by John Holbrook Jr.
A Biblical View, posted June 5, 2017
In lieu of a devotional, I delivered this homily at the March 18, 2011 meeting of the Diaconate of the New Lebanon Congregational Church in New Lebanon, NY.
Christianity is all about relationships. Consider the life of a church. It can be divided into three general categories: worship, community, and mission.
We relate to God through worship
We relate to one another through activities which build up the church community – that is, education, fellowship, and pastoral care.
We relate to others outside the church through mission activities – that is, evangelism, service, and the financial support of Christians who are doing evangelism and service elsewhere.
Of course, the life of any church depends upon someone attending to the activities which sustain the life of the church – that is, the support activities of administration, finance, property management, and communication.
Most churches in America divide their leadership into two groups. In Congregational churches, we call them elders and deacons. Other denominations use different titles. Whatever the titles, however, the normal understanding is that the elders attend to spiritual matters and the deacons attend to practical matters. Thus, the deacons tend to focus on the support activities which I identified above – administration, finance, property management, and communication. That is not biblical.
In the Bible, deacons focus on mission – that is, evangelism and service. Evangelism consists of the spreading of the Gospel of our Lord by word. Service consists of the spreading of His Gospel by deed. They must be undertaken together. Tim Keller calls service “doing justice.” It is the sign that convinces unbelievers that the faith which motivates us is worth investigating. What we do authenticates what we say.
(As an aside: I believe that the church in general might be better off having three categories of leaders: elders who focus on worship and community activities, deacons who assist the elders in attending to community activities, but who focus primarily on mission activities, and administrators or stewards who focus on support activities. That would clearly indicate the nature and importance of mission.)
Now, let us consider “doing justice.” Tim Keller divides it into three categories or layers of help – relief, development, and social reform – all of which require believers to disadvantage themselves to advantage others, particularly the most vulnerable in society – that is, the poor, the oppressed, the ill, the handicapped, the infirm, the imprisoned, the widowed, etc.
Relief is directed at meeting the immediate needs of people who are suffering – that is, providing them with food, clothing, shelter, emergency medical aid, basic counseling, legal advocacy, etc.
Development is directed at helping people move beyond dependency to self-sufficiency. It includes education, job training and placement, home-making and child care training, and simple friendship.
Social reform is directed at attacking the root causes of failing communities – inadequate police protection (often the result of corruption), inadequate education (often the result of under-funded schools), housing (often the result of red-lining by banks), inadequate justice (often the result of judicial bribe-taking), and inadequate attention by the responsible levels of government (precinct, city, county, state, and federal).
How then do we “do justice?” John M. Perkins identified three basic factors: relocation, redistribution, and racial reconciliation.
Relocation or “neighboring a community” is the concept that service providers to a community should live in it.
Redistribution or “reweaving a community” is the concept that financial, social, and spiritual capital must be directed into a community – not out of it, which is what happens when residents find jobs elsewhere, when local businesses are owned and staffed by non-residents, when health facilities are located outside the community or, if located in the community, staffed by non-residents, and when residents attend churches outside the community.
Financial capital refers to the presence in the community of employers that not only provide goods and services to the community, but keep the wealth of the community in the community.
Social capital refers to the presence in the community of trained leaders who can run businesses, schools, clinics, etc., thereby obviating the necessity of bringing in such leaders from outside the community.
Spiritual capital refers to the presence in the community of churches and ministries which convey to their members Christian faith and morals, thereby strengthening the members of the community as they attempt to build strong and healthy individuals, families, and communal institutions.
Racial reconciliation is the concept that skilled outsiders work with unskilled insiders to empower the latter to assume the leadership and control of the community’s development. Where failing communities are concerned, the skilled outsiders and the unskilled insiders are usually of different races and cultures, as well as educational levels, wealth, etc. Blending them into a partnership is difficult, but not impossible when the outsiders maintain a clear vision of the objective and behave humbly, tactfully, and lovingly. Such a partnership across racial boundaries is one of the signs of the presence and power of the Gospel of our Lord. It indicates that the bond between believers in Christ is stronger than the bond between members of any racial, cultural, or political group.
What practical steps can we take to start “doing justice?” There are at least two:
Ask community leaders what they need? They will be startled to discover that we are interested, let alone that we are motivated to do something to help.
Ask local ministers what they need? They too will be startled, because too often they find outsiders setting up alternatives to their own ministries.
There are a number of policy issues that we need to address before we plunge into “doing justice.”
How much should we help? Relief costs money. Development costs a lot of money. Social reform costs more than all but the largest and richest churches can afford. Moreover, in every situation, there is more need than hands to help in meeting the need.
Whom should we help? …individuals? …families? …neighborhoods? …communities?
Under what conditions should our help proceed or end? To what extent will we put up with disruption, ingratitude, intransigence, misuse of our financial assistance, obscenity, recidivism, etc.?
In what way should we help? …providing relief? …fostering development? …working for social reform? …a combination of two or all three?
From where should we help? …from the church; that might be appropriate for relief? …from an existing local ministry, …that might be appropriate for development? …from an existing community development organization? …from a community development organization which is formed by our church and operates independently of our church so as to leave our church’s elders unencumbered by its day-to-day problems? …from a local, state, or national advocacy organization; that might be appropriate for social reform?
There is nothing simple or easy about “doing justice,” but there is no question that Jesus commands us to do it. Jesus told His disciples to feed and cloth the poor, to welcome and show hospitality to the stranger, to provide care to the sick and infirm, to look after the widows and orphans, to visit the prisoners in jail, to befriend the friendless, to comfort the comfortless, to find and carry back to safety the lost. He did not say that doing any of these things was a means of obtaining salvation, but rather a sign that they possessed salvation already.
I gratefully acknowledge my debt in preparing this homily to Tim Keller’s new book, Generous Justice. I will close with a couple of quotes from it.
When a city perceives a church as existing only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbors see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message (p. 142).
Don’t shrink, says the Lord, from spending yourself on the broken, the hurting, and the needy. I’m good for it (p. 185)
Read Keller’s book!
© 2017 John Holbrook Jr.
 Keller, Timothy, Generous Justice – How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dutton, New York, NY 2010.