I want to thank Kevin DeYoung for his gracious and thoughtful response to my query from last week, and I hope to continue the conversation in the same manner. This is a discussion that needs to take place, for it involves our understanding of the mission of the church on a fundamental level.
Readers will recall Kevin’s initial piece on the subject, where he argued that the church is to be about “the work of conversion and sanctification and preparation for heaven,” and he went on to contend that this “doctrine of the church makes more eminent sense, and is more plainly biblical, than contemporary notions whereby the church is called upon to be something it cannot be and do something it cannot do.” I then asked whether such a view, focused as it is on what is thought to be the essentially “spiritual” nature of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament, has any place for diaconal ministry. I also noted, using Calvin’s Geneva as an example, that the church has historically understood diaconal ministry to the poor of the community as part of its “spiritual” task.
Kevin’s response was intriguing and not completely unexpected—I had checked his church’s website and found some exciting diaconal ministries listed, and I had also received similar responses to my post from others. He noted that he is “wholeheartedly in favor of a strong diaconal ministry. . . . It is very much spiritual work. The New Testament is absolutely clear about the necessity of the church to care for the poor.” So far so good! DeYoung then argues, however, that while diaconal ministry to church members is an obligation of the church, the church nevertheless has no “obligation to care for the poor outside of the church,” and he contends that Calvin’s Geneva is no exception to this because city and church were pretty much coextensive. As DeYoung puts it, “The citizens of Geneva were de facto citizens of the church.”
DeYoung then muddies the waters a bit. Citing the nineteenth-century Scottish Free Church divine James Bannerman again, he argues that the “primary object” of the church’s work is “promoting the spiritual interests of the Christian community” but that there are also “secondary objects,” pertaining to “the temporal and social wellbeing of society,” and on this basis DeYoung accounts for a variety of laudable programs of his church—a large English-as-a-second-language program, tutoring in public schools, and assistance to single mothers. But are these “secondary objects” things that the church should be doing, or just things we may decide to do when we feel like it?
If I’m reading the post correctly, his position seems to be that the church has no obligation to assist less fortunate non-Christians but that such activities are allowed if individual Christians and even congregations want to undertake them. As DeYoung himself puts it, “none of this means there is some prohibition against caring for the unbelieving poor (see Gal. 6:10). What it does suggest is that the church’s obligation is not to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city but to care for the poor in her own body.”
I will confess to having a number of problems with this line of argument. First, DeYoung’s characterization of the danger he is trying to avoid (having “to feed the entire world or be the social welfare agency for the city”) seems exaggerated. Who, after all, is arguing for this? The language suggests a fear of some sort of transformationalist mainline Protestant boogeyman (perhaps a reflection of DeYoung’s ecclesial location in the Reformed Church in America?), but is this danger plausible when Fallwellism on the right has clearly run out of steam and the “hot social gospelers” of the Protestant mainline are not doing too well either?
Second, I’m convinced that the New Testament not only enjoins corporate diaconal ministry and assistance to the poor by individual Christians but it also sees such ministry as potentially extending beyond the confines of the congregation. Two key New Testament texts are Luke 10:29-37 and Gal. 6:10, both of which define the “neighbor” to whom we as Christians are obligated more broadly than the covenant community. The latter passage is also significant in that it gives a measure of priority to the needs within the community of faith.
Third, I also sense that the church has historically understood the issue in a way less restrictive than DeYoung suggests. The post-NT church tended to define its diaconal obligations in terms of the Jewish expectations regarding almsgiving (see, e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, 8th Mandate). Later, as historian K. S. Latourette (The First Five Centuries, 266-67) notes, the marginalized and persecuted early Christians understandably “confined their charity chiefly to their own number,” but “sometimes Christians extended their care to those outside their community.” Then, as the church became more accepted and resources were available the church’s assistance, especially food and medical aid, was made more widely available. As Latourette puts it,
Through the centuries, however, the early forms of benevolence, in part stereotyped when Christians were closely knit minority communities and later often extended to non-Christians as well as Christians, have persisted, with some additions, as the characteristic expressions of what has come to be known technically as Christian charity.
All this, it seems to me, is pretty consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul referenced above. Our “neighbor” is anyone in need with whom we come in contact, and we are obligated “as we have opportunity” to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Furthermore, DeYoung’s point about church and community being coextensive in Geneva is true as far as it goes but is less than decisive in this context—it does not obviate the key point that Calvin viewed the church’s diaconal work as encompassing the community as a whole. And we should not think that the Reformers were unaware of the deep ambiguities of their situation, in which nearly everybody was Christian in name but much fewer were so in reality. As Martin Luther famously put it, “the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in names. Christians are few and far between” (Luther, Temporal Authority).
Several years back my wife and I spent a week in the south of England, and during that time we visited the Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, the oldest charitable institution in Britain and the model for the hospital depicted in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden. Among the delightful customs of that institution is the “Wayfarer’s Dole”—a snack of bread and ale that visitors are cheerfully given upon request. This tradition, which goes back to the medieval period, is a touching illustration and reminder of the biblical concern for neighbor and doing good to all. And of course, having just walked several miles across the English countryside to the hospital, we requested our wayfarer’s dole!
Despite the perplexity of some, the “chastened transformationalism” of which I have been speaking in recent posts is really not that hard to figure out. As Christians, we recognize that the grace of God regenerates us and that we are indeed new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). Christians have “a new heart, and a new spirit created in them,” and they “are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection” (WCF, 13.1). The change in us is real and we are “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC, 35). We further recognize that the relationship of the old and new creations involves continuity as well as discontinuity, and we rejoice that creation one day “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until the eschaton, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.
This sober realism also demands wisdom on our part as we seek a balance of the various legitimate ministries of the church that is appropriate to the context, and as we realize that poverty is both complicated and often frustratingly intractable (see Matthew 26:11). Nevertheless, we also know that despite the setbacks and frustrations of our present existence (and in ways that are quite mysterious to us from our present earthly perspective) God is building his kingdom and using us his people to that end. It is not without reason that the metaphor of sowing and reaping is so prominent in the New Testament. Our task as Christians is to be faithful. Sounds pretty uncontroversial to me!
If I may speak frankly, however, I would not want to be making the argument DeYoung has presented, as it may seem to confirm the sense of some that the conservative Reformed community lacks a broader vision and is turned in on itself. I’m quite sure that is not DeYoung’s intention, but our proclamation and living out of the gospel should reflect our anticipation of the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21), and we must not allow our theology on such matters to be determined by our reactions to potential excesses on the right or left.