The early church took possession of the Roman Empire within a few centuries, largely because she ministered sacrificially in word and deed. The church provided services and care that the empire and pagan religions could not in times of crisis. The faithful witness of those serving Christians bore great fruit in the transformation of a culture. The early church’s sacrificial ministry laid the groundwork for the erection of Christendom.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther emphasized the connection between faith and love: “Our own self-imposed good works lead us to and into ourselves so that we just seek our own benefit and salvation. But God’s commandments drive us to our neighbor’s need, that by means of these commandments we may be of benefit only to others and to their salvation . . . For if faith does not doubt the favor of God, it will be quite easy for him to be gracious and favorable to his neighbor, however much the neighbor may have sinned against him.”
As the Reformers recovered the word of the gospel, they also recovered the holistic calling of God’s people. Justification by faith became the impetus for mercy ministry. Precisely because Jesus has settled the matter of our salvation, we are now set free from doing self-focused works in order to accomplish our own salvation; instead, we can direct our energies and works to the good of our neighbor. As Luther put it, God does not need our good works, but our neighbor most certainly does!
For Luther, faith itself consists in and lives in works of love and service. Faith is a “busy little thing.” Luther recovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. By this Luther meant not that we have no need for a priest, but that we are all to be priests towards one another. Luther unpacked this truth in striking language: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The gospel provided the basis and power for living in a radically Christ-like way. Our priesthood consists in lives of sacrificial service, in union with our High Priest:
“Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought to freely help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”
And again: “[The Christian] does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward.”
And: “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor . . . He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.”
Luther stated, “But if you do not [serve your neighbor], what help would it be for you if you were to perform all the miracles of the saints and defeat all the Turks, and yet were found guilty of having disregarded your neighbor’s need and of having thereby sinned against love? For Christ at the last day will not ask how much you have prayed, fasted, pilgrimaged, done this or that for yourself, but how much good you have done to others, even to the very least [Matthew 25:40-45].”
Luther also connected care for the poor with the structure and flow of the liturgy, particularly the Lord’s Supper: “When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore . . . you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship . . . As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones . . . [In the sacrament, it is as if Christ were saying to you], I will make your suffering and misfortune my own and will bear it for you, so that you in your turn may do the same for me and for one another, allowing all things to be common property, in me and with me.”
For Luther, in short, Eucharistic fellowship was a model for Christian community and compassion.
Calvin carried on the same Reformed heritage. In Geneva he reformed diaconal ministries, emphasizing the need for the church, rather than the state, to care for the poor. Under his direction, Geneva built hospitals, schools, and took in over 50,000 Reformed refugees. In fact, to this day, sixteenth century Geneva stands as one of the greatest community development projects in all of history.
There are several other examples of great churchmen leading the way in preaching grace and doing justice. In the 17th and 19th centuries, respectively, Richard Baxter and Thomas Chalmers, among others, sought to re-institute a parish form of pastoral care, ministering holistically to people living in a particular geographic locale. Rather than ministering only to a select “holy remnant” in an area, they saw they were called to shepherd whole parishes. Even those who had no outward interest in the church or gospel were to be recipients of pastoral oversight, with the aim of Christianizing the entire region.
These men took responsibility for the spiritual, economic, educational, and physical well being of their territories. They joined the work of the pastor (preaching and teaching) to the work of the deacons (mercy ministry and poverty relief). As a result, their churches moved to the center of their respective communities and exercised a great deal of beneficial influence.
Baxter trained other pastors to carry out his program of parochial care, claiming territory for Christ’s kingdom through evangelism and discipleship. Chalmers also built up the kingdom of Christ. He refused government aid, instead asking his people to give sacrificially. He enacted diaconal programs that efficiently and compassionately helped the poor and suffering in urban areas. Taxes were cut and judges were left with no cases to resolve because the church was so effective in caring for the total social welfare of the community.
A good deal of the church’s authority and influence is bound up in her proper execution of ministries of service. The gospel is far more powerful when wed to effective mercy ministries. Sometimes the church’s enemies have understood that better than her own members. For example, in the fourth century, Julian the Apostate sought to quench the church’s rise to power by creating an imperial system of social welfare that would outdo the Christians. He failed miserably; no one could out-give and out-serve the covenant community in those days.
In twentieth century Russia, Stalin’s Communist Party put a ban on “charitable or cultural activities by churches,” since, as a Kremlin spokesperson explained, “The State cannot tolerate any challenge to its claim on the heartstrings of the Russian people.” The Communists knew any institution that helped the poor would have the loyalty of the people.
It is important to note that the biblical call to mercy is quite distinct from more liberal, statist forms of welfare. We seek to give people a “hand up,” not a “hand out.” As Amy Sherman has pointed out, whereas secular approaches will ask, “What are your needs?” a biblical approach asks, “What are God’s intentions for you?” Biblical social justice is not a matter of “rights” but of “restoration.” It means living according to God’s design for humanity and helping others to do the same.
The goal is not equality, per se, as in the wealth redistribution programs of the welfare state. Rather, our approach is aimed at helping a person begin to live the life of shalom, under the comprehensive blessing of God. Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” sums up God’s plan of justice and mercy for his people. We aim to help people flourish, thrive, and prosper in every way.
Nicholas Wolterstorff defines the biblical notion of shalom: “The state of shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to nature, and in one’s relation to oneself . . . An ever-beckoning temptation for the [American] evangelical is to assume that all God really cares about for human beings here on earth is that they be born again and thus destined for salvation . . . [However], what God desires for human beings is that comprehensive mode of flourishing which the Bible calls shalom . . . God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.”
Our horizon includes helping a person with his “worldly” needs; but it also stretches to matters of eternal significance. We do not simply ask questions such as: What financial and social needs does this person have? But also: How can I help this person live life to glory of God? How can I help restore this person to God’s image? How can this person become (more fully) a part of God’s new humanity?
Of course, we must also be discerning in our giving of both time and resources. We must carefully consider the needy person’s situation as well as God’s calling for us. Certainly fellow believers have the priority (cf. Gal. 6:10), and we must mix our actions of mercy with wisdom and insight. Not everyone will be in a position to help in a crisis pregnancy center, or serve in a soup kitchen, or run a food pantry, or give away clothes to the homeless, or counsel the confused, or befriend the lonely, or educate the ignorant. There are different gifts in the body and different seasons of life we all pass through.
While much of our mercy will be unconditional and promiscuous – and therefore “risky” – there are also times when we will refuse to help people, because to do so would only subsidize destructive, dehumanizing life patterns. But in our local churches, we must recognize our community has a responsibility for the well being of the people in the place God has put us. We must be ever mindful of the fact that the church’s mission in the world is holistic because the gospel renews human life in its entirety. We proclaim the whole Christ as Savior and King, by both our words and deeds, to the whole person, body and soul.
Nothing short of this will do. This is the church’s mission of shalom, bringing the justice and mercy of Christ to bear on our fallen world.
Rich Lusk is Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.