Friday, August 21, 2009

Mercy ministry and the local church

Les Prouty at Reformation Faith Today posted In Praise of the parachurch?. His point is that the “parachurch” organizations can fill a mercy role that the local church should not fill. In other words, the local church should not involve itself in things like soup kitchens because its mission is the Gospel. I like Les even if he does dribble water on babies, but that whole line of reasoning kind of nagged at me and I think it is pretty common among my fellow Reformed brothers.

It is often said that the role of the “local church” is the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Calvin is famously quoted as labeling as the marks of a “true church” as “The Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered”. Along with that comes the addition of properly exercising church discipline. Part of why I can’t stand listening to the White Horse Inn anymore is the constant mantra of “Word and Sacrament” as if that is the real key to the gathering of the church. Any time you list the signs of a “true church” and don’t start with or even mention love you are missing the key right out of the gate.

The purpose of the local church, as I understand what Les is saying, is to be the place where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. Caring for the poor is the role of individual Christians and not of the corporate body of Christ.

Is that correct?

Can we and should we separate the lives of individual Christians and the life of the church? I guess at its core this gets down to the nagging question of what exactly is the local church, an entity with a life and purpose of its own or a gathering of Christians in a particular locale?

It seems that there is an awful lot of fellowship in the New Testament church and a preoccupation with caring for the widows and the poor as an outworking of loving our brothers (Acts 2: 44-45; 1 Tim 5: 9-10; Acts 6: 1-3; Rom 15: 25-28; Gal 2:10; James 2: 14-17; Acts 20: 34-35; Acts 4: 32-37). The early church seems awfully concerned with mercy ministry, and it seems to be something done corporately as well as individually (see the above passages especially Acts 4: 32-37 where we see the leaders of the church distributing to those in need). I am not sure it is a function as such of the local gathering of the church (because I am not sure that the local gathering of the church has “functions” in the first place) but it certainly seems to be a focus and a natural and proper outgrowth of the “love one another” attitude.

What about preaching the Word and the administration of the Sacraments?

There doesn’t seem to be much about preaching within the church. There is certainly an emphasis on the Apostle’s teaching (Acts 2:42). There is “one another” teaching and edification among all of the brothers (1 Cor 14: 26-33). Preaching a prepared sermon to the local church? Not so much. Many of us like preaching. I like preaching. Many of us think the church needs more and better preaching. I am not as sure that preaching as we understand and practice it is something that happened in the local gathering of the church. We might feel that we need more preaching for our spiritual health, but that is an argument based on our own failings, not an argument that preaching monologue sermons is something the New Testament church should be engaged in.

I am convinced that the church broke bread together when they met but I am far less convinced that it was a ritualistic observation such as we have today. In fact what Paul was complaining about in 1 Corinthians 11 is that there was social stratification when the church gathered, and that because of this it was not the Lord’s Supper that they observed because some ate like gluttons and drank to excess while others went hungry. I think the unworthiness that Paul speaks of here has nothing to do with church membership in good standing and everything to do with what Paul is talking about, i.e. social stratification when the church gathered for the supper. It seems odd that we have taken what appears as a full meal among believers, both in the institution of it during the Last Supper and subsequent mentions of it later in the New Testament, and turned it into a ritualistic nibble of bread or crackers and thimble sized glasses of wine or grape juice. You would have to chug a ton of those little cups of wine to get even a little buzz, much less get drunk. (I read a comment on Facebook where someone referenced people passing out on the communion table, as if the early church had the ubiquitous table with “Do This In Remembrance Of Me” engraved in it!)

As far as baptism goes, I see nothing that would indicate that it is something that is reserved to, a function of or even took place in a local church. I wrote about this in an earlier post, Are baptism and the Lord's Supper an (exclusive) function of the local church.

What about Acts 6? Doesn’t that support the idea that ministers and by extension the local church should not get involved in mercy ministry because they are supposed to be preaching the Word? The apostles didn’t want to get entangled with the daily food distribution for widows, not because it wasn’t important or a function of the gathered church, but because they were out daily preaching the Gospel in the temple and from house to house. I think their concern is at least as much that this not be missed as it was that it interfered with their evangelism. They also knew that it still had to happen and that the Body of Christ should minister in acts of mercy to one another. So they appointed seven men including Stephen and Phillip to take care of it. It is interesting to note that Stephen and Phillip are both also engaged in proclaiming the Word to unbelievers later in Acts, so I don’t think that they saw caring for the poor to be an impediment or beneath them (nor did Paul, see Gal 2:10 and Acts 20: 34-35). I think it is highly suspect for a local pastor to think that they have no responsibility as a minister to care for the poor. I also think it is unhealthy and perhaps even unscriptural for ministers to eschew mercy ministry so that they can spend even more time in their studies preparing sermons. The apostles travelled all over the world preaching the Gospel to the lost but I don’t think they spent much time in their church offices reading commentaries. Paul worked to support himself financially and also so that he could help the poor (Acts 20: 34-35).

So I guess I would object to any number of the underlying presuppositions regarding the role of the local church in mercy ministry. Let me rephrase that. If the local church as we understand it is correctly set up, then this makes sense. However, if the local church is not a proper reflection of the local gathering of the church we see in the New Testament, which is my position, then I would say that we have an unhealthy preoccupation with church functions that don’t seem to appear in the Word of God and that conversely we are far less faithful in doing what we do see the local gathering of the church doing in the New Testament. Can it be that churches that don’t get the Gospel right (Roman Catholicism) or even out-and-out heretical groups (mormons) have a view of mercy ministry that is more in line with the Bible than some orthodox Evangelical churches?

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Les said...

Arthur, dribbling aside, here is what I put on the FB post:

"There is disagreement among folk in our denomination the PCA. Having read your post, I can see why you disagree. Your take on the local expression of the body of Christ would almost necessitate it. If my underlying assumption on the church is correct, though, then I think my view on the tasks of the church is not only plausible, but necessary."

Additionally, it is one discussion of what is to be done for the widows and orphans and the needy relative to the believers. That is the church's responsibility. It is a different discussion on what should be done for those outside the body--the community. I cannot find where the local church is to take on that task. But then, our presuppositions of what constitutes the local church are different.



Arthur Sido said...

I will agree on both points. This is a question that gets way beyond one facet (mercy ministries) and gets to the very nature of the local gathering of the church. I also agree that the Bible is far more clear on our responsibility to provide for the poor and orphans and widows in the Body than it is with those outside.

Steve Martin said...

The FIRST job of the church is to proclaim Christ and administer the Sacraments.

Then, we do all the other things.

Arthur Sido said...


I would agree on the first part, that the call of all Christians is to proclaim the Gospel. Not so much on the second part.

How do you view the role of mercy among believers, i.e. once someone has come to saving faith in Christ, what then is our relationship among the church?

Travis said...

I'd say the ONLY job of the church is to proclaim Christ, in both word and deed.