Last week I wrote a piece on transformationalism, drawing from the Scottish theologian James Bannerman (1807 -1868). The basic gist was that the mission of the church is one of gospel proclamation.

The church is no substitute for Christ, or the Spirit, or for immediate union with Christ. Rather, our role as the church-in relation to the world-is to bear witness to the saving power of Christ, to exercise the appointed means whereby the Spirit redeems and sanctifies, and to join in one body for mutual fellowship and support those who have been joined to Christ.

The blog post generated a fair amount of conversation, including a rejoinder from Bill Evans (an ARP minister and professor at Erskine College). I’m grateful for the irenic nature and thoughtfulness of Evans’ post. His concern is that Bannerman’s ecclesiology leaves no room for a wholistic ministry like we see in the gospels where Christ gives us a model and a mandate for caring for the poor. To that end, Evans ends his piece with a direct question for me: “How do you reconcile this particular understanding of the ‘spirituality of the church’ with the Church’s historic and proper commitment to diaconal ministry?”

Good question. I’m not usually able to participate in internet volleys (and may not be able to do much more with this exchange in the days ahead), but since I have benefited from Evans’ writings in the past and since he has offered a fair-minded critique, I thought it worthwhile to venture a response. Let me attempt an answer by making three observations.

1. It’s worth noting that I never used the phrase “spirituality of the church,” nor did I quote Bannerman as using it. This may sound like a pedantic point, but it’s not insignificant. I don’t object to the phrase, if used judiciously, but for some people “spirituality of the church” entails a certain view of slavery and the Old South or complete unwillingness to ever address current events. In my understanding, the spirituality of the church is meant to safeguard the sufficiency of Scripture. We the church, we do not know everything about everything. On a number of issues, the church should be silent, not because individual Christians may not have important convictions or something to add to the discussion, but because we have no right to speak authoritatively where the Scripture has not spoken. In recent years, we’ve had debates at our General Synod (RCA) on the Dream Act, the farm bill, an embargo to Cuba, minimum wage legislation, and what the proper magazine capacity is for firearms in the United States. The church is neither equipped to weigh in on such specific political matters, nor does it have the authority to do so. I didn’t think I was talking about any of this in my previous post, but if this what one means by the spirituality of the church, I’m happy to affirm it.

2. I am wholeheartedly in favor of a strong diaconal ministry. We have an excellent diaconate at University Reformed Church. They work hard behind the scenes to care for the hurting and walk with church members through financial difficulties and a variety of other concerns. It is very much spiritual work. The New Testament is absolutely clear about the necessity of the church to care for the poor.

The question, however, is whether the church has an obligation to care for the poor outside of the church. Evans cites John Calvin as a positive example of one who did not relegate social welfare to the state but embraced it as the responsibility of the church. The implication is that a Reformed understanding of a very broad diaconal ministry cannot be squared with the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. But this fails to consider the differences between Calvin’s Geneva and ministry in our cities. The entire city of Geneva was Calvin’s parish (or more precisely, that of the Company of Pastors). The citizens of Geneva were de facto citizens of the church, which is why they could be disciplined for failing to attend services, or for Catholic behavior, or for a variety of immoralities. The diaconal ministry in Geneva did not extend physical relief to any who were not also under the spiritual authority of the church. When Evans quotes from Calvin’s sermon on Acts 6:1-3 to the effect that “it was given to the deacons to offer the cup when the people came to the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ” he makes the very point I’m trying to make. Yes, the deacons’ care for the poor was deeply spiritual work, but it was directed toward members of the church (i.e., those who partake of the Supper).

Of course, 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.

3. Although Bannerman insists that the state and the church are distinct institutions designed for different purposes, he still allows that at times they will overlap in their responsibilities. The church may be “limited, in its primary object, to promoting the spiritual interests of the Christian community,” but that doesn’t mean there are not “secondary objects” related to the “temporal and social wellbeing of society” (The Church of Christ, 98-99). Our church, for example, supports the city rescue mission, a crisis pregnancy center, and a local arts ministry. We run a large ESL program, and we’ve worked in the past to tutor in the public school and help single moms get on their feet. In all these ministries, we hope to make gospel proclamation a priority–either by praying for open doors to talk about Jesus or to adorn the gospel with good works. Being involved in the community and engaged with non-Christians is not the special province of transformationalists. I don’t believe that our diaconate has the responsibility to provide for the needs of the poor in East Lansing, but as we have opportunity we will do good, especially as it enables us to fulfill our primary purpose of gathering and perfecting Christ’s sheep.

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18 thoughts on “Transformationalism, Diaconal Ministry, and a Response to Bill Evans”

  1. pete says:

    Might I suggest that the NT writers set up a needs hierarchy that we are to meet as believers? First – our immediate families; second- our believing friends; third – our local church congregants; fourth – our fellow believers in the faith,local, as well as world-wide; fifth – others in need

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks Kevin for this piece and the reminder of Bannerman’s excellent work.

