The Fourth Mark of a True Church: Mercy Ministry?

TE Bill Smith has written an interesting article on his blog about the role of mercy ministry in the church:

“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull on the mask of the old Lone Ranger…”; and you don’t question mercy ministries in the PCA. Or, so it seems.

Somehow in the Presbyterian Church in America we made a decision without ever having a discussion. It surprised some of us because one of the complaints about the PCUS was its embrace of the “social gospel” and its shift from doing evangelism to doing good deeds.

This seems to fit into a pattern in the PCA. Decrying centralization at our founding, we have become more centralized. Protesting the church’s making statements on political matters, we have made our share of statements on political matters. Standing strongly against women’s ordination to all offices we have begun to discuss women’s ordination at least to the diaconate.

The matter of the propriety of the church’s engaging in all sorts of mercy ministries from feeding the poor to engaging in community development seems now to be a given. You don’t question it. If you do, you risk being looked at as a poor benighted soul (that is, if you have a soul).

But, let me spit into the wind a little.

The Bible makes clear that there is a connection between showing and receiving mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” No one can expect mercy who does not show mercy to others. Nor can there be any question that Christians are called upon to show mercy, even to those who are suffering the consequences of their sins, even as God had pity on us in our sin caused misery. And, while we are not called to be gullible, it is better to err on the side of mercy, than to close our hearts to suffering.

But, the question remains, has God assigned to the church the mission of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments AND of relieving and ministering to the bodily, social, and other this worldly needs of the world?

Increasingly, among conservative Presbyterians, one may not question who the objects of such mercy are. As one evangelical preacher proclaimed from his pulpit, “Mercy ministry is as important as the ministry of the Word.”

Before I start questioning baseball, apple pie, and motherhood, 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 non-believers) are the mission of the church and necessary to give a full and credible vindication of its message. Indeed, 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 PCA 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 appears to be on its ministry to the poor of its city.

Another PCA church in another city 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 kind of definition of and approach to mercy ministries 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 (Acts 2: 43,44).

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.” At this time the mercy ministries were so effective that “there was not a needy person among them.” 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” (Acts 4: 32-37). 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 showing 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 provision for the needy. Up till 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” (Acts 6:1-7).

When we move out of the initial phase of the church’s development in Jerusalem, we find a woman of great grace, Dorcas or Tabitha, a resident of Joppa (Acts 9: 36-43). She is distinguished as being “full of good works and charity.” Her special ministry seems to have been making clothes for widows. Could this be a case of mercy ministry carried on to the community? Possibly. If it is, it shows no more than any Christian should do, which is to do good works to all as we have opportunity. But the context seems to indicate 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.”

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. 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” (Acts 11: 29).

When we consider the spread of the gospel to the Gentile world, we find the Apostle Paul as charged to “remember the poor” (Galatians 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 (1 Thessalonians 4:9-11, 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-11).

He also organized the special offering for the poor saints in Jerusalem a subject which he mentions in the last chapter of 1 Corinthians (16:1-4) and to which he devotes two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians (8, 9). 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” (Romans 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?” (Galatians 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, 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 (diakonos – servant)? 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 the Sole Source of our salvation? It us to be servants to each other in the community of faith (Mark 10: 35-45). 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.” 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 Christological passage, he uses Christ to show the Philippian Christians how to have “the mind of Christ” in their troubled church (Philippians 2:1-11).

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” (Matthew 25: 40, 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 1:27).

So says the writer of Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison (in the context no doubt whom he has in mind) as though you were in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13: 3). So says, also, the Apostle John: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we 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 and teaching clearly show that the church’s ministry of mercy is to its members. We in the church have a long way to go before there is not a needy person among us, before we serve one another in humility and love after the example of our Lord. 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, and so to seek, the reason for the life we live as the called out community.

And, when it comes to the mission of the church to the world, what we need is a renewed commitment to mission Jesus gave the church. He said, “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” (Matthew 28: 19,20). 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 and teaching.”

Conservative Presbyterians 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.

One thought on “The Fourth Mark of a True Church: Mercy Ministry?

  1. sedgegrass says:

    In ‘The Mark of the Christian’, Schaeffer makes a similar case concerning the new commandment that the disciples were given- ‘that you love one another’. We are told that this is how the world will know we belong to Christ, by the way we love the brethren. There’s really no equivocating on this commandment; God loves His children, how can we not do the same? I sometimes think it is easier to participate in outreach activities (however much good they may do), than it is to develop sacrificial and loving relationships within the church. The first action tends to make me feel good about myself; the later one more readily exposes who I am, warts and all. A different emphasis would be to charge the church with obedience to this new commandment- loving one another- and then to glorify God in every sphere of life in which He places us. Has the church developed elaborate social outreach programs while being ineffectual in counseling marriages, addressing sins such as porn addiction or caring for those who are struggling financially within the body of Christ? That kind of love will draw others who have similar needs, because they will see hope in Christ demonstrated in the church.


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