While at the church building one day, I received a phone call from a middle-aged man who was in financial trouble. It seems he and his family had made some poor decisions and wanted help. I told him that the church did not have a fund for those who are not members of the church but did help out those who were members. I asked, “Are you a Christian?” He answered defensively, “No, but . . . you are a church. How dare you not help us out! What kind of church are you anyway?” I interrupted by saying we would be happy to help him with what we did have. His self-righteous, “you owe me a living” speech stopped. I invited him to come to the building with his family and we would sit down together to study the Bible. I told him that I wanted to share with him the precious message of salvation. The Lord did not tell the church to be a general benevolence society but did want His church to “sound forth” His word as did the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:8). I asked him, “when would you like to get together to talk about the gospel of Christ?” Our conversation ended abruptly with “so . . . uh . . . you’re not going to help us?”
The original purpose of God for His church was spiritual in nature. When Jesus wrote to the seven churches of Asia in Rev. 2-3, He chose the figure of “lampstands” to describe them. Each congregation of God’s people is to shine forth the light of Jesus Christ to the world. In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he told of their teaching God’s word, relating with one another in various situations, using spiritual gifts properly and believing in the resurrection. This is consistent with all the other letters and books we find in the New Testament. All were to teach the truth and build up each other spiritually. Even in chapter 16 when Paul discussed helping the needy, he talked specifically about those who where needy saints, not those in the world. When Jesus described His kingdom to Pilate, He said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). Jesus’ mission was spiritual in nature; “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Lk. 19:10). Paul wrote the first letter to Timothy so that he might know how he was to conduct himself in the house of God, “which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Peter described the church as a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). As Paul spoke of the work of the church at Thessalonica, he said, “from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth” (1 Thess. 1:8). The fact is God gave His church a vital, urgent, eternally valuable role to fulfill — to spread the blessed gospel of Christ to the world and to edify the saints so that each might grow up to maturity. The only time we find the New Testament church involved with helping out the needy financially is when a need arose among the saints because of some distress. If we are going to be faithful to the charge of God as His church, we must be careful not only to follow the details of His will but, even more importantly, to be committed to the main principles of what our mission is all about.
The “social gospel” began in the 1800s during a time of developing social conscience in this country. Labor unions and other organizations were formed to deal with social injustices. At the same time, many in the religious world were beginning to question and even deny the inspiration of the Bible. It followed that if belief in the inspiration of the Bible was eroding, then the ideas of salvation from sin, eternal life and eternal damnation began to fade away also. The mission of Jesus, and therefore the religious world, was twisted into a social reform movement. The emphasis changed from saving man from his sins to helping man cope with this life to bring about a utopia on this earth.
This movement has had a lasting effect on the religious world and has even affected those who have been striving to restore New Testament Christianity. From the 1950’s to the present, churches calling themselves “of Christ” have jumped onto the bandwagon of the social gospel. There is a “Church of Christ Disaster Relief Fund” dedicated to respond to natural disasters on the behalf of the “Church of Christ”. There are “Church of Christ” retirement homes, hospitals, orphans homes, family life centers, gymnasiums, racket ball courts, day care centers, schools, medical missions and “fellowship” halls. All of these pervert the purpose for which God established His church. As individuals, we need to respond to the needs of others as opportunity and ability allow but the Lord’s church has a more specific charter and is to respond to a more urgent need. This is a need that has eternal consequences, a disaster that has been self-inflicted on literally billions of souls - sin. We have the answer: the message of Jesus.
Some seek to justify the giving of food for the belly, games for teens and entertainment for all ages to get people in their doors so that they can convert them with the gospel. Jesus didn’t play these games. When He performed a miracle to prove His Divinity and some followed because of the food, Jesus rebuked them sharply (John 6). If we convert people with hot dogs, they will leave when the hot dogs are gone. The gospel is God’s power to save (Rom. 1:16). It is what convicts our hearts of sin, righteousness and the judgment to come (John 16:7-13). If someone is truly interested in his relationship with God, he will be attracted by the gospel. We have a choice to make. Do we follow the movements of men or the word of the Lord? Let us follow the dictates of God that each local group of Christians may be a lampstand holding forth the word of truth in the midst of a lost and dying world.