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Rick Warren and the Social Gospel

posted by Paul Raushenbush

“Historically evangelicals and mainline protestants were all in one group. Along about the beginning of the 20th century there were some protestant theologians who started using the term social gospel. What they meant by that was you don’t really need to care about Jesus’  personal salvation any more. You don’t really have to care about redemption, the cross, repentance. All we need to do is redeem the social structures of society and if we make those social structures better then the world will be a better place. In many ways it was just Marxism in Christian clothing.  If we redeem society, then man would automatically get better. It didn’t deal with the heart.   So they said we don’t need this personal religion stuff” – Rick Warren, The Beliefnet Interview

There Rick Warren goes again proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. His condemnation of the social gospel in his latest interview with Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman repeats another interview he gave a few years ago.   Warren apparently read an essay on the evils of the social gospel when he was young and has been mislead and misleading people about it ever since.  My guess is that his shrill denunciations come out of a fear that his new found interest in social issues might cause some in the evangelical world to brand him as a social gospler. He has cause to worry.  There is deep suspicion of this kind of activity (by that I mean helping the poor and working with AIDS) among evangelicals and Warren has to be careful to shore up his Jesus credentials lest he be tarnished by those who questions his Christian commitments. 

Bashing the social gospel is common among old school evangelicals. Author, pastor and Progressive Revival blogger Brian McLaren told me his own own experience: “Like a lot of people from Evangelical backgrounds, in my childhood and youth I was taught that the “social gospel” was nothing but evil.  I heard it a thousand times in sermons…Now, of course, I think this kind of anti-justice, privatized-gospel propaganda is evil!”

But of course now Brian Mclaren is also now persona non-grata among the Warren evangelical school.  I was part of organizing a conference last summer called Envsion which featured leaders in the new Evangelical movement such as Shane Claiborn, Rich Cizik, Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren.  Kay Warren was supposed to be our keynote on the first night but backed out because she wouldn’t share a state with Brian for fear of being tarnished by association with his theology and practice.

One of those “theologians” Rick Warren targets is my great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch.  Just to clarify – Rauschenbusch wasn’t a theologian – he was a pastor Warren would do well to learn a bit more about his life, writing and prayers.  While he will still have theological disagreements, my hope is that he would at least appreciate the impulse behind his thought and belief and perhaps see a parallel with his own religious evolution. 

Rauschenbusch served a church of the working poor in a hells kitchen New York at the turn of the last century.  He began with a fairly conservative belief system that only concentrated on the saving of individual souls.  Through the people of his congregation Rauschenbusch saw the suffering of his flock at the hands of a ruthless economic system.  Rauschenbusch later said that during this time he had buried too many babies who had died needlessly just because they were poor.  “How little children died – oh, the children’s funerals! They gripped my heart.” Rauchenbusch turned back to the bible to see what it said about the poverty aflicting his congregation. The social gospel was the attempt of conscientious Christians to respond to the incredible social inequity of the time.

Warren is right – there was a split among protestants 100 years ago.  The Evangelical School did nothing about the suffering of the world preferring to concentrate on the afterlife and “salvation” that came from abandonment of the world in favor of a promised future in heaven. In the meantime the social gospel went on to develop institutions such as the YMCA, the Salvation Army and the National Council of Churches; spearheaded interfaith understanding, and lobbied for social change that reflected Jesus’ desire for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Important child labor protection laws, the new deal, the great society and the civil rights movement are products of the social gospel.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “In the early 50’s I read Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, a book which left an indelible imprint on my thinking.”  Not a bad heritage – if only Warren would admit it.  Mainline protestants have been involved in AIDS work since the 80”s and poverty for the last century. It’s nice to see Warren’s recent interest.

In my own work I have been generous to the evangelical spirit, and in fact I agree with Warren that the liberal church has lost some of the personal relevance of the Gospel.  But that was never the intention of the original social Gospel, as Rauschenbusch himself said – “A perfect religious hope must include both: eternal life for the individual; the kingdom of God for humanity.”  Rauschenbusch conceived of his work on the social aspects of the Gospel as an addition, not a substitution.  My honest feeling is that Rick Warren owes a great deal to Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel if he were only Christian enough to admit it. 

