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.
Great article Dr Kruger. Thank you! I look forward to reading the linked posts/articles.
Maybe it’s just me, but I could not get the Carson or the TMS link to work.
I was speaking with Brian Biedebach when he was back for the Shepherds Conference last year. His current PhD research is in this exact field. When I was asking him about what he was seeing and he said little more than that things are “really bad.” He is actually in the midst of planting a seminary there in Malawi Africa that will eventually be run by indigenous men once they train up enough men. I think they are in their first semester right now. The Master’s Academy International now has almost 20 seminaries across the globe in some amazing places – Africa, India, Singapore, Philippines, Russia.. Much prayer is needed for these missionaries! They are working in some places where hardly a solid church exists, so the goal of an indigenous seminary is an extraordinary task! But God (love that phrase) is doing amazing things! Thanks for the reminder that everyone’s eternal needs ultimately trump their temporal and that we need to stay focused.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Chris. The links are fixed!
Before I was a Christian, my main exposure to Christ was through a Catholic lens. (I had absolutely no idea why Jesus was crucified.) When I was a new Christian at the age of 15 (Catholicism played no part in my conversion), I did not come to realize Catholicism was false because I studied the doctrines of sola Scriptura, original sin, justification, and the sacraments, but because I was now regenerate and realized an organization characterized by social action was not Christian. They are all about the material and temporal; my faith was about fellowship with Christ.
When Scripture speaks of love, the overwhelming focus is on the church – it is inward – just as the emphasis of biblical revelation is on God’s love for his own. (These imperatives can be summed up by Gal 6:10 and Jn 13:34-35.) Loving your neighbor is not the command to the church in terms of its ministry, it is to be obeyed by us individually who are citizens of both this world and heaven. I can privately and personally do good works and show love to my neighbor, but the church as the church is not to dedicate its resources to humanitarian efforts. MG Kline wonderfully brings this out from Gen 4 with Cain. The church is about saving grace, not common grace (which is a characteristic of theological liberalism).
A PCA pastor who used to be in my city said that as the apostles’ healed in Acts, the church today is to be planting trees. The only tree we are concerned with is the tree Jesus was crucified on.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
Excellent article on what is basically a critique of the “Social Gospel.” True, Rauschenbush promulgated the Social Gospel in the 19th Century, but for the most part “mainline Protestant” denominations have been more guilty of elevating the “social” over against “word.”\
The SBC has a lot of social gospel ministries especially in the area of “disaster response” run through the local church. This means that resources go through the local church as well as through the local association. Yet too many resources are going to para-church organizations that are not responsible to the local church. Frequently, this leads to para-church organizations doing things that are frequently less gospel-centered and more social-centered.
Unfortunately, several passages are usually misused. These passages are Matthew 25:31-48 (Sheep and Goats); John 13:33-35 (New Commandment where “brother” is construed to be any one instead of Christian brother or sister); and James 2:14-26. Of course, there are also the passages that are ignored especially I Timothy 4-5 (instructions for church social actions within the church).
Tim Reichmuth says
First, a hearty amen! The main reason for mercy ministry is to share the Gospel. At our church plant, we have partnered with a Christian mobile food pantry to meet the physical needs of our local community, yet we always provide each individual with a Gospel presentation and an offer to meet further, as well as a structured class for those who the Spirit saves! This mercy ministry is an avenue to present the Gospel to people who otherwise we might never meet. Praise God for the opportunities we all have to presnt the Gospel in EVERY ministry in which we are involved.
In Him whose Grace is sufficient, even for me!
Yes one thing can easily lead to another, its the Word & Spirit that is central & should remain so…like an axle.
David S. Apple says
Thank you for this. Please note my new book, “Not Just a Soup KItchen: How Mercy in the Local Church Transforms Us All.” In it I proclaim that where presentation of the gospel is absent, there is no mercy. — Dr. David S. Apple, Director of Mercy Ministries, Tenth Presbyterian Church
Matthew 11:2-5 clearly shows that Jesus considered “mercy ministry” and proclamation of the Gospel to be co-equal. But more accurately acts of compassion and mercy are an a proclamation of the Gospel.
Jesus’ reply to John’s disciples consists of recalling his miracles. “Mercy ministry” contains no miracles and do not proclaim the gospel as the gospel is proclaimed with words (Rom 10:14-18 cf. the apostolic ministry of the word in 1 Cor 2:13, 1-5; 1:18). Moreover, deeds of compassion are only an expression of God’s common grace; there is no saving grace in it so there is no good news of Christ in it. No one will know of Christ crucified and risen for sinners in social justice and such – that message is only in the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4). The poor Jesus referred to in Matt 11:5 are not simply the socio-economic poor, but those who are poor in spirit (i.e., they are destitute of all hope in themselves for acceptance before God, Matt 5:3 cf. Psa 51:17). This poverty of spirit is a work of the Spirit through the word whereby the Lord convicts one of their sin.