April 5, 2011 / Perspective
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February 21, 2012
Tim Suttle. An Evangelical Social Gospel? Finding God’s Story in the Midst of Extremes. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.
Theological work is like children gathered around a table, playing with blocks—collaboratively erecting certain structures, contemplating them, and then tearing them down to their foundations and starting all over. It is like children working joyfully, modestly, and imaginatively. This playful metaphor is how Tim Suttle opens his book An Evangelical Social Gospel? Finding God’s Story in the Midst of Extremes. He imagines theology happening in this kind of ad hoc fashion and suggests that it happens best when people are willing to rearrange the blocks that make up the structures they hold dear. To push the metaphor further, Suttle also imagines himself—or rather, himself through Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel tradition—as the child who dismantles the errant structure erected by a kid who does not play well with others: American evangelical individualism.
Critiquing from within this tradition, music artist and pastor-author Tim Suttle—a self-proclaimed evangelical—offers an enjoyable, accessible work of hope for American evangelicals. Through personal narrative, historical reassessment, pastoral grace, and impassioned polemic, he decries the perils of the individualism that has taken over evangelicalism while outlining an optimistic evangelical retrieval of Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel in terms of sin, salvation, and faith. The book is an old-fashioned call to revival like the ones I experienced growing up. However, this is a call to social revival rather than the narrow focus on personal conversion that so often occludes the social dimensions of Jesus’s message in contemporary evangelicalism. As a fellow evangelical minister-scholar and former pastor myself (though admittedly deficient in the area of music artistry), and as a person who grew up in a conservative me-and-Jesus culture, I am thankful for Suttle’s call to the evangelical church, a church that seems to have lost sight of the rich forest of social imperatives inherent within discipleship because of their own self-constructed sequoias of personal piety. Suttle’s is a much-needed corrective, attending to the pernicious effects of individualism that pervade not only evangelical churches but congregations of many stripes, while attesting to the corporate register of sin, faith, and redemption. To be sure, there is much value in Suttle’s proposal to the evangelical church and beyond, and yet there remains something missing in his approach to the Social Gospel.
American individualism is the “most widely embraced, uncritically accepted, yet damaging and humanly debasing myth in Western society,” Suttle remarks (34). And this individualism has seeped into, and now controls and constricts, an evangelical faith that often appears allergic to social issues. In other words, for many evangelicals the gospel mimics the atomized, capitalistic ethos of the dominant Western culture and is devoid of its own ethical demands. Suttle perceives this individualism as a modern, Western infiltrator into the Christian faith, but I can’t help but brush the dust off an old adage and suggest that there is nothing new under the sun.
For example, the nineteenth-century theologian Ernst Troeltsch contended that individualism was an original, intrinsic element of Jesus’s gospel and that this individualism persists through the ages in every instantiation of the church. This individualism, he opines, enables an inclusive openness and universalism while continually mitigating the social impulse and effects of the church. Without consenting to Troeltsch’s narrow concept of social effects, one sees that a broader historical perspective suggests that this individualist element of faith combines with Western, democratic (especially American) notions of autonomy and autarchy and releases a more potent form of individualism, one that paralyzes the transformative dimensions of the gospel. “The gospel we tell is too individualistic, and has become indistinguishable from the narrative of the culture at large,” Suttle protests, “It should be no wonder it doesn’t call people to change” (10). He asks, if this gospel is now so harmonized with culture at large, what does it really have to say to us? How is it anything more than a guarantor of the status quo, bereft of all social and ethical potency?
Suttle claims that a personal gospel is incomplete; it needs a corporate, social, and communal dimension in order to make any difference in the world. Suttle seeks to reclaim this dimension of the good news without forsaking the personal aspects. He balances a forceful critique of atomistic faith with a retention of the personal elements, because both are necessary for a full understanding of the reality of the Christian gospel. The problem he sees is that in many evangelical churches the corporate is neglected. Suttle’s book, however, is not only criticism but also corrective. He proclaims that the path from the socially enervating doldrums of individualism lies in a reclamation of the Social Gospel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Suttle testifies that he was “born again . . . again” after reading Rauschenbusch (18), and he now hopes others will experience this same conversion. A retrieval of the often-maligned Social Gospel, suggests Suttle, will jolt evangelicals out of their individual tunnel vision and toward a more robust, communal orientation that is in tune with the social implications of Jesus’s message. In appealing to contemporary theologians who carry on this communal perspective (e.g., John Zizioulas, Stanley Hauerwas, and William T. Cavanaugh), Suttle cleverly appeals to contemporary heroes of the three largest Christian traditions—Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism—suggesting therefore that a social perspective aligns with all of Christianity. (In fact, a noteworthy but undeveloped aspect of his book is its appeal to the theological resources of Eastern Orthodoxy in his discussion of reading the Bible in community.) After these preliminary remarks on the importance of communal practice and social focus, Suttle stakes his argument by examining the Social Gospel understandings of corporate sin, faith, and salvation.
