The Bible thunders with the pronouncements of prophets regarding things like oppression and taking care of the needy. Because of the Scripture’s clarity on these issues Christians have long understood the call of God to engage in justice and mercy ministry.
One of the main factors for the early church’s growth was due to the fact that many abandoned babies rescued and given proper care. In the Middle Ages hospitals begin to emerge on the scene as Christians engage in “hospitality” to the sick and dying. During the Reformation era Christians battled tyranny in both church and state. In the 17-1800’s it may be said that the social work of Christians began to expand. Orphanages, prison reform, abolition of the slave trade, and educational movements pronouncedly rise on the scene of the Western world.
Today, there is just as much opportunity for justice and mercy ministries. Issues—such as racism, poverty, hunger, abortion, homosexuality, environmental care, sex trade, immigration, divorce & family disintegration—abound, and each one has their own particular parachurch ministry (or ministries) that has developed a niche for it.
The church’s engagement with the cultural ills of the day is certainly clear, both from the Biblical command and the apparent cultural breakdown occurring all around us. The question simply becomes, how does the church engage?
Distinguishing the Biblical and Unbiblical Tactics
One must first understand that there are unbiblical views regarding engagement on these matters. Satan always attempts to impede kingdom work through misdirection and subversion. Moreover, Satan’s kingdom, which is dedicated to death and destruction, will seek to foment its devastation with whatever means it possibly can. Therefore we should expect that true justice is parodied for evil ends and false “compassion ministry” parades about to further enslave humanity in the grips of ruin.
For this reason we must understand the old clichés: “All that glitters is not gold” and “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
No person will ever likely say, “I am out to advance enslavement, wickedness, and death.” People engage in attempts at reform and transformation because they care and want to see people’s lives improve. But despite their good intents, many of these people end up bringing about the very opposite. They impede justice and create further havoc because they are either ignorant of biblical teaching or intent on adhering to an anti-biblical system.
For instance, the common buzz word for compassion ministry is “social justice.” On the face, the term sounds positive and can easily muster backing. When we break it down it merely implies “doing what is right (justice) for the broader community of people (society).”
But despite the upbeat ring to it, the phrase is typically a mask for a socialist or Marxist agenda.
If we could boil down the Marxist/socialist position, it would be thus: Marx/Soc is a materialistic worldview that believes that the government is the central figure in eradicating inequalities. Justice, in this worldview, is not about upholding the 10 commandments. It is about attaining social and economic equity.
So, for the Marx/Soc, social justice will have a radically different flavor than it will for the Biblical Christian. For instance, M/S Christians would likely advocate for the legalization of homosexual marriage. Due to their materialistic belief they do not see the sexes and defined by God and marriage as a institution ordained by Him. Homosexuals as simply “born that way” and, so they say, are to be given the same rights as everyone else.
Another example of M/S social justice regards the redistribution of wealth. While poverty is recognized as a legitimate concern, the M/S seeks to deal with the problem by the wrong means, i.e. government regulation. People who work and earn money to provide for themselves are taxed, and their money is given to those who have less (let us remember that a goodly portion of that money first goes into the pockets of some government official).
What happens is that those who produce lose the incentive to work, and those who are receiving free money have no incentive to work.
Economic inequality, as it is regarded, becomes essentially a clash of classes. Instead of creating a thriving society which prospers, it produces envy, sloth, and poverty.
This is not to say that everyone who uses the term “social justice” is a M/S. The term is employed widely and many biblical Christians will speak of it. We simply point out here that “all that glitters is not gold.” While may have a glittering ring, what it produces is a far cry from gold.
Moreover, it serves to help us understand that Christian people must seek to build their ministries upon a clearly defined biblical worldview. One may be a serious Christian, but one’s guide for doing ministry may be misdirected; being built more upon the principles of the world than upon Scripture.
God, Government, and the difference between the two
Being that there is a divergence of opinion on tactics for going about compassion and justice, perhaps the place to begin building a right framework is examining what the Bible says about each of the three major spheres of life: government, family, and church.
The M/S view places the civil magistrate in the prime position for doing social justice. This emphasis on a heavy centralized power automatically makes the government quite large in its reach and size. The government must regulate almost every aspect of society, from the hamburger you eat at the drive through to whether or not Iran should have nuclear weapons. In sum, government becomes god.
The Biblical role of government, by contrast, is extremely limited. The best place to find a summation of the government’s role is in Romans 13:1-6 (ESV).
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
While Paul is writing mainly to encourage submission to the authorities, his discourse allows us to see the God ordained role of government. First, we see that government is a legitimate institution. He is “appointed” by God. This means that the civil magistrate is a divine institution and was put in place by the direct command of God for the right ordering of society.
