The universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man was the rallying cry of the social gospel. It proclaimed that all men are brothers and so Christianity must work for the good of society, rather than preaching about hell. Christianity was reduced to social and moral reformation and the exclusive claims of Christ were downplayed or ignored completely. Fundamentalism reacted violently against this theological liberalism and withdrew from the culture rather than engaging it. Evangelicalism arose as an inner critique against this withdrawl. Carl F. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism took Fundamentalism to task for its isolationist tendencies and lack of cultural engagement.
But were the proponents of the social gospel like Shailer Mathews correct to speak of the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man? In one sense, yes. Malachi 2:10 uses the term “Father” to describe God’s work of creation: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?” God is the Father of all in the sense that he is the creator of all. Just as a human father raises children, analogically, God has “fathered” us through creation. There is also a stronger sense in which all men are brothers. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve. There is only one human race, not races. We are one human race with multiple ethnicities. The irony is that the proponents of the social gospel embraced evolution which undermines the brotherhood and equality of man. Without a historical Adam, we do not have a historical ancestor from which we can all trace our lineage. Charles Darwin and the eugenics movement were unabashedly racist. What is even more ironic is that many Southern Baptists who did not agree with Darwin on evolution were racists even though they believed in a historical Adam which undermines racism.
In another sense, God is not the Father of all and we who believe are the only ones who have been adopted into God’s family. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” It is only those who believe in Christ who have the right to be called God’s children. Jesus denied that God was the father of those who rejected him: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth” (John 8:44). The purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to save those whom the Father had given him (John 6:39-40). He died “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). These are the “other sheep” – elect Gentiles who have yet to believe the gospel (John 10:16). Hebrews 2:13 states the same truth: “Behold, I and the children God has given me.”
All of those who are God’s children have the indwelling Spirit: “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Gal 4:5-6). But only those who are adopted into God’s family have the indwelling Spirit as Romans 8 says:
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. . . . For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. . . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. . . . And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Those who are God’s children are contrasted with unbelieving sinners: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15). Those who are God’s children do not belong to the world who fail to recognize us: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). Only those who practice righteousness and love their brothers are children of God (1 John 3:10). Only the children of God love him and keep his commandments (1 John 5:2; 2:3). Only those who are peacemakers are called sons of God (Matt 5:9). Only those who have faith are sons of God (Gal 3:26). Only those who are his sons receive his fatherly discipline (Heb 12:7). Only those who are predestined by God through Christ receive adoption (Eph 1:5).
Matthew 25:45 is often misused by politicians to invoke Christ’s blessing upon their over-bloated budgets: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” But in context, “the least of these” are referring to Christ’s brothers in contrast to the goats who go into eternal punishment. The parallel to 25:40 confirms this where “my brothers” follows “the least of these.” Those who are Christ’s brothers are only those who do the will of the Father: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50).
The reference to being “sick and in prison and you did not visit me” is not a general plea for prison reform, but a call to care for Christians who are in prison for their faith (Matt 25:43). The parallel to Hebrews 10:34 confirms this: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” These Jewish Christians were facing persecution for their faith in Christ and we are called to stand in solidarity with those who belong to Christ who are suffering for their faith (Heb 13:3; Col 4:3; Acts 26:10). Roman prisons were not like the prisons of today where they actually feed you. In order to prevent Christians from starving to death in prison, other believers had to risk their lives to bring food to them. And the only people who would bring food to a Christian in prison were other Christians and if the Roman guards were not in a good mood they could throw you into prison too and then the only way you would avoid starving to death is if other Christians risked their lives to feed you.
The greatest irony of all is that those who misuse Matthew 25 for political gain usually support the killing of unborn children through abortion. Why shouldn’t unborn children be included among “the least of these” if you are going to use the passage in a broad general sense without respect for its context? “The least of these” will be among the sheep on the right who will cheer when corrupt and evil politicians are cast into hell for their murder.