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.

Should Christians Care about Shower Heads and Red Berets?

EFF Red BeretThe reality is that we live in a country in which our leaders command very little respect and are generally not characterised by their integrity or moral fibre. We are a society far flung from the ideals of a ruler “unbiased, who takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow and who loves immigrants and refugees.” That’s Deuteronomy 10’s description, by the way, of God. So now as Christians living in this morally bankrupt society, what should our response be? What do Christians have to do with politics in a country such as our own?

Perhaps the response is to leave it be. What does this society have to do with us after all? I mean think of Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven,” Hebrews 13:14, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” If all this is going to burn, then why bother? I am considering exploring a counter argument that looks at the early church but at this point, I am convinced that Christians do indeed have a public responsibility and this is why.

As exiles, if the land prospers, we prosper

Live Long and ProsperThere is something of our situation not unlike the situation of the Israelites living in exile to whom Jeremiah (29:4-7) says:

The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says to all those he sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, “Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. … Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.”

This is many generations after David and Solomon. God punishes the rebellious southern kingdom by allowing the Babylonians to invade and take masses of people into captivity (like Daniel and Jeremiah). These exiles get plonked in a new land far from home and far from hope. If I’m an Israelite living in Israel, it’s easy to want everything around me to prosper – it’s the promised land! I care about the land because it’s God’s land and I’m one of God’s people. When I get taken into captivity though, I lose all those reasons to care about what’s happening around me. What’s more, I don’t live under God’s rule anymore – the people in charge are actually my oppressors. So why should I care? God’s instruction however is, “Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. … Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.”

There is a sense in which South Africa is not our home. Even so, in the sense in which we are exiles, if the land prospers, we prosper. Just as the Israelites living in exile were instructed to go on with their lives and contribute to their society, I believe so are we.

All authority is delegated by God

CrownIt’s pretty easy to poke fun at our leaders – as Zapiro so masterfully illustrates. And honestly, that’s because our politicians do pretty stupid things pretty regularly. The problem is that frequently it’s not just stupid things that get done but malicious things and they aren’t just the kinds of things we ridicule, they’re the kinds of things we mourn. Children don’t get textbooks that tax money has paid for, presidents get ostentatious houses while millions live in shacks, grant money vanishes. Very often our response to our leaders is ridicule and disrespect. It’s not a surprising response but it is the response of a people who don’t recognise a biblical truth.

Consider Daniel who we normally remember because he interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Just as a reminder: Nebuchadnezzar; evil enemy king who has just dragged the cream of Israel off into Babylon. Typical Israelite response: “what has happened, obviously the gods of the Babylonians are more powerful than our God.” Yet, God reveals the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to Daniel and here is Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 2:20-23),

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning. …

Daniel recognises that God is sovereign; “he changes times and seasons.” What does God do with that sovereignty though? “he deposes kings and raises up others”. Daniel, in exile from Israel, no longer living with one of the descendants of David as his king, realises that God has deposed that king and has set up Nebuchadnezzar.

Consider Paul’s injunction to New Testament believers living under Roman rule (Romans 13:1-7),

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Imagine reading those words a few years later when Nero is in power. Paul carries on though,

whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, … For the one in authority is God’s servant … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

So Paul’s conclusion is, “pay taxes” – give whatever you owe, taxes, revenue, respect, honour. Why? Because all authority is delegate by God.

It’s true that sometimes those in authority abuse their power and misuse their authority. But by virtue of the fact that they rule because God has established them, we owe them honour and respect. Everything they institute that is not immoral – i.e. contrary to the will of God – is not something we can oppose on theological grounds. So if the ANC decided to use their majority to make the country communist, we must recognise that communism is not inherently evil and so although we can argue that it’s unwise, we can’t say that they have forfeited the right to rule under God’s authority.

We need to be very careful when we want to demean or ridicule our leaders because their authority comes from God. When Israel wants a king God says to Samuel, who is leading them at the time, “do what they want; they haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected me.” And there is always the possibility when we turn against our leaders that we are rejecting God.

We aren’t really exiles

mrfredricksenOne profound truth underlies our responsibility to our country and to the world. We are not really exiles. The surprising and often neglected teaching of the New Testament comes from the understanding that God is working with this world, right here. 2 Corinthians 5, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Colossians 1, that amazing section about Jesus’ divine nature (the fact that Jesus is not just a man, that he is God), culminates in verses 19-20 “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [in Jesus] and through him to reconcile all things to himself, things on earth and things in heaven [by the cross]”. The cross is about the reconciliation between God and this fallen world. So yes we’re citizens of heaven but that’s because God’s plan for this world is to bring about his kingdom on earth. Matthew 5:5, “the meek will inherit the earth” is not a particularly enticing promise if God is planning on wiping everything out. Consider Revelation 21 right near the end of the book, John writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away … And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them

There is a sense in which we are exiles that’s why it makes sense to say “be in the world but not of it”. But at the same time it is profoundly true that we are residents, the true residents, the rightful heirs of God’s world.

The restoration of the world is what is foreshadowed in God’s giving Israel the promised land. In the promised land, God is marking out an area for his people. The difference is that now we aren’t just hoping that evil will be wiped out of the land, that we won’t need to go looking for another leader, that we won’t need a priesthood to maintain our relationship with God. He is restoring the entire universe and the dwelling of God will be among human beings. You see we are just waiting for that reality to come to fruition. So in a very real sense, we are the true residents. This world is the inheritance of the people of God. I care what happens to it.