Suttle is at his theological best when addressing the corporate dimension of sin—an element often overlooked, he says, by contemporary evangelicals. While most evangelicals view sins as individual actions taken by individual people, Suttle, developing Rauschenbusch’s thought, claims that sin is more than personal vice; it is a communal phenomenon “woven into the systems and situations of our culture” (47). He asserts that “Individualistic views of sin tend to ignore the way that sin has become bound up in the systems of our societies” (56). In fact, every human system bears the stain of human sin and every person is caught in this “web of sin.” No Christians are immune, and no Christians can absolve themselves by avoiding personal, individual sins. Humans have created and continually support corrupt systems that perpetuate poverty and domination. He claims that we “vote” for this chaos time and again, even if this is by doing nothing to challenge the status quo, and therefore, we all bear some responsibility for social sin; “it is a mess of our own making” (61). Christians must seek repentance from and work to remedy social sin as well.
The problem, as Suttle has it, is that most evangelicals are “unequipped” and “unmotivated” to address the corporate elements of sin, eliding the systemic injustices that undergird much of contemporary reality (60). Most evangelical churches do not possess the theologically and practically formative resources necessary to address the implications of a more holistic account of sinfulness. Thus, in presenting the concept of social sin, Suttle proffers his most compelling argument to a constituency of the church that, as recent studies demonstrate, imposes a (false) line of bifurcation between social and moral issues. Most evangelicals still operate with a truncated Troeltschian definition of what is ethical, limiting their purview to issues of a personal and familial nature (e.g., abortion and gay marriage) and tagging social issues as beyond the realm of Christian ethical thought. For this reason, Suttle appropriately focuses his attention on American evangelicalism. Yet this Social Gospel notion of corporate sin seems to reach beyond the attention to social justice that one finds in more progressive churches as well. It, ironically, renders injustice more personal—we all are personally responsible for these social ailments—and thus cultivates a greater sense of ethical urgency. In other words, Suttle’s—and Rauschenbusch’s—message is pertinent for all Christians today, not only evangelicals. Poverty, racism, war, modern-day slavery—this is our sin. And that is a message worth telling over and over again.
Suttle’s message ultimately is not a guilt trip, however. Whereas contemporary evangelicals often conceive of faith in individual terms, the Social Gospel calls for a more communal conception of faith as well. Again, retaining current evangelical thought while infusing it with a social element, Suttle suggests that faith must never mean less than belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world, but it must come to mean more than that. Borrowing a phrase from N. T. Wright, Suttle defines faith as “believing allegiance” (90). Beyond intellectual assent, faith is an embodied trust that involves more than the individual person; it is a gift that comes through community. That is, faith is always personal, but at the same time it is mediated through the community of the faithful. Suttle explains that we learn how to have faith from the faithful who are around us; they invite us to faith, teach us faith, and model the life of discipleship to us. Appealing to an ecclesial, narrative theology, Suttle proposes that faith entails being caught up in the story of God and transformed by it into a people who bear the image of God to all creation (95). We must give ourselves over to this alternative narrative, and this only happens when we “give ourselves to a community that has a different mode of being than the rest of the world” (97).
Finally, this focus on corporate sin and communal faith leads to a hopeful vision of social salvation. Rauschenbusch asserted that notions of personal salvation were incomplete if they failed to recognize a social dimension (75). Salvation is not the destruction of created order—a pie-in-the-sky rapture from the corruption of this world—but the renewal of all things on heaven and earth, the achievement of God’s will on earth (83). Salvation looks toward the common good. Salvation, according to the Social Gospel, can be achieved on earth through the promise of God by changing and “converting” the corrupt social institutions and transforming the public order into a Christian order of love and justice. This hopeful picture of all of society aligned with God’s intention is the impetus behind the Social Gospel message, the natural resolution to corporate sin, and the driving force behind Suttle’s proposal.
Despite its brilliant accessibility, An Evangelical Social Gospel? resides primarily on the conceptual level, offering few practical vignettes or illustrations of ways that this vision can be achieved. Suttle suggests that the church bears responsibility for the world (61) but does not develop what he means by this loaded statement: What does accepting this responsibility look like for the church? In his Social Gospel vision, how exactly is the church to engage with the world? In doing this, Suttle both avoids the dangers of inevitable practical pitfalls to his proposal—leaving its applicability up to the readers’ imaginations, I assume—and also elides one of the most sustainable and frequent criticisms of the Social Gospel: it is dangerous to structure public life around Christian ideals in a context of religious pluralism. This is one of the many critiques leveraged against the Social Gospel from its infancy, but as one agreed upon by thinkers as varied as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder (though for far different reasons), it is the most compelling and most persistent criticism. Unfortunately, with his attention on contemporary evangelicals and their particular apprehensions with his proposal, it is the one concern that Suttle fails to address.
