Why Missions Have Become Little Departments of Social Welfare
In a recent article entitled, “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire,” the religion writer for Wall Street Journal discusses how missionaries have shifted from preaching the gospel to “living the gospel” for the poor, “to witness and evangelism in such a way that we are a living demonstration of the love, righteousness and justice that God intends for the whole world,” as the Edinburgh 2010 Conference says.
He says that missionaries today are really “vacationaries” who go to foreign countries “to say Jesus loves you and then jump on a plane and go home.” The pendulum has swung hard from the apostles preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth to emphasis on humanitarian work and social justice. Even from the 12th-13th century,Â Francis of Assisi already said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” In a recent informal survey of evangelicals by White Horse Inn, 69 percent agreed with Francis, affirming that “living the gospel” trumps words, the “preaching of the gospel.”
In the Philippines, where over one-third of the population live in deprivation of life’s most basic needs, most churches and missionaries focus on feeding slum dwellers and street children, establishing orphanages, and other humanitarian efforts, “to seek the alleviation of poverty in our land â€¦ to equip and empower our churches to be sensitive to the needs of our immediate communities â€¦ where everyone has a decent standard of living” (“Clark Field Declaration” by the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches).
Most Christians now believe that the primary duty of the church is to help the poor because the Bible speaks so much about providing for them and treating them justly. And the objections hurled against the primacy of preaching the gospel stem from the misuse of these Biblical texts.
Take for example, God’s strong condemnation of Israel, “They haveÂ oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice” (Ezek 22:29; cf Isa 10:1-4), which resulted in their destruction by the Babylonians. But the command to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor” was towards those “in your land,” brothers who are part of God’s covenant people (Deut 15:11). Some point out the inclusion of the “sojourner” or alien with the orphan and widow as those for whom the people should provide (Deut 10:18, 19). However, even if the alien is not a full member of the community, he was expected to obey the laws of the community and receive benefits as if he was an Israelite (Deut. 16:11-14; 26:11; 29:10-11).
So while Israel was commanded to take care of the poor, it was always in the context of God’s covenant community. This principle continued even when Jesus came healing the sick and feeding the hungry before he preached his gospel of repentance and the coming of his kingdom. Because of this, many Christians model their “holistic” ministries after his example. But did Jesus really perform his miraculous good works for the purpose of showing his love for the poor, the afflicted, and the sick?
In his many discourses, Jesus shocked and confused his audience whenever he “spiritualized” seemingly literal subjects. They thought he was boasting he could rebuild the Temple in three days (John 2:19), and was persuading them to be cannibals by offering his body and blood (John 6:52). Worse, they thought he was establishing a literal earthly kingdom, but he rebuffed them saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). When he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3), he was metaphorically connecting the literally poor and the spiritually poor, those who recognize that they are in desperate need of God’s forgiveness.
Jesus had a “feeding program” for 5,000 men, not counting women and children, but he did it to teach them that he is the True Bread from Heaven that nourishes to eternal life all who believe, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27).Â Although he had compassion on them because they had nothing to eat (Matt 15:32), his compassion was greater because “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and he urged his disciples to pray for more laborers who would be their shepherds (Matt 9:36-38). Another time, after healing many, Jesus leaves town without healing many others, because as he said,Â “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). His primary purpose in coming down to heaven was not to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and care for the needy, but to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21) by preaching the gospel.
At the start of his ministry, he preached from Isaiah 61:1-2, saying that Isaiah’s words were about himself:
Jesus would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy when he announced that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, and those who are enslaved to sin and blinded and oppressed by the devil will be forgiven and set at liberty by the gospel. Intertwined in Isaiahâ€™s prophecy is the eschatological â€œyear of theÂ Lordâ€˜s favorâ€ which Jesus inaugurated on that day he preached at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus points back to Israel’s jubilee year, when, at the appointed year, the people will rest from their labors and all their indebtedness and slavery will be forgiven (LevÂ 25:10). Again, he was “spiritualizing” the Old Testament jubilee rest into the complete forgiveness of sins that believers receive in Christ. 1
In addition to teaching spiritual truths, Jesus also used his miraculous works for another purpose: to demonstrate who he is, the Divine Messiah, saying,Â “The works that the Father has given meÂ to accomplish, the very works that I am doing,Â bear witness about me thatÂ the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). To Jews, supernatural events can only come from God. Nicodemus was convinced that Jesus was from God because of his signs (John 3:1-2). Peter testified likewise, “Jesus of Nazareth,Â a man attested to you by GodÂ withÂ mighty works and wonders and signs thatÂ God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22; cf Acts 10:38; Heb 2:4).
What about New Testament injunctions to Christians to do good (Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Tim 6:18; Heb 13:16)? Didn’t Jesus himself say that the sheep who fed the hungry and thirsty and cared for the stranger, naked, sick and the prisoner will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Matt 25:34-36)? The overwhelming evidence in Scripture is that believers are to do good and care for each other. As we saw in the Old Testament, laws given to Israel to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans among them. But Israel was never commanded to care for the Philistines or Moabites. The sheep of Matthew 25 were rewarded because they cared for Jesus’ brethren. 2 Notice also that when a severe famine struck Judea, Paul never gathered help for unbelievers, but only for the churches that were suffering (Rom 15:25-26; Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor 16:1-3). This is why Paul, in saying “let us do good to everyone,” also stresses,
If this is true, the present emphasis on humanitarian aid and social justice by Christians, without the proclamation of the gospel, is misplaced. To be sure, there is some truth to the accusation that many churchesâ€”especially megachurchesâ€”overspend millions on building projects, gyms and theaters, while hundreds of millions around the world are suffering deprivation. But such financial resources can also be used to educate pastors, establish seminaries, and distribute Bibles and Christian books. Under the oversight of Christian churches, community development, livelihood programs, hospitals, orphanages, and schools can be established in Christian communities. Obviously, in disaster situations, selective humanitarian relief is not possible and not truly compassionate.
Thus, Scripture gives ample guidance on how Christians are to “do good to everyone.” Churches are duty-bound to alleviate the suffering of their own poor, and if they have more than enough resources, to help other Christians. Lastly, if resources permit, they are to extend their compassion to those outside God’s covenant community, at the same time proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.