Biblical Pillars for Mercy Ministry

Yesterday John Piper gave a challenge to his readers to try to support their understanding of showing love to the unbelieving poor with “strong pillars” of theological argument. People are lost and on their way to hell, and many of them are suffering in this life as well. It has always struck me as particularly meaningless and eternally inconsequential when churches use their resources to do that which God has not called us to do. The poor, as Piper said, deserve better than bad arguments with bad theological foundations.

Last week I made the case that the Bible does not command churches to use their resources to lower the poverty rate, and I quibbled with Tim Keller’s statement that Christians owe the poor as much as we can possibly give them. But Keller’s views on mercy ministry are really so extreme, that it is easy to be accused of arguing with a straw man (plus I want to take this to heart) so I want to spend a few posts explaining what I see is a full biblical view of mercy ministry.

So over the next few weeks/months, I will use this blog to explain how our response to the poor should be influenced by Scripture (only one post a week, so no need to tune out till November if this doesn’t interest you). If you have sat on a mission’s committee and been frustrated by the social agenda of many missionaries, if you have seen the homeless man on the side of the road with the sign that says “will work for beer” and wondered what you should do, if have ever dared to ask the question: “does the Bible command Christians to work for social justice issues?” then this series of posts will be helpful to you.

The compassion of God is perhaps his most incredible communicable attribute, and is certainly His most discussed attribute in Scripture. Understanding this should guide any discussion about showing compassion to the poor. To use Piper’s metaphor, if our theology is going to be the pillars of our argument, then God’s compassion is the foundation. From that foundation are these pillars:

1. Understanding some of the differences between the church and Israel is foundational to understanding how to care for the poor, and how to rightly apply God’s commands. While Israel was to stay in the promised land and transform her society (there were no food pack campaigns to Assyrians), the church is supposed to scatter around the world and proclaim the gospel, while transforming society inside of the church—not outside. This is seen in missions (Israel stayed, the church goes), as well as in mercy ministry (compare Ruth to the widows in 1 Tim 5).

2. Jesus was the perfect embodiment of compassion, yet he never fed the poor or “combated poverty.” He told John the Baptist that the poor “had the good news preached to them,” and then he sent his followers out to do the same.

3. Simply put, the mission of the church is evangelism. All four gospels end with some variation of this command, and it is explicitly repeated throughout the NT.

4. That said, there is a huge difference between what local churches are called to do corporately and what we as Christians are called to do individually. Confusing these two leads to bad ecclesiology and a Shane-Claiborne like mentality about the gospel. Personal ethics should not be confused with corporate mandates.

5. The American church has fallen prey to what Marvin Olasky calls the tragedy of American Compassion. While God’s love calls us to radically change our lives, American Christians (often in the name of love) think the most loving thing to do for the homeless is to give him food, thereby enabling poverty and violating 2 Thess 3:10. Why would we want to love others in a way God does not love us?

6. The debate about mercy ministry is really a debate about eschatology and ecclesiology. If you believe the church ushers in the kingdom of God, and that there is no hunger in the kingdom, and that you are joined to the church/kingdom through infant baptism, then you should be out there getting rid of any social injustice that has crept inside your God’s kingdom. This is why it is so frustrating to see premils falling for the plastic version of justice offered by community organizers.

7. Materialism is the enemy of not only our own souls, but of missions. If you close your heart to the poor to build a bigger barn for yourself, you are recklessly deceived about the condition of your relationship with God. Beyond that, every dollar wasted in luxury, on food for those who don’t work, or in trying to undo the “psychological and emotional effects of the fall” (Keller’s words), is a dollar that is not being sent forward to heaven.

The foundation is God’s compassion. The pillars are: discontinuity, the compassion of Jesus, the Great Commission, a right understanding of the corporate church, a biblical concept of love, the hope in a future kingdom, and the danger of materialism’s attack on missions.

The goal of all of this is to cause those who read with me to the end to understand God’s love for the lost more deeply, and to see how God’s compassion is the foundation for right thinking about poverty in the world. I’ll hotlink future posts to the entries above.

  • Stantilly

    Hi Jesse, you have made the same hermeneutical mistake you are accusing others of doing. When you say 2 Thes 3:10 is speaking of the “poor” or “homeless” you have misused the text – the text is speaking of the “idle”, that’s a completely different category of people to the “poor”. Granted, some people are poor and homeless because they are idle/lazy and don’t want to work but there are countless number of poor people in countries where the unemployment rate is so high that there is just no work and therefore massive poverty. Much of what you say in your articles is valid i.e. the primacy of the Gospel; care for poor believers first; these things are agreed with, but to continue treating the poor of this world the way you are doing and to try and justify this from Scripture and to insist that the church should not be involved in works of mercy really should come to an end brother. When you speak about wasting dollars on those “who don’t work” that is one thing i.e. if they don’t want to work, but, please, do not dump all the poor of this world into that category – as I have said, at least here in Africa, I can’t speak for the USA, but here in Africa millions of poor people “can’t work” there is no employment.

