Who Defines The Ministry
A number of you have responded to the recently ended series on Who Defines the Ministry? The issue continues to occupy my thinking, particularly in light of current events. If you will indulge me, I want to resurrect it again in this issue of the Dear Co—Laborer letter and then in January return to the subject of Relativism.
In the series on Who Defines the Ministry I sought to show that neither the individual believer nor the institutional church has the right to establish the agenda for ministry. Only our Lord Jesus can do that and has done it in the New Testament. Furthermore, if we look to the Old Testament for leadership in what constitutes ministry, we are apt to be led astray. God’s program for theocratic Israel is different than that for the New Testament Church.
Today there is an appreciable amount of confusion in the Body of Christ over exactly what constitutes the ministry. In the name of Christ organizations and individuals have involved themselves in a wide range of social issues from the confirmation of Judge Bark to the Supreme Court to influencing legislation, protesting abortion and pornography, feeding the poor, helping illegal aliens enter the United States, nuclear power, world peace and prayer in the public schools. These causes that have captured the imagination of conscientious believers can be broadly categorized into two groups: those that are negative (e.g. against abortion, pornography and nuclear power) and those that are positive (e.g. justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor).
It seems to me that the believer is limited to the definition of the ministry found in the New Testament in general and the Great Commission more specifically. In short, the ministry is winning the lost and edifying the saved. When Christians engage in activities in the name of Christ Outside of this limited definition, mixed signals are sent to the non-believing community, many of them counter—productive to the cause of Christ. For example, marching before an abortion clinic with a placard reading, God hates abortion,” may not be in the best interest of the Gospel. It is this point I will seek to establish in this article.
ADDRESSING THE NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF SOCIETY
Philippians 4:6-9 the great apostle exhorts the people as follows:
Be anxious for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; If there be any virtue, and If there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.
Paul encourages positive rather than negative thought. Not what is wrong in the world, but what is right in the Lord is what should occupy the Christian’s thinking. We are not called to police the world but to proclaim the Gospel. Nowhere in the New Testament, that I know of, is the believer commissioned with the task of righting the ills of society. The ministry is positive, not negative. The church is not “against” slavery, injustice, inequality, etc., but “for” the sinner’s repenting, trusting Christ as Saviour, and submitting to the Holy Spirit’s leadership in his life. When the ministry takes on negative overtones the following negative results generally occur:
1. When we dwell on the “dishonest,” “unjust,” “impure,” and “ugly” (verse 8), we end up becoming “anxious” (verse 6). A great deal of Christian dialogue concentrates on what is wrong with the United States, people make comments like, “If God doesn’t judge the U.S., He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah. Our spirits are constantly churning over the decline of the country, and we vacillate between retreating (e.g. home schooling) and lashing out (e.g. marching against abortion clinics). Peace gives way to anxiety.
2. Barriers are erected between the Christian and non-Christian that hinder the proclamation of the Gospel. The non-Christian is made to feel that he must accept the Christian agenda in order to become a Christian. Because, in the name of Christ, we seek to stop homosexual activity, violence on TV, Playboy magazines being sold in Seven-Eleven stores, etc., we create the impression that to become a Christian he must be against these things as well. We expect him to embrace a Christian value system without the benefit of conversion and the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life.
3. Instead of “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” it now becomes “you have sinned and must become like us if you want to be accepted by God. We are pleasing God by the way we live, you are not.” I believe this is one of the reasons the media pounced on Pat Robertson, exposing the fact that their first child was conceived out of wedlock. The attitude is, “We will prove that you ‘righteous’ Christians aren’t living any better lives than we ‘sinners’ are.” In the matter of sin it is a we-they problem, rather than our problem.
4. Thus the impression is created that we are preaching “another gospel.” I know of no believer who is involved in these social issues who will argue that he intends to preach another gospel, but this is what the unbeliever hears. The path to Christ includes accepting the evangelical social agenda.
5. When we become embroiled in the negative aspects of society, our energies are dissipated. Social issues tend to be all consuming. Involvement is frequently at the expense of the Great Commission. This doesn’t mean that the believer should not become involved in negative social issues. Rather, the involvement should be as a concerned citizen of the republic instead of as an ambassador for Christ. Furthermore, it should be remembered that such involvement is not the ministry per Se, it may lead to ministry, be an excellent environment for ministry, etc., but it is not the ministry.
