gospel, that a centre without implications needs to shrivel in order to remain the centre of something.



  6. OK Tim – I’d love to read your comments on the second part of the series when it goes up – particularly whether you think it’s also subject to the same criticism – i.e. that it’s something that you hear all the time.

    But don’t you think that Paul’s post is saying pretty much the very thing that you say you “never hear” from Sydney evangelicals?

  7. Hi All,

    This is a topic dear to my heart. In addition to the post that Lionel points to, these posts were also written in light of my personal sense that we are afraid of saying anything about good works (Character and hope, How to stay in the middle of the road).

    I think I have a comment and a question. My comment is that I think that on the whole there is a tendency in our circles to have a Lutheran understanding of the law that has flown out of a misunderstanding of the nature of the Lordship of Christ and the connection of Christ’s lordship to the gospel.

    But my second question is for Shane and Tim. This post and your responses made me stop and reflect on why I have the impression that we are afraid of good works. I think for me the evidence has been mainly @ UNSW where, as I’ve preached the Lordship of Jesus and the importance of being truly Christian, people have had lots of questions about whether this denies the grace of God.

    But as I think about the preachers that I hear with any regularity (and it is such a small sample – Warwick de Jersey, Phillip Jensen, Ben Gooley) none of them seem plagued by the problem I am thinking about.

    I’m really interested to know where you think the problem might be coming from?


  8. Hi Lionel (et al.),

    The social gospel is alive and well in contexts associated with my paddock – it came up again as a discussion point just this week in Bible study. That and the seemingly ubiquitous equation of aid work as missionary activity (ie, because I’m a nurse elsewhere I’m therefore a missionary – even though I don’t evangelise at all)

    So I’m looking forward to the (other)contemporary example smile … but I think this one is still too smile

    Paul, I’d like to see your thoughts on the lordship / gospel (mis)-connection.

    For myself, I can’t help but wonder how much it is because we fail to understand the following matrix of things: the relationship between truth and love; that truth is relational (there’s a blast from the past!); the relationship between head/heart and action; that when I meet God in the Bible God meets me powerfully and transformingly – word is mode of God’s being; and that because of this failure we’re afraid to speak of good works because it looks like legalism – even though, ironically, I think it’s this failure to properly relate these that leads to legalism.

  9. I have never responded to any of the Sola panel discussion, but I thought I’d give it a shot.  In my own context, especially in my larger denomination, the center of the gospel is practically, not theologically, being replaced by a social gospel.  This is not a slippery slope argument, just an observation that causes me to pause along with Lionel. (does that mean lion of God)  It is socially more agreeable to do acts of kindness than to proclaim the greatest kindness the good news of Jesus Christ.  There is nothing slithery or slippery about it.  We in the Christian community have a phobia of sharing the greatest kindness of God which is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ ALONE.  Particularly in my own denominational churches we are almost exclusively attracted to social action than gospel proclamation (I am not saying we don’t preach the gospel in our worship services, but our view of kingdom service is slanted heavily to good works and little to gospel proclamation).  There are good works and there is the greatest work, which is the dynamite of God that resurrects worthless men to an everlasting inheritance and it is by faith.  If the dynamite of God has explode in the heart, then the love of God will hence flow to have real and lasting compassion and action toward the nations next door and around the world.  I just wanted to thrown in my stick of dynamite to the fire.  Cheers

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