Instead of trashing Rauschenbusch, the social Gospel, mainline protestants and worrying so much about defending Christian orthodoxy of belief, I invite Warren to seek collaboration with those of us who are also concerned with the suffering of the world’s vulnerable and are dedicated to doing God’s will on earth as in heaven. 



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Scot McKnight

posted December 15, 2008 at 3:01 pm


Paul,
It is not only nit-pickingly silly but inaccurate to say your grandfather was not a theologian. Everyone recognizes him as the father of social gospel theology and his recent biographer, C.H. Evans, routinely calls Walter Rauschenbusch a theologian. He was a pastor/theologian-church historian.
That’s not the big point,however. I think you are unfair to the legacy of your grandfather. While he clearly “added” social justice to his gospel of personal salvation in his earlier years, there are many who think he shifted from that in his later years. Including AH Strong who chided him for departing too much from the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Evangelical critics of Walter Rauschenbusch fastened on to the criticism of him in his later years.
Instead of trashing Warren, Paul, I’d appreciate it if you’d see that Warren represents that evangelicals themselves have come a long way. Rick Warren, my friend, is not the one to pick on. He is at least attempting to add (as did your grandfather) social justice to personal salvation.



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Paul Raushenbush

posted December 15, 2008 at 3:13 pm


Scott,
Point taken. My point about being a pastor was that Rauschenbusch’s interest was not intellectual but was born out of pastoral concern. In that, as in many other ways, Warren has some things in common with Rauschenbusch but is VERY insistant that he doesn’t.
Anyone who has read Rauschenbusch seriously will admit that Rauschenbusch’s work was intensely personal and how the personal relates to the social desires of Jesus – we can only take him at his word after all.
I will stop trashing Warren when he stops trashing Rauschenbusch and the religous traditions that followed him and all who worked so hard for not only charity (of the warren variety) but also justice including Neibuhr, King and Gutierrez.



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Your Name

posted December 15, 2008 at 3:49 pm


Scot,
If you believe that “Warren represents that evangelicals themselves have come a long way”, there’s some swamp land in florida I’d like to talk to you about.
Sorry, but comparing gay marriage to brother/sister incest isn’t much farther along than Jerry Falsewell blaming 9/11 on gays or Pat Robertson blaming gays for Katrina. Warren, belongs in the same odious camp as Rod Dreher, in who’s B’net column you can constantly read comparisons of gay marriage to “marrying a plant” (or an orange, or a rock, or any other inanimate object) and gay people to “cancer”, “Satan’s minions”, “Sons of Molech”, necrophiliacs, rapists, child molesters, etc.
And in the same boat as ‘Rev. Hucklebee, who compares gay people’s loving, committed, consenting, adult, human relationships to “marrying an animal or a child”.
The ‘good’ ‘Christian’ Governor of Oklahoma calls gay people “worse than terrorists”.
If you think this is evidence of ‘coming a long way’, you and a whole host of evangelicals need to reflect on the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” commandment, alongside the “inasmuch as ye have done it [or said it] to the least of these, ye have done it unto Me” Scriptures.
Then again, I thank god for people who have hurt gays and persecuted gays and said all manner of evil against gays falsely – and they do it in Christ’s name, no less. I do accept the promise of the ‘reward’, but would rather get to experience it while I’m alive and not have to wait til I get to heaven.



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Sam

posted December 15, 2008 at 3:59 pm


The liberal Emergent/Social Gospel types DO NOT hold the patent on caring for the poor and the needy. Believe it or not, evangelicals care for them too.



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Gideon Addington

posted December 15, 2008 at 4:02 pm


“Your Name,”
> “The ‘good’ ‘Christian’ Governor of Oklahoma calls gay people “worse than terrorists”.”
That wasn’t our governor, that was a rather scary state representitive by the name of Sally Kerns.
Brad Henry is a Mainline Baptist and generally pretty groovy. We have an astonishing amount of hateful crazy in this state, but Henry isn’t a source of any that I know of.
I generally agree with the rest of the comments, however.



