I have a soft spot for mercy ministries — those outward-focused ministries that serve the less fortunate in a community. Some of my sweetest ministry experiences have come through my nearly eight years of serving with English as a Second Language (ESL).
One day, though, I stepped back and asked the question: Why do we do ESL? Yes, ESL meets a practical need (teaching English), a relational need (building friendships), and can open doors to a spiritual need (presenting the gospel). But beyond an ESL ministry’s practicality, does it — or any mercy ministry — have biblical warrant to be a ministry of the church?
So I set out on a quest. I scoured Scripture to see if the Bible commands us to care for the needy (it does). And I surveyed church history to see if our spiritual predecessors cared for the less fortunate (they did).
In my studies, four theological principles emerged:
1. Since God cares for the needy, so should we.
God’s concern for the needy pervades scripture, and it flows from his character. The Torah, writings, prophets, Gospels, and epistles all testify to the reality that God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Psalm 9:12). Because this love for the less fortunate is part of his very character, we should emulate it.
2. Ministry to the poor is commanded to us as individuals.
Again, scripture consistently compels God’s people to care for the needy (cf. Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 6:27-36, 10:25-37; Hebrews 13:2). We are to make it part of our lifestyle, “open[ing] wide” our hands to those who need help (Deuteronomy 15:8-15) and serving everyone (Matthew 20:24-28).
Interestingly, this command to care for the poor is most potent in Scripture’s warnings of judgment. Amos warned of Israel’s impending judgment for their lack of concern for the needy (cf. Amos 8). Jesus warned his followers in much the same way (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). This is heavy stuff. Scripture is abundantly clear — we must care for the less fortunate.
3. Though official church ministry to unbelieving needy is not commanded, it is wise.
The New Testament explicitly commands churches to take care of its believers in need (cf. James 2:15-16, 1 John 3:17-18). And though the New Testament certainly commands individuals to care for unbelieving poor, as we mentioned, it is less clear about the local church’s role in such mercy ministries.
Some argue that caring for the unbelieving needy should be an official ministry of the church. Fern Babcock Grant, for example, argues in Ministries of Mercy that “neither a church nor a church member can be Christian without participating in the ministry of love and service to others.”
Yet other theologians are more tempered. Mark Dever in A Theology for the Church claims that ministry to the unbelieving needy is not required by Scripture, but that “Christian congregations have both the liberty and responsibility to prudently take such initiatives in their community” in obedience to the gospel. Tim Keller agrees that the ministry of the word is the church’s priority, but local churches must equip believers “to love their neighbor, integrate their faith in their work, and seek a more just and wholesome society and culture.” Kevin DeYoung concurs. “It is not imperative that every church have an official ‘mercy ministry’ program,” he writes. “It is essential, however, that every congregation be involved in mercy ministry.” A survey of church history suggests that though such ministries are not obligated, many churches have taken it upon themselves to minister actively in this way.
As a result, incorporating mercy ministries into the church is not obligated — but it is wise.
4. Serving the needy can open doors to share the good news.
Jesus did not just heal his followers. Luke says that he “laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). Jesus actually used these miracles as an opportunity to call people to faith (cf. Mark 5:36, 9:22-24; John 11:25-27). The apostles followed this pattern in Acts. For example, Peter and John’s healing of the lame man drew a crowd, spurring Peter to proclaim the gospel (cf. Acts 3:1-26).
In other words, acts of mercy seem to coincide with evangelism. John Hammett notes that mercy ministry does not have to be means of evangelism. “Expressing Christ’s love in practical acts of service is not merely a means to the end of evangelism, but is legitimate in its own right,” he says. Yet it can be a means to evangelism.
And in my experience, it has been. I have seen the good news of Jesus be shared with people from all around the world — all because we were willing to sacrifice our time to teach an hour of English.
Mercy ministry isn’t glamorous. Most of it happens behind the scenes. But whether it’s ESL, food pantries, refugee ministries, car care ministries, or counseling, mercy ministries matter. They matter to God. They matter to the people we serve. And they should matter to us, too.
For Further Reading:
- Christensen, Michael J. “The outsider inside the upside down kingdom: a biblical basis for ministries of mercy and justice.” Living Pulpit 13, no. 4 (2004): 10-12.
- Dever, Mark. “The Church.” A Theology for the Church. Edited by Daniel L. Akin. Nashville: B&H, 2007.
- DeYoung, Kevin. “Obligation, Stewardship, and the Poor.”
- DeYoung, Kevin. “Thinking Through Your Church’s Mercy Ministry.”
- Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler. “The Works of Mercy: Theological Perspectives.” The Works of Mercy: New Perspectives on Ministry. Edited by Francis A. Eigo. Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1992.
- Grant, Fern Babcock. Ministries of Mercy. New York: Friendship Press, 1962.
- Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
- Hammett, John S. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005.
- Keller, Timothy. “How Do Word and Deed Ministry Fit Together for a Church?”
- Keller, Timothy J. Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. 2nd Ed. New Jersey: P&R, 1997.
- Piper, John. “Put Strong Pillars Under Your Case for the Unbelieving Poor.”