Rauschenbusch No. 3: The Church and the Social Gospel

In Rauschenbusch’s analysis the message of Jesus was fundamentally social, concerning the coming of a kingdom of righteousness and social justice as a continuation of the ministry of the prophets. If Jesus’s message was essentially social, concerned with the Kingdom of God and its victory in reorganizing human societies around the Gospel, then the question is immediately raised, “How did the message of Christ fail to activate the kind of social change its founder intended?” The answer given by Rauschenbusch in Christianity and the Social Crisis is that the church failed to proclaim and enact the message of its founder in the way he intended. [1]

It is appropriate to locate Walter Rauschenbusch both theologically and ecclesiologically within the Christian movement. Rauschenbusch was a liberal Protestant, raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran. He went to a Northern Baptist seminary, where he embraced progressive theological ideas, ideas which powerfully impacted “Mainline Protestant Denominations” of his and our day. [2]

Rochester Theological Seminary (formed in 1850) was the central founding institution of what is today known through a series of mergers as “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.” It has been for many years a significant force in American liberal theological education, impacted by liberal biblical and theological scholarship and the Social Gospel Movement.  Throughout its history, the seminary has been known for its commitment to academic freedom, a quality that led it to support Rauschenbusch in publishing what, at the time, were extremely forward thinking ideas. Another faculty member, William Newton Clarke (1840-1912) wrote An Outline of Christian Theology (1898) that became, in the words of a leading historian, “virtually the Dogmatik of evangelical liberalism.” Yet another faculty member, Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) served as president of the seminary while producing theology that incorporated the doctrine of evolution and the emerging practices of biblical criticism within its scope. [3] The seminary distinguished itself for academic rigor and social witness, traits remarkably combined in its most famous faculty member, Walter Rauschenbusch.

I have given this lengthy introduction in order to reflect upon both the strength of Christianity and the Social Crisis, as well as what I believe is one of its limitations. It is the definitive work of the Social Gospel Movement in the United States of America. It is, however, influenced by the Protestant suspicion of the Catholic Church and of the veracity of the Church Fathers in transmitting the message of Jesus. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch’s work is infected with the suspicion of tradition as a reliable source of wisdom and knowledge that is a legacy of the Reformation and Enlightenment. In many cases, this defect leads Rauschenbusch to overstate his case and slightly misunderstand and underestimate the positive role of the Church in social progress that has marked Christian civilization.

What Went Wrong

In Rauschenbusch’s view, Jesus was a great man, and like all great men and founders of movements, his disciples were not of the same caliber. Thus, he begins his analysis with the following:

There are a few men who maintain their first love and shield to their colder age and their earlier purposes untarnished by policy and concession to things as they are. But as soon as the thoughts of a great spiritual leader passed to others and form the animating principal of a party or school or set, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples cannot keep pace with a sweep of their master. They flutter where he soared. [4]

In Jesus, a lofty mind and powerful spirit had proclaimed the Kingdom of God in a powerful and motivating way. His followers, alas, were not so gifted or energized for the task—at least until the Reformation and post-Reformation scholarship. This dismissive attitude towards the Christian tradition is the major defect in Christianity and the Social Crisis.

From an orthodox position, one wonders if Rauschenbusch has somewhat overstated his case. It is difficult to think of the apostle Paul as not gifted or energized for the task of sharing the gospel. It’s equally difficult to think the same thing about Dr. Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. It is, in fact, difficult to fully agree with Rauschenbusch’s conclusion as to all the apostles and leaders of the first 300 years of the faith, many of whom went to their death as martyrs for the Gospel. One might wonder if twelve ordinary men were gifted for the task, but one cannot easily deny that they were energized and committed to the task Jesus gave them.

A second factor at work in the failure of the church to accomplish the social mission of Jesus, in the mind of Rauschenbusch, has to do with its organizational development. As the church developed, and particularly as it became institutionalized, a structure was established (including the office of Bishop) which was both organizationally committed and conservative. Naturally, like all institutions committed to survival, there was a tendency to give way before the powers of the Roman Empire. In the end, it is Rauschenbusch’s view that the church distorted the true aims of its founder. [5]

Impact of Millennial Hope

A final factor has to do with Rauschenbusch’s view of the role that the millennial hopes of the first and early generations of the church played in the lack of social progress made by the founders of the movement. There is no question but was the early Christians anticipated that Christ would return relatively quickly, certainly within their own lifetimes. While there is evidence that the church was forced to come to grips with the fact that the return of Christ would not occur during the lifetime of the Apostle’s themselves, the fact is that the early return of Christ was a motivating factor in the mission of Paul and the other Apostles (See for example, I Thessalonians 4:13-18; I Peter 2:11-12). Through the time of Revelation, there is the constant hope that Christ would come quickly and soon (Revelation 22:20).

