Ministries of Word and Deed and the Church

The September 2008 issue of Themelios is out, and in the opening editorial D. A. Carson speaks of fifty pastors’ (presumably the Gospel Coalition’s Council Members) consensus and question:

[T]here was, I think a broad consensus that Christians who understand the priority of preparing people for eternity must also help people here and now, and that gospel proclamation must not be set antithetically against deeds of mercy. Far from it: many of the pastors and the Christians they served were heavily involved in an array of strategic ministries. It was, of course, immediately recognized that how one discharges such responsibilities will vary enormously from community to community, from country to country, for the needs vary hugely, almost beyond comprehension. Still, we returned again and again to this pointed question: Granted that we ought to be engaged in acts of mercy, what safeguards can be set in place so as to minimize the risk that the deeds of mercy will finally swamp the proclamation of the gospel and the passionate desire to see men and women reconciled to God by faith in Christ Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection?

Carson reports that two particular safeguards stood out in the discussion: (1) distinguish between the responsibilities of the church qua church and the responsibilities of Christians, and (2) preach hell as a reminder that Christians desire to relieve all suffering and as a guard against distracting involvement with those who would shunt aside the mankind’s need to be reconciled to God and to flee the coming wrath.

For Carson, and presumably these pastors, the end of the first of these two safeguards is similar to the goal of the second – to ensure that “[m]inisters of the gospel . . . [do] not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries [of service] that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.”

Mildly critical of those “writers [who] flip back and forth between references to ‘Christians’ and references to ‘church’ as if there is no difference whatsoever,”  Carson concludes that there is no New Testament warrant for and rejects the conclusion of “many Christian thinkers . . . that if the church qua church is responsible for some of these substantial works of mercy, such works of mercy ought to come under the leaders of the church.”  To support his conclusion he draws upon the apostles’ example in Acts 6:1-6:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Carson observes that the twelve recognized that they should not be diverted from the ministry of the Word and prayer even by the inequities of food distribution among the saints, so they saw that others were appointed to “tackle the problem.”

I grant that the fifty gathered in Chicago are pastors pondering their role and the role of their congregations in ministries of service.  Yet, Carson fails to apply the “broad consensus” to the responsibilities of “church qua church” as promised.  Instead, he narrows the focus to the role of minister of the gospel.

Even ignoring the possible discontinuities between the apostles’ particular calling in Acts 6 and a pastor’s calling in today’s church, if the consensus is that “Christians who understand the priority of preparing people for eternity must also help people here and now,” then the question for the minister is how to lead Christians in the flock together to do both of these things.  Such a “consensus” implies that each part is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian.  And ministers are to be all about equipping the saints to be Christians, equipping them for works of service (diakoni,aj), together building up the body of Christ.  Eph. 4:11-16.

Neither Carson nor I would argue that ministers should become so involved in the service-based works of the Church that they neglect the Word to the church.  Yet the implication of Carson’s shifting emphasis from the Church qua Church to the apparently limited role of the minister in ministry of service, obscures the centrality of the minister’s duty to spur the people of the Church to lead lives of whole-bodied Christians.  Church qua church is to be full of men and women who both preach the perilous grace of the Gospel and physically demonstrate the immense depth and strength of Christ’s love.  They do these things with their mouths, with their hip pockets, and with their hands and feet.  Surely it takes Word and deed together create a robust reflection of the love of God in Christ.

The Church qua Church cannot adequately illumine the world with the glory of God in Christ without both of these things (remember the consensus).  In order to correct the imbalance in the American church, it seems to me that ministers of the gospel should be a lot more worried that their lives and the ministry lives of their congregations fail to reflect the deed side of this combination than worried about being distracted from faithful proclaimation of the Word by overattention to acts of charity and love.  Word and deed must go out together for the Word to be manifest to the world in His saving glory, power, and love.

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