New Testament Principles for Mercy Ministry

Last week I posted a short article titled, Social Justice as Obedience to God. Much to my disappointment more than a few people felt it was unclear and unnecessarily theological. Let me state for the record that I do not think “theological” implies complicated; Christians should be grappling with theological truth and its implications. This means the fault is mine. I will make another admission at the start of this article: I am far from finished in my thinking about the church’s responsibility to do social justice, or even what we mean by that phrase. So this post is not my attempt to pave a clear path forward. Instead I will briefly touch on a couple of New Testament passages and draw principles from them. 

social justiceBut before we get to that, let me outline my intentions for the previous article. I wrote it because I worry that many Christians today, particularly in the West, view people as little more than souls to be saved. They argue that the church’s mission is proclamation. Sure, most will concede that Christians are called to love their neighbours practically. The ways Christians can and ought to love others is hugely diverse. But strangely the corporate or organisational  church’s love is somehow understood differently. I am not sure there is New Testament support for this distinction. Instead I argued that the Christian (and church) pursuing a life that pleases God will love her neighbours in the broadest biblical sense. This love will be practical, generous and uncomfortable—in other words, it will be much more than evangelism.

The Epistle of James

There are no shortage of passages to turn to in support of thesis. But James is as directly challenging as any, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27). To avoid an overcorrection to the body-soul distinction I alluded to above, we should argue from this verse that both material or physical and emotional as well as spiritual care must be given. Read what James wrote a few verses later, “If someone is poorly clothed and lacking food, what good is it to send them away with your blessing without giving them what they need?” (2:16). The apostle John asked a similar question, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, 10). James highlights a point we tend to miss: our faith ought to be useful and good (2:14, 20).

True and living faith is tangibly fruitful, practical and visible. Christians should be concerned about more than simply the salvation of souls. If all we can offer is platitudes about heaven or merely stating that sin is our greatest issue we are drifting dangerously close to the faith that both James and John condemned. What are the principle here? New Testament faith is more than belief. Christianity cannot be unconcerned with people’s needs. There should be visible evidence of love expressed in the church as well as by it.

1 Timothy 5:3-16

When we recognise real need we must meet it (5:3, 5). This involves discernment. It also means first looking to the immediate family for support (5:4). I think, however, that the family mentioned are also believers, who must “put their religion into practice by caring”. Failing to meet the needs of our relatives is, quite shockingly, said to be a denial of our faith (5:8). The character of the widow is mentioned (5:9-10), indicating that she is known to the church, a devout Christian, and herself generous. The unpopular principle here is that nominal Christians looking to the church for a free ride should possibly be overlooked—or at the very least challenged over their own lack of works.

Once that is dealt with, 1 Timothy 5 calls on us to help those in our churches, just as we would help from those in our biological families. In 5:11-15 Paul says there are others who the church should not commit to giving permanent support, for they have the opportunity to remarry or work. Again, we can draw a principle from this: the church cannot be expected – nor is it required – to give to everyone who asks, not even if they belong to the church family. Finally, if those with needs are having them met by someone capable in the church already, other urgent needs exist where the church should allocate its resources (5:16).

Three principles from 1 Timothy 5

  1. The lordship of Christ demands meeting the needs of those in both our immediate family and the church family or household of God
  2. Mercy ministry must be discerning and measured. This includes asking if the beneficiary is able to receive help from elsewhere
  3. The church is not expected to alleviate every need it encounters

More principles in Galatians 6

In just a few verses (6:1-10), Paul rattles off what closely resembles a collection of proverbs. Though I encourage you to read the passage and epistle in its entirety, we can quite easily draw out a few practical principles:

  1. We fulfil the law of Christ – loving our neighbours (Matthew 22:34-40) – when we carry one another’s burdens (6:2; also see 5:13-14). We might be tempted to spiritualise this, making it about carrying emotional burdens. While I am sure the verse includes that interpretation, the physical and financial aspect cannot be denied, especially when we consider the following verses
  2. Bible teachers and the ministry staff should receive support from those that they serve, the local church they belong to (6:6; also see 1 Timothy 5:17-18)
  3. Proverbs 3:27, alluded to in Galatians 6:9, reads, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Though most of us would not kick against doing good to those whom it is due, I wonder if we fail to apply the command to practise mercy when it’s in our power to do so. The principle in 6:9 is simple: you do not reach the end of doing good to others
  4. Overlapping with the proverb above, Paul calls on us to do good whenever we have opportunity, especially those in our local church (6:10). There is no shortage of opportunities, both within and outside of our churches

Concluding Principles from 2 Corinthians 8-9

So much could be said about these two chapters in 2 Corinthians, but this blog post is fast becoming a lengthy paper. Let me highlight a couple of principles, focusing on the heart of the giver, those carrying out mercy or justice:

  1. Generosity is not the act of the wealthy but the generous (8:1-5). Paul tells the Corinthians how another group of believers, the Macedonians, gave according to their means in a time of severe affliction and even “extreme poverty”. 
  2. Flowing from the previous point, being generous with what we have, whether abundant or meagre, is an outworking of God’s grace (8:6-7), and true expression of Christian love (8:8, 24).
  3. This love, however, must be motivated by the gracious generosity and love of Christ, “Though he was rich…for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). 
  4. The gospel (above) means that giving under compulsion is not generosity. Paul says it must be willing (9:5), without reluctance (9:7); rather, it should be cheerful (9:7) and one of ways we express our gratitude towards God (9:12). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (9:15).

In conclusion, the above is far from conclusive. My modest hopes for this post and its predecessor was to bring Scripture to bear on questions about ministry mercy and social justice. Admittedly, most of the principles above apply primarily to mercy ministry (carried out within the local church) rather than social justice, which we might define as practising mercy towards those outside of the church. Taken together, I pray that these posts will impress on my readers that love should not be narrowly defined or made exclusive to spiritual needs. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.”

Social Justice as Obedience to God

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.

Decriminalise sex workOf 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.