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Tom

posted December 15, 2008 at 5:38 pm


“Instead of trashing Warren, Paul, I’d appreciate it if you’d see that Warren represents that evangelicals themselves have come a long way.”
Too little, too late.



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Chris Rosebrough

posted December 15, 2008 at 9:53 pm


By Bashing Rick Warren aren’t you defending some type of progressive orthodoxy? What’s with the double standard?



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Asinus Gravis

posted December 16, 2008 at 12:58 pm


Let’s cut to the chase. What Rick Warren said about the social gospel in so far as it applies to Walter Rauschenbusch is simply incorrect.
What ever his motives are for the gross distortion I do not profess to understand.
It would be helpful to him and others for Warren to actually study Rauschenbusch as a potentially helpful fellow Baptist.



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Doug Stuart

posted December 16, 2008 at 4:08 pm


I’m not afraid of the term “social gospel,” if by that we mean that the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God was meant to change the social order, rather than simply individual human souls. What I find incomprehensible is the selling out of the kingdom of God to be in the hands of a government in order to fulfill some of the purposes of the kingdom of God.



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Bill McLellan

posted December 16, 2008 at 6:34 pm


Warren’s historical understanding of the Social Gospel movement is unfair and needed to be corrected, especially since so many evangelicals share it and propagate it. True, some went too far in neglecting personal salvation and the atonement, but that wasn’t the heart of the movement.
The gospel as Paul defines it in Romans 1:1-6 is the announcement that Jesus is King, the risen Son of David. Eternal life and social healing are both benefits of God’s earthly rule which Jesus brought and continues to bring through his church and Spirit. This kingdom advances without violence or the support of the state, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a job to do in renewing the state and the political process so that governments do what they ought to do.



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Jason Clark

posted December 17, 2008 at 1:58 am


Paul you say, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ of Warren, then go on to say, ‘there was a split among protestants 100 years ago. The Evangelical School did nothing about the suffering of the world preferring to concentrate on the afterlife and “salvation”‘.
I assume you are referring to American Evangelicals. Firstly for those of us outside the US, that picture of Evangelicals seems rather invalid (I am in the UK, and we have a long tradition of social justice by evangelicals, certainly 100 years ago).
Secondly, don’t you in that reduction fall foul of the same claim about Warren’s method of understanding a group and movement?



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Steve Fouch

posted December 17, 2008 at 3:46 am


Paul, while I agree that it has been easy to dismiss the social Gospel as Warren seems to have done, I will echo Jason Clark’s comment above about the equal danger of dismissing the social contribution of evangelicals.
Here in the UK it was Bible believing, personal conversion focussed evangelicals like Shaftesbury, Booth, Barnardo, Wilberforce, the Wesleys and many others that shaped our social environment.It was evangelicals that helped bring in poor laws, campaigned successfully for the abolishment of slavery and the slave trade, that established the basis for trade unionism and the labour movement, our national Health Service and welfare state, etc, etc. We not only cared for the poor, we also sought to change the political discourse of our nation to recognise a Biblical mandate for social justice – with some success.
The British Labour Party (analogous to your Democrats) has often been said to have more Methodism than Marxism in its roots, and our Tory Party (analogous to your Republicans) has a strong evangelical root (William Wilberforce was a Tory – and not only campaigned to end the slave trade, he also established our main national charity caring for the welfare of animals, the RSPCA)
On this side of The Pond we watch with some encouragement to see the likes of Warren, Wallis & co. dragging US evangelicalism back to an understanding the gospel as having social as well as spiritual dimensions, and we applaud them – wondering why it has taken them so long to catch up with the rest of the evangelical world. So don’t tar evangelicalism either historically or in the present with the same lazy broad brush with which you tar Warren.



