April 10, 2014

A vision for better mercy ministry

by Jesse Johnson

If the World Vision marriage controversy a few weeks ago (more about that here and here) teaches us anything, it is this: there has to be a better way for Christians to be involved in mercy ministry. If we are content giving money away to organizations that pride themselves on being atheolgoical, then we are going to continually be frustrated when our resources end up being used to advance an agenda that is less than biblical.

I have a few ideas about how to do mercy ministry more effectively, but first a quick comment about the stunning hypocrisy that came out as a result of World Vision’s capitulation (and recapitulation) on gay marriage:  

After they announced that one could be in a monogamous homosexual relationship while simultaneously be leading a sexually pure life, many people called World Vision to cancel their monthly support. This turned out to be remarkably effective—World Vision’s language may not be theological, but it turns out that it is financial. They listened to the phone calls and appeals of friends, and reversed their decision.

Note that those that pulled their money because of their convictions were vindicated, and their refusal to support a ministry that would use their funds to advance a same-sex marriage agenda effectively stopped that organization from advancing that agenda. It counted as a rare win for those who stand apposed to the SSM revolution pushing into the church.

But in the mean time, there was no shortage of faux outrage. People were lamenting that Christians allegedly cared more about limiting marriage than helping starving kids in Africa. Others blamed those who canceled their support for the impoverished condition of starving children. The idea being, “if you pull your support, those kids lose out, and you should feel terrible about that!”

This was a great reminder about how generous some people are with other people’s money. It reminded me of when the disciples, shocked that Mary would use $30,000 of perfume on Jesus, demanded: “shouldn’t she sell that and give it to the poor?” How thoughtful of the disciples to know how Mary should spend her money!

But Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples is very insightful:

“Leave her alone! You will always have the poor with you, and you can do good to them anytime you want. You will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

This answer leads to a few principles that when applied, will help you restore mercy ministry to its biblical place of importance:

  1. Jesus approves of doing good to the poor. He green lights it. If you wonder if you should help the poor, well wonder no more. Jesus says you can do it, and you can do it anytime you want to. This is an area of Christian freedom, but an area of freedom where we know that the Lord approves of what we do to help those in need.
  2. Worship is a higher priority—with your time, money, and resources—than mercy ministry. Evangelism, mercy ministry, and everything else the church does has its place, and their place is subservient to worship. There are obviously times when mercy ministry and worship are not mutually exclusive; where giving to the poor is an act of worship. But any fair reading of Mark 14:1-9 has to leave you with the understanding that Jesus valued worship of the Son of God to be a higher priority than ministry to the poor.
  3. The most pressing thing the poor of the world need is the gospel. In Mark 14, Jesus went on to say that wherever in the entire world the gospel goes, what Mary did will be told in honor of her. In other words, the gospel is going to go around the globe, and Mary’s adoration of the Messiah’s death would be proclaimed. Specifically Mary will be esteemed because she knew it was honorable for her to use her resources to proclaim Jesus’ crucifixion. Remember, mercy ministry and evangelism do not have to be in tension. They are not opposites, and especially in impoverished areas there has to be a both/and approach. But if you find an organization that is not worried about the “and,” and instead is focused solely on the giving of material needs, then that organization is not advancing the kingdom.
  4. The NT model is for churches to minister to the poor through their churches. In fact, from the ascension forward, every biblical example of mercy ministry I can think of is aimed at either orphans, or those in local churches. When a famine hit, other churches sent resources to the poor “saints in Jerusalem” (Rom 15:25-26, 31). Paul says that for a widow to receive aid, she must “fix her hope on God, and continue in prayers night and day” (1 Tim 5:5, 9-10). In Acts, the model was not to distribute resources to the poor-at-large, but rather to sell what they wanted, and give the finances to the church, so that the elders and deacons could meet the needs of the poor in the church.

That fourth point is particularly critical in dealing with global mercy ministry. Because of distance, language difficulties and cultural differences, it is often very difficult to figure out what is the most effective way to minster to the poor in another country. This is precisely why groups like World Vision are so successful. They can pool large amounts of money, and buy food for entire villages. But without doctrinal/theological wherewithal, it is good to question what exactly the money is doing. Again, if the goal is to simply combat hunger, then that approach is successful. But if the goal is gospel proclamation, obviously that approach is lacking.

A better approach is to do mercy ministry through local churches. Churches with elders (or some accountable and godly leadership) are better equipped to know how to minister to people in their community than a multi-national aid organization. They know the needs, they know the people, and most importantly, they know the gospel. This is why the New Testament model is churches helping churches.

Christians should be engaged with mercy ministry through their own church, and their own church should be engaged globally with other churches. This has a dual advantage: first, the actual mercy part of the ministry is likely going to be more effective. But second, the doctrinal accountability, the evangelism, and the follow-up are built into the system.

What are some practical ways to do that? I will write about that tomorrow.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
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  • Churches helping churches would tie that mercy ministry in another country into that local, national church, wouldn’t it? Then, were we feet on the ground there, we would see those local church members reaching local unsaved. The orphans, homeless, hungry, etc. near that national church would be finding help in a church local to them.
    Does a national organization have a place? Or does that only lead to undermining the church-to-church process?

    • I think he is going to address the application of the posited concepts in tomorrow’s article.

    • There are some national organizations/ministries that are very successful in helping local churches. Often there are problems that are greater than a local church can tackle, and that is where national denominations or even national mercy ministries excel by working with those churches. Some obvious examples are in the US missions sending agencies that help local churches be strategic about their resources. In more impoverished countries, national organizations can provide training and resources to the local church that would be beyond them. Practically, there often has to be a middleman kind of organization that bridges the gap–that takes resources from US churches and distributes them to foreign churches. I’ll give a few good examples tomorrow.

  • question

    What are some “mercy ministries” that you like?

  • kevin2184

    Jesse, you have a great way of always getting right to the heart of the matter. Great hearing you on Brannon’s show last week speaking about this issue.

  • Ken Miller

    What are your thoughts on Children’s Hunger Fund? They funnel money through local churches to the poor.

  • brad

    I do believe Mark 14:1-9 is teaching us that Jesus is to be treasured above the poor. However, since Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15, I also think He is rebuking the disciples – and us – for our lack of concern for the poor.

    • That’s a great point. Had Judas/Jews been following the Law, there “would be no poor in Israel.” Since they were not following the law, they had the opportunity to do good to the poor whenever they wanted. Thanks for pointing that out Brad.

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  • Dada man

    I’ve noticed you’re really hung up on homosexuality. It’s troubling to think someone would spend so much time trying to justify his bigotry or hide his closeted self. What do you reckon?

    • I mentioned it in the intro in the context that what was perhaps the world’s largest non-profit just lost a comical amount of their support over their inability to grasp the clear teaching of scripture on the issue. That is pretty much a major news event, with the issues of marriage, repentance, and mercy ministry at its core. Does it intersect with homosexuality? Obviously. But the bigger point to me (having written on this four times now) is not homosexuality, but the atheological nature of mercy ministries.

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