The “Social Gospel” is not about church “socials” or potlucks; that thinking is based on equivocation. The Social Gospel was developed by Walter Rauschenbusch, mostly as a reaction to the socio-political times around World War I. Lectures from 1917 were printed in “A Theology For the Social Gospel.” A poor summary would be preachers lining up folk to vote for political candidates who share their values, as an expression of the social gospel.
The basic idea attempted to apply biblical teachings to problems associated with industrialization. Believing in social progress, it advocated a creed seeking the end of child labor, better working conditions, one day off during the week, and the right to a living wage. This was the essence of the social gospel.
In modern times, practicing the “Social Gospel” focuses on political / governmental resolution of issues such as unemployment, civil rights, pollution, etc., in the name of the Christian ideals.
It is pretty standard for folk to read the prophets, especially the Minor Prophets, as promoting a “Social Gospel,” often with the idea of progressive revelation in view, or in the case of modernist / post-modernist views, to treat this as something new and progressive in the development of ethical thought in Israel and Judah. Amos, Hosea, and Micah are often cited by those who seek to politicize the Bible and co-opt it for their own social/political agenda.
However, when we look at the Covenant faithfulness and kindness [from the Hebrew word “Hesed”] that was to characterize relationships under the Sinai Covenant, we see this kind of thinking is misleading.
Meditate on Jeremiah 7:5- 7, 9-10 (ASV): “For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; if ye oppress not the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your own hurt: then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, from of old even for evermore. … Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods that ye have not known, and [then] come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered; that ye may do all these abominations?” (See Ezekiel 33:25-26; Hosea 4:1-3; Malachi 3:5; among others.)
This is not about “social justice” in the sense we commonly hear of it. This goes back to the Ten Commandments and the Sinai Covenant. It’s not new thinking, or new revelation. The justice called for here was always to be part of ethical life in Israel. This was inherent in Covenant living before God from Day One of the Covenant. This was to be a personal commitment to the covenant and to all who lived under it, for all were sons and daughters of Jacob (a.k.a. “Israel”).
The social gospel is about improving life through types of Christianized socio-political institutions. It reduces the emphasis on personal faith and replaces it with community allegiance to the principles mentioned within the faith. In practice it becomes: one is Christian, not because of personal faith and commitment, but because they live in a “Christian” nation, with “Christian” values.
As with the Old Covenant, under the New Covenant of Christ, we too are committed to ethical treatment of all mankind, not because of some “secular humaneness,” but because of a personal and daily commitment to covenant living in Christ.