Adrian R. Crum
New Horizons: February 2024
Also in this issue
by Trish Duggan
by Ben Stahl
Feeling used by someone ostensibly in need can make your stomach drop. Maybe you’ve been in this situation—wondering if you are being taken advantage of by a stranger in a grocery store parking lot who’s asking for money to buy diapers, or by someone at the gas pump with an elaborate story of being stranded. Maybe you give some cash, and then watch the person turn around and use it in self-destructive ways.
Many deacons are familiar with such stories. It’s just one reason why some argue that deacons should reserve benevolent funds for members of Christ’s church. After all, most of the New Testament references of benevolent care focus on Christians caring for other believers (2 Cor. 8:4, 1 John 3:16–17, James 2:15–16).
I would set forth, however, that all Christians—and deacons especially—are called to show benevolent mercy also to the lost. In Paul’s words, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10).
The last pagan Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, begrudgingly admitted that Christians “support not only their own poor, but [Romans] as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” Those Christians in Julian’s day were simply following a pattern discernible in the Scriptures. In The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy, Cornelis Van Dam explains that both Old and New Testaments call God’s people to care for sojourners and strangers. In Deuteronomy 14:28, God calls Israelite farmers to bring a tenth of their crops to store in their towns, for the purpose of caring for Levites, orphans, widows—and sojourners.
In Leviticus 19:9–10, farmers are instructed not to harvest the edges of their crops, nor gather “the gleanings.” They were to leave some on the vines of their vineyards and leave fallen grapes on the ground, which would become fruit to nourish the poor and sojourners in their midst (cf. Deut. 24:14–18). Ruth, the Moabitess, benefited from this law while gleaning in Boaz’s field and fell down in wonder exclaiming, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10, emphasis added). Boaz, however, wasn’t practicing something extravagant. He was simply keeping God’s prescribed kindness to care for the tangible needs of non-Israelites living in their midst.
Van Dam explains Galatians 6:10—“As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”—by saying,
The good in view is, according to the immediate context, spiritual help and encouragement and bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1–2), but material help is not excluded (Gal. 6:6, 9). The apostle Paul repeats this principle of loving God’s people first but to also be intentional to love outsiders as well. (cf. 1 Thess. 3:12; 5:15)
Hebrews 13 encourages love for brothers in verse 1, right alongside hospitality to strangers in verse 2. When we love even our enemies, lending to them and expecting nothing in return, Jesus tells us we resemble our Father who “is kind to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35). Romans 12:14 and 20 tell us the way to “overcome evil with good” (12:21) is to extend tangible blessing to those who persecute us. Christians should be known for nourishing our enemies with food and drink.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has formalized this biblical conviction in its Book of Church Order: “Deacons are called to show forth the manifold ministry of mercy towards saints and strangers on behalf of the church. To this end they exercise, in the fellowship of the church, a recognized stewardship of care of gifts for those in need or distress” (XI:1, emphasis added). The United Reformed Church of North America echoes this when it writes in Article 15 of its church order, “Needs of those outside the congregation, especially of other believers, should be considered as resources permit.”
Loving the stranger in this way is not easy. Objections start to rise in our own hearts as we think about this difficult work. First, will ministry in deed toward the lost tend to obscure the priority of the ministry of the Word? Charles Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers,” helped support sixty-six benevolent ministries, according to Spurgeon and the Poor by Alex DiPrima. Spurgeon carefully selected ministries that would be connected to both private and public proclamation of the Word: “Good works served witness. Practically every one of Spurgeon’s benevolences incorporated gospel proclamation in some way.”
As a missionary kid growing up in Mexico, I frequently saw how this worked in practice. Many nominal Catholics, or those completely unchurched, were invited to the churches we worked with in Tijuana. Along with their lack of understanding of and belief in the gospel, these new friends had many tangible and physical needs. Deacons worked closely with elders and pastors to make sure that families had basic necessities supplied to them even before they joined our church. Similar to the way personal evangelism comes more naturally during the early stages of a church plant, benevolent ministry went hand-in-hand with Word ministry in these new congregations.
Second, some deacons may ask, “What if deed ministry to the lost exhausts all benevolent resources for God’s people?” Amazingly, when we have tried to spend down a benevolent fund, God has provided in remarkable ways. Longtime OP pastor Mark Brown, now retired, encouraged his congregation to give 51 percent of their total budget to missions, with a portion of benevolent giving going toward the unreached. Rev. Brown testifies to the generosity of God’s people throughout his forty-year pastorate in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania: “Generally we averaged between 30 and 40 percent [going] to missions with one year actually making 50 percent.”
In his work, “Christian Charity: or, The Duty of Charity to the Poor Explained and Enforced,” Jonathan Edwards summarizes a third potential objection: “I don’t want to help this person because he is of an ill temper or ungrateful spirit.” Timothy Keller, citing Edwards’s work in his Themelios article “The Gospel and The Poor” explains, “We all want to help kindhearted, upright people, whose poverty came on without any contribution from them and who will respond to your aid with gratitude and joy. Frankly, almost no one like that exists.” In other words, if we wait to help the worthy, grateful people, we will never begin. Edwards writes, “Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good . . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving.”
Deacons in a local church cannot devote an equal number of resources to all the needy. In The Deacons Handbook, a classic text of diaconal training, Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster wisely draw concentric circles of need. I list the first five here: First, training and getting to know the congregation. Second, giving to the needy in God’s household. Third, delegating congregational mercy ministry to the congregation (see important principles of 1 Tim. 5:4, 8). Fourth, serving the neighborhood. Fifth, serving the world.
Need is endless. God calls us to have open eyes, open hearts, and then discernment to know which needs should take priority. It’s easy to give into feeling overwhelmed with all the need. But deacons do not carry out all mercy ministry on their own. God gave officers, not to do all the work themselves, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Deacons who know their congregation and the neighborhood will be able to make the needs known, gather human and financial resources, and serve both God’s household and those known to be in need.
God, as our Father, has loved us, the evil and ungrateful. Until we can imagine ourselves in the place of the poor person who needs our help, we will not act. But when we remember that God has poured out his endless, persistent grace on us, we will be motivated and driven to love those who truly are unlovely, just like he loved us. “Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
New Horizons: February 2024
Also in this issue
by Trish Duggan
by Ben Stahl
© 2024 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church