Own your "working gospel"

January 31st, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

Many working gospels have always been and are still being preached today, which preachers de facto argue are grounded in the biblical text. In my research, a question was submitted to an online site: “Did Paul and the apostles preach the same gospel? If not, then how many gospels are there all together and what is the difference?” There is quite a bit of scholarly debate on the differences found in the gospel of Paul and the gospel of Peter. The question as to how many gospels there are all together is more complex, but it's certain there are many working gospels.

The discovery of the gnostic gospels among the Nag Hammadi documents uncovered in Egypt in the 1940s ignited a firestorm in theological circles over which are the legitimate Gospels. Then we have the Apocrypha, a set of texts included in the Latin Vulgate and Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Bible. Catholic tradition considers these texts to be deuterocanonical. Protestants consider them apocryphal.

The history of preaching reveals the reality of many working gospels. I believe the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are the authoritative, divinely inspired word of God amid the reality of a multiplicity of working gospels in the minds of its interpreters.

It would make the church and the political world a more just and safer place if we would own up to our working gospel and learn to respect the working gospel of others, so long as a working gospel does not justify dominance and oppression. As an alternative to delegitimizing the gospel of others, I will explore in detail the concept of “working gospel” as espoused by Andr Resner.[1] We begin with a brief summary of several contemporary working gospels in the present-day American context. This list is not exhaustive, but is a tangible starting point for us to practically reflect on the concept of working gospel.

Some of the most prominent working gospels functioning in the American environment today would include: the gospel of American sentimentalism, the gospel of American exceptionalism, the prosperity gospel, the gospel of denominationalism, the evangelical gospel, and the social-justice gospel.

First, the gospel of American sentimentalism is the working gospel of American civil religion, which especially manifests itself in times of national crisis and tragedy. Thus when a national day of mourning is declared, the cultural religion of America is often evoked through the great hymn of “Amazing Grace.” As an example, former president Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of South Carolina senator Clementa Pinckney.[2] “Amazing Grace” played on bagpipes is a tradition at public funerals of civic and national heroes.

The hymn “Amazing Grace” is very loosely connected with two biblical texts. The hymn borrows “I once was lost but now am found. Was blind, but now, I see,” from Luke 15:32 and John 9:25.[3] This working gospel has little to do with whether or not one is a Christian, but it draws on the habits of American citizenship and mourning in the face of a national tragedy. This is the sentimental gospel of American civil religion.

Second, the gospel of American exceptionalism is the belief in America as “the errand in the wilderness” and the vision of “a city set up on a hill,” a paraphrase of Matthew 5:14 spoken by John Winthrop to his fellow passengers in 1619 in a sermon at sea on the Arabella, reminding them that New England was a model for future settlements and the “eyes of all the people are upon us.”[4] According to Winthrop and Puritan ideology, America had a divine mission, and their pilgrimage to America fulfilled biblical prophetic, apocalyptic, and eschatological visions. The “discovery” of America was a great revelatory and prophetic event in the course of progress of the church upon the earth in which God’s divine providence transformed the locus of the history of redemption and salvation from the corrupted Old World to the New World. God had miraculously kept the American continent from discovery such that a new chosen people of true Christians could be a light to the world and convert First Americans to Christianity. This gospel centers around the theme that God has ordained the history and mission of America and has given it a superiority over other nations. American exceptionalism clothes America in a divine and scriptural mission as the best and brightest hope of humankind. Many preachers today still mix, intermingle, and coalesce the Bible and the American flag and capitalist culture to preach a gospel of American exceptionalism.

Third, the peculiarly American gospel of prosperity—or sometimes called the health and wealth gospel, the gospel of success, or seed-faith gospel—is the working gospel that provides an unequivocal message of health, wealth, and success to adherents. Sickness and poverty are curses to be broken by faith. Prosperity preaching often downplays social critique and focuses instead on an empowering an individualistic strategy of success and the acquisition of material possessions. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity. Tangible displays of success and material blessing are signs of God’s favor and blessing based in adherence to divine principles, such as faith, sowing seeds, positive speech, and visualization of miracles. Financial blessing, positive relationship, and physical wellbeing are always the will of God for the believer in the preaching of prosperity gospel.