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Paul Raushenbush

posted December 17, 2008 at 8:58 am


Thanks to all of you for these great comments. And thanks to those from the other side of the pond for expanding this conversation. I agree that I came off “reductionist” about Warren as Jason Clark posted. My feelings about Warren are mixed, but I admire much of what he has and is doing.
Scott McKnight (who started off the comments) and I exchanged emails and agreed that we both had hit harder than we might of. Sometimes intra faith dialogue is much harder than interfaith – this is often true within the communities of our Jewish, Muslim and Hindu sisters and brothers.
Enough with the trashing on all sides, more with the understanding and transforming people’s heart’s AND the world to align with Jesus’ pronouncement of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.



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Ron Scates

posted December 17, 2008 at 10:45 am


One correction:the Salvation Army and the YMCA were not founded by “social gospelers” but by Bible-believing evangelical Christians who did not give up the wholistic Gospel contained in the Scriptures.



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Jason Clark

posted December 17, 2008 at 12:23 pm


Paul you said: ‘…more with the understanding and transforming people’s heart’s AND the world to align with Jesus’ pronouncement of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.’
A sentiment I whole heartedly concur with. Thank you for your gracious response to the comments.



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Your Name

posted December 17, 2008 at 11:44 pm


I read your article about Rick Warren. YOur comments about the the social gospel is quite accurate and it should be mentioned that Rick Warren is quite aware about the role and activities of those past pioneers of the social gospel suck as your grandfather, Walter Rauschenbush. The true issue at hand is that he deliberately distorts it and in typically characteristic fashion which is highly reminiscent of the McCarthy era accuses the social gospeler as denying orthodox Christian beliefs. It should be pointed out that people of Warren’s religious type were quite active in persecuting Christians who resisted and fought against Nazi occupation and they morally in Christian terms justified it. Furthermore, Jews as well as resistance fighters were turned over to the Gestapo and local Quisling Police by many professed Christians, both those belong to mainline religions and those of various evangelical Churches, to the Nazi authorities in occupied Europe to be executed. The lynching and killings of Blacks during the Jim Crow era were carried out with astounding relish by Southern evangelicals, who would attend later in the week Sunday Church services. What needs to be done is that those who profess the social gospel must be much more assertive in countering slanders, distortions and vilifications by actively being pro-active in exposing the hypocrisy of people like Rick Warren through the media and presenting their positions more forcefully. Did Jesus not overturn the moneylender tables at the temple?
Thank you for your consideration in reading my remarks. Thomas Tsuka



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Caleb J D Maskell

posted December 19, 2008 at 10:32 am


I am a PhD student at Princeton, working in detail through all of Rauschenbusch’s published writings and biographies.
Frankly, Paul Raushenbush is completely right on this one. In fact, Walter Rauschenbusch’s concern for “personal religion,” redemption of the soul, and intimate knowledge of God through prayer, worship, and meditation on the cross was perhaps even deeper than this corrective article conveys.
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote at length in every stage of his career about the importance personal conversion and ongoing transformation by God as the foundation of his Social Gospel agenda. He stood against individualism, not personal conversion. He wrote in support of the Welsh Revival of the early 20th century. He wrote with great generosity towards even his theological opponents in the premillennial dispensational camp, seeking to understand what he (and the Social Gospel movement more generally) could learn from them.
He was a progressive, a RItschlian liberal, a bit sentimental and a lot optimistic. In these things, in my view, he was quite naive, or perhaps lacked some of the benefit of hindsight that we have as witnesses to the atrocious 20th century. He also lacked a certain sense of the value of some of the theological movements and dialectics that preceded him. He was deeply conditioned by his intellectual and social environment. He was too patriotic.
However, to suggest that Walter Rauschenbusch or his Social Gospel contemporaries didn’t care about “redemption, the cross, repentance,” or that there was no Social Gospel critique of the weaknesses of Marxism is simply wrong. Furthermore, like Jesus…and like Rick and Kay Warren…Walter Rauschenbusch was profoundly moved with compassion by the sufferings of his fellow human beings, and he sought with all the tools he saw at his disposal to advance a radical movement to do something about it.
Perhaps Walter Rauschenbusch represents the best of the Social Gospel and is not the “Marxist in Christian clothing” to which Warren was referring. Even if there are worse offenders in Warren’s view, it behooves him to be careful how he talks, especially given that he himself is a victim of some stupid, unfounded attacks. Let’s not perpetuate tired stereotypes that dismiss entire movements. There are far bigger fish to fry in our historical moment.



