You don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship. Though only a few Christians would explicitly say that, many implicitly endorse it in the way that they think and speak about social justice or mercy ministry. This particular theological bent is veiled behind statements like: “the church’s mission is gospel witness”; “financially support the state, who have the God-given task of social justice”; and, “mercy ministry easily becomes a distraction to gospel proclamation.” More often than not, it comes down to one’s eschatological position, which is wielded as an excuse for not involving oneself or the church in social justice. But we are certainly on dangerous ground when our theological system allows us to overlook clear biblical imperatives and expectations.
There is no way around God’s expectation that Christians will be generous towards others. This is explicit and pervasive in both the Old and New Testaments. Too often our emphasis on the great commission. “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) has been used to ignore other clear teaching from Jesus, especially regarding the poor. For example, after his parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Why do we hear the imperative in Matthew while ignoring Jesus’ other one in Luke? A few years ago I taught through the the Old Testament prophet Amos. One of the unavoidable conclusions in Amos is that even though Israel was guilty of idolatry and superficial faith, it was their mistreatment of the poor that received God’s severest upbraiding.
Of course, we must not confuse gospel proclamation with expressions of gospel belief and faith in Christ. In his very practical book Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller argues that generosity towards the needy is not part of the gospel but an inevitable outworking of believing it. As the authors of What is the Mission of the Church? importantly remind their readers: there is something better than human flourishing and something far worse than death—in other words, we preach Christ out of a desire to see people embrace his gracious love and escape his righteous judgment. Therefore our mission is to proclaim Christ in order that people might repent and believe. However, obedience to the gospel commission does not excuse disobedience to other biblical commands.
Perhaps one of the reasons for our suspicion and slowness toward mercy ministry is owing to our theological tradition. Most readers of Rekindle would consider the Reformers to be their doctrinal forefathers. At the Reformation, men like Martin Luther had to vigorously fight for the vital distinction between works and faith, or works righteousness and salvation by grace. But a dangerous overcorrection is possible here, which reduces people to souls in need of saving. The church has too often fallen into the ancient heresy of dualism: exaggerating the distinction between the spiritual and material. But we should remember that the Reformers (and their theological offspring, the Puritans) were devoted to caring for the poor. That devotion was the fruit of an unprecedented and emphatic commitment to the Bible.
Of course, we can all think of examples where social justice has supplanted both gospel proclamation and commitment to Scripture. I recently wrote an article about Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, whose commitment to a progressive liberal tenet of social justice caused them to muddy the teaching of Scripture on sexual ethics. Others might cite John Stott’s now infamous statement that gospel proclamation and mercy ministry are the two wings of a plane. Both are necessary for flight. These two brief examples, among a myriad of others, are not an argument against the church pursuing social justice and mercy—through an appeal to the slippery slope fallacy. With the above point about the Reformation, these examples remind us that without theological and biblical moorings we can easily drift.
Finally, in our thinking about mercy and the practise of social justice we must remember that we aren’t primarily doing it as a response to the staggering needs of our countrymen and even some in our church family. The reason we must care for the needy, providing material support for people and seeking to alleviate suffering and poverty is because we want to be obedient to our Lord and God. As St Augustine often noted, love of God is seen in loving our neighbours. We must passionately pursue obedience to God in all areas of our lives and not just a few. This applies to the church and mercy. Not forgetting our gospel purpose as the church we simultaneously cannot forget God’s call for his people to care for and love others, especially the downtrodden and needy.