August 23, 2016

Eight biblical objections to social-work as “missions”

by Joel James

Yesterday I said that there were at least eight biblical objections to viewing “social action” as a form of missions. In that post, I explained what three of those were, and I’d encourage you to read that post first. But having noted those three, here are the rest of those eight objections:


Problem 4:  An overly realized eschatology, or wanting the kingdom now.

An idealistic desire to bring the kingdom now often plays a role in the social-action vision of missions.  Social action advocates argue that Christ came to banish the results of the Fall; therefore, “kingdom work” includes anything that diminishes or reverses those results and promotes the general betterment of society.  However, this “common-grace” approach to the Great Commission is a thoroughly inadequate one—a kind of closet postmillennialism that attempts to create transformation that only Christ’s return can bring.

Problem 5:  Defective hermeneutics.

The arguments used to promote social action missions are often based on transparently deficient hermeneutics.  The result is arguments that are rhetorically compelling, but biblically suspect. For example, I often find that NT passages about mercy within the church are interpreted as if they referred to missions projects outside the church.  Among many others, a typical example is the widow care in Acts 6.  To put it plainly, the seven men appointed in Acts 6 were ministers to the church, not missionaries to the world.  An army of examples of this kind of error could be marshalled.  Once you keep your eyes open for it you’ll see it frequently:  the apples argument of mercy within the church used to promote the oranges conclusion of social reform efforts targeted at the world.

Problem 6:  Confusing what the church-corporate does with what individual Christians do.

 Much of the confusion in this debate lies right here.  We have confused Jesus’ call to love our neighbour with the church-corporate’s missions program:  both are important, but they aren’t the same thing.  It is not at all wrong for Christians to be involved in orphanages, health care, and so on.  But what individual Christians do and what the church-corporate organises itself to do in missions are not the same thing.

Let me illustrate.  As  a Christian, you would gladly stop and help an injured motorist by the side of the road, just as the Good Samaritan did—that’s loving your neighbour.  However, does the story of the Good Samaritan mean that your church should put a line-item in its annual budget to purchase patrol vehicles, train staff, and fund a freeway patrol program designed to help stranded or injured motorists on freeways that run near your church?  To ask the question is to answer it.  What a Christian does because he loves his neighbour, and what the church-corporate does as its missions program are not necessarily the same thing.

In the same way, if the husband of the woman next door died, my wife and I would gladly help her with childcare, reorganising life, financial assistance if necessary, and so on.  That’s what Christians do, just because we’re Christians.  However, does that mean that my church should start a Pretoria Widows’ Relief Fund to care for all the widows of the city of Pretoria?  What individual Christians do and what the church corporate mobilises itself to do to fulfil the Great Commission is not the same thing.  In summary, whatever individual Christians did in loving their neighbor, in Acts, the church-corporate’s missions programs focused entirely on proclamation, not social action.

Problem 7:  A misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and miracles.

Those who want social action and gospel proclamation to be equal partners in missions often claim that they are imitating Jesus’ ministry.  In Matthew 26:9 and John 13:29, the Gospels imply that Jesus and His disciples did give money to the poor; however, it is also clear in the Gospels that Jesus started no orphanages, established no poverty relief funds, no low-cost housing schemes, no well-digging programs, and so on.  Nor did He instruct His disciples to do so.

“But what about Jesus’ miracles?” you ask.  “Don’t they show that the church should be working to eradicate hunger and disease?”  Interestingly, Jesus’ miracles are never elevated in the NT as motivation for the church to focus on social action—as if the church is to continue Jesus’ program of miraculous social relief by non-miraculous means.  In fact, Jesus repeatedly said that the purpose of His miracles was to prove that He was the Messiah (e.g., John 10:24-25).  To construe Jesus’ miracles as a reason to make social action central to the church’s mission is to use His miracles in a way the NT doesn’t.

In fact, Jesus frequently found that His preaching was hindered by people’s relentless demands for yet more miraculous social intervention.  As you recall, this led Him to instruct those He healed not to spread the word about His power (Mark 1:44-45; 5:43; Matt 8:4; 9:30-31).  Jesus understood all too well that social relief swallows up time and energy that should be dedicated to evangelism, preaching, and discipleship.

Problem 8:  A willful blindness to how the apostles fulfilled the Great Commission. 