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Caleb J D Maskell

posted December 19, 2008 at 10:38 am


I am a PhD student at Princeton, working in detail through all of Rauschenbusch’s published writings and biographies.
Frankly, Paul Raushenbush is completely right on this one. In fact, Walter Rauschenbusch’s concern for “personal religion,” redemption of the soul, and intimate knowledge of God through prayer, worship, and meditation on the cross was perhaps even deeper than this corrective article conveys.
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote at length in every stage of his career about the importance personal conversion and ongoing transformation by God as the foundation of his Social Gospel agenda. He stood against individualism, not personal conversion. He wrote in support of the Welsh Revival of the early 20th century. He wrote with great generosity towards even his theological opponents in the premillennial dispensational camp, seeking to understand what he (and the Social Gospel movement more generally) could learn from them.
He was a progressive, a RItschlian liberal, a bit sentimental and a lot optimistic. In these things, in my view, he was quite naive, or perhaps lacked some of the benefit of hindsight that we have as witnesses to the atrocious 20th century. He also lacked a certain sense of the value of some of the theological movements and dialectics that preceded him. He was deeply conditioned by his intellectual and social environment. He was too patriotic.
However, to suggest that Walter Rauschenbusch or his Social Gospel contemporaries didn’t care about “redemption, the cross, repentance,” or that there was no Social Gospel critique of the weaknesses of Marxism is simply wrong. Furthermore, like Jesus…and like Rick and Kay Warren…Walter Rauschenbusch was profoundly moved with compassion by the sufferings of his fellow human beings, and he sought with all the tools he saw at his disposal to advance a radical movement to do something about it.
Perhaps Walter Rauschenbusch represents the best of the Social Gospel and is not the “Marxist in Christian clothing” to which Warren was referring. Even if there are worse offenders in Warren’s view, it behooves him to be careful how he talks, especially given that he himself is a victim of some stupid, unfounded attacks. Let’s not perpetuate tired stereotypes that dismiss entire movements. There are far bigger fish to fry in our historical moment.



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Your Name

posted December 30, 2008 at 12:55 am


I do not hold a graduate degree in this area, but I can tell when generalizations are made where specific, localized references would suffice.
“It should be pointed out that people of Warren’s religious type were quite active in persecuting Christians who resisted and fought against Nazi occupation and they morally in Christian terms justified it.”
Generalizations being made by both parties here and in many of these postings, including the initial article, seem to be more about expressing frustrations then creating meaningful dialogue. Paul, your second posting was appreciated.
Admittedly, I have not read the entire interview nor can I speak for Warren, but the sentiment seems to be less of “Social Gospelers denied these orthodox Christian beliefs” as much as it was an acknowledgment that there are two extremes: one focusing on social changes the other only on soul changes. Ultimately, both are perversions of the gospel that occur because we are fallible humans. From what I’ve read, though, your great-grandfather seemed to have his heart in the write place. I hope each of us can say that as future conversations on this issue arise.



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Jim

posted January 25, 2009 at 12:22 am


Rick Warren’s bashing of the Social Gospel is not very constructive to a body of believers–especially these days. Indeed, it seems he has found fault with the very cornerstone of Christian charity, and self sacrifice. He seems more intent on dividing than uniting for a common good. Jesus lived, taught, and died among the have-not class. He said, that those who have become rich should renounce their wealth. Jesus plainly preached a social Gospel, and told his followers to do what is right and just to his fellow man. If we become a body of believers who seek the truth, and help our brothers and sisters, I see these as very consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Warren should embrace the body, and not seek to destroy.
I wonder what Warren thinks of Martin Luther King Jr, a man who lived and died in the work of the Social Gospel of Jesus Christ.