Fourth, there is the working gospel of denominational affiliation. Many denominations are established out of some individual’s working gospel, and the tenets and beliefs of this working gospel become normative for faith adherents. A social precedent for this is evident in early Judaism, with the Instruction (Torah) from Moses as the founder. Typically, the works, writings, and sermons of the founder are codified for study, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination. Often, much interpretation is grounded in the historical, theological beliefs of the founder, whether it be Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, John Wesley and the Methodist church, Martin Luther and the Lutheran churches, John Calvin and various denominations adhering to Calvinism, William Seymour and Pentecostalism, and so on (as documented in the Handbook of Denominations). Within the Roman Catholic church, the working gospel and the interpretation flow from the top, such as the teachings and writings of the Pope, and strict adherence to the Pope’s working gospel and interpretation is required. This is especially noticed when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” (infallible from “the chair”) on doctrine and matters of faith or morals and addresses it to the entire world in his capacity as the universal shepherd of the Catholic church.

I remember my complete shock over a denominational gospel when several members left a church of which I was a member, because in our church we baptized in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (the Trinity). They argued that, according to the scriptures, our baptism was not a legitimate baptism. They went to the “Jesus only” church, where the true baptism is to be baptized only in Jesus’s name. Through the separation, there was a vigorous theological debate with competing scriptures. At a very early age, I saw how divisive a denominational gospel could be. Such theological debates are commonplace in many denominations, leading to schisms, and are evidence of different working gospels.

Fifth, the working gospel of evangelicalism is shifting. There is much discussion, claiming, reclaiming, denying, and re-branding of the evangelical identity, given that 84 percent of evangelicals supported the candidacy of Donald J. Trump in 2020. To briefly define the evangelical gospel, consider this list that identifies how evangelical respondents strongly agree with these four statements:
1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.[5]

The working gospel of evangelicalism (when merged with the gospel of American exceptionalism) is a major religious, economic, and political force in America, evidenced primarily in support for the dominance of Christian nationalists in the Republican party.

Finally, the working gospel of social justice is a large working-gospel movement in our time. Historically, the social-justice gospel was a movement in North American Protestantism that applied Christian ethics to social concerns, such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racism, slums, an unclean environment, child labor, inadequate treatment of laborers, poor schools, and the danger of war. The work of the gospel is to help change and transform the social and economic conditions of people as well as the salvation of their souls. The term social justice was renewed on a mass scale in the work of the civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and supported by many who wanted to see justice and equality for all American citizens. Contemporary social justice issues might include mass incarceration, sex trafficking, environmental justice, gender equality, equal rights for LGTBQI communities, police violence, and crony capitalism.

Many social-gospel adherents could be identified under the umbrella of identity politics. Identity politics flow from taking seriously one’s ethnicity, gender, race, or social location as an interpretive lens through which to view the biblical text and hence construction of theological convictions. For me, the term identity politics does not have a negative connotation. It is popular to decry identity politics as the purview of minorities, referring to nonwhite people motivated by an irrational herd instinct to take political and religious positions based upon the interests and perspectives of social groups with which they identify. In fact, white people have utilized identity politics since their arrival upon American soil. Conquest, slavery, segregation, and so on were all based in identity politics. Identity politics in theology has existed since the beginning of scriptural interpretation, and for centuries, the identity politics of Europeans and Euro-Americans was considered the norm and standard by which theological inquiry could be shaped. In the late 1960s, James Cone developed black theology, and as a result there emerged a new era of an inclusive working gospel, in which the identity politics of women, Koreans, LatinX, LGBTQI, Womanists, the differently abled, and their working gospels came to be of value and weight in homiletical and theological considerations.

I chose some of the most popular working gospels. Popular religion and piety, all working gospels for that matter, in all of our collective finitude, must acknowledge that we don't know it all and that the mystery of the good news cannot be fully named.