    • Anonymous

      Go back and reread that paragraph. I think I used the word “American” two or three times there. And also, that was in no way exhaustive. I’m talking about the average American church’s approach to mercy ministry (aka soup kitchens and homeless shelters). I’m sure there are no pointless mercy ministry endeavors in Africa, or at least none that I could speak to with authority. Even in the US, there are those who are homeless because they are legitimately crazy or sick, not because of any kind of laziness. And even for them, Scripture presents a better picture than what most church’s do.

      • Stantilly

        Jesse, have you used 2 Thes 3:10 legitimately in point 5 of your article by saying we violate it’s teaching when we care for the “poor” of this world? Is not the clear teaching of that verse violated when we care for the “idle” brother in the church!?

        • Anonymous

          Ah. Got it. Sorry for my snarky comment; I got sidetracked by the American/African dynamic.
          I agree that 2 Thess 3 is a reference to so-called believers who are draining the church’s resources by their refusal to work and reliance on the good will of church members for food. The church should not enable that kind of laziness, and their resources should go to those believers who are truly in need, to missions, and to supporting their pastors and elders. That is my point.
          If you want to apply that to the unbelieving poor, I would say there is a distinction that is being overlooked. But beyond that, I guess it is an argument from the greater to the lesser. If you would exercise tough love on a believer who is refusing to work, how much more should you use discernment when dealing with the poor of the world. And I go back to my post last week. The NT simply does not present a picture or a mandate of churches involved in social transformation projects or working to lower the world’s poverty rate. Those verses are simply not there. If you reject the distinction between the poor of the world and the poor of the church, then you run into 2 Thess 3 problems. But my point is that the distinction is there to begin with.

          • Stantilly

            Jesse, would you promote this mercy ministry in your church?:

            This year, xyz Ministries International will be meeting with church leaders in their communities across Africa. xyz MI wants to come alongside of these churches as they (the churches) strive to serve their communities. Each community has different needs, but the most important need in every community is the gospel. xyz MI works with each individual pastor and church to develop careful and biblical strategies for helping others in ways that truly glorify God. xyz MI also seeks to help these pastors by creating awareness of the needs in their communities and distributing resources (i.e. other than the gospel) received from international and local sources.

            The goal is to partner with a growing group of godly leaders and local churches in different regions throughout Africa that will help us serve those in need (i.e. with the gospel and food, clothing, & housing). xyz will work with these leaders and churches to develop plans and strategies for reaching out to their communities with the love of Christ (by disseminating food, clothing etc and obviously, the gospel). The leaders in this network minister to those in need in a number of different ways, including providing food, clothing, and even housing to those in crisis. It is a great privilege to work with the leaders and churches in this network, coming alongside them as they minister to those in need in a number of different ways, including providing food, clothing and even housing to those in criss. These leaders and their churches are a very important part of how xyz MI wants to impact South Africa for the gospel.

          • Anonymous

            Well, that gets to the larger question of para church organizations. There are some good and some bad, some helpful and others unnecessary. Ideally God has gifted the church to accomplish all that God has called the church to do. But there are some organizations, like Children’s Hunger Fund, that excel in coming along side churches and doing what God has called the church to do. So my point on this post is to refine what exactly the church is called to do.

      • splodinec

        Greetings from Africa, excellent first post.
        There are pointless mercy ministry endeavors in Africa. Our church here has a weekly soup kitchen ministry that supposedly feeds the needy, but most that come have jobs. And, the average short term missions trip from the US is almost criminal in its waste of missions funds and waste of the missionaries time.

        • Anonymous

          Yeah. There are good STM’s and bad STM’s. I think it should be pretty easy to provoke Clint to write a post on good STM’s. Also–shameless self promotion warning–you should check out the Evangelism book in the side bar; Clint has a chapter in there where he talks about just that. Not sure where you can buy it in RSA, but I’m sure there is a place somewhere. Or get some STM team to bring you a copy or two in their luggage.

  • Just to be clear Jesse, you’re not saying that the church shouldn’t do mercy ministry, but that we shouldn’t do mercy ministry without presenting the gospel, right? Otherwise we are just making people comfortable on the way to Hell. We should make them comfortable in the name of Christ, to show them love so we can witness to them. Am I tracking?

