August 30, 2011

My church loves the poor, so I don’t have to

by Jesse Johnson

Elsewhere (here and here), I’ve made the argument that the Bible does not command churches to engage in social transformation projects, and that the church has as its mission evangelism, not lowering the world’s poverty rate.  Others have helpfully given lists of verses that describe the call for individual Christians to love their neighbors and enemies(which raises the question of what true love looks like, but that will have to wait). But today I want to  address another question:

Are the commands to do good for the poor in the world  given to individuals or to corporate churches? To me, this is a distinction that should not have to be made. But it becomes an issue when people redefine the church’s mission away from evangelism, and add social justice or meeting the material needs of the world’s poor to the mandate of the church.


Today there are two posts on this topic. Read the first one (click here) if you are skeptical or confused about the difference between what God calls the church to do corporately, and what God calls individual believers to do in their own life. If you doubt there is a difference, that post is for you. If you grant that there is a difference, and that it matters, then feel free to read on…

When talking about mercy ministry, it is abundantly obvious that Christians are called to love the poor (Mat 7:12, Gal 6:10). Essentially, the issue is not if Christians should love the poor of the world. Instead, there are two debates: 1. What does that love look like (i.e. evangelism, social justice, mercy ministry, meeting felt-needs, some kind of combination), and 2. Is this task commanded of the church or of individuals? This post is concerned with the second of those questions: are the NT calls to love the poor of the world given to Christians as individuals or to Churches corporately?

This post is essentially an argument that the NT commands to show compassion to the poor and needy are given to individuals, and not to the church corporately (with the exception of care of certain widows inside the church).

I don’t mean to say there is no corporate church role in how people love the world. But that role is seen in training. The church gathers to be equipped, and scatters for the work of the ministry, and when they are gathered, pastors should train their members how to live in the world around them. But nowhere does the NT give social action as a specific mission to churches. This is important to understand, especially when talking about what the mission of the church is.

If mercy ministry is viewed as a corporate responsibility, it results in people asking questions like, “What does your church do to meet the needs of the world’s poor?” I oversee our church’s mercy ministry, and I am often asked this, generally by people trying to measure the health of our church by what we are doing for the poor in the world. Latent in that question is the very concept that mercy ministry is not something one asking the question should do, but rather something that a church should do. Moreover, a frequent excuse for apathy toward the poor is that it is the church’s job to love them, not the individual’s (as if somehow the church corporate could express a love that is absent her members).

But the NT simply does not charge the church with such a task, and there are no NT examples of churches ministering to those outside of their communion. What the church is called to do is instruct her people “how to live in order to please God” (1 Thess 4:1 NIV), and that includes showing compassion to believers in need. And of course as the church scatters during the week, Christians do good to all people, especially to those who believe.

I grant that my view is the minority view today. The majority view sees the commands for mercy ministry as corporate, and the recipients as non-Christians. From there, it is a short logical step to having the combating of social injustice and poverty as one of the church’s goals. The logic is simple: if the church is supposed to minister to the poor in the world, what can you do for those outside of Christ? My answer is evangelism, but there are those who see it as the church’s job to meet the physical needs of those in the world, even those who reject the gospel. Seeing commands to love the poor as corporate essentially guarantees that the church will end up engaged in projects that combat poverty or aim to rectify social injustice.

Keller is probably the most well known contemporary proponent of the corporate view. He looks at the growing welfare state in the United States and writes, “It is indisputable that millions of people who once looked to the government will now need service and aid from churches and other agencies.” Keller describes sin as producing alienation from God, self, others, and nature. This in turn produces theological, psychological, social, and physical needs, and the church must have as its goal the correcting of all of those needs. Thus, social and physical needs “are the concern of individual Christians and the corporate church.”

I agree that sin and suffering are profound in this world. My heart breaks at children in poverty, AIDS victims without medicine, and the horrors of abortion. But more than that, my heart breaks at the horrors of hell. I see the church as called to equip the saints to go into the world and preach the gospel. The biblical mandate is evangelism, and I see that given to individuals. If the poor are evangelized and are converted, they fall under the church’s care–and there should be no one in need in the church. Social justice is achieved as people are added to the church, and to pursue it apart from evangelism is to redefine “justice,” distracts from the reality of eternal judgement, dilutes the church’s resources, and is ultimately unfruitful.