Preachers and Their Working Gospels

Every preacher has a constellation of culture, a family of origin, and ecclesiastical systems that influence, raise, and develop us from the earliest stages of life. Such systems include categories of gender, ethnicity, social and economic locations of neighborhood and class, as well as conditions of physical and mental health. Most preachers are heavily influenced by these systems as they shape both their theology and the sermon that flows out of that theology. In an article entitled “Do You See This Woman? A Little Exercise in Homiletical Theology,” Andr Resner clarifies that every preacher has an in-process “synopsis of the faith, an encapsulation of the whole point of Christianity, Christian community, of what difference God makes in and for the world.”[6] Resner labels this “a working understanding of the gospel”: the preacher’s ‘working understanding of the gospel’ is the imaginative theological and hermeneutical force that drives the way the preacher conceives, plots, and delivers sermons, structures worship services in which those sermons live, move, and have their being.”[7] David Jacobsen agrees that preachers have different working understandings of the gospel:

"In practice, preaching requires preachers to have a habitus, some theological core wisdom about gospel that helps them to do their task. . . . Preachers fret rightly about getting from the text to sermon, but underlying this concern is their commission to go preach the gospel. In doing so, I start the process of theological worth with a provisional confession of the gospel, i.e. what I call confessional homiletical theology. Confessional homiletical theologians think about preaching as a theological enterprise beginning provisionally with gospel and brought into critical dialogue with texts, contexts, and situations. Andr Resner has given this provisional confessional move a name: “working gospel.”[8]

Even with a cursory perusal of historical and contemporary theological debates, it is clear that preachers can read the same Bible and texts yet witness to different working gospels.

In essence, many of us use the term gospel, but in reality we are not talking about the same thing. When we use the term gospel, most of us are referring to our working gospel. Most would agree with Romans 1:16 (CEB) where Paul says, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God.” What each of us means, consciously or unconsciously, when we affirm this text is that we are not ashamed of our working gospel. Yet, we carry on in dialogue as if we are using a consensus term and referring to the same thing. When I read John MacArthur’s “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” my overarching response was that we were not talking about the same gospel. He was simply expressing his working gospel.

This complexity then raises a monumental question begging for clarification in the theology of every preacher: What is the relationship between the Bible and the gospel you proclaim? How does the Bible function in the preaching of your working gospel?

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1. Andr Resner, “Reading the Bible for Preaching the Gospel,” in Collected Papers of the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Academy of Homiletics, paper presented at the annual meeting of The Academy of Homiletics, Boston, MA (December 7, 2008), 223; “Do You See This Woman? A Little Exercise in Homiletical Theology,” in Theologies of the Gospel in Context: The Crux of Homiletical Theology, ed. David Schnasa Jacobsen (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 19–24; Living In-Between: Lament, Justice, and the Persistence of the Gospel (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

2. Sarah L. Kaufman, “Why Obama’s Singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ Is So Powerful,” Washington Post, June 26, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2015/06/26/why -obamas-singing-of-amazing-grace-is-so-powerful/?utm_term=.6662a0e9cc6d.

3. The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” can be found at http://www.gospelsonglyrics.net/a/amazing-grace .htm. Luke 15:32 (CEB) reads, “this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found”; and John 9:25 (ASV) reads, “Whereas I was blind, now I see.”

4. Satayagraha, “America’s Covenant with God: John Winthtrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ Speech (1630),” https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/john-winthrops-city-on-a-hill-speech-1630/.

5. This tool was used by the National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay research to identify evangelical beliefs. See “What Is an Evangelical?” National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), https:// www.nae.net/what-is-an-evangelical/.

6. Resner, “Do You See This Woman?” 17.

7. Resner, “Do You See This Woman?” 18.

8. See David Schnasa Jacobsen, “The Practice of Homiletical Theology in a Confessional Mode: An Interim Report on the Homiletical Theology Project,” North American Academy of Homiletics meeting in Dallas, Texas (December 9, 2017), http://www.bu.edu/homiletical-theology-project,” 31–32.

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