    • Anonymous

      I am saying that the church is called to minister to those inside the body of Christ, and to bring the gospel to those outside the body of Christ. THere is a difference between personal and corporate ethics, and confusing those leads to bad things gospel wise. I’m also not so sure about the effectiveness of “making people comfortable so we can witness to them.” Every person’s evangelism should be lead by their own witness and discernment, and in many cases that is may be very appropriate. But as a missions/evangelism strategy, that has sort of veered away from what you see in the NT (and believe me, there were poor in Israel, Rome, Asia, during NT times).

    • Anonymous

      As a personal note, I oversee our church’s mercy ministry. I believe that some social action is a viable and helpful means to the end of gospel proclamation. I also think there are some areas (like ministry to those in comas, or in the psych ward), where gospel proclamation is not even the goal, as much as demonstrating that people–even psychologically broken people–are in the image of God and are deserving of Christian respect and dignity. Even in that though, the goal is not social transformation, ushering in the kingdom, lowering the poverty rates, or some sense of owing the poor all that we can give them. Rather it is a demonstration of Christian compassion on our neighbors. And that is not a subtle difference, but is a huge one with mammoth implications.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        “As a personal note, I oversee our church’s mercy ministry.”

        I KNEW IT!!

        You’re a Social Justice Mainline LibProt “Deeds, Not Creeds” Weepy-Feely-Touchy Emerger planted as an inside spy on John MacArthur’s church!


        (All the above said in good-natured jest. 😉 Looking forward to the rest of an excellent series.)

  • Erik L

    Jesse, I’m excited to see where this series of posts will go. I appreciate the tone and balance you tried to maintain in the post, and the care taken to not over simplify things. I liked Piper’s post yesterday and was sort of hoping this blog would piggy back off of it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Erik. I was excited to see Piper’s post as well, and I really did take it as a personal challenge. Having read books like Claiborne’s Revolution and others, I’m floored by the kind of poor hermenuitcs that people embrace, and I want to present a more biblical concept of what ministry to the poor should look like. I share Piper’s goals: a more biblical approach to the poor, grounded in God’s compassion.

  • Suzanne

    In the past several months I’ve noted a marked surge on the evangelical landscape of what appears a new perspective on the worlds poor (although nothing is new). It’s a difficult one to address in the church with either those who seem to be unwittingly hovering near these ideas or those who fully embrace them. If biblical conviction causes us to “resist” this new supposed system of theological justice then there’s the risk (such as it is) of being seen by your fellow breth/sistren as cold and lacking in compassion; or simply lacking in biblical discernment and knowledge of the scripture passages cited in the discourse.

    Another of the frustrations with this view of societal justice and the “we owe them” attitude is the feelings-based aspect of it-which I believe to be at root in much straying from the truth today. We are are so easily manipulated by feelings, I don’t fully discount myself in that. But for God’s grace go I.

    Thank you so much for addressing this so well, Jesse. I will definately be following.

  • Brad

    Hey Jesse,

    I just read Piper’s article. He seems to be saying that the reason not to use poor arguments for serving the unbelieving poor is because there are so many good arguments for serving the unbelieving poor. He seems to be saying that there are a ton of great arguments and texts in Scripture for serving the unbelieving poor. Serving the unbelieving poor is commanded all throughout the New Testament. Piper seems to be encouraging us to serve the unbelieving poor more, not less, precisely because of the teaching of Scripture.

    So, I guess I was wondering at what point do you disagree with Piper that there are “strong pillars of theological argument” for serving the unbelieving poor? To me, it seems that you are saying that individual Christians should serve the unbelieving poor as they have the chance but the elders and the leaders of the church should not because they should focus on proclaiming the gospel and serving the believing poor. Is that close to what you are arguing?

    • Anonymous

      Yeah Brad, you nailed it. I’d add to it, that people need to be careful what they mean by “serving” the poor. That is Olasky’s point in his book mentioned in my post. Often people, in an attempt at serving, actually do more temporal harm than good, and don’t end up achieving an opportunity to talk about eternal things either. So for example, most of Piper’s verses he quoted were about “doing good” to your enemies. Well, it is more than a big jump from that kind of command to “serving the unbelieving poor.” But I agree that there is also a crtical distinction between actual mandates and charges given to the corporate church, and the ethics (and consequences of ethics) of an individual.

      • Brad

        Thanks Jesse!

  • Bedwards

    Looking forward to this series. I think it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed in a more biblical way. I’ve been working through many of these things myself over the last couple of years.

