Mercy Ministries: Two Perspectives

William H. Smith
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2006

Nothing expresses the heart of Christianity like the Kyrie. It was the cry of blind Bartimaeus, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47). It was the prayer of the justified publican and the last prayer of John Murray, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Luke 18:13).

The Bible makes clear that there is a connection between receiving and showing mercy. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7). No one can ask God to show him mercy who does not show mercy. But to whom is mercy shown?

Increasingly, among conservative Presbyterians, one may not question the objects of mercy. As one evangelical preacher recently proclaimed from his pulpit, "Mercy ministry is as important as the ministry of the Word."

Before I raise questions about the unquestionable, let me make it clear that I am not questioning the traditional, biblical role that deacons perform and lead-ministry to the suffering saints. What I am willing to take my life into my hands to question is the contention that both Word (proclamation of the gospel) and deed (deeds of mercy done to and for nonbelievers) are the mission of the church and necessary to give a full and credible vindication of its message. Mercy ministry is becoming a virtual fourth mark of the church-the pure preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, the faithful exercise of discipline-and something like a housing assistance program, a food bank, a jobs training program, or a homeless shelter. One Reformed church states:

(Our)… commitment to mercy ministries is wedded to the commitment to the Holy Bible. Jesus Christ was a prophet mighty in word and deed, and we seek to be so as His church. It is evident that commitment to the Word must necessarily produce faithful and sincere commitment to deeds of love and compassion… Mercy is essential to our witness as a church to the world, and to the truth of the Bible which displays the reconciling kingdom ministry of Jesus Christ.

Does this church mean that faith will produce love for the brethren and that this will be a powerful witness to the world? No. This church does not neglect ministry to its own, but its emphasis is on its ministry to the poor of its city.

Another church declares, "We aim to show the world that the gospel will transform the urban core." How? By the preaching of the cross as the power of God unto salvation? No, "through ministries of word, mercy, and justice…Christians must learn to respect, learn from, and partner with our neighbors, as well as show them love and compassion. We focus not just on personal healing but social healing." It is this definition of and approach to mercy ministries that I am willing to question.

My motivation for questioning mercy ministry, as it is now commonly understood and practiced, is that I find it rests on a flimsy biblical foundation. My contention is that mercy ministry, as it was practiced by the apostolic church, was focused, just as the Westminster Confession says, on expressing the communion of the saints by relieving the needs of the saints.

Acts 2 begins an account of the practice of mercy in the Jerusalem church that comes to a climax in the creation of the office of deacon in Acts 6. One of the effects of the day of Pentecost and the addition of three thousand souls to the church was that the believers shared their possessions with one another, even to the point of selling off their possessions to take care of the needy among them.

In Acts 4 the report of mercy ministry is picked up again. The believers are still holding things in common and, as necessary, selling off goods and property, presenting the proceeds to the apostles, "and it was distributed to each as any had need" (v. 35). At this time the mercy ministries were so effective that "there was not a needy person among them" (v. 34). It is interesting to note that it was in the context of this demonstration of the communion of the saints that "with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all" (v. 33). The sad case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 6 confirms what we suspect in Acts 2 and 4-that the "holding of all things in common" was attitudinal and not obligatory. It also serves as a warning against hypocrisy in the ministry of mercy.

In Acts 6 the mercy ministry has grown to the point of there being a problem in its administration. Those Jewish converts, who were Greek of language and culture complained that their widows were not receiving fair distribution of the provision for the needy. Up until this time the apostles had been in charge of the mercy ministry. Now they realized they could not focus on their primary ministry of preaching the Word and at the same time administer the mercy ministry. And so was born the office of deacon, literally and metaphorically to wait tables. Interestingly enough, what followed the improvement of the church's care of its own was that "the word of God continued to increase and the number of disciples multiplied" (v. 7).

When we move out of the initial phase of the church's development, we find a woman of great grace, Dorcas, a resident of Joppa who is distinguished as being "full of good works and charity" (9:36). Her special ministry appears to have been making clothes for widows. This shows no more than any Christian should do, which is to do good works to all as we have opportunity. The context indicates ministry within the church. Calvin concludes, "We now know what is said in commendation of Tabitha, for reverence to God, or faith has first place; then we learn that she was busy helping the brethren, particularly in meeting the needs of the poor" (Acts 9:36).