    Pete – where do you find such a clear needs hierarchy in the NT, particularly of “believing friends” as distinguished from the local church or the broader church?

  3. Kevin, It seems to me like you are saying that the church has no responsibility to care for the poor outside the church. Or maybe you are saying that Christians must take care of the poor in the church (this is a New Testament mandate), but there is no specific mandate to care for the poor outside the church, therefore it is optional. If you feel like it you can (you are allowed to I guess), but this is not required.

    Your church is doing a lot ministry to the poor outside the church. That is awesome. However, you don’t seem to have a strong theological justification for doing so. I think it would be hard to motivate people to love and serve the poor in the city if you are simply telling them that the New Testament allows you to do this, but it in no way compels you to do it.

  4. Dave B says:

    Kevin:
    You have peeked my interest in ecclesiology.

    Would you reccomend a few rectly written book on the topic? I would particularly appreciate kindle books.

    Matt Jenson TGC site just posted his top 10 book on ecclesiology. Any of those, would you reccomend ?

    Thanks.

  5. BRUCE says:

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  6. Carlos says:

    Hello. I am not Christian, but have tried for years to understand Scripture and try to reconcile it with a moral code I could follow. I read this post, and the subsequent comments to it, and continue to find it impossible to reconcile parts of the book with any type of moral code.

    As I read, I see sectarian, bigoted, narrow-minded suggestions that only the Christian poor should be helped. Disguised behind the shrewd of “theological” technicalities, that is basically the essence of this article. When my eyebrows returned from the back of my head, I find in the next couple of paragraphs something even more appalling: the author actually says that if helping the poor gives you the “opportunity” to reel them in to the church, then yes, it’s worth it. The author considers this “opportunity” worth it, “especially as it enables us to fulfill our primary purpose of gathering and perfecting Christ’s sheep”. Damn the poor, just advertise the book (bible)! There’s a name for this: bribe, in the best case, and extortion in the worst.

    I shouldn’t be so surprised. According to Jesus and his New Covenant, according to the New Testament and the word of God, non-believers will be sent to spend an eternity of conscious suffering and torture burning in hell (Revelation 21:8, Luke 12:42, John 3:36, and so many others). This is expressly commanded by God through Jesus of Nazareth.

    It is worth saying that the term non-believers relates to the Christian God. This means that billions of people in this world, including infants who have not the first clue as to why someone so unfairly and expressly command their demise, and including oh about 5 billion people who happened to be born in countries or cultures where Christianity is not predominant. Such arrogance. Such a dangerous thing to say ! This 1st century, bronze age thinking (“my religion is better than yours, or your not believing in any”) has caused so many horrific episodes in the history of mankind. It’s sad. Even more tragic to read something like this article in the 21st century.

    I continue to find it impossible to reconcile this horrific worldview with a moral code I can follow.

    Thanks for reading.

  7. P Duggan says:

    would you argue that diaconal work is one of the “appointed means”? Would Bannerman?

  8. P Duggan says:

    “Dream Act, the farm bill, an embargo to Cuba, minimum wage legislation, and what the proper magazine capacity is for firearms in the United States.”

    can the church speak to the topics

    1. is it just for a state to limit immigration at all?
    2. Is it just for a state to use taxation moneys to keep farm prices at a particular level to enrich farmers?
    3. Is it just for a state to prohibit its citizens to engage in trade with another country? If so for what reasons?
    4. Is it just for a state to interfere with the freedom of citizens to contract for labor at any price they agree to?

    Those are all matters of justice, not so much prudence, and I’d have thought the church were competent to address them.

    What if a member of the church says “Farmer Bob is unjustly taking government money to not grow soybeans”. Can the church decide that accusing farmer bob of injustice is right or wrong?

  9. P Duggan says:

    Say a member of the church is a farmer, and he hires a black man to harvest his crops for $500. After a week the harvest is still not brought in, and the tomatoes are going to soon rot in the field, so he hires the son of an illegal immigrant for $250 for the last day of the work. They’re all members of your church. The black man brings a complain of unjust treatment to the church elders.

    Is the church competent to answer this question? Should all the men go to the state to have it resolved?

  10. P Duggan says:

    Presbyterians used to say that the enclosure act in the UK was unjust. Were they incompetent to say so?

