What is the Mission of Missions? Part 5
In part 5 of this series, Joel continues his discussion of eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions.
Problem 5: Defective hermeneutics
The arguments used to promote social action missions are often based on transparently deficient hermeneutics. The result is arguments that are rhetorically compelling, but biblically suspect. For example, I often find that NT passages about mercy within the church are interpreted as if they referred to missions projects outside the church. Among many others, a typical example is the widow care in Acts 6. To put it plainly, the seven men appointed in Acts 6 were ministers to the church, not missionaries to the world. An army of examples of this kind of error could be marshalled. Once you keep your eyes open for it you’ll see it frequently: the apples argument of mercy within the church used to promote the oranges conclusion of social reform missions targeted at the world.
Problem 6: Confusing what the church-corporate does with what individual Christians do
Much of the confusion in this debate lies right here. We have confused Jesus’ call to love our neighbor with the church-corporate’s missions program: both are important, but they aren’t the same thing. It is in no way wrong for Christians to be involved in orphanages, health care, and so on. But what individual Christians do and what the church-corporate organizes itself to do in missions are not the same thing.
Let me illustrate. As a Christian, you would gladly stop and help an injured motorist by the side of the road, just as the Good Samaritan did—that’s loving your neighbor. However, does the story of the Good Samaritan mean that your church should put a line-item in its annual budget to purchase patrol vehicles, train staff, and fund a freeway patrol program designed to help stranded or injured motorists on a freeway that runs near your church? To ask the question is to answer it. What a Christian does because he loves his neighbour, and what the church-corporate does as its missions program are not necessarily the same thing.
In the same way, if the husband of the woman next door died, my wife and I would gladly help her with childcare, reorganizing life, financial assistance if necessary, and so on. That’s what Christians do, just because we’re Christians. However, does that mean that my church should start a Pretoria Widows’ Relief Fund to care for all the widows of the city of Pretoria? What individual Christians do and what the church corporate mobilizes itself to do to fulfill the Great Commission is not the same thing—not to mention the issue of Paul’s instruction that the church is only to mobilize itself to help believing widows over the age of sixty (1 Timothy 5:3ff.). In summary, whatever individual Christians did in loving their neighbor, the church-corporate’s missions programs focused entirely on proclamation, not social action.
Problem 7: A misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and miracles.
Those who want social action and gospel proclamation to be equal partners in missions often claim that they are imitating Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 26:9 and John 13:29, the Gospels imply that Jesus and His disciples did give money to the poor; however, it is also clear in the Gospels that Jesus started no orphanages, established no poverty relief funds, no low-cost housing schemes, no well-digging programs, and so on. Neither did He tell His disciples to do so.
“But what about Jesus’ miracles?” you might ask, “Don’t they show that the church should be working to eradicate hunger and disease?” Interestingly, Jesus’ miracles are never held up in the NT as motivation for the church to focus on social action—as if the church is to continue Jesus' program of miraculous social relief by non-miraculous means. In fact, Jesus repeatedly said that the purpose of His miracles was to prove that He was the Messiah. John 10:24-25 says, "The Jews then gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me.’” To construe Jesus’ miracles as a reason to make social action central to the church’s mission is to ignore Jesus’ stated purpose for His miracles. It is to use His miracles in a way the NT doesn’t.
In fact, Jesus frequently found that His preaching was hindered by people’s relentless demands for more miraculous social intervention. As you recall, this led Him to instruct those He healed not to spread the word about His power (Mark 1:44-45; 5:43; Matt 8:4; 9:30-31). Jesus understood all too well that social relief swallows up the time and energy that should be dedicated to evangelism, preaching, and discipleship.
Joel James has served as the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa since February 1995. This series was adapted from Joel James and Brian Biedebach, “Regaining Our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions,” MSJ 25, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 29-50.