There are some biblical examples of the corporate church participating in what could be considered mercy ministries. The church was commanded to help the widows in their midst (1 Tim 5:3–16), as well as to share with other congregations (1 Tim 6:18). The early church in fact sold their goods to meet the poor’s needs. But these examples are all aimed at those inside of the church, not outside.

And even inside of the church, it is not clear cut. Consider Acts 6, where there are widows who are in Christ and yet were going hungry. Alexander Strauch argues that in meeting these people’s needs, the elders and Apostles actually set the pattern that mercy ministry is an individual responsibility; because the church leadership decided not to leave the priority of the word and prayer (Acts 6:4), the church selected individuals to take over this responsibility. The reality, Strauch says, is that even this official church function was not a church priority compared to preaching, but was a priority for individuals to perform.

Regardless, it is evident that all of these examples are discriminate—they are the meeting of specific needs inside the church. Thus they do not seem to justify the attempt to make commands to meet the physical needs of the world’s poor corporate. Michael Horton is correct when he notes that, “What the church does for the household of faith is different from what individual Christians do as neighbors in the world.” Ryrie agrees: “For the most part the method to use in effecting change in social structures is individual action, rather than group action.”

The church was designed to equip believers who would then scatter and do the work of the ministry. It confuses the issue to call churches to affect social change, alleviate poverty, or do anything that distracts from this task. But a healthy church is equipping its people by teaching them about love and sacrificial living, then sending them into the community and into the world to make disciples.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.
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  • Brad

    Hey Jesse!

    Could you explain the meaning of your title, “My church loves the poor, so I don’t have to”? Not sure I understand the point. Thanks!!

    Brad

    • Anonymous

      It was meant as tongue in cheek. Sometimes I have heard people ask “What does your church do for the poor?” when that person doesn’t “do” anything for the poor. It is almost like it is easier to say “My church does x, y, and z” as a way of justifying an individual not doing x, y, or z. At one point I explained that in the post, but apparently I deleted that paragraph to get the post down to manageable size.

      • Anonymous

        By the way, if others think the title is more confusing than helpful, let me know and I’ll fix it.

  • Brad

    Thanks Jesse!

  • Anonymous

    “I agree that sin and suffering are profound in this world. My heart breaks at children in poverty, AIDS victims without medicine, and the horrors of abortion. But more than that, my heart breaks at the horrors of hell. I see the church as called to equip the saints to go into the world and preach the gospel.”

    Wow, I thought that line was one of the most powerful and most clarifying.

    BTW I think title is fine, I understood tongue in cheek, but I wonder if “My Church Feeds the Poor” rather than “My Church Loves the Poor” gets the point across smoother? I think you are fine with the former (our love for the poor results in evangelism), but the latter is what gets a bit dicey.

    It’s a good attention getter either way.

  • Michael

    “I agree that sin and suffering are profound in this world. My heart breaks at children in poverty, AIDS victims without medicine, and the horrors of abortion. But more than that, my heart breaks at the horrors of hell. I see the church as called to equip the saints to go into the world and preach the gospel.”

    What a great passage; a hard one at that, yet true. It is easy to think of just doing the physical things to meet physical needs. Yet whitewashing tombs will not raise rotting corpses. Our business is to bring the gospel to fill the spiritual needs of lost humanity, not just food to fill the dying stomachs. Forgive me if this sounds rude. I do not mean it to be so. But I think it hypocritical to simply give food without sharing the message of eternal nourishment, if we can help it. We must attempt to be meeting physical needs, I would guess. But we must learn to include the gospel, and think of it as our primary gift, with the food simply being the good will that backs our holy message.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Social justice is achieved as people are added to the church, and to pursue it apart from evangelism is to redefine “justice,” distracts from the reality of eternal judgement, dilutes the church’s resources, and is ultimately unfruitful.”

    This superb sentence should be required reading for all Liberal Protestants.

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