John Stott has written this about the Great Commission:  “… not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility” (emphasis added).[i]

In spite of Stott’s assertion, neither Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28 nor Luke 24 contain the smallest mention of social action.  In fact, they both focus exclusively on evangelism and teaching.  Stott attempts to circumvent this silence by assigning a unique interpretation to Jesus’ declaration to the disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  Stott says this is a veiled reference to the content of the disciples’ mission:  they were to do social relief, just like Jesus did.  Unfortunately, this is a clear case of eisegesis.  When Jesus said, “I send you as the Father sent Me,” His focus was on His divine authority to send them (and on their implied willingness to obey Him).

In fact, if Jesus was giving the disciples a veiled instruction to make evangelism and social relief equal partners in their missions efforts, then they clearly failed to understand Him.  Several times in Acts the apostles summarized in their own words Christ’s commission; for example, Peter said, “He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge …”  (Acts 10:42; see also 26:16-20).

The truth is, the apostles never mention social action when discussing Christ’s commission, nor does Acts record social action projects as a means of uplifting or evangelizing the world.  In fact, the notion that social action and gospel proclamation are “two wings of the same bird” is indefensible when your read Luke’s report of the early church.

Tomorrow I will conclude this series by looking at some practical applications of how Acts should influence our approach to missions.

[i] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1975, 2008), 23.

Joel James


Joel is the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa, where he has served since 1995. Joel has his D. Min. from The Master's Seminary.
  • Thanks for these posts.
    Regarding Problem 5 above: About prison ministry I’ve heard people cite verses about visiting prisoners but I’ve never heard them explain the context of those passages to support the interpretation implied by the particular application. When the issue hit close to home a few years ago I did a brief verse survey and concluded that passages about visiting prisoners are set in contexts of believers in prison, not just any prisoner. The hearers were to minister to fellow church members who, for whatever reason (especially persecution?) wound up in prison. I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t do prison ministry, but wouldn’t it be like any other evangelistic ministry, not a special mandated biblical category? Is my assessment correct?

    • Craig

      Some use Matthew 25:31-46 to justify a prison ministry. There’s certainly nothing wrong with an individual, group, or church having a prison ministry, but the context of Matthew 25 is the tribulation, not the church age.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Where do you see anything about the Tribulation in Matt 25? When He brings up how the sheep and the goats treated prisoners and the naked and the hungry and the sick, Christ is talking about His judgment of our deeds–performed over the course of our lives, whenever we may have lived–upon His return to Earth. There’s nothing there about the Tribulation.

        And when that judgment is rendered for both groups, the goats are removed into “eternal punishment” and the sheep go into “eternal life.” I think you’re reading something into the passage that isn’t there.

    • Jason

      You’re dead on.

      Prison is an excellent place for a ministry, because you’ve got people who have nothing but time to really get in and study scripture, and a spiritual newborn is going to be VERY wanting for the gospel in that situation.

      However, the praise in scripture for visiting those in prison is definitely those who are suffering for Christ’s sake (as mentioned in 1 Peter 4:16). I think it was on the grounds that believers were often accused of attempting to cause disturbances or rebellion in Rome.

      Unrelated: Are you, by chance, Gary’s sister Linda?

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  • bs

    Joel, what actually makes these objections “biblical”?

    • Fibber MaGee

      I’m just guessing, but probably the 16 verse references along with the obvious scripture examples. Maybe?

      • bs

        So, Fibber, if I can find 17 verse references and some biblical examples of God’s concern for people’s welfare, what then?
        What warped type of biblical understanding is this?

        • Fibber MaGee

          I guess the question is, can you? But before you do let’s agree on what hermanutics are used. Then we can look at the context of your references to make sure we’re not reading anything into scripture that is not there. Then, show that God’s concern is for the welfare of the unsaved (outside of salvation). At this point you will have shown that the biblical definition of missions is not what Joel is teaching.

          • bs

            You say I would need to “show that God’s concern is for the welfare of the unsaved (outside of salvation).” Which god are you talking about here Fibber? The creating reconciling one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth or who?

          • Fibber MaGee

            I don’t understand how this helps either of us. Do you really want to know what makes something biblical or is this your version of a clever ploy to show that Joel is incorrect? If you have a different view of what makes something biblical I’d like to hear it. If you think the blog posts are off then I’d like to hear why. Unless your willing to do this then we are done as this is off topic and fruitless.

          • bs

            Yes, Fibber, I think there is a major problem when something is claimed to be “biblical” only on the basis of a pattern found in Acts — and a truncated version of Acts at that — one excluding the so-called miraculous gifts. The nature of mission needs to be much more integrated than that. On Joel’s basis for mission for example, as some have pointed out, the Bible translation movement would be excluded.

