Individualism “is the most widely embraced, uncritically accepted, yet damaging and humanly debasing myth in Western society,” including the evangelical church. This unhealthy evangelical presupposition is what Tim Suttle, musician, pastor, and church planter, challenges in An Evangelical Social Gospel? His purpose is to show that in fact the narrative of Scripture is much more holistic and all-encompassing than a simple “saving of individual souls.” Without the bigger narrative of God’s redemption of all creation as the focal point of the Christian story, Suttle argues, the gospel we teach will be ineffective in transforming either individuals or social structures.
Suttle attempts to structure his book in a way that will appeal to the layperson. He combines history, theology, and autobiography to give a fresh take on Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel.” His goal is to use Rauschenbusch to help reconnect the corporate and communal aspect of the gospel with what he sees as an over-individualized evangelical gospel.
Individualism is a problem because “when the story of individualism and the story of God are conflated, the gospel ceases to be good news to everyone.” The traditional evangelical “gospel” turns into nothing more than a form of personal self-enhancement; it’s all about you and Jesus, is ultimately selfish and has little or no social implications.
Using Rauschenbusch as his guide, Suttle argues that the salvific narrative of good news found in Scripture is both corporate and personal; it not only addresses personal sin but whole peoples, institutions, social structures, and indeed, all of creation. The grand narrative of Scripture is rooted in God’s original intention for humanity to mirror his image to all of his creation. Although sin has penetrated creation to its very core, through Jesus Christ, the kingdom (literally God’s rule or reign) has broken in and begun to redeem the created order, at the level of individuals as well as whole social systems.
When our understanding of the gospel shifts to this more holistic, biblical vision of salvation, it drastically changes the way we view our role. Suttle sums it up this way, “Our vocation as human beings is to organize our common life together in such a way that we image God to all creation and bear witness to the in-breaking kingdom of God, so that when all of creation looks at us and sees the way we live together, not just as individuals, it will see past us to the greater reality that is the reign and rule of God.”
Although it’s trendy to talk about “community” in many contemporary Christian circles, there is little context by which to develop true community; it is still centred around an individualistic story of salvation. Suttle does an excellent job of helping us see the big picture of God’s care for the renewal of all creation. God’s intention for humanity from the beginning was for them to be a people that reflect his image to all of creation. Through Jesus Christ, we are called as his people to participate in the redemption of creation by building just education systems, political structures, business institutions, and so on; not just to try to “save souls.” This shift in focus from “Jesus and me” to “God and all of creation” is a vital one and Suttle elucidates it well.
Throughout the book, Suttle utilizes a good blend of illustrations, analogies, and stories to bring across his point. This approach not only helps the average reader stay on course, it also makes his argument very tangible and concrete for the Christian life. He is not merely discussing abstract ideas with little bearing on life; these are serious theological issues about how the church relates to the world and they need to be addressed immediately. Suttle does so well.
There are a few minor adjustments that could be made. For instance, while Suttle aims at a popular evangelical audience, there are times where he fails to clarify terms or connect his argument adequately for the layperson. For example, he devotes separate chapters to faith and salvation, but does not explain how they are connected. There are also several times where he uses terms most people without formal theological education will not understand. So while this is a very accessible work, it could use some further clarification at points.
The author also seems to be unnecessarily over-protective of Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch’s writings clearly had a profound impact on the author’s own thinking, but he seems too concerned to defend him in front of the evangelical world. Though it may be a positive and necessary project to undertake, at times it detracts from Suttle’s main argument.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading An Evangelical Social Gospel? and would whole-heartedly recommend it to all people who identify themselves as evangelical. Despite a few minor issues, this is a very accessible book that will challenge the way we think about our faith.
As long as the narrative of Scripture continues to be couched only in individualistic terms, justice will remain a non-factor in the story of God. Suttle does an excellent job not only of critiquing evangelical individualism, but developing a visionary account of Scripture’s single, grand narrative. This is important for all of us to hear.