This may seem surprising, but I think that the debate about mercy ministry has as much to do with eschatology as it does with actual care for the poor. The debate is this: is the church called to care for the needs of the poor in the world? I have put up several posts recently that argue that the answer to that question is “no,” and even if that were the case, the commands to show mercy and love to one’s neighbor are given to individual Christians, and are not fulfilled by the church in a corporate sense.
But I am not convinced that this is really a debate about the nature of mercy ministry or even what exactly is entailed by generous justice. The main theological principle involved is eschatology, and particularly the nature of the kingdom. That is why I actually am not bothered when an amillennialist or postmillennialist argues that the church has a mandate to reform the culture and to combat poverty, because their reasoning usually leads to that conclusion. It is when the premillenialist thinks that way that I see the theological disconnect.
For example, Keller reasons that there will be no hunger or poverty in the kingdom of God, and it is the church’s job to bring about kingdom-like conditions. Thus he can write:
“To spread the Kingdom of God is more than simply winning people to Christ. It is also working for the healing of persons, families, relationships, and nations; it is doing deeds of mercy and seeking justice. It is ordering lives and relationships and institutions and communities according to God’s authority to bring in the blessedness of the kingdom” (Ministries of Mercy, 54).
The logic is unassailable. If you think the church is called to usher in the kingdom, and you grant that there is no starvation or begging in the kingdom, then “doing deeds of mercy” is a form of kingdom ministry. Obviously, if the kingdom is seen as future, then giving a non-Christian a jacket and food does nothing for him in kingdom terms. But if the kingdom is now and if the church has an obligation to meet the felt needs of non-Christians, then mercy ministry becomes a component of kingdom work.
This is classic postmillennialism, or more modernly known as optimistic amillenialism. Michael Horton spells out this debate over at 9Marks, and describes the modern calls for the church to transform society through mercy ministry as coming from the “triumphalistic postmillennialism.” He highlights that the issue is one of eschatology, and this is not unique to Keller. Calvin himself was a proponent of this kind of kingdom ministry. He taught that those in Geneva were all under the church’s care, and that any homeless or poor person—regardless of their creed or life—were to be cared for by the pious. Calvin understood the commands for mercy ministry to be individual (as opposed to corporate), but he made giving to the poor a requirement to receive communion. For Calvin, Geneva was a form of the kingdom.
I often hear people say that mercy ministry is not connected to kingdom work, but it is simply a partner to evangelism. One could conceivably argue that meeting physical needs of non-believers is a valid task for the church, as long as it is a means to a gospel conversation. But this is markedly different from Keller’s and Calvin’s view, as they demand that mercy ministry not be a means to an end. Keller is clear that mercy ministry should not be done merely to open up the door for the gospel, because it cheapens the importance of that form of kingdom work. He agrees that, “it is unthinkable that we could truly love an individual and not want both to share the gospel as well as meet the person’s basic human needs.” But he adds that one is not more important than the other and “one is not a means to the other” because both are valid forms of kingdom work.
Consider this description of the same concept from NT Wright, commenting on 1 Cor 15:58, which is Paul’s command for believers to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord”:
“By this he means that what you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into the future. These activities are … part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
On the other hand, for the dispensationalist mercy ministry to those outside the church could be a legitimate expression of God’s love to others, as well a tool to open the door for a hearing of the gospel. But in isolation those deeds have nothing to do with kingdom advancement. For those who see the kingdom as entirely future, kingdom work is made up solely of the verbal proclamation of the gospel. This view of kingdom work is not unique to dispensationalists, but is shared by amillenialists who see mercy ministry as an individual mandate (such as Horton), and also those who are skeptical about the church’s attempts to right social wrongs in the culture. For example, Mark Galli (an editor over at CT) writes, “The goal of transforming our city, our culture, or our world can lead to little good.” He asks, what do “the crusades, the Inquisition, murderously Reformed Geneva, and the Salem witch trials all have in common? They were motivated by a desire to transform the culture, if not the world, into a Kingdom of God.”
While it certainly goes too far to compare churches that think their goal is cultural transformation with the Salem witch trials, Galli does make a good point. God’s kingdom is established by Jesus Christ when he returns to earth. One of its distinguishing features is that it is brought about by God, not by people. The kingdom is advanced through conversion (another work of God) only in the sense that more citizens are added to it. But it is not the church’s job to bring about kingdom-like conditions. To call your ministry incarnational cheapens the incarnation of Jesus, and to call your mercy ministry kingdom work shows a radical underestimation of the true nature of the kingdom.
For more on Calvin’s view on poverty, check out: Bonnie Pattison, Poverty in the Theology of John Calvin. By the way, Calvin saw mercy ministry as an individual’s responsibility, and also saw the recipients of it being only those inside the church. However, becasue of infant baptism, everyone in Geneva was “part of the church” even if they were outside of the faith.