ADDRESSING POSITIVELY THE NEEDS OF SOCIETY
Historically believers have always understood the asset they have at their disposal in meeting the needs of people as a vehicle for fulfilling the Great Commission. For example, Christianity brought to India hospitals, the care of orphans and widows, a concern for the poor and much more. But thinking Christians understood that, “What shall it profit a man if you fill his belly and send him to hell?”
Ed Erny, president of OMS, has an article in a recent periodical entitled “Keeping the Shell and Discarding the Kernel” which, in a clear, concise manner, calls attention to the inherent risks in taking this approach. I quote it in its entirety.
Today there seems to be a disconcerting tendency for missionary candidates to seek to serve Christ in almost any capacity but direct evangelism. ‘My son loves mechanics,’ a mother recently told me, ‘and he thinks maybe he would like to be a missionary. Is there something he could do overseas?”
Another says, ‘I feel God calling me to be involved in missions as a hydro—electric engineer.’ Others aspire to be missionaries assigned to work in rural hygiene, reforestation, community development, soil conservation, literacy, or the teaching of anthropology.
Dr. Donald McGavran, church growth pioneer, recently wrote mission executives an impassioned letter. He said, ‘Careful research into what is actually done by missionaries on mission fields has revealed beyond the shadow of a doubt that most monies sent out from America by mission executives go to carry on good works with little evangelistic effect.’
One study disclosed that nearly 801 of all North American missionaries overseas are involved primarily in social work. Missions expert, Peter Wagner, in his book, On the Crest of the Wave, says: ‘1 have before me a list of openings in a mission agency which will go unnamed. Of 50 different categories, only two relate to evangelism.
When mission agencies are confronted with these startling facts, many explanations are offered–some of them comfortingly plausible. Today, we are told, direct evangelism–the preaching of the gospel–is properly the task of the indigenous church.
Others point out that social concern–love in action–is the way to prepare hearts for the hearing of the gospel; so properly this ministry must precede direct evangelism.
Indian missionary evangelist, K.P. Yohannan, recalls. “1 first learned the horrible truth about the ineffectiveness of humanitarian aid in the late 1970s during a North India Survey Expedition…. My co-workers and I eagerly looked forward to visiting some of the missionaries and seeing the local churches. We especially wanted to fleet believers in villages near the famed mission stations.
To our amazement, we could hardly find a living body of Christ anywhere. There were hardly any believers at all. The surrounding villages were as deep in spiritual darkness as they had been 200 years ago before the missionary came. We were shocked to find, after 80-100 years of constant missionary work and after the investment of millions of dollars in these areas, there were few if any real local churches in existence.
Yohannan goes on to state that in few Countries is the failure of Christian humanism more apparent than in Thailand. There, after 150 years of showing marvelous social compassion, the church still makes up only one-tenth of one percent of the entire population. Thailand owes to missionaries its widespread literacy, first printing press, first university, first hospital, first doctor, and almost every other benefit of education and science . . . but today virtually all that remains of this is a shell of good works.”
The reason, I believe, that thousands of missionaries have been content to devote a lifetime to humanitarian service, to the neglect of evangelism, is simply that evangelism has been and always will be very hard work. The plain preaching of Jesus is still, as the Scriptures warn us, foolishness–an offense and a stumbling block. So, whereas all men will laud us for our good works, they will take a dim view of our being so bigoted and narrow-minded as to suggest that indeed there is but ‘one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus–even the One who said, “No man cometh to the Father but by me.”
Former President Zail Singh asked Christians in India to declare a “self-imposed moratorium” on their efforts to convert Hindus. Ironically, at the same time, President Singh praised Christians for their work in education and medical care, and urged them to continue working in such ministries of “service to the country’s poor and destitute.”
The scholarly and devout missionary statesman, Bishop Stephen Neill, after a lifetime devoted to missions, came to the conclusion that “personal conversion is at the heart of missions.” Viewing with misgiving the growing emphasis of the World Council of Churches on social justice, he declared, “Those who start at the social end never seem to get to the gospel, whereas those who start with the gospel sometimes accomplish, without knowing or intending it, the social revolution.”
Erny is not addressing the results of missionary effort, but the goal. This is the goal that must be kept clearly in mind as we do the ministry. The goal is not to improve the temporal well-being of people, but to
“bring them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them such are sanctified”
. . . (Acts 26:18)
Yours because of His grace,