There has been much talk in the last number of years regarding the role of mercy ministry (advocating for social justice) in the life of the local church. I have addressed that issue in a number of previous posts, including this one here. In addition, I recently led a faculty forum–an informal discussion time between students and faculty–on the topic here on the RTS Charlotte campus.
In that faculty forum, I acknowledged the legitimacy of doing “mercy ministry” in the local church. After all, Christians should be known for acts of kindness and grace. Indeed, in my own research on second-century Christianity it was clear that the early believers were different from their surrounding culture precisely in their willingness to help the poor and downtrodden when others would not.
However, that said, I also offered a number of area of concerns about modern mercy ministry:
1. We must be careful to maintain “Word ministry”– the proclamation of the gospel and the instruction of God’s people–as the core mission of the church. While deeds of mercy might be a natural response to the gospel, and a fruit of the gospel which rightly adorns the church, it should not be viewed as a co-equal with the mission to proclaim the gospel. The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) makes it clear that the core mission of the church is Word and Sacrament: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them.”
2. Even more concerning is the trend in some quarters that actually raises mercy ministry above the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, in some places, mercy ministry is done without any real efforts towards evangelizing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Mercy ministry in these instances has, in one sense, replaced the proclamation of the gospel. I mentioned this problem in the prior post here and called us back to a Christ-centered mercy ministry.
3. Our concept of mercy ministry is often too narrowly conceived. When people think of mercy ministry, they most often (and automatically) think of ministry to urban, inner-city, poor. While such ministry is certainly worthy, we need to conceive of mercy in broader ways. Often left out of such discussions is ministry to protect the lives of the unborn. If there were ever an instance of social injustice, surely it is the tragedy of abortion. Are advocates of mercy ministry equally interested in the pro-life cause? And what of groups in suburban or rural contexts? Are they lacking in need? Some of the poorest communities are not located in urban centers. And what about groups other than the poor? What of the sick and the elderly (who are not necessarily poor)? Or those who are victims of crime?
Curiously, it is rarely noticed that the needy person in the parable of the Good Samaritan was not a poor person. On the contrary, he carried enough money to be a victim of theft. Who knows, he may have even been wealthy! Regardless, the parable of the good Samaritan reminds us that economic impoverishment is not the only (nor even the greatest) physical need.
I was encouraged to notice many of these same concerns were echoed in a recent article in The Master’s Seminary Journal: “Regaining our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions” by Joel James and Brian Biedebach (a PDF can be found here). The authors are both long-term missionaries in Africa and have observed a trend in the last generation were social justice has begun to eclipse the concern for proclaiming the gospel. Many missionaries, they observe, are no longer planting churches at all (in fact, some seem unconcerned about even being involved in a local church). Instead, some modern missions work has begun to look more like the Peace Corps. I encourage you to read the entire article.
In summary, we should be clear that both gospel proclamation and deeds of mercy should be part of the life of the church. We are not forced to choose. But we must also be careful to distinguish between them. Deeds of mercy are not the gospel. They are the fruit of the gospel. D.A. Carson said it well:
Some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.
Carson’s point should be particularly compelling to the Reformed church. It is Reformed folks who rightly express concerns about preaching that lacks the gospel. Such preaching is mere moralism, we are told. Would we not therefore expect the same concerns to be offered regarding mercy ministry that lacks the gospel? Otherwise, mercy ministry would be mere moralism.