In the current Modern Reformation, there are two articles articulating two different point of views on mercy ministries written by two Reformed authors, Randy Nabors and William Smith.
In Randy Nabor's article ," For Goodness Sake, Do Something", he takes the stance that the church, as a corporate body, should and must do mercy ministries. He writes:
I would submit that such negative arguments spring from an undeveloped theology of the church, a defective theology of missions, and the absence of a theology of mercy. We are called to be a new community, to be a body of believers. We are called to help the widows in our midst (1 Tim. 5:3-16); we are given the example of sharing with other congregations who face hard times (I Tim. 6:18); and pastors are instructed to "command" those who are rich in this world to be rich in good deeds. We are given the model in Acts 6 of an ethnic and pragmatic solution to a mercy need within and by the local congregation. We see the community of Israel, as a nation, condemned for a hypocritical practice of religion by not sharing their food with the hungry (Isa. 58). How can we be seen as a "city"(Matt. 5:14-16) if we do not do good works corporately? Congregations are designed by God to be public entities that people see, and unfortunately many of our congregations are "cities" which are seen to do nothing but for themselves
Mr. Nabor believes the church must do mercy ministries because it's essential in evangelizing. He writes:
There are also some who think that we should help only the Christian poor, and those who are within our own congregations. I have always found the argument to only help the poor in the church largely irrelevant if we are obeying the Lord by preaching the gospel to the poor. Was this not his mandate (see Luke 4:18 as mentioned above)? Is it not ours as well? If we are evangelizing among the poor we will have them in the church, and what every poor community in the world needs is a gospel-preaching, holistic, and vital local church in its midst. Poor people need to be saved; they need a whole new set of cultural values built upon the Word of God. They need the practice and experience of the love of the saints and then their families will be rebuilt. And they will have hope, which is the absolute most powerful engine of economic change
On the other hand, William Smith states in his article, "Kyrie Eleison", that Christians should minister to those outside the church, but it shouldn't be one of the essential "marks" of a church. He writes:
Do we as Christians have an obligation to the poor in general? Of course we do. I am willing to help the poor by all sorts of means-kingdom ministries carried on by Christians, responding to the need in front of me with what I have, charitable organizations that are or are not faith-based, and by the paying of taxes. What I am not willing to say is that ministry to the poor of the community is a mark of the church or a necessary component of its health. Indeed, I would argue just the opposite-that the church is weakened and rendered less effective when it puts such ministries at the heart of its life.
Mr. Smith also beliefs that the church should first do mercy ministries to it's own member before those outside of the church. He writes:
First, it is clear that Paul here sticks to the pattern of the rest of the New Testament in putting the primary emphasis on the church's ministry to the church family. If some of this ministry spills over to the world, fine, but good done in the community is not a part of a word-deed strategy for evangelizing the city, nor is it anywhere near the heart of the church's mission.
And because the needs within the church are so great, mercy ministries to outsider shouldn't be the main instrument of evangelizing.
The apostolic practice shows that the church's ministry of mercy is to its members. We have a long way to go before there is not a needy person among us, and we serve one another in humility and love. But, when the church so cares for its own, it demonstrates to the world a "see-how-they-love-one-another" life that testifies to the power of the gospel and may be used of God to provoke the world to jealousy.
What the church needs is a renewed commitment to the mission Jesus gave: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19). The mission is to make disciples. The means of making disciples are baptizing and teaching. He did not say, Go make disciples by engaging in mercy ministry.
First, I think both articles were well written, and give good biblical support for their views. I tend to agree with Mr. Nabor that evangelism, especially to the poor, should be accompanied and initiated through some type of mercy ministry, whether through something "small" like inviting and providing a one time dinner for someone that's poor or "big" like an elaborate after school program for the neighborhood kids. I also agree with Mr. Smith that the church should first minister to it's own members, but I wonder if he would agree that part of ministering to the local congregation entails teaching them to love those outside of the church, thus organizing some kind of mercy ministry, whether "small" or "big", to teach them.
I also think part of the contention involves the use of the language of having mercy ministries as one of the essential marks of a truth church (Preaching, discipline, and sacrament, normally being the other three). Personally, I don't mind saying some kind of mercy ministries is an essential mark of a truth church ( I think acts of love to non-Christians is a mark of a true Christian, and a church is made up of Christians), and I don't think anyone in the argument is trying to devalue the other 3 marks by saying that mercy ministries is essential, especially the need to verbally communicate the gospel in evangelizing.
So in the end, I think I would side more with Mr. Nabor's point of view, but doing so with Mr. Smith's precautions in mind.
[HT Justin Taylor]