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shipwrecksoul

posted November 4, 2009 at 11:56 am


A Letter to Rick Warren
Some people have an Idea that God is inclusive for mans eternal destiny, that all religions and all people will be saved. That God will allow all of mankind to enter into heaven because everybody is good so God must be fair and include everyone! It is true God does love the whole world but God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior. To keep this simple man has a problem called sin in which man refuses to believe that there are eternal consequences for having sin, which is a one way ticket to hell. God is holy and he will not allow anyone with sin to enter into heaven. God is hurt and angry about our sin, we have broken his laws, our conscious confirms this. But God is just and good and he knows our need so he provided a solution to our problem. His solution to our problem is to have our sins removed by having our sins placed on someone else, a sacrifice for us; paying for the penalty of the sin we have in our lives. So that someone else would get the penalty of Gods wrath and separation on him that was meant for us. So God sent his son Jesus on a mission from heaven to earth as our sacrifice to die on the cross on our behalf after this happened three days later Jesus came back from the dead, alive. But that’s not all remember I wrote that God is exclusive about mans eternal destiny without the Savior? The only way that Gods promise can be applied to your life is for you to turn from your way of thinking and know that your sin offends and hurts God and call on the Lord Jesus who’s alive to save you. Your sins are then transferred to Jesus for what he did at the cross, dying and being abandon by God because of your sins, for you and because Jesus arose from the dead he is alive you can now enter into a relationship with God. Will you call out to Jesus to save you? It’s your choice to enter in exclusively with God’s grace for you. Where will you want to spend eternity after hearing Gods promise for you?
If the answer was yes that you do want Jesus as your sin bearer, Savior, and you do believe God raised Jesus from the dead you can pray with your voice.
“Dear Lord Jesus save me.”
Acts 20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance towards God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.



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Loneranger

posted February 4, 2010 at 10:38 am


Thanks for the fresh air shipwreackedsoul gave this blog site. Having just finish teaching the history and the failure of the Social Gospel,(1865-1915)it is appalling to note that the old and tired errors are being promoted in this yet another go around in an attempt to make Jesus a Social Gospeler. Of course there is in all amalgamators the idea that it is a both and not either or. (Rauschenbusch, C. F. H. Henry, Moberg etc.)That is “we need to be socially and personally concerned.” At this point the clarity of what true personal salvation is is lost and takes on unbilbical meanings.
The point is that when these two ideas compete for our time, talent and treasure the social concerns always trumps the personal gospel. In a short time the teaching of the need for saving faith in Christ (Gospel) in a personal salvation is lost. Note the liberal church today, they lost the personal gospel in the time mentioned above and never got it back. It is easier to help the poor than save the lost. So “helping” the “poor” will always win in the end. But the nasty secret is that there never is any real social help only the effort (trying) that is applauded. e.g. No one thinks Rick W is going to do anything about ending AIDS but the world will applaud him for trying. And that seems to be enough.



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e

posted June 23, 2010 at 8:12 am

Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 9:46 pm


Hello people, PLEASE do listen to this very good sermon on Rick Warren!! HE IS A MEMBER OF THE OCCULT MASONIC CFR!! HE IS A WOLF!! AND JOHN PIPER, a false teacher is working with him!! see here: http://www.desiringgod.org/Events/NationalConferences/Archives/2010/Speakers/
The sermon is here:
http://www.4shared.com/dir/NqMKaOV_/Scott_A_Johnson.html
they are showing more and more their true colours!!
Peter



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This is informative



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GADDE PEDA RATTAIAH

posted July 26, 2012 at 6:35 am


Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I request you not to use the term like “social Gospel” because Bible did not used this phrase.
God’s vision is to make us perfect in Christ.
Let us fear the LORD our God and hate evil so that God’s Kingdom might come in and midst of us



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Norris Lineweaver

posted March 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm


Your grandfather and my grandfather were on the same page. There is a strong balance to be sustained between saving souls and achieving salvation as well as witnessing our faith through social action. The two receive energy from the other, and your grandfather is right, the social gospel is not a substitute to true reconciliation in our relationship with God. Thank you for posting this statement. Your grandfather must be dancing a lighter step among the cloud of witnesses as we press on. ;>)



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