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

This is part Three of Three posts in a series on the history of Mercy Ministry in the Christian Church. Part One is accessible here.  Part Two can be found here.
After introducing the topic and giving a brief overview of Mercy Ministry in the Early Church, Patristic Era, Medieval Era and Reformation Era, today's post emphasizes the Modern era, bringing the discussion up to the present time. 

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Used under creative commons license. http://ow.ly/IHxpd 

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi. Used under creative commons license. http://ow.ly/IHxpd 

As a reaction to the religious wars of the Reformation Era, Deism began to rise and people began to try to demonstrate that non-Christians could be ethical, too. Divisions began to form between Church and State, with none starker than the division in France due to the French Revolution. When the church and state split, the larger political organization rose as a more significant participant in what had previously been the church’s role in dealing with physical needs.

 The roots of modern evangelicalism are in British non-conformist religion. The four central aspects of early evangelicalism were conversionism, crucicentrism, biblicism and activism.[1] The key for today’s discussion is activism, which refers to the belief that the internal change brought about by gospel conversion would be worked out in external application of the gospel to life. It was this tendency toward activism that led William Carey to build businesses to improve the local economy in India, end injustices like the burning of widows, and start schools instead of only preaching the gospel. This also drove people like William Wilberforce and John Newton to fight for the abolition of slavery.

 It about the same time as the rise of evangelicalism that the higher critical approach to Scripture was developed. Faith became subjective, the integrity of the Bible was frequently questioned by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Julius Wellhausen, and others. Deism became increasingly accepted through the work of individuals like Thomas Paine. In summary, people began to doubt the central truths of Christianity, but retained their desire for the works of the Christian religion. As a result, mercy ministry began to take precedence over doctrine. Later, liberal theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch began to promote the idea that the Kingdom of God was a condition of earthly justice that had no true doctrinal content.

 Unfortunately, the morals of the church cannot stand without a doctrinal foundation. Individuals like J. Gresham Machen, B. B. Warfield, and Charles Hodge resisted the discrediting of Scripture. Others reacted more strongly against the doctrinal decay of the theological liberals by rejecting the social aspect of ministry. This led to the rise of fundamentalism, particularly in the United States, which promoted doctrinal truth and evangelism without significant concerns for mercy ministry. This overreaction was a divergence from the central traditions of Christianity and the resurgence of an interest in mercy ministry among doctrinally conservative Christians should be seen as a course correction not an innovation.

Carl F. H. Henry

Carl F. H. Henry

 Carl F. H. Henry’s brief but significant book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, speaks about the loss of social ministry among theologically fundamental Christians: “The social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.”[2] That reality began to change in the mid Twentieth Century as some theologians began to shift the language from doing missions (which focus only or mainly on saving souls) to mission (which focuses on participating in God’s redemptive work in all creation).

Recently there has been an explosion in conferences, sermons, and books on the topic of Mercy Ministry. Evangelicalism has largely recovered its vision for working out the implications of the gospel in the world. Our task on our External Journey, with this cloud of witness in history behind us, is proclaim the gospel while we are serving them. Or, to enable them to hear our proclamation because we have met their physical needs.

[S]ome can’t hear our proclamation [of the Gospel] until they’ve been delivered physically from injustice and other forms of suffering. Until we pick them up from the road, they won’t hear of the good news. Today, millions are being drugged, sold, and raped multiple times a day in sex trafficking. Do you think they will hear your proclamation? I don’t.[3]

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1989), 5.

[2] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1947), 3.

[3] Tony Merida, Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H, 2015), 29.

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.

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

Original photo by Alex Proimos,  The Hand . Used by Creative Commons License.  http://ow.ly/IHuJH

Original photo by Alex Proimos, The Hand. Used by Creative Commons License. http://ow.ly/IHuJH

Over the past few decades, conservative Christians have had to “rediscover” the biblical doctrine of mercy ministry because many had retreated from the application of the gospel to society.

Aside from the clear theological error, one reason for this abandonment was a reaction to the strong push by many theologically liberal Protestants to do practical social ministry without proclaiming the gospel. Those who advocated social ministry over the gospel felt that meeting physical needs was the primary function of Christianity and teaching doctrinal truth was a divisive non-essential. 

The somewhat predictable overreaction led many doctrinally conservative Christians to overemphasize theological truth to the exclusion of practical ministries. Additionally, in the 19th and 20th centuries a particular view of the end times became very popular, teaching that the world would be annihilated and an entirely new kind of creation would be made by God. This form of eschatology tended to deemphasize the importance of good works done in this life that were not of an explicitly “spiritual” nature.

 In the middle of the 20th century, there was a rise in a stream of theology called Missional Theology, which tends to focus on a broader view of God’s working in the world. This movement has influenced evangelicals, even those outside of the Missional movement, to return to the earlier Christian patterns that emphasized both proclamation of the gospel and meeting people’s physical needs.

 In a series of three posts on the history of mercy ministry in the Christian tradition, I will attempt to show in very broad terms, that social activism is deeply rooted in the history of the Church. This is something that should characterize the way the church lives in addition to doctrinal orthodoxy.

 In order to gallop through this expansive history in a short time, I have divided Church History into five basic periods. We will look at the role of the church in doing mercy ministry during the Early Church, the Patristic era, then the Medieval era, the Reformation era, and finally the Modern era.  