    A few quibbles about this post (though I’m largely in agreement): I’m not sure it’s most helpful to categorize the mission of the church as evangelism, especially b/c of the way most people view evangelism. The mission of the church is to glorify God by making and maturing disciples who are becoming like Jesus Christ. The church is not merely called to evangelize, but also to disciple. That’s important in a discussion about ministry to the poor. I agree that the church does not have a mandate to help the poor, but believers certainly do (which you seem to agree with). However, the church does have a call to disciple its members to fulfill their responsibilities. Thus, if believers have a mandate to minister to the poor, and the church has a mandate to disciple its members to fulfill their responsibilities, then the church has a mandate to disciple its members to care for the poor, right?

    Second, I think you are over simplifying even American poverty. Poverty is not merely the result of idleness or laziness. Biblically, there are three causes of poverty: personal sins (laziness, undisciplined life, etc.); sins of others (injustice, oppression) and the effects of sin in nature (i.e., natural disasters, such as famines, hurricanes, etc. You could probably include mental and physical disabilities in this category) Thus, even in America, someone may be homeless or poor for reasons other than merely individual sin (raised in a family with neglectful parents, educated in sub-par schools, etc.). You seem to be oversimplifying poverty in some of your statements.

    Third, I think your use of 2 Thess 3:10 comes close to the abuse others make of verses they use to support ministry to poor unbelievers, since you fail to see the context of idle believers and church discipline. Paul’s concern in 2 Thess 3:10 is more on the spiritual well-being of the sinning member than on the resources of the church. Thus, giving to an unbeliever who is idle does not directly violate 2 Thess 3:10. Making that point does not mean that indiscriminate charity is the best way to help others, but don’t use verses out of context in the midst of chastising others for using verses out of context 🙂

    Just wanted to give a little bit of push back for refinement’s sake. Again, looking forward to further developments.


    • Anonymous

      Great questions Ben. I’ll answer them one at a time. “If the believers have a mandate to minister to the poor, then churches have a mandate to train her members to fulfill that responsibility.” Is that the essence of the first question? If so, I totally agree. So one of my main goals in this series will be to look closely at what is meant by the first part of that statement, and get a better understanding of the idea that believers have a mandate to minister to the poor. I will deal with that in a future post. But to the extent that that mandate exists, you are absolutely correct: the church needs to train her members to do it biblicaly.

      • Bedwards

        That’s basically the essence (along with a tweak of the mission of the church–since it includes more than mere evangelism). Looking forward to your explanation of how the church can equip its members in this way

    • Anonymous

      Second, on the oversimplification of poverty. I also totally agree with you. I wrote a chapter on that in a book called Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong. Certainly not everyone in poverty is there by their own choice or sin, especially when dealing with children. What is the best solution? I maintain that it is gospel proclamation, and once in the church, there should be no needs. Short of that, engaging in sort of mid-way projects to meet physical needs of the poor of the world on a corporate church level is simply not practical, not taught in the Bible, ultimately ineffective, and distracts from the real mission of the church. But each church is free to use her resources as the elders see fit, and in some cases social work might be an effective way to open opportunities for the gospel. In other cases, especially after natural disaster, churches can demonstrate the love of Christ and the dignity of humans by the way they indiscriminately respond. Again though, this is under the wisdom of elders in a case-by-case situation, and is substantially different than saying that there is a mandate for social intervention given by the Lord to his church.

      • Bedwards

        If you are only discussing the role of the church qua church, then I think you’re ok. The problem is it’s difficult sometimes to determine if you are stating things generally (for believers) or specifically (for the church). For example: the best solution for poor children being gospel proclamation until they are brought inside the church may fit in regard to the role of the church, but it seems to go against a heart of compassion for believers.

    • Anonymous

      Third: you are totally correct. Stan also pointed that out above, and you can see my response to him. Thanks for also pointing that out.

      • Bedwards

        I still think you’re not quite using the passage right. For example, in your response you state: “If you would exercise tough love on a believer who is refusing to work, how much more should you use discernment when dealing with the poor of the world.” But the believer has a greater responsibility to follow God’s commands. We expect unbelievers to be sinful and lazy–they’re unbelievers! We don’t expect that from believers. That’s why I said the primary point does not seem to be the resources of the church but the spiritual state of the professing believer. That’s why I’m not sure it’s best to use it in connection with unbelievers without carefully making these distinctions. FWIW

        • Anonymous

          I’m with you. You and Stan won me over, and I’ll tweak that when I speak of that argument again. Thanks.

  • Brad

    Hey Ben,

    Great post!

    I was wondering what you mean with this quote:

    “I agree that the church does not have a mandate to help the poor, but believers certainly do.”

