A Holistic Gospel and a “Spiritualized” Gospel

by Timothy Isaiah Cho

“The human being is still an integrated person in Africa,” states the African mother of contemporary theology, Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Like Oduyoye, Global South Christians and Christians in historically marginalized churches in the Global North have never been afforded the ability to “spiritualize” the gospel and dis-integrate the human person. Being on the side of political and social weakness has given these Christians unique insight and wisdom to see the blindspots for those in the West. To many of them, a hard division between “spiritual issues” and “social issues” is a foreign imposition upon Scripture, not something that naturally rises out from it. To these Christians — who easily eclipse the number of the faithful in the Global North — the church has a misión integral, an integral mission that holistically embraces evangelism and social responsibility. Following the lead of Scripture, the spiritual and social are united without confusion, combination, or conflation in their daily lives.

Simply put, these Christians have a holistic gospel that has a church with an integral mission of making disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded. They exude a faithfulness that cannot fathom a divorce between the Great Commission from the Great Commandment. They embody a compassion that knows that loving a neighbor involves loving their “neighborhood” too.

In stark contrast to a holistic gospel is a “spiritualized” gospel that has plagued much of the Global North for centuries. In all of its manifold expressions, this “spiritualized” gospel fundamentally believes that the focal point of the Christian faith is strictly spiritual. Salvation is understood as pertaining solely or primarily to individual souls. The “spirituality” of the church is its mission, purpose, and method. Eternality is offered as a wholesale “opiate” to deal with present sufferings with grimaced face, as though justice has only a past and future tense but no present. The here and now, the material, and the social issues around us are simply unessential, of which the gospel — and its Savior — is basically indifferent towards.

Historically, this “spiritualized” gospel created a world, a culture, a social imagination, and especially, a language, that helped perpetuate injustices not only out in the world but also within the fold of God.

“The mission of the church is to deal with spiritual issues, not social issues.”

“Those are social issues, not gospel issues.”

Such sentiments — though not verbatim — were expressed by the professing Christians who remained silent at the construction of a racial caste system in the U.S., the extermination of the Jewish people, the colonization and expulsion/displacement of people from their homelands, and the overall disregard for impoverished, marginalized, and oppressed people groups. Such statements — though not verbatim — continue to be circulated as though they are pious shibboleths of the remnant of the theologically orthodox.

Those in political and social power and privilege consider a “spiritualized” gospel as the most comfortable and the holistic gospel of the Bible as a threat. A “spiritualized” gospel helps compartmentalize the Christian faith, see the status quo as a sufficient Christian ethic, and lead a life without a hounding conscience at the sight of injustice and one’s role in its perpetuation. The holistic gospel of the Bible concretizes the Christian faith into the warp of woof between people and their communities, pushes God’s people to a proactive justice to move the needle of the status quo into the realm of true justice, and gives reason for Christians to dismantle injustices and their explicit and implicit roles in propagating them.

It is understandable, then, why those who feel the threat of a holistic gospel bark back the loudest. It is no different from the comfortable, the powerful, and the privileged of Jesus’ day who followed him around trying to entrap him in his words. As the words of the New Testament warn God’s people, there will be a time when people will simply want to have their itching ears tickled by the words they want to hear. Too often those blinded by theological arrogance assume that those warnings are for the “progressive,” “liberal,” “heterodox” without realizing that they are also for the “conservative,” “traditional,” and “orthodox” who prefer to hear the gospel in the way they want to hear it — a “spiritual” specter that is foreign to the pages of Scripture.

But, as Reggie Williams aptly points out, a “spiritualized” gospel is not just another gospel but a pernicious other gospel:

“…a spiritualized gospel becomes a mockery to placate those in suffering and misery with a hope for a better existence in another world. A spiritualized gospel is what Bonhoeffer read as the opiate religion of white racism that made African Americans meek in the face of their incomparably harsh fate.”

Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, p. 104

In fact, the greatest irony is that a Western “spiritualized” gospel has suppressed what is actually Spiritual about the gospel —the work of the Holy Spirit in moving us to love and serve our neighbors in a way that is pleasing to the Father.

How can we in the Global North begin to move our gospel from “spiritualized” to holistic? A holistic gospel requires opening our ears to the voices of the Global South and the marginalized in the Global North, no longer seeing them as charitable causes but teachers — fathers and mothers of the faith. It requires the humility to realize that our own traditions that have come out of privilege, comfort, and security in our nation have many blindspots that prevent us from seeing the divine themes of marginalization and oppression, as well as the justice that the God of the universe has affixed his reputation to stand with. This is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe — a gospel that liberates from the punishment and power of sin and paves the path for justice, freedom, and flourishing.


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