At last the gospel broke out into the non-Jewish world and the predominantly Gentile church of Antioch was established. The prophet Agabus revealed that there would be a worldwide famine (11:28). What was the response of the Antiochean church? It was concern for the mother Jewish church. "So the disciples determined that everyone according to his ability would send relief to the brothers living in Judea" (11:29).

When the gospel spread to the Gentile world, the Apostle Paul was charged to "remember the poor" (Gal. 2:10). But there is not the slightest evidence that mercy ministries to the communities were used as a strategy for getting a hearing for the gospel and gaining its credibility by interest in "the whole man." How did Paul keep his commitment to remember the poor? He taught the Gentile churches to care for their people. It is clear that the church at Thessalonica had been taught to care for its needy members, for some went so far as to abuse the mercy of the church. He also organized the special offering for the poor saints in Jerusalem, a subject he mentions in the last chapter of 1 Corinthians and to which he devotes two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians. He gives a brief description of the recipient and use of this offering in Romans: "I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints, for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought to be of service to them in spiritual blessings" (15:25-27).

What about Paul's direction to the Galatians to "do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10)? First, it is clear that Paul here sticks to the pattern of the rest of the New Testament in putting the primary emphasis on the church's ministry to the church family. If some of this ministry spills over to the world, fine, but good done in the community is not a part of a word-deed strategy for evangelizing the city, nor is it anywhere near the heart of the church's mission. Moreover, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, Calvin makes a helpful observation about the basis for doing good: "Our common humanity makes us debtors to all; but we are bound to believers by a closer spiritual kinship, which God hallows among us."

Do we as Christians have an obligation to the poor in general? Of course we do. I am willing to help the poor by all sorts of means-kingdom ministries carried on by Christians, responding to the need in front of me with what I have, charitable organizations that are or are not faith-based, and by the paying of taxes. What I am not willing to say is that ministry to the poor of the community is a mark of the church or a necessary component of its health. Indeed, I would argue just the opposite-that the church is weakened and rendered less effective when it puts such ministries at the heart of its life.

But what about our Lord the deacon? Did he not come to serve? Yes. But how? By giving his life "as ransom for many" (Mark 10:45); that is by his distinctively redemptive work. What is its purpose beyond pointing us to the sole source of our salvation? It calls to be servants to each other in the community of faith. Jesus showed us the way when in the Upper Room he washed his disciples feet and said, "For I have given you an example, that you should do just as I have done for you" (John 13:15). For whom? He has just washed the disciples' feet when they would not wash each other's. He is showing us how to treat each other as believers. When Paul picks up on the servanthood of our Lord in that great Philippian Christological passage, he uses Christ to show the Philippian Christians how to have "the mind of Christ" in their troubled church.

But didn't the Lord warn us in the parable of the sheep and the goats that showing mercy is a test of our profession? He surely did. But to whom is the mercy directed? "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me… Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one to the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Matt. 25:45). So says James, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:26). So says the writer of Hebrews, "Remember those who are in prison [in the context there is no doubt whom he has in mind] as though you were in prison with them" (Heb. 13:3). So says, also, the Apostle John, "[W]e ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let not love in work or talk but in deed and truth" (1 John 3:16-18).

The apostolic practice shows that the church's ministry of mercy is to its members. We have a long way to go before there is not a needy person among us, and we serve one another in humility and love. But, when the church so cares for its own, it demonstrates to the world a "see-how-they-love-one-another" life that testifies to the power of the gospel and may be used of God to provoke the world to jealousy.

What the church needs is a renewed commitment to the mission Jesus gave: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19). The mission is to make disciples. The means of making disciples are baptizing and teaching. He did not say, Go make disciples by engaging in mercy ministry.

Evangelicals need fresh confidence in the mission and the methods that Christ endorsed and that gave the church success in the first century. The need of the hour is not Word and Deed ministry, but Word and Sacraments ministry.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church