Friday, August 11, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Four: The Christian Individual

Another important qualification to the (undisputed) notion that churches should have ministries of mercy concerns the role of the Christian as an individual. The position that many adopt (but rarely attempt to prove) is that passages like the parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37 or Paul’s instruction to “do good to everyone” in Galatians 6:9-10 apply to the institutional Church as such, rather than to the individual believer.

Indeed, this distinction has not even occurred to many Christians.

But it must be admitted that there are countless activities in which individual believers may feel called to engage, yet which do not fall under the purview of the Church’s mandate, properly understood. For example, if the majority of the members of a local congregation believe that a particular political candidate promotes a more healthy vision for his constituents than his opponent, those believers, as citizens of the civil kingdom, are perfectly free to do whatever is in their power to trumpet his cause. But then to assume that the local church to which they belong should cast its vote accordingly is to make a huge—and illegitimate—leap. One Christian’s hero may be another Christian’s villain. Therefore for a church to align itself with a political party is to assume that the Bible favors a particular ideology which it never intended to address.

In short, the Church’s Great Commission (the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments) is more limited than the various spiritual, social, and political causes in which individual believers are free to engage.

With respect to mercy ministries, it would be naïve to think that the issues of who should be the recipients of church-sponsored financial assistance, and what form that assistance should take, are cut and dry. What may appear as compassion for the disenfranchised in the eyes of one could easily look like an irresponsible handout to the lazy in the eyes of another. The age-old debate about whether it is better, in the long run, to give a hungry man a basket of fish or a pole and bait remains unsettled, with sincere believers on both sides of the issue.

My point, then, is simply that there is a place for the believer to act according to his own individual conscience without those actions becoming the official ministry of the Church. And if you think about it, for the Church to commandeer benevolence and trademark mercy is somewhat insulting to all the kind, caring Muslims, Catholics, and atheists out there.