A Brief History of Mercy Ministry in the Church - Part Two

This is part Two of Three posts in a series on the history of Mercy Ministry in the Christian Church. Part One is accessible here.

After introducing the topic and giving a brief overview of Mercy Ministry in the Early Church,  today's post emphasizes the Patristic Era, Medieval Era and Reformation Era.


Photo by .craig. Used by Creative Commons License.  http://ow.ly/IHw3G 

Photo by .craig. Used by Creative Commons License.  http://ow.ly/IHw3G 

During the Patristic Era, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. This period ended when the Roman Empire fell. The church rapidly went from political underdog to a political favorite. The new found favor led to a convergence between worldly politics and church offices. The bishop in Rome began to have more and more power, eventually gaining more significance in the eyes of the people than the emperor. Notably, it was Pope Leo I who negotiated a treaty with the Attila the Hun, not the Roman Emperor. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed due to repeated invasions in 590 A.D., the Church was a greater uniting force than the vestiges of the Roman government.

 The Emperor Julian, often called “The Apostate,” made an active attempt to remove Christianity from the Roman Empire in the middle of the 4th century. In his diatribe against Christians he wrote, “The impious Galileans not only feed their own poor but ours as well, welcoming them into their agape; they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.” Obviously there is some sarcasm here, but the point should be well taken that Christians had a significant impact in their society because they did mercy ministries.

 Ambrose of Milan wrote, “It is justice that renders to each one what is his, and claims not another’s property; it disregards its own profit in order to preserve the common equity.” (Ambrose, On the Duty of the Clergy, i.) So here, the merciful action of Christians is looking after the interests of others even at their own expense.

 For Augustine, the Bishop of the North African city of Hippo, seeking the common good was a demonstration of Christ’s command to demonstrate neighbor love:

Now you love yourself suitably when you love God better than yourself. What, then, you aim at in yourself you must aim at in your neighbor, namely, that he may love God with a perfect affection. . . . From this precept proceed the duties of human society, in which it is hard to keep from error. But the first thing to aim at is, that we should be benevolent, that is, that we should cherish no malice and no evil design against another. For man is the nearest neighbor of man. (Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church)

In the same work, he urges his readers to care for the physical needs of their neighbors. Drawing an all-encompassing circle around the needs of the human body.

Man, then, as viewed by his fellowman, is a rational soul with a mortal and earthly body in its service. Therefore, he who loves his neighbor does good partly to the man’s body, and partly to his soul. What benefits the body is called medicine; what benefits the soul, discipline. (Augustine, Of the Morals of the Catholic Church)

What we can see in this period of church history is that there was a theological impetus toward mercy ministry. Augustine, who remains a central figure in the development of Christian doctrine, balanced the need for evangelism with the need for meeting the physical needs of the people around. Far from a novel invention of the millennial evangelicals, mercy ministry has been a core Christian practice.


The Medieval period runs from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Protestant reformation. This is a period of time that sees the Papacy as largely the most significant political force in the known world. The Popes are the kingmakers, since according to the theological understanding of the day, the Pope held the keys to the kingdom of heaven while the kings only controlled daily life.

 Monasticism was a leading movement in implementing mercy ministry in the middle ages. Among the Sayings of the Fathers that record the words of many of the early monks, and which were influential in later monasticism, we have such statements as these:

From our neighbor are life and death. If we do good to our neighbor, we do good to God: if we cause our neighbor to stumble, we sin against Christ. (From The Sayings of the Fathers, cited in George W. Forell, Christian Social Teachings (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966), 85.)

A brother asked an old man: “There are two monks: one stays quietly in his cell, fasting for six days at a time, and laying many austerities upon himself: and the other ministers to the sick. Which of them is more acceptable to God?” The old man answered: “If the brother, who fasts six days, even hung himself up by his nostrils, he could never be the equal of him who ministers to the sick. (Ibid.)

Thomas Aquinas built on Scripture, church tradition and Aristotelian philosophy to argue: “Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by constant and perpetual will.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II/2.58.1.) So internal holiness is not the only goal, because “justice is an external operation, in so far as either it or the thing we use by it is made proportionate to some other person to whom we are related by justice. . . . Therefore the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II/2.58.11.) Thomas was operating under a view of nature that held to common natural rights to the earth, and so God’s plan was for the earth to meet all the needs of the inhabitants of earth.

 In addition to these sources, there are many other evidences of active work in ministry done by the church on behalf of the poor. Taking care of the poor was a central pillar in the doctrine of the church. At times it became questionable whether it was consistently central to the practice of the church. However, there is clear evidence that during this period, mercy ministry was viewed as essential to being Christian.


For the purposes of this discussion, the Reformation Era runs from 1517 when Luther posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral to about the end of the 30 Years war. During this time, theological strife was rampant and mixed with political issues as princes and kings were encouraged to engage in wars under religious guise but often for political reasons. This was also a period which saw the rise of the nation-state and a market economy.

 The theological thrust of the Reformation was the recovery of the gospel. In the view of Luther, the gospel had been so misrepresented by the Roman Catholic Church that radical reformation of the church practices and doctrines were required. In that time, though, everyone was “Christian” in the sense that all Europeans were brought into the church through infant baptism. Thus there were few questions about doing good to Christians vs. non-Christians. At the same time, Luther’s 95 Theses were largely driven by a desire to restore just dealings in Europe. Two of the injustices wrapped up in the sale of indulgences were the redirection of economic resources to Rome for improper purposes and the offer of forgiveness without repentance. Theses 43–46 read:

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means squander it on pardons.

 Calvin, too, held mercy ministry as a central role of the Christian. These comments come from his treatise on the Ten Commandments, explaining the application of the Eighth Commandment: 

The purport is, that injustice being an abomination to God, we must render to every man his due. . . . For we must consider, that what each individual possesses has not fallen to him by chance, but by the distribution of the sovereign Lord of all, that no one can pervert his means to bad purposes without committing a fraud on a divine dispensation.

Calvin was urging the righteous use of money, which is a form of mercy ministry. In his Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, Calvin explains that doing good to neighbors is an essential part of true piety: 

Because a man does not easily maintain love in all respects unless he earnestly hears God, here is proof also of his piety. Besides, since the Lord well knows, and also attests through his prophets, that no benefit can come from us to him, he does not confine our duties to himself, but he exercises us “in good works toward our neighbor.” The apostle consequently has good reason to place the whole perfection of the saints in love. Elsewhere he quite rightly calls it the “fulfillment of the law,” adding that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

 More could be said about the function of the external works of righteousness in the life of the Christian, but from these evidences it is clear that the Reformers held mercy ministry as a central function of Christians.