12:16 PM Alan Knox, in an outstanding blog post called There was not a needy person among them, reminds us how important mutual care was in the early church. He writes:
When a new brother or sister was in need, someone took care of that need from their own property. When someone was hungry, that person was fed. When someone needed clothing or housing, that need was met. They considered their relationships with one another as more important than their own physical well-being or their material possessions.
Today, caring for those in need is left to government agencies or parachurch organizations. Christians tend to give a little money and consider the problem shifted to others. The American Dream has replaced the concern for other Christians who are in need.
If I understand Alan correctly, he is arguing that social activity (such as feeding the poor, housing the homeless, etc.) is a fruit of the Spirit. In other words, when a person is regenerated by way of the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20), then he or she will naturally want to implement the horizontal dimensions of the Great Commandment (Matt 22:37-39).
Surely this is a vital dimension of biblical Christianity. And the order, I believe, is significant. In some circles, “missions” is almost completely disassociated from evangelism. According to Weber and Welliver (Missions Handbook, 2007, p. 13), in the U.S. the increase in income from 2001 to 2005 for relief and development was 73.4 percent while for evangelism and discipleship it was only 2.7 percent. I have personally known some “mission” organizations in Ethiopia that engage in service to the community (building hospitals and schools, digging wells, etc.) without any mention of the Gospel. In my opinion, they have failed to keep the main thing the main thing. The supreme need of the nations is the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
But I need to add a careful rider here. Evangelism and social action are not opposed to each other. They are, as John Stott puts it, “two blades of a pair of scissors.” Because Becky and I believe this to be true, we have become involved in several efforts in Ethiopia to address the economic and health concerns of the people there. Perhaps the most visible expression of this concern is the Health Clinic we opened in Burji several years ago. (It has since been upgraded to a Health Center.) I need to emphasize, however, that the primary purpose of the Health Center is evangelism because we firmly believe that individual regeneration by the grace of God is, in the final analysis, the best solution to humanity’s individual and social problems. As Alan noted in his post, Christian social responsibility presupposes socially responsible Christians, and it is only through evangelism and discipleship that people can become committed to holistic missional work.
I remain deeply concerned about what I perceive to be a growing shift in emphasis today from proclaiming the kingdom of God to a purely economic and social gospel. This is like putting the cart before the horse. The Anabaptist Balthazar Hubmaier answered the charge that he required communal ownership of property by stating:
Concerning community of goods, I have always said that everyone should be concerned about the needs of others, so that the hungry might be fed, the thirsty given to drink, and the naked clothed. For we are not lords of our possessions, but stewards and distributors. There is certainly no one who says that another’s goods may be seized and made in common; rather, he would gladly give the coat in addition to the shirt.
The Anabaptists held that the church is a voluntary society comprised of Christians who are bound to each by the reality of the new birth. These “believers” live apart from the world but do not shun it. They do not accumulate wealth but are content with their basic necessities. They help each other faithfully, having everything in common out of sheer love for their neighbor. They live a lifestyle that matches their responsibility to a lost and dying world.
This too was apparently the blessed experience of the early church in Acts. Through their relationship to Jesus Christ, these believers became detached from their worship of earthly things. They experienced freedom from covetousness and greed and seemed to be able to escape the “spend-and-consume” merry-go-round that Satan is now using to hold our American families in bondage. But, thank God, escape is still possible today! When we learn to embrace the Jesus way of life, when we can plan habitually to go without things for Christ’s sake, then we have begun to live the life of “reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1-2) that is acceptable to God. Wherever you are, there are needy neighbors. And there is a cross for you to bear. God has a path of self-sacrifice for every one of us if we will but ask Him for the privilege of self-denial.