This Millennial hope was the hope of a return of Christ in which he would establish God’s kingdom of righteousness. In the words of Rauschenbusch:

The return of the Lord meant the inauguration of the kingdom of God. What the prophets had foretold, what the people had longed for, and what John the Baptist had proclaimed as close at hand, would come to pass when Jesus returned from heaven to reign. He had not achieved his real mission during his earthly life; the opposition of the rulers had frustrated that; it had been God’s will so. But he was still the Messiah of Israel; the national salvation was bound to come; the kingdom of God would yet be restored to Israel. In a very short time he would descend from heaven and then all their hopes would be fulfilled in one glorious and divine act of consummation. [6]

Sitting within this passage are several points of interest. First of all, Rauchenbusc assumes that Jesus failed to achieve his “real mission” during his life. This, of course, denies that the Cross was the central mission of Christ’s earthly life. [7] Second, implicit in this statement is that, at the time of Jesus’s death, he was seen as and saw himself as “the Messiah of Israel” and not a universal savior of the world. As Russian Bush goes on to say, it’s a national salvation that Jesus was intending.

Rauschenbusch is not unaware of passages in the Bible that cast doubt upon his analysis. I want only to mention one, the final passage of Revelation where, relying on Isaiah 63:17, the writer describes a “New Heaven and New Earth” descending from heaven:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:1-5).

A close analysis of this passage reveals that there is going to be a “new heaven and a new earth.” The New Earth that is the creation of God will be seen in “the holy city” that is descending upon the earth. This is not the historic city of Jerusalem (the center of Jewish prophetic hopes), but the church of Jesus Christ, “the new Jerusalem”. In a change of metaphor, this New Jerusalem is clearly the church the Bride of Christ. In this new Jerusalem, God himself will be present by the Holy Spirit empowering its witness in mission.

This analysis is made even more clear by Chapter 22 where in the image of the writer, “a river of life” flows through the city of God, that is the new Jerusalem, bearing fruit as it flows out of the city through the witness of Scripture in the old and New Testaments and of the Apostles. In the words of one commentator, the vision of John, written after the destruction of the earthy city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is a vision of eternal blessedness of the people of God. [8]I would add, it is a vision of the spiritual task of the people of God to bear fruit within the earthly kingdoms.

Rauschenbusch clearly identifies the millennial hope of the Jewish people, and his analysis of that hope in the life of Jesus and the early church with an earthly kingdom to be created by the people of God: “The millennium was the early Christian utopia. It occupied the same place in the imagination in hopes of the first generations of Christians which the cooperative commonwealth occupies in the fancies of modern socialists.” [9] Rauschenbusch describes this hope as a “revolutionary hope”. [10] The hope of the early church was a “hope of social perfection.” [11]

It is at this point but I think one can easily see that Rauschenbusch has gone beyond a careful interpretation of the words of Jesus. For example, when brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). When discussing leadership with his apostles before his death, he indicates that his style of leadership will not be the style of glory leadership of earthly rulers, who lord it over others (Mark 10:41-45). An analysis of the relevant texts appears to reveal that Jesus was identifying himself as the Messiah of Israel, but not identifying that Messiahship with an earthly rulership of the Jewish people (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; and John 18:28-40).


In my view, Rauschenbusch overstates the impact of the Kingdom of God in the thinking of Jesus; and therefore, he blames the early church for its failure to adequately establish the social message of the Gospel. This is not to deny that there are social implications to the gospel, implications that Rauschenbusch points out. Consistent with a point often made in these blogs, impacted by a kind of Enlightenment ideology and materialistic millennialism, Rauschenbusch isconcerned with the establishment of an earthly, material kingdom of God within history, and therefore, is automatically led to a prophetic analysis and interpretation of the meaning of Jesus and the gospels. A more careful analysis might conclude that Jesus was primarily concerned with creating a Spirit empowered people of God which would always be at work within human history to redeem and save human beings in their totality, physical, mental, moral and spiritual. This is not at all to deny the importance of the prophetic impulse in the life and ministry of Jesus or that there are profound social implications of the gospel.

One of the insights that a study of history brings is that one should not expect too much of those who went before us nor critique their failings too strongly. Each generation builds upon the achievements of the last, and it is not given to anyone to see the future and what changes it will bring. Rauschenbusch was a creature of his day—and a fine example of his day and time. He had a true Christian sympathy with the poor and downtrodden of his and every age. As we shall see next week, he also had a vision of what might be done to make things better. May we do as well in our own day and time.

[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press,1991). hereinafter “CSC.”

[2] When referring to the “Mainline Denominations” one is normally referring to the Northern Baptists (American Baptists), Congregationalists (United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ), Episcopalians (The Episcopal Church), Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or “ECLA”). and Methodists (United Methodist Church) and Presbyterians (Presbyterian Church USA or “PCUSA”). In recent years, all of these groups have experiences schisms and departures involving the formation of more evangelical groups (The United Methodist Church is currently in the midst of such a split). Because of the similarities in these groups, I refer to the split off groups as the Neo-Mainline, since the experience many of the same problems as their more liberal traditional mainline groups.

[3] See, “Who We Are” on the website of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, at https://www.crcds.edu/who-we-are (downloaded March 7, 2022).

[4] Id, at 92.

[5] Id, at 94.

[6] Id, at 104-105.

[7] I do not have the time to completely discuss this important point; however, it is to be noted that the Gospels use about one third of their text to describing the last week of Jesus’ life, which leads to the assumption that the Gospel writers thought that the cross and resurrection of Christ were the central purpose of the incarnation, not the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

[8] William Barclay, “The Revelation of John” in The Daily Bible Study Series Volume 2 Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1976), 202.

[9] CSC, at 108.

[10] Id.

[11] Id, at 111.