Review of Ministries of Mercy (3rd ed.) by Timothy Keller

Tim Keller may not be a household name among the general American public, but he has near-rock-star status in the evangelical circles that I frequent. If he has a book on a subject, it often acquires the status of the standard, go-to resource.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road is Keller’s comprehensive guide to caring for the poor (at least domestically; Keller does not say very much about addressing global poverty). The Jericho Road is a reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan, with which Keller opens the book and which serves as a foundational text. As the Editor’s Note in the third edition notes, the book was written in 1988 as part of a research project for the Presbyterian Church in America, but it has been revised twice since, most recently in 2015. Keller’s thoroughness and attention to detail are in evidence throughout, as he tries to touch on every aspect of the subject and engage with influential books by other authors.

What exactly does Keller mean by the ministry of mercy? He offers a definition in Chapter 2: it is the meeting of (1) “felt” needs through (2) deeds. By “felt” needs, Keller means needs that needy people recognize as such (e.g., physical needs), as opposed to things they may not acknowledge they need even though they do need them (e.g., reconciliation with God). While some needs, especially theological needs, require ministry through words, felt needs more often are met through deeds.

The key New Testament word for deed ministry is diakonia, usually translated “serve” in the Bible. The root meaning is to feed someone by waiting on a table. An example is in Luke 10:40, where Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus. A group of women disciples followed Jesus and the apostles, providing food and other physical needs; this ministry is called diakonia (Matt. 27:55; Luke 8:3). The work of providing daily necessities for the widows in the early church is also called diakonia (Acts 6:2).

If I had to pick just one word to characterize Keller’s book, it would be balance. Keller balances principles with practice, devoting about half the book to each. In the part of book devoted to principles, four of the chapter titles contain the word balanced:

• Giving and Keeping: A Balanced Lifestyle
• Church and World: A Balanced Focus
• Conditional and Unconditional: A Balanced Judgment
• Word and Deed: A Balanced Testimony

To understand where Keller is coming from, it helps to realize that the topic of caring for the poor has been—perhaps surprisingly, at least to outsiders—a rather controversial topic in evangelical churches throughout the twentieth century. There is of course the natural human tendency to want to cling to one’s wealth and find excuses for not helping the poor. On top of that, however, there is a strong thread within the evangelical church, especially the white evangelical church, that regards excessive concern with social issues as a distraction from and even a perversion of the gospel. Keller is very clear that he rejects this viewpoint. For example, in the chapter on “Word and Deed,” he writes:

Which is more important—word or deed? Let’s propose the possibility that differences arise on this issue because the very question of “importance” is misguided. For example, which commandment is more important, “repent” or “be baptized”? From one perspective we could say that the consequences of disobedience to the first command would be more disastrous than to the second. But would we be comfortable determining which of God’s commands were more important to obey? Doesn’t the very question create an unbiblical distinction within God’s Word? So, too, it is inappropriate to ask whether evangelism or social concern is more important. They constitute a whole that should not be divided.

Readers familiar with the so-called lordship salvation controversy that gained prominence in the evangelical community in the late 1980s will see that Keller leans toward lordship salvation, although the closest he comes to using the term is to affirm Harvie Conn’s concept of “lordship evangelism.”

It is interesting to see on which issues Keller feels the need to find a happy medium between two extremes. In the chapter on “Giving and Keeping,” Keller cites both Ronald J. Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and David Chilton’s book Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators. According to Keller, Sider says that “all income over $14,850 (1977 dollars) for a family of five should be given away.” In contrast, Chilton writes, “God’s simple requirement is that we give ten percent of our income; once we have paid that, we know that no more is demanded.” Keller offers three guidelines of his own that he feels strike the right balance:

• We must give so that we feel the burden of the needy ourselves.
• We may only keep whatever wealth we need for our calling and ministry opportunities.
• We must not be generous in such a way that we or our families become liabilities to others.

Similarly, Keller cites Sider and Chilton on the topic of whether to give “indiscriminately” to those who are poor, or only to the “deserving” poor. Sider writes:

The United States and Russia have a bountiful supply of natural resources within their national boundaries. Do they have an absolute right to use these resources as they please solely for the advantage of their own citizens? Not according to the Bible! … We must conclude the human right of all person to earn a just living clearly supersedes the right of the U.S. to use its natural resources for itself.

