Friday, 18 January 2008

Objections to Ministries of practical mercy (1)

Objection: “We must prioritize that which is most important - evangelism - because feeding people’s bodies will not save them from the wrath of God.”


1. Life is full of different priorities, some immediate and pressing, some less important but still significant. But the fact is that we normally manage to negotiate all these different priorities without setting them up against one another. For example, is it more important to praise Christ or to feed myself? If I saw these as a constant choice at every point in my life I would become pretty thin. How about reading my Bible or caring for my wife, or prayer vs. evangelism? We recognize that there are many things that need to be done and that the most important does not cancel out all the rest. We must be careful not to polarize alternatives all the time so that we start cancelling out some of God's commands with other ones.

2. Christians go out to restaurants, re-decorate their houses and use their resources for all kinds of things that are not evangelistic. We take our own bodies and comfort very seriously. We are not officially ascetics or dualists who see physical creation as bad, and so we do not condemn the appropriate use of these things. Given that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, can we not at least do the same for the people around us as we do for ourselves? Why would we ever consider treating someone according to ascetic principles when we do not do that for ourselves?! The objection above (which I confess to having used myself before!) can easily lead to a hypocritical distinction between the way I treat myself and the way I treat others.

3. This is a case of systematic theological thinking that has lost touch with the Scriptures, which explicitly command us to help the poor. We must be very careful not to pit God’s commandments against each other so that we start canceling some of them out with other ones. To use a point from Tim Keller, we don’t say that we have the capability to do only 8 out of the 10 commandments this year because we need to prioritize! Rather, we try to do all of them with the resources and time that we have.

4. But, how about Acts 6:1-6? This is a much-used passage on this topic. Firstly, these decisions are particular, individual ministerial decisions, and not decisions for the whole church. This is an issue of gifting and calling of certain members within the church, but it does not remove mercy ministry from the overall ministry of the church as a whole. Secondly, we should not miss the obvious - that ministries of mercy were already taking place (already implied in 2:42-47 and 4:32-37)! Thirdly, the apostolic decision was not to cancel the ministries, but rather to strengthen them (!) by calling men who were extremely capable, mature and gifted (note that Philip was a gifted evangelist!). Fourthly, it is interesting to read Acts 6:1-6 with 1 Tim 5:3-16 and 2 Cor 9 in mind. Here we see Paul (and Timothy) taking a very active role in the organization of mercy ministry in the churches, nuancing the way we might read Acts 6:1-6.