            PS Why is it a “clever ploy” to ask who you think the Bible is talking about?

        • Jason

          I think the first thing you’d have to do is explain how scripture defines “people’s welfare”. Ultimately, we know that material welfare is not the point and that we’re supposed to first be concerned with spiritual welfare (Matthew 6:33).

          Does that mean we shouldn’t be at all stewards of our physical resources, or help others bear their physical burdens? Absolutely not! James 2:16 speaks against “blessing” people but refusing to be the blessing they need (even in physical matters).

          It’s just a balanced perspective, where we help those we see in need, but realize their needs are not ever primarily physical.

          • bs

            Jason, you seem to be making a distinction between “spiritual” and “physical/material” and favouring “spiritual” (I see you say “balanced perspective” but you don’t carry this through). But is this distinction a biblical one?

          • Jason

            If you’re asking if the distinction between natural and spiritual is Biblical, absolutely!

            The difference is highlighted regarding a number of contexts (including Matthew 6:33). Further, Matthew 6:19, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Corinthians 15:46,50, 1 Timothy 4:8, etc… all speak to the greater significance of the spiritual over the physical.

            They are related in many ways but the purpose of creation is ultimately to glorify God (in spirit, for God is spirit [John 4:24]).

            Perhaps most convicting of all: When a person finds themselves concerned primarily (or even equally) with the things of this world, then we can be sure they do not love God (1 John 2:15).

          • bs

            Jason, isn’t this more gnostic than the church tradition?

          • Jason

            The Bible teaches that when we attend primarily to our flesh we are wicked, but attending to the Spirit is righteousness (Romans 8:6). However, it does NOT teach that flesh is, itself, evil and coming from a deity that is evil (which is what I’d always thought Gnostism was).

            What I’m talking about is the perspective Christ teaches in Matthew 6:25-33. Our chief concerns are not our physical existence.

    • I titled the post, and I chose it to contrast from the second post in this series which focused on two practical problems (ignoring history, crowding the schedule). I followed his argument as “here are two practical problems, followed by 8 biblical ones.” But maybe I should have used “theological” instead of biblical.

      • bs

        Jesse, it was Joel who claimed his 8 objections were “biblical”. My question remains — what makes them biblical?


  • 4Commencefiring4

    I’m not getting #4: “wanting the kingdom now”? I thought we were in the kingdom now. Col 1:13? The Kingdom was “at hand” 2,000 years ago when Jesus first came on the scene; the Apostles were sent out to present it; and it’s what Paul was preaching about at the end of Acts and writing about in his letters. It’s here; it’s now; it’s what was promised; it’s ours.

    • Jason

      I took the overall point as speaking more against Kingdom Now theology than the idea that the church is the kingdom among the world as exiles currently.

      Our goal is not to turn this world into the kingdom of God, but rather to be the kingdom of God in the midst of the world.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        I’m not sure just what “Kingdom Now theology” is, but the kingdom of God was established quite awhile ago, if the words of Jesus and the Apostles are any clue.

        Whatever plans God may or many not have for us in the future, He’s put us into His kingdom already. So if anyone is anxiously waiting around for the ribbon-cutting, they can go home. The festivities are done. It’s open for business.

    • I think you are being a little coy here…Citing Col 1:13 as “the kingdom is now” is about as profound as citing the Lord’s prayer as “the kingdom is future.”
      Regardless, Joel’s objection is aimed more at post-millenialism than amillenialism. There is a general post-millenial attitude in social action missions that aims to bring the kingdom about through our work. In their own books, Michael Horton (himself Amil) and Kevin DeYoung (also amil) both provide the same crtique Joel does in this post. So I don’t take Joel to be making a millenial argument as much as highlighting an error in how social action ministries view the kingdom.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        I’ll take that under advisement, yet I’m still not convinced “social action ministries” are always such misdirected–even wasted–efforts.

        To be sure, if it is believed that somehow we can hasten God’s timetable by opening a food bank or providing outreach to the homeless, we’re going to be disappointed. As Col. Jessup said, I run my outfit how I run my outfit. We’re not changing anything in that respect.

        At the same time, I sense a certain dismissive attitude at times regarding those in need among some evangelicals who are insistent that, for example, a battered wife needs to sit and listen to a Gospel presentation tonight before she can be given a place in a shelter. Never mind that she and her child are bruised and terrified of the man who means them harm.

        That’s not to say the Gospel is less important than shelter, but one is absolutely needed now, and one is needed eventually. We shouldn’t have to delay the former to until the latter comes.

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