Tuesday, March 04, 2008

But Duke Also Produces Some Stellar Theologians (or, This Is What I've Been Trying to Say About Social Ministries)

The 9Marks blog has been batting around the issues of social/mercy/justice ministries. You may want to catch up on the whole series, but Michael Lawrence's post hits the nail on the head. This paragraph is the essence of it:
It seems to me, anyway, that Reformed evangelicals' talk about social engagment is largely motivated by the correct sense that the Kingdom of God should be felt and seen wherever Christians are: in the workplace, at school, in the neighborhood, etc. But being creatures of modernity, we immediately think in terms of programs and strucutres, which leads us to the church, and wondering why the "organization" we're a part of isn't more engaged. The initial impulse is correct, but where it leads us is confused. It's not the church's responsibility to address the problem of homelessness in society at large (though it better make sure that it's own members aren't homeless!) It's Christians' responsibility, as servants of the King, individually and together, to address that issue, as we seek to display the saving reign of God in every sphere of life.


Bruce said...

Ben, I just got done commenting on this over at 9Marks before I saw your link to it. I'm trying to keep a proper ecclesiology here... any thoughts?

Here's what I wrote:

I don't have any answers here, but would be eager to have some interaction on this. I'm not convinced by the individual responsibility vs. church responsibility delineation. It seems to leave us with these options for, say, working with the homeless:
1. Involvement purely as an individual, no partnership whatsoever beyond one's own household
2. Involvement as a Christian individual within a secular organization
3. Involvement as a Christian with other Christians, though outside a church (i.e., parachurch)

Why not have Christians working together on these issues, and if they are from the same congregation, why wouldn't they welcome the oversight of the elders?

Furthermore, I don't understand how you conclude that evangelism is a responsibility of the church and that caring for the needs of others is not. What about the Great Commission makes it corporate? Should we only evangelize corporately? Is it not also an individual responsibility?

Also, when we say that the church has a responsibility in a particular area, but that I have individual responsibility for something else, then it seems that we are separating the identity of the church from the believer. In other words, the church is the leadership (ministry professionals) and programs, and this entity does things for believers, rather than the church as the community of believers.

I don't have a problem saying that mercy ministry should not be a focus of the pastors/elders, but I can't say it should not be at least a part of the spectrum of ministy of the church (local body of believers).

Ben said...


I agree with your last paragraph, so if that's a summary statement, we may not have any disagreement.

The reason I've reached my conclusions is that 1) I see the apostles as the foundation of the Jerusalem church, from which all other churches ultimately spring, and 2) I understand the primary responsibility given to those apostles to be evangelism/discipleship. (Ultimately, I don't see a substantial distinction between them, even though there often is in our usage.)

So I do think it's the responsibility of the elders to disciple the congregation to love their neighbors (which must include evangelism and may well include hospitality or mercy-type ministries), to mature in their faith, and to any number of other ends prescribed in Scripture.

Now, you raise a legitimate question in the three options you present. I think all three are valid options, but I don't think it's wrong for some sort of social/mercy ministries to spring up inside the church. However, I agree with you that it would be unwise for elders to be occupied with this sort of programmatic ministry. There are many other things they'll give clearly give account for. Additionally, the historical record of social/mercy ministries points consistently enough to the marginalization of the gospel that the elders involvement may well be best directed to keeping the gospel the main thing.

I feel like I'm rambling. I'll shut up and see if you think that makes any sense.

Bruce said...

Here's another way to come at it:

Is it the church's responsibility to make disciples or to be disciples?

If we define the church strictly as the elders and their functions, then yes, they should focus on making disciples, which I mean to include both evangelism and discipleship as commonly used to describe conversion and edification ministries.

But if we are talking about the church as all the believers, then they need to do everything that is included in living as a redeemed human beings in this fallen world, with all to the glory of God. That includes participating in corporate worship, working a job, caring for a spouse and children, consideration for one's neighbor, community, etc., etc.

This may seem to follow the "individual responsibility" line of reasoning, but I would simply ask, why can't these "responsibilities" be carried out corporately? For example, is a church betraying its mission by offering a seminar for working in government as a Christian? Well, that certainly could be considered as discipleship of individuals so that they can carry out their individual responsibility, but I'm seeing this seminar as a corporate response to help believers live out a holy life. Why then can't a church organize efforts to teach and practice compassion to the community as a way of helping believers to live out their faith?

Basically, if you press the whole the line of reasoning that the church's only corporate responsibility is evangelism and discipleship, then there wouldn't be any reason to have deacons. Yes, I know that it is another step to take this kind of ministry outside the body, but I think a corporate response to the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter of those particularly in its surrounding community, especially in crisis situations, seems consistent with "love your neighbor" as illustrated by the Good Samaritan.

And, yes, social causes often have eclipsed the ministry of the gospel. I'm not sure that it's because mercy ministry ruins evangelistic focus or zeal. I'm more inclined to think that we're just really bad at keeping things in their proper balance. Even if evangelism/discipleship is primary, that means that it is not the only thing.

One last thing, with my three options in my original post, there's nothing wrong with a Christian showing compassion as an individual or a household, but I think it's all the better witness for the gospel when done in community. Not because it makes a bigger splash, but because the gospel makes us not just a redeemed person, but part of a redeemed people looking toward a redeemed society (the kingdom to come).

There's also nothing wrong with a Christian working within a secular organization that helps the neediest people. However, that also misses the opportunity to display the beauty of the bride of Christ in some fashion.

Finally, the parachurch option is out there primarily because Christians with consciences and a sense of activism get frustrated when believers are content to attend a weekly worship service and consider their "duty" to be done. Sadly, the church (as in church leadership and its programming) often communicates that the believer exists to attend church programs, yet these only address personal, private issues.

Okay, I need to stop.