In contrast, Chilton writes:

Jesus declares that God’s concern for the poor is discriminatory. It is not just ‘the poor’ in some abstract, general, universal sense who are the objects of God’s care. Here they are on the same level with the rich: if they reject Christ, they are themselves, rejected by Him. They wanted benefits, but were ready to murder Him when they discovered he practiced discrimination in His welfare plan.

And here is Keller’s proposed balance:

So too, at first, we should show mercy to anyone in need, as we have opportunity and resources. We should not turn them away by analyzing them as “undeserving,” even if sin is part of the complex of their poverty. Of course we should be on the lookout for fraud, and we must not give aid naively, in such a way that it is immediately abused. We must give as a witness to the free grace of Christ and as an effort to turn rebellious hearts to the Lord.

But we cannot stop there. The goal of mercy is not simply to provide spot relief or to stop the suffering. Our real purpose must be to restore the poor person. We must carefully build up the individual until he or she is self-sufficient, and that means we must, in love, demand more and more cooperation. Mercy must have the purpose of seeing God’s lordship realized in the lives of those we help. We must give aid so that people grow in righteousness. We must not give aid so as to support rebellion agianst God. … And though we must be extremely patient, eventually aid must be withdrawn if it is abused.

When reading the book, I personally was very curious to see what Keller thought about the relationship between church and state. Several times throughout the book, Keller chastises political liberals and conservatives for having incorrect biases, so he is clearly anxious to avoid partisanship. But what about the church’s role in general when it comes to the state? In one of the later, more practical chapters of the book, Keller delineates seven increasingly broad “circles” of felt-need intervention. Regarding Circle 7, the broadest circle, Keller writes:

The final form of social reform is legal or political intervention. It refers to starting initiatives, introducing legislation, sponsoring boycotts, and generally bringing pressure to bear to affect social structures and conditoins.

Christians have differed over the role the church should play in political intervention. The black evangelical churches have been engaged in it for years, while the white evangelical churches have largely rejected it. Let’s consider two guiding principles.

First, the church’s work of transformation and even relief will certainly change social structures. It is not possible to draw a distinct line between relief and reform. They lead to one another. If a ministry lifts up the poor in a community, it will drastically alter the order of things. Therefore it is mistaken to say that the church should not be seeking to change the shape of society.

Second, the church cannot present unnecessary barriers to the inquirer after Christ. For an individual to join your church, he or she should be required simply to serve Jesus Christ. The person should not have to become a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican to enter your fellowship, nor should the person be made to feel that it is a criterion for membership. Churches that are too heavily invested in the political agenda of a particular party or candidate can appear to be captive to an ideology instead of the lordship of Christ. The great danger in speaking officially, as the church of Christ, in favor of a particular candidate or party is that it cannot help but appear to lend the name of Christ to that political cause.

For this reason, except in the most clear, broad, and basic public issues (many churches believe abortion is one of these), it is best for interventional social reform to be carried out by voluntary associations, para-church groups, which can use political power to change social structures.

Elsewhere, in his chapter on “Church and World,” Keller argues that Christians have a greater responsibility to care for their family and the church than to those outside those communities, but that citizens have a convenant with the government as well.

It is remarkable that God held even pagan kings responsible to see to the needs of its poor and weak citizens. For example, Nebuchadnezzar is denounced for not giving “mercy to the poor.” Joseph became high-ranking civil magistrate in the pagan state of Egypt. He becomes the first in the line of Abraham to become “a blessing to the nations” by providing a hunger relief program for his own nation and all the surrounding ones (Gen. 41:53–57).

The Bible tells us very little about the government’s role in caring for the needy. It does seem fair to infer that such a lack of information at least means that the work of mercy is given by God more primarily to the church and the family than to the state. But it seems just as reasonable in light of God’s judgment on the nations and Joseph’s example, that the state has a responsibility to help its poorest members. But as we look at these three social institutions—family, church, and state—we see that the closer to covenantal connection, the greater the responsibility for mercy.

I have focused in this review on Keller’s discussion of the principles underlying mercy ministry, but make no mistake: Keller’s discussion of the nuts and bolts of mercy ministry, from taking the very first steps all the way to a large-scale ministry that probably very few churches will be able to carry out, is full of wise and practical advice. As Keller says, the book is designed to be a study guide for churches that want to build a mercy ministry, and it has more than enough material to satisfy that purpose. If you are interested in bolstering the mercy ministry at your own church, Keller’s book would be an excellent choice.
Posted May 2020

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