The evangelical task, as Suttle sees it through Rauschenbusch, is a call for “humanity to organize its common life together according to the will of God, so that they can image God to all creation” (87). In other words, evangelicals are to order their life—social, political, and public life—in common around Christian ideals, it seems, regardless of the religious convictions of those that constitute this common society, and so Suttle’s vision fails to address the contemporary reality of religious pluralism, instead seeking a Christianized national or world order. He does not explore the practical methods of achieving this corporate salvation, and therefore, he avoids the persistent criticism that the Social Gospel runs the risk of encouraging “unrealistic” and “unchristian” methods for its ultimate Christian end. The realist Niebuhr worried that this overly optimistic agenda was simply idealistic and unattainable fancy. Suttle’s vision does not escape this retort. For example, Suttle discusses how Rauschenbusch’s seven practical measures of social transformation—such as safe labor regulations and property tax—are now commonplace (76). Although he posits this to demonstrate the reasonableness of Rauschenbusch’s position for contemporary evangelical skeptics who still call him a socialist, this also demonstrates the shortsightedness of Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel vision on its own. That is, Rauschenbusch’s agenda was met but was far from overcoming social sin, as any news website evidences. Sin and salvation are deeper concepts than it seems Rauschenbusch or his evangelical critics recognize—realities not so easily conquered through human power in the world. A more sufficient “social” gospel vision requires a more proleptic, christological vision of sin and redemption.
On the other hand, Yoder worried about a coercive mingling of the Christian vision with political power, that is, Constantinianism. In other words, the goal of changing the social structure to conform to the ideals of justice begs the now-unavoidable question of “Whose justice?” If the answer to this question is a particular conception of Christian ideals of justice, as Suttle suggests, then Social Gospel proponents seek to shape the social order around their convictions and ideals of justice, thereby imposing their conception of right order on others who—in a pluralistic society—may legitimately disagree, given their own religious, humanist, or metaphysical convictions. This Constantinian danger risks a sociopolitical coercion that is antithetical to the gospel it seeks to promulgate, especially if this call to Christianize the social order is not preceded by an evangelistic imperative (not that conversion cannot also be an imperial enterprise). Sociologist James Hunter, in his provocative book To Change the World (reviewed by TOJ in Issue 18, September 2010), suggests that the Constantinian impulse to fashion the world—the social, political, economic realm—in the image of the church or according to “Christian” ideals runs the dual risk of triumphalism and despair. It is risky business to aspire to a Christianized government, Christian business sector, and so on, especially in a pluralistic society where everyone does not share the underlying theoretical and moral convictions.
The colonialist enterprise of reshaping society (with or without consent) from the ground up or from the top down, even if according to gospel principles—that is, the principle of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you—distorts the vision of the gospel itself. It seems to blur the distinction between advocating and working for righteousness and justice and forcing one’s own religio-social convictions upon all. I understand that the Constantinian danger may not be at the forefront of the potentially myriad evangelical concerns with the Social Gospel, but I believe Suttle does his proposal no favors by eliding it. Due to the gravity and far-reaching influence of either charge (the realist criticism of Niebuhr or the Constantinian concern of Yoder), I would suggest that no adequate contemporary commendation of the Social Gospel can avoid addressing both of them.
Despite these concerns, I think that Suttle’s work is a much-needed contribution to ongoing conversations about evangelicalism and social justice. His book is one worth suggesting for congregational studies and seminarians, especially those students who are seeking a theological connection between Christian faith and social issues. Suttle offers a robust critique of evangelical individualism as well as a compelling vision of the gospel—not to mention the retrieval of one of the most important (and neglected) Christian thinkers of recent history—that will hopefully inspire a new generation of evangelicals to think beyond the constricted conceptions of sin and salvation in popular culture. Suttle’s vision is a call to a new revival of the social dimensions of Jesus’s good news. And I hope that An Evangelical Social Gospel? becomes one of the foundational, theological blocks to a new Evangelical Awakening—an invitation to play like children, working together joyfully, modestly, and imaginatively, for the sake of the world.
 Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press,  1992).
 Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010), 233–34.
Kristopher Norris is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia in Christian theology and ethics. He is a lecturer in public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and the author of two books, Pilgrim Practices: Discipleship for a Missional Church and Kingdom Politics: How Politics Can Solve What’s Wrong with Our Churches (co-authored with Sam Speers, forthcoming in 2015).