  11. Dave B says:

    Carlos:
    Your comments and questions are off the point of this article but I will give you my meager understanding and try to respond.
    I think your are saying how can one believe in a God who is so unfair?
    God is perfect, holy, pure and can tolerate no sin. When He created man, man sinned separating mankind from God. All humans then deserved punishment for the sin of Adam and for their own sin, which one decides to do everyday. Sin is anything contrary to the nature of God. We can sin because a loving God gave us free will. We choose to separate our selves from God.
    Once we are separated from God there is nothing we can do to bridge that separation.
    We can never fulfill the law (Ten Commandments). This shows we can never be perfect enough to earn our way back to GOD.
    God, knowing this, set a plan in action to resolve this problem. God sent his son Jesus to take and bear our sin penalty by shedding his blood when he was crucified. Once dead and buried Jesus came back to life defeating death caused by Satan. Death for those not accepting Jesus’ sacrifice and allowing Him to govern how their actions and thoughts.
    Without our loving God sacrificing His only son, we would have no hope at all of rejoining God in heaven. Our God, Father, Son and Spirit, Gave their all for us. Jesus, fully God and fully man, lived a perfect life, where Adam failed.
    Only for this can we be saved from Satan’s plan of hell for all of us,separation from God. Hell is also God’s punishment for sin and for the sin of rejecting Jesus, our Savior.
    Is God being unfair? I don’t think so. He has done what he can for a sinful people, who he gave free will.
    Here God sacrificed all and gave all for the sinner. What more of an example does one need how to treat one not saved. One who is in the state that we saved were once in but for God’s grace. Grace is something freely given to one who does not deserve it. How can I, saved by grace, now be mean to the unsaved?
    Scripture teaches, what we all have observed, that God is revealed through Nature. Not that God is nature. Therefore, none have an excuse of ignorance. We can make a choice, even if we do not know all the details, to follow God or go our own way.
    What you should not confuse is a relationship with Jesus, therefore, becoming part of the body of believers with a religion. Religion is man’s futile attempt to meet God. A relationship is man accepting God’s hand, reaching down to man.
    What other religion has a god that makes the effort?

    This is my attempt to answer your questions. I hope it helps.

  12. Carlos says:

    Thanks for your reply Dave B.

    My post, while probably long winded and perhaps poorly crafted, is not off topic. It is a criticism to these:

    1. Point # 2 in the article, which says “The question, however, is whether the church has an obligation to care for the poor outside of the church”. It goes on saying that “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.”

    The mere discussion or call into question of helping the non-believers is what I consider sectarian, bigot, and narrow-minded.

    2. Not happy with that, the author states: ” I don’t believe that our diaconate has the responsibility to provide for the needs of the poor in East Lansing, but as we have opportunity we will do good, especially as it enables us to fulfill our primary purpose of gathering and perfecting Christ’s sheep.”

    This is known as clientelism. A philosophy of “I will help the non-believing poor, but in return I expect their believing in my God”. There are other names: bribe, extortion, and others.

    As far as the rest of your message, I appreciate the effort. However why I don’t believe in the unfair Christian God is a question we can answer some other time. My focus is the sectarian view of helping the poor conveyed in the essence of the article. And, surprisingly, how natural and organic this notion is to the author. He treats it as a scholar discussion of something that needs to be discussed ! Should we really help the non-believers? Only if it gives us the “opportunity” to convert them to our religion ! Tragic worldview.

    Thanks for reading.

  13. Dave B says:

    Carlos;

    I do see I miss your original point. Let me try again. I believe, and based on what I know of Kevin which is not much, so I am not speaking for him, think that he would agree that The Chruch as an institution has certain primary task assined by God as described in scripture. Scripture gives the Church secondary jobs.
    The primary roll for the local Church, the corporate body, relate to its members.

    My family like most of the families we go to church with give other then to the Church. My family gives a lot, for us, to the closest crises pregnancy center 20 Miles away. There is no expectations or requirements for the use of our money or their services. We just want to help. This carried over to our adult children who are Christians. For example one has worked for habitat for Humaity and has also been to Mexico and Africa to help build hospitals. No requirement there. Another child at a younger age went to South America on a mission trip where the goal was really to expose the kids to the poverty in the world out side of the US. In college she choose to work in the inner city.

    I think the concern comes in two ways. First, when we give so much of our time and money on the poor we are unable to contribute to the Curch so it can accomplish even its primary job. Second, when the Church lead by us makes decision to help the poor more then accomplish its primary job.

    If the Church were too accomplish its primary job I believe that there would likely be significant more individual participation in helping the poor.

    Well, that is it for me.

  14. P Diddly Do Da says:

    Yo P Duggan,

    Don’t stop there…..what about?

    Organic or Non-Organic food?
    Walmart or the local mom and pop store?
    America cars only or foreign?
    Global warming…yay or nay?

    Remember….all of life, not one square inch left uncovered, let justice roll down, yada yada….

  15. P Duggan says:

    ha ha ha you crack me up.

    of course, if we gained the competence to answer the matters I raised, which are ones of biblical justice, the trivia you raise (well global warming isn’t trivia: but its an issue of knowing what the facts are, not as much justice) will likely be simple.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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