I have a soft spot for mercy ministries. These outward-focused ministries serve the less fortunate in our communities. Some of my sweetest ministry experiences have come through eight years of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to immigrants.
One day, though, I stepped back and asked the question: Why do we do ESL? Yes, ESL meets a practical need (teaching English), a relational need (building friendships) and can open doors to a spiritual need (presenting the gospel). But beyond an ESL ministry’s practicality, does it — or any mercy ministry — have biblical warrant to be a ministry of the church?
So I set out on a quest. I scoured Scripture to see if the Bible commands us to care for the needy (it does). And I surveyed church history to see if our spiritual predecessors cared for the less fortunate (they did).
And these four theological principles emerged:
1. Since God cares for the needy, so should we.
God’s concern for the needy pervades scripture, and it flows from his character. The Torah, writings, prophets, Gospels, and epistles all testify to the reality that God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Psalm 9:12).
Because this love for the less fortunate is part of his very character, we should emulate it.
2. Scripture commands individuals to minister to the poor.
Again, scripture consistently compels God’s people to care for the needy (cf. Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37; Hebrews 13:2). We are to make it part of our lifestyle, “open[ing] wide” our hands to those who need help (Deuteronomy 15:8-15) and serving everyone (Matthew 20:24-28).
If you don’t think these commands apply to you, then look at Scripture’s warnings of judgment. Amos warned of Israel’s impending judgment for their lack of concern for the needy (cf. Amos 8). Jesus warned his followers in much the same way (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). This is heavy stuff. Scripture is abundantly clear — we must care for the less fortunate.
Scripture is abundantly clear — we must care for the less fortunate.
3. “Official” church ministry to the poor outside the church isn’t commanded, but it’s wise.
The New Testament explicitly commands churches to take care of its believers in need (cf. James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17-18). And though the New Testament certainly commands individualsto care for unbelieving poor, as we mentioned, it is less clear about the local church’s role in such mercy ministries.
So, there’s ambiguity on this issue. And people who’ve thought deeply about mercy ministry disagree.
Some theologians assert that caring for the unbelieving needy should be an official ministry of the church. Fern Babcock Grant, for example, argues in Ministries of Mercy that “neither a church nor a church member can be Christian without participating in the ministry of love and service to others” (6-7).
Yet other theologians address the question with more nuance. Mark Dever in A Theology for the Church claims that ministry to the unbelieving needy is not required by Scripture, but that “Christian congregations have both the liberty and responsibility to prudently take such initiatives in their community” in obedience to the gospel. Tim Keller agrees that the ministry of the word is the church’s priority, but local churches must equip believers “to love their neighbor, integrate their faith in their work, and seek a more just and wholesome society and culture.” Kevin DeYoung concurs. “It is not imperative that every church have an official ‘mercy ministry’ program,” he writes. “It is essential, however, that every congregation be involved in mercy ministry.” A survey of church history suggests that though Scripture does not mandate such ministries, many local churches have taken it upon themselves to care for the needy in this way.
As a result, local church mercy ministries aren’t obligated — but they’re wise.
4. Serving the needy can open doors to share the good news.
Jesus did not merely heal the people who followed him. Luke says that he “laid his hands on every one of themand healed them” (Luke 4:40). And Jesus used these miracles as an opportunity to call people to faith (cf. Mark 5:36, 9:22-24; John 11:25-27). The apostles followed this pattern in Acts. For example, Peter and John’s healing of the lame man drew a crowd, spurring Peter to proclaim the gospel (cf. Acts 3:1-26).
Throughout Scripture, then, acts of mercy tend to coincide with evangelism. Meeting a temporary, practical need can allow you to meet an eternal, spiritual need.
Meeting a temporary, practical need can allow you to meet an eternal, spiritual need.
And in my experience, that has been the case. I have seen the good news of Jesus be shared with people from every corner of the world — all because a few everyday people were willing to sacrifice an hour or two to teach an hour of English.
Mercy ministry isn’t glamorous. Most of it happens behind the scenes. But whether it’s ESL, food pantries, refugee ministries, car care ministries, or counseling, mercy ministry matters. It matters to God. It matters to the people we serve. And it should matter to us, too.
A version of this post originally appeared on Nathaniel’s blog.
For Further Reading:
- Christensen, Michael J. “The outsider inside the upside down kingdom: a biblical basis for ministries of mercy and justice.” Living Pulpit 13, no. 4 (2004): 10-12.
- Dever, Mark. “The Church.” A Theology for the Church. Edited by Daniel L. Akin. Nashville: B&H, 2007.
- DeYoung, Kevin. “Obligation, Stewardship, and the Poor.”
- DeYoung, Kevin. “Thinking Through Your Church’s Mercy Ministry.”
- Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler. “The Works of Mercy: Theological Perspectives.”The Works of Mercy: New Perspectives on Ministry. Edited by Francis A. Eigo. Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1992.
- Grant, Fern Babcock. Ministries of Mercy. New York: Friendship Press, 1962.
- Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
- Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.
- Keller, Timothy. “How Do Word and Deed Ministry Fit Together for a Church?”
- Keller, Timothy J. Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. 2nd Ed. New Jersey: P&R, 1997.
- Piper, John. “Put Strong Pillars Under Your Case for the Unbelieving Poor.“