Early Church

 The Early Church is generally defined as the period from the death of the Apostles to the acceptance of Christianity as a legal religion in the Roman Empire in the first decades of the 4th century. This is a period that was characterized by periodic and regional persecutions of Christians by the pagan Roman Empire. The Christian Church was often marginalized, but more socially than physically in most cases. During this time Christian theologians were fighting to establish legitimacy of the Church and to obtain permission to continue to exist as a Church “above ground.”

 Waldo Beach and H. Richard Niebuhr note that the early church was most known for the assistance provided to fellow Christians. They write, “The most striking quality of the Christians was their agape in the care of their own group, as seen in their assistance to the bereft, to orphans and old people, in the care for prisoners and the sick and those condemned to the mines, and in their hospitality and the sharing of economic goods.”[1] This is likely largely because it was illegal to be Christian and because the church was too small in the early days to be a significant social force.

 However, in the earliest Christian writing after the New Testament, the pursuit of justice on a broader scale is evident. The Epistle of Barnabas, the author (not Barnabas) speaks against the prevailing Roman practice of exposing children: “That we may avoid all injustice and impiety, we have been taught that to expose the newly born is the work of wicked men––first of all because we observe that almost all [foundlings], boys as well as girls, are brought up for prostitution.”

 The author of the Didache writes, “Give to everyone that asks, without looking for any repayment, for it is the Father’s pleasure that we should share His gracious bounty with all men.” This points toward mercy being shown to those around and not merely the Christian community.

 This attitude is described by Tertullian, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.” This he included in his Apology for Christians. However, Tertullian makes it clear that their acts of mercy were not focused solely on Christians:  

“We have no respect of persons in doing good, because by so doing we do good to ourselves, who catch at no applause or reward from men, but from God only, who keeps a faithful register of our good works, and has ample rewards in store for this universal charity; for we have the same good wishes for emperors as for our nearest friends.”[2]

 Based on the historic evidence, neighbor love was a central aspect in the lives of the Early Church. Largely based on their position as (generally) lower class individuals outside of the usual power structures, it seems that often a great deal of effort was directed within their faith community before pursuing mercy ministry on a public scale.

[1] Waldo Beach and H. Richard Niebuhr, Christian Ethics: Sources of the Living Tradition, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1973), 53

[2] Tertullian, Apology, chapter XXXVI.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians

Dorothy Day holding up a prison dress. Photo courtesy of Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

The Armchair Theologians series from Westminster John Knox is, as one expects by the title, designed to be an accessible and entertaining approach to the biographies of some of the most significant theologians. The authors for these volumes are always fans of the biographical subject. Therefore, there tends to be a bias toward the views of the subject, with a very minimal critique offered.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty’s recent contribution to the series on the socialist Catholic, Dorothy Day fits into the series well. On the whole, Hinson-Hasty celebrates the life and work of Day, only stopping to critique Day in those places where she was not sufficiently feminist. Therefore, Day’s negative view of abortion, willingness to get married, and traditional views on sexual orientation are noted as blemishes on her record and excused based on chronologically inferior cultural influence.

Setting aside the somewhat hagiographic aspects of this work, and the series in general, which are native to this approach, this volume in particular is a very helpful means of getting introduced to the lives of significant theologians. In fact, the whole series by Westminster John Knox is enjoyable because the authors like the subject. This makes the prose more lively in many cases.

At just about 200 pages, Hinson-Hasty provides an overview of Day’s life and work that covers the major epochs in her life, the main thrust of her work, and helps to place Day in her cultural context. Additionally, the author shows how Day’s ideas have been appropriated and applied to contemporary social justice movements. This makes the book a useful introduction into the topic.

Before reading Hinson-Hasty’s book, Dorothy Day was relatively unknown to me. In fact, this is one of the reasons I requested this book for review. I have read excerpts of her writing in my time as a seminary student, but had learned very little about her. 

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

Dorothy's last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy's room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy's death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives) Photo Credit to Jim Forest through a Creative Commons license.

Dorothy Day was not a professional theologian or ethicist. In fact, she had no academic credentials to speak of. She was, however, a writer and a social activist who was key in the labor movement in a particular era of American history. Day’s life demonstrates that all the degrees in the world do not make one influential, and that influence can be gained by continual, faithful witness.

Day was nothing if not a legitimate practitioner of her views. She was a socialist, and so she lived in community. She was a strong advocate of a “peace ethic” and so she went to a great distance not to have hierarchical relationships, or even rules, in the open communities in which she lived.

Dorothy Day was influential for some of the liberation theologians. Her writing in the Catholic Worker, as pro-socialist newspaper, helped to shape the thinking of many of the Latin American liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez. Much like Gutierrez would later do, Day lived in poverty in the slums rather than doing her philanthropic theologizing from a distant suburban neighborhood.

It is for her integrity that Day deserves the most praise. She authentically lived in community with people from any and every social background. She sought to do her work for the poor from among the poor. This helped keep her faithful to her message, and lends credibility to her writing. Hinson-Hasty helped me gain a new appreciation for Dorothy Day through her presentation of Day’s life in this biography.

In the end, while I do not agree with the author’s theological positions, this is a helpful book. In fact, all of the Armchair Theologians are worthwhile reads when you are trying to get a quick overview of the life of a significant Christian thinker.

I commend this book and the entire series to readers because, in a world awash with information, such brief biographies provide engaging and informative introductions. While not suitable for academic research, they are beneficial for personal edification.

Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians
By Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. All opinions expressed are my own.