Moreover, the civil magistrate is called “God’s servant for your good.” He is even called a “minister of God.” So not only should we recognize it as a public institution, we should hold it in high esteem. Government leaders, correspondingly, should take upon themselves the right demeanor of reverence as holding such a position.
Secondly, we recognize that taxation is the means by which the government may carry out its duties. But what is the duty they are called to? It is the work of justice.
This is the third element of this passage. The government as one who “bears the sword.” He is also called “the avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In these two statements we see that the government’s power is limited to a specific work: to exact justice upon criminals and maintain the proper defense of its citizenry.
That the power of the government is limited to “bearing the sword” means that it does not have the powers to infringe upon the family (who has the power of the rod, i.e. discipline) or the church (who has the power of the keys, i.e. church discipline).
We can further understand the state’s role by looking at the OT and examining what is said to Israel about criminal activity and how it should be dealt with. However, at this point we can recognize this: the sword is not a good instrument for compassion. Since the government is an “avenger” and explicitly designed to bring about pain (i.e. God’s wrath), it should be understood that it will not do a good job in helping the poor and needy—at least not beyond the capacity of dealing with crimes and prosecuting injustice.
When someone steals your sheep or ox, this is most certainly a form of oppression. Scripture makes it clear that the magistrate must act to make it right (Ex. 22). So, it is clear that civil leaders have a role in maintaining order. This is what Romans 13 means when it says that he is “the servant for your good.” He brings about your good by prosecuting those who do wrong.
But we must keep in mind that this is not compassion in the pure sense of the term. It is justice. The government’s role as defined by Scripture is that of justice for crime, and not mercy ministry. When it seeks to go beyond the role that God has ordained it (and do compassion), people suffer. The sword hurts the helpless and creates more devastation.
We might also say that when the government overextends itself beyond its God given role (to do compassion), it is not able to do its original job of maintaining justice. The more “compassionate” the government becomes, the more unjust it becomes.
Finally, we must recognize that the government must have a divinely given authority for understanding what crime is and how it should be punished. If it does not recognize God’s law as the basis for it, then the laws of the land become the whims of men. Men will make any law they please and execute “injustice” in any way it pleases. Because the hearts of men are evil, this will only lead to further wickedness and misery.
In sum, if Scripture does not regulate the state, the sword will be used to produce more oppression.
Items for discussion: Should we cut off a thief’s hands? Is it a crime to drink soda or sell alcohol? How do you know? Property tax—is it a legitimate form of taxation? Should the government be involved in marriage? What role does the government play in regulating items pertaining to the environment (recycling? Pollution?)
Note: I deal with this sphere most because it is the sphere that Scripture likely speaks to most. When the prophets hail people to “do what is just” and “defend the oppressed” typically they are speaking to civil leaders who have enacted unjust laws or failed to enforce the laws that are just.
Family: Compassion’s Ground Zero
While we might have addressed the sphere of the civil magistrate first, let’s not think that it is the primary place to start. Compassion ministry begins in the home and is cultivated by the church.
Time and again we’ve emphasized the importance of the family and preserving the stability of the family. One might even say that family breakdown is one of the primary reasons why we need compassion ministries. Thus, we must train men who will in turn seek to uphold righteousness in themselves and in their homes.
Discuss: Today, almost 50% of children are born out of wedlock. What are the implications for society?
When we look into Scripture, we also find that compassion is mainly the duty of individuals and families. For instance, how did Israel fight poverty?
Maintaining righteous laws (no laws that favored rich), punishing those who oppressed poor & needy, slavery, gleanings, giving & lending freely, hospitality/personal care
Why do you think that God put the bulk of fighting poverty on the shoulders of the individual and family?
The Church: Compassion through the Prophetic, Priestly, & Kingly offices
When it comes to the church, we must recognize that its main role in compassion ministry is a prophetic one. Through the church and her ministers God’s word is proclaimed. We must not downgrade or overlook this. For “where there is no vision, the people perish.” When the word of God fails to be spoken to society, society is free to do as they please and no check is placed upon them. The word of God convict and restrains evil.
Let us also remember the need for church discipline (kingly role). When sin breaks out in the church, the church must seek to call that person repentance and censure him with the hopes that he will amend his ways. If he does, the church has likely prevented needs from arising.
Illustrations for discussion: A politician who advocates abortion; A man who abandons his family, a member who violates a business contract.
The church also is called to act as a priest through its deacons. As we learned in a previous module, deacons are responsible for organizing care and providing opportunity for others to serve.
Some Areas of Justice/mercy:
2. Slavery & Racism,
3. Poverty & Hunger,
4. Environmental Action (stewardship),
5. Abortion & (so called) Population “control
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.