Should Churches be Doing Social Work?
by Michael J. Penfold
Despite being continually mocked, threatened and beaten for preaching the gospel, the apostles refused either to give up or change tack. Why? Because they had an unshakeable confidence in the Lord and in His authoritative command – the mandate He had given them – which is now commonly called ‘the great commission’. The brevity, clarity and succinctness of the Lord’s instructions surely helped to preserve the apostles from becoming confused or side-tracked in the face of political, cultural and religious opposition. So, what was the mandate? Combining Matthew and Mark’s account, we discover that the apostles were authorised to:
1. Go into all the world (not just Israel, as previously)
2. Preach the gospel (the method to be used, and the message to be communicated)
3. Baptise the converts, and teach them all things (thus producing disciples from among all nations)
Let us look at a couple of the mandate’s more obvious features:
1. Its Comprehensiveness
This great commission involves us in an ‘all round ministry’. It takes in all the elements of the task at hand – from preaching the gospel, through to seeing assemblies established. It would be easy therefore to fall short of carrying out the full terms of the mandate. For example, we haven’t complied with the mandate if we enter a town, hold a ‘crusade’, count up the ‘converts’ and walk away. The mandate also involves discipling new believers, and seeing them baptised and gathered to the name of the Lord in assembly fellowship.
2. Its Spiritual Emphasis
Another real danger is that of going beyond the mandate. Christ sent the apostles into a first century culture saturated with politics, philosophy, drama and entertainment, and told them simply to preach the gospel and make disciples. The word for ‘preach’ means ‘to herald’ (Gk. kerusso); and so, the book of Acts is a record of men of God, filled with the Spirit of God, preaching the Word of God. Christians today, who choose to use political lobbying, social work and the performing arts (dance, drama, music) to promote the gospel, are therefore exceeding the mandate, wandering from the pattern and straying into the realm of human wisdom.
Note too that despite the 1st century being a needy era educationally, medically and socially, the mandate’s focus was spiritual. Yes, the Bible does record how assemblies cared for poor Christians and rebukes us if we see a destitute brother and do nothing about it. Yet there is no record of any apostolic programme of social help for a lost world. Why? Let us consider two common problems associated with the use of social work in the gospel:
1. Who it Attracts
Remember the crowds who followed Christ? Though the Lord had compassion on His own nation and fed them, He knew their hearts; “Ye seek me, not because ye have seen signs, but because ye have eaten of the loaves and been filled” (John 6:26, JND). The primary purpose of the ‘miracle of the loaves’ was the authentication of the Messiah as the ‘bread from heaven’, not the filling of stomachs. Yet, as someone once said, instead of seeing in the bread the sign, they saw in the sign nothing but the bread. One lesson we can learn from the feeding of the 5,000 is that the multitude is always more than happy to follow along, provided there is something in it for them.
But shouldn’t we help people? Did not General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, say “You cannot warm people’s hearts with God’s love if they have empty stomachs and cold feet”? Certainly, any kind of cold, compassionless Christianity that just ‘goes through the motions’ is to be condemned. Preaching the gospel and relieving genuine need are not mutually exclusive, but there’s a difference between compassionate involvement with people in the midst of gospel work on the one hand, and an organised social, medical or educational ‘ministry’ on the other.
The US evangelist, Oliver Smith, saw many hundreds of souls saved and numerous assemblies established between the two great wars of the 20th century. As he knocked on doors and pioneered the work, he showed kindness to people ‘on the go’. He cut gentlemen’s hair for free. He helped farmers in their fields to oblige them to come and hear the gospel! He attached electric motors to women’s pedal sewing machines for the same reason. The lasting nature of his work can be seen to this day. In speaking with missionaries in various parts of the world, again and again one hears; “The vast majority of solid believers in assembly fellowship, who have stood the test of time, were saved in traditional series of gospel meetings.”
2. Who it Distracts
Many a well-meaning missionary has started a School or a clinic to open doors for gospel work, only to find that the social work ends up taking up most of his time and energy. This dilutes direct gospel endeavour and distracts the servant. Missionary, Stephen Harper, once wrote: “it is regrettable that relieving temporal needs often takes precedence over declaring God’s way of salvation, communicating very wrong priorities to the perishing…[Africa] needs missionaries with an unshakeable conviction about the sufficiency and relevance of Scripture – the inherent power of the word of God – and a prayerful determination not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
But can’t we use social, medical and educational work to open doors for the gospel? Look at the record of the Acts. For Peter, Paul and the other apostles, it is clear that the gospel opened its own doors.
It is very tempting, in the godless materialistic culture of the 21st century West, when people generally no longer want to listen to the sound Biblical gospel, to give up on ‘gospel preaching’ and turn to new styles of outreach in order to gather some kind of a crowd. A new emphasis on fun and games, food and drink, and music and movies is being tried in many places. But human wisdom cannot save souls, or communicate divine truth, or build local assemblies.1 And remember, what you attract people with, you’ll need to keep them with; which will have the effect of lowering the serious tone of the work, and may eventually lead to the character of Biblical assembly testimony being lost altogether.
May the Lord give us the strength, courage and steadfastness, neither to fall short of nor to go beyond the Lord’s mandate, but to faithfully press on – doing what He has mandated us to do, and looking to Him for every needed grace until the great day of review when “how we build”2 will be reviewed and rewarded.
1. See 1 Corinthians Chs 1, 2 and 3 respectively.
2. 1 Cor 3:10