Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel

24 September 2019 by Wes Bredenhof

In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission held a missiological consultation at Iguassu, Brazil.  This was one of the statements issued:

In a world increasingly controlled by global economic forces, Christians need to be aware of the corrosive effects of affluence and the destructive effects of poverty.  We must be aware of ethnocentrism in our view of economic forces.  We commit ourselves to address the realities of world poverty and oppose policies that serve the powerful rather than the powerless…We call all Christians to commit themselves to reflect God’s concern for the justice and welfare of all peoples.

Note the attention to affluence versus poverty and the powerful versus the powerless.  Setting up these kinds of oppositions is typical of thought influenced by liberation theology.

When you hear the term “liberation theology,” you might be inclined to think of the Liberation of 1944, an important event from our Dutch church history.  But you’d be quite wrong.  Liberation theology is quite removed from any Reformed theology.  The latter is biblical and God-honouring, the former not so much.

Liberation theology has had quite an influence on the way some Christians think about mission.  Whereas biblical mission is about the proclamation of the gospel to save sinners from the wrath of God, liberation theology holds that God’s mission in this world is to deal with injustice and oppression.  Biblical mission is about a gospel of salvation – liberation theology is about the social gospel, a pseudo-gospel.

Liberation theology originated in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s.  This was a time of radical social upheaval in that region.  Social revolutions were fuelled by Marxist and socialist ideology.  That way of thinking also forms the background to liberation theology.

If we’re looking for a succinct definition, Millard Erickson’s is on the money:

Liberation theology is a collection of theological movements which put more emphasis on deliverance of human beings from various types of temporal bondage – economic, political, and social – than on personal redemption from sin.  It tends to draw upon social sciences rather than biblical and theological bases. (Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology)

I would note especially that last statement.  What the Bible says is not a high priority for liberation theologians and those influenced by them.  When they do consider what the Bible says, more often than not, they read their theology back into the text.

History and Influence

Not surprisingly, given its Latin American roots, the term “liberation theology” was coined in Roman Catholic circles.  It first appeared around 1968, in the context of Roman Catholic discussions about how to address political oppression, poverty, and sickness in Latin America.  In 1973, a Roman Catholic theologian from Peru, Gustavo Gutierrez, published “A Theology of Liberation.”  In the early 60s, faced with rampant violence and social upheaval, Gutierrez had embraced Marxist social analysis.  That led him to break with traditional Roman Catholic theology and develop his new theology of liberation.

While liberation theology was especially in vogue in the 70s and 80s, its influence remains to this day.  Emphases of liberation theology can often be heard in evangelical missiology.  Evangelical authors such as Ronald Sider are well known as having drunk from the fountain of Gutierrez and others.  Liberation theology terms like “preferential option for the poor” are oftentimes heard in evangelical discussions in the area of mission.

Main Features

The most important feature of liberation theology is that it starts from below with the situation of the oppressed and poor.  It doesn’t begin with the Bible as an authoritative source.  Instead, it uses the human situation as its text.

That human situation is fundamentally seen as a matter of class conflict.  This is how Marxist and socialist ideology is at the roots.  Liberation theologians such as Gutierrez follow the idea that there are tensions in society, there are exploited social classes, and a new world order will result when these exploited social classes engage in revolution.  In their way of thinking, the major issue in life is about who has the power.  It’s about a class struggle.

Theologically, liberation theologians assert that God is on the side of the oppressed and the poor.  This is where we encounter the language of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  Liberation theologians maintain that God prefers to work with the poor and oppressed.

As far as Christ goes, he is but an example.  He struggled for the poor and the outcast, and so we must do likewise.  He became totally involved in a historical situation of conflict and oppression.  The cross has nothing to do with reconciliation with God.  Instead, it’s a picture of the suffering experienced by God when people are downtrodden.

What becomes of mission?  It’s sharing with people the fact that God also suffers when they are oppressed.  God wants them to be free of poverty and oppression.  The gospel is purely social – it’s something happening on a horizontal level.  Sin is no longer about offending God.  It’s purely about human oppression and suffering.  The mission of the church is simply to follow the example of Jesus and show God’s commitment to the poor.

Brief Evaluation

Any system of theology which has Scripture as an afterthought is obviously flawed from the start.  Liberation theology’s presuppositions rest with Marxist thinking rather than any biblical faith commitment.  With these Marxist presuppositions, humanity’s fundamental problem is the class struggle and social, economic and political oppression.  With biblical presuppositions, humanity’s basic problem is the sin which alienates us from God.

In liberation theology, salvation is all about freedom from oppression.  Sin has been redefined in Marxist terms.  Christ is merely an example of how we can confront economic, social, and political oppression.  He has nothing to do with rescuing fallen humanity from the wrath of God against sin.  When you abandon the Bible as your authoritative source for theology, this is one of the hellacious places you may end up.  It’s a denial of the true gospel.

But Is God on the Side of the Oppressed?

If we take the Bible as our infallible authority, what is the truth about where God stands in regard to the poor and oppressed?  And how does that impact mission?

The justice and love of God surely compel him to frown when there is injustice and oppression.  However, we cannot say this without immediate qualification.  Poverty and oppression are the result of the fall into sin.  Sometimes they can also be God’s judgments upon sin.  The truth is, apart from Christ, everyone deserves poverty, oppression and suffering.  These things exist in the world because of human sinfulness.  They also exist to faintly point to the reality that something far worse awaits those who unrepentantly continue to rebel against God.

There is far more to say.  But let me finish with Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  There are numerous passages in the Pentateuch commanding God’s people to show compassion and love, also to the foreign sojourners dwelling among them.  Likewise, we are commanded to care for those around us who are hurting.  God will use our care and compassion to open doors for the gospel, so that people are brought into fellowship with him through Christ.  That’s the main thing.

There is a limited sense in which God is on the side of the oppressed – and so we should be too.  However, it would be ill-advised to build a theology around that.  Letting this thought define and direct Christian mission would likewise be misguided.  Mission is about proclaiming the gospel of salvation – and Reformed churches ought always to keep this in view.