    I think of the church as the gathering of God’s people, a group of believers. In other words, the church = believers. So, I can’t understand how the church doesn’t have to help the poor but believers do.

    It seems like you are saying that the church and believers are two different things and that each have different responsibilities. Could you explain what the difference is between “the church” and “believers”? I don’t understand how believers can have a mandate that the church doesn’t. To me, it seems like a mandate to believers is, by definition, also a mandate to the church.


    • Anonymous

      I don’t want to step on Ben’s toes here, but in the next month or so I will have a post on this exact topic. But the short answer is that there are things the church is called to do corporately and other things that believers are called to do individually, and it leads to bad things when they are confused. A church is made of beleivers (at least a Baptist church–ha!), but not any group of believers is a church. You need elders, ordinances, etc. God has a finite number of things that he has commanded local churches to do. Ben makes a great point that one of those things is to train individuals to do what God has commanded them to do. I’ll let Ben answer for himself, but I wanted to jump in quick.

    • Bedwards


      The church is a group of believers, but that does not mean that the church=believers. (Otherwise, any time a group of believers happen to be together they would constitute a church–making a believing family a church, a Bible study a church, a Christian university a church, etc.)

      Also, there are distinctions between the responsibilities given to believers and responsibilities given to the church as church. For example, the church has the responsibility of overseeing the ordinances, of administering church discipline, etc. Individual believers cannot take that responsibility on themselves (i.e., I can’t baptism anyone I want, or discipline anyone I want). As well, individual believers have some responsibilities that the church does not fulfill. The church isn’t called to love my wife–I am. The church isn’t called to fulfill my responsibilities as an employee–I am. I think one passage that brings this out clearly (especially in relationship to ministry to those in need) is 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Paul points out that believing relatives are to care for needy widows in their family rather than the church, whereas the church has the responsibility to care for the widows who are truly in need.

      So, the responsibilities of the church and the responsibilities of believers are not co-extensive. This is probably one of the crucial aspects of this discussion that is missed, (which is why the fourth pillar mentioned above in this article is there 🙂 )

      • Lew Miller

        Very good response Ben. Thank you.

      • Brad

        Thanks, Ben!

      • yes and never is the true church NOT made up of believers (believers who are also commanded to show mercy to those in need). thus, a true local church is not something other than a group of believers. if believers are involved in mercy then their church will be too unless each believer lives in his own bubble.

  • “…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (which includes acts of mercy to those in need)

  • Pingback: Pisteuo: Biblical Pillars for Mercy Ministry | Environmentalism()

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Hi Jesse,

    I was going to post the following on your original post about Keller, but it’s probably just as appropriate for this thread.

    “For many, many years I spent time “in the trenches” reaching out to at-risk youth. At first I was the stereotypical naive idealist. ”All they need is love and a chance,” I thought. Working in mentoring programs, I spent untold hours playing catch, going to little league games, going to parks, and just hanging out with at-risk kids as part of a variety of programs. Seeing ragged clothes, I’d buy new clothes. Hearing that a mother couldn’t pay the light bill, I’d kick in and help. I spent night after night sleeping in homeless shelters, cooking dinners in the evening, pancake breakfasts in the morning, and fixing snack lunches for hard days on the streets.

    I can’t remember when I first realized that I was accomplishing nothing of substance. A few car break-ins taught me that some guys saw me as an easy mark. A few pot purchases with the “gas bill money” taught me that others saw me as an ATM. Admonitions to “stay in school” had little appeal compared to drug-fueled orgies for kids as young as fifteen years old. I tried. God knows I tried. But it was all for naught.

    Only one thing really worked. The Cross. There are kids today that Nancy and I worked with who are doing well, who are happily married, and who are pillars of their community. What made the difference for them? The Cross. It wasn’t about my words. It wasn’t about my effort. (After all, I tried just as hard or harder with other kids — who are now in prison or “baby-daddies” or both.) The kids who made it heard the Gospel, repented of sin, and were transformed through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

    It’s trendy now for churches to put less emphasis on the Gospel and more emphasis on service. I’ve even heard Christians almost brag that their outreach efforts don’t include any proselytizing at all. This is tragic. Billions of dollars of “service” won’t change hearts and lives. We know that now. In fact, those very billions may very well numb the human heart to the gravity of its sin.

    So, yes, let’s do “more,” but let’s make sure that “more” is aimed at the real source of American poverty — our depravity.”

    Excerpted from:

    (H/T to Justin Taylor)

  • Pingback: The call to minister to the poor | the Cripplegate()

  • Pingback: 4 lessons in World Vision’s Flawed Vision | the Cripplegate()