Over the last 15 years there has been a resurgence of congregational mercy work within congregations in the LCMS. Much of this was due to the guidance of the Rev. Matthew Harrison, who in his capacity as executive director of WRHC wrote to pastors and lay leaders of the LCMS on the theology of mercy and how to incorporate a mercy that flows from Lutheran congregations to the needy in their community.[1] In addition, the 2001 Synod convention opened up the possibility of a deaconess program at both seminaries for women to study deaconess ministry as a vocation.[2] This expansion of the deaconess program, has increased the number of deaconess church workers, has created a greater awareness of mercy work, and has had a lasting influence across the Synod.

Mercy work in and of itself is not the Gospel message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. That is, it is not a means of grace. However, mercy work and service to one’s neighbor is the natural outgrowth of the Gospel message within a believer’s life (Eph. 2:8–10). One benefit of congregational mercy work is that it has the potential of breaking down barriers that many unchurched people have toward the church and the Gospel message. When congregations show up at disaster sites to help victims rebuild their lives, Lutheran pastors and members are welcomed by those who would otherwise never enter a church building. Additionally, through merciful service projects, pastors and lay members are able to build relationships and plant the seeds of the Gospel message.

Our motivation for mercy work is the Gospel, and our primary aim of mercy work seeks to serve the community’s temporal and spiritual needs. The Lutheran congregation holistically serves the needs of both body and soul through the marks of the church. And when people are going through times of crisis, they often have spiritual needs that only God can fill. In the midst of disaster, victims of tragedy can encounter the office of holy ministry, which includes preaching of the Law and Gospel, Confession and Absolution, Baptism, Confirmation, and the distribution of the Lord’s Supper for the ongoing forgiveness of sins. By caring for temporal needs, the Lutheran congregation creates opportunities of care for the universal spiritual needs of forgiveness and peace with God that comes from Christ’s forgiveness.

Lutheran congregations that show mercy to the poor is nothing new. Since the inception of the Reformation, Lutheran theologians and pastors have taught that a critical aspect of pastoral care is to care for the needy and helpless. Although unique aspects of the office of holy ministry are to publicly preach, consecrate the Sacrament, and conduct public worship,[3] a pastor’s duties extend beyond preaching and conducting the Liturgy on a Sunday morning. These duties also include: overseeing the physical care of the church’s impoverished members; caring for the disadvantaged of the community at large; sharing Christ to the unbeliever; and much more. Theologians such as Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, and Walther have all encouraged the church’s pastors to act mercifully on behalf of Christ and His church. Additionally, Lutherans have traditionally taught that mercy and compassion for the poor and care for those affected by tragedy is a duty of pastoral work.

Gal. 2:10 says, “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Paul did not comment on the cause of the poverty, only that he wished to serve, and that he was “eager to remember the poor.” In 1531, Martin Luther wrote that a critical aspect of pastoral care is to serve the impoverished,

“Next to the proclamation of the Gospel it is the task of a good pastor to be mindful of the poor. For wherever the church is, there must be poor people. Most of the time they are the only true disciples of the Gospel … For both human beings and the devil persecute the church and bring poverty upon many, who are then forsaken and to whom no one wants to give anything … Therefore a true bishop must be concerned also about the poor, and Paul here admits that he was.”[4]

Hence, Luther teaches that to be a true pastor an important task of his work is to care for the impoverished in his congregation.

Martin Chemnitz, perhaps best known as one of the authors of the Formula of Concord, wrote on the role of pastors and laity on charity, almsgiving, and care for the poor. In the Examination of the Council of Trent he states that to, “be in charge of care for the poor”[5] is one of the duties of the ministry.[6] In Chemnitz’ section “On Almsgiving” in his Loci Theologici, he includes both pastors and laity in only two categories of people,

“For God has distributed the human race into two categories: (1) There are some who possess wealth, to whom the commandment has been delivered concerning the giving of alms. (2) There are some needy people, who are to be helped by alms … No third category, i.e., those who neither are in need nor give, can be found in the Scripture.”[7]

To differentiate between pagan generosity and true Christian charity Chemnitz gives guidance in six ways, 1) it must be done out of faith, 2) it must be out of biblical love, 3) it is a believer’s response in light of the love of God that was demonstrated in the life and death of Christ, 4) it should be focused on true calamities, 5) it should be done in sincerity, not looking for any form of repayment, 6) it should be done without sadness or necessity, and 7) it should not be done sparingly but generously.[8]

Johann Gerhard, chief Lutheran dogmatician in the seventeenth century, wrote On the Ecclesiastical Ministry and taught that care for the poor and visitation of the sick was one of the seven duties of the pastor.[9] Gerhard lists three reasons for pastoral involvement in regards to care for the poor: 1) Christ’s example of care for the poor, 2) Paul’s orders to collect funds for the poor Christians in Galatia and Corinth, and 3) the agapai feast of the early church, which collected funds and food for the poor.[10] Although the early church established diaconal vocations within the working of the church, Gerhard encouraged pastors to stay personally engaged with the care of the poor. He encouraged that they reach out to the poor by preaching on the topics of poverty and the need for financial generosity and hospitality towards the poor and downtrodden.

Founding President of the LCMS, C. F. W. Walther, wrote in article thirty-five, “Caring for the Physical Well-Being of the Congregational Members,”  of his Pastoral Theology, “Although a preacher should primarily care for the spiritual needs of the members of his congregation, the sphere of his official duties nevertheless also includes caring for their physical needs, especially for the necessities of life of the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, the frail, the needy, those weak with age, etc.”[11] A home, a roof over one’s head is one of the most essential needs that a person has. Although Walther does not name a specific disaster, he certainly gives clear direction that a congregation should be caring for the essential needs of a member who has lost his or her home or essential earthly goods due to a storm or any other disaster. In fact, Walther admonishes the Church at large and blames her for allowing secret societies (the Masonic lodge for example) to flourish in the nineteenth century because they are willing to care for their members during a time of crisis more than the Christian church was.[12]


[1] Part of this renaissance includes Harrison’s book, Mercy in Action, as well as the writing, translation, and re-publishing of essays from leading Lutheran theologians from the past and present (see bibliography).

[2] According to the minutes on the commission on constitutional matters, “Res. 5-06B permits graduate deaconess training at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, and Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.”  The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, “Minutes, Commission on Constitutional Matter,” 2001 Minutes, lcms.org/ccm, 2.


[3] “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel. And the Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this.” Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Augsburg Confession, Article V, 1-3, (Philadelphia: Fortress,1959), 31.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1–4 Vol. 26, ed. Jarsolav Pelikan, (St. Louis: Concordia 1963), 105–106.

[5] Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent Part II, trans. Fred Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia, 1978), 679.

[6] “This ministry does indeed have power, divinely bestowed (2 Cor. 10:46; 13:24), but circumscribed with certain duties and limitations, namely, to preach the Word of God, teach the erring, reprove those who sin, admonish the dilatory, comfort the troubled, strengthen the weak, resist those who speak against the truth, reproach and condemn false teaching, censure evil customs, dispense the divinely instituted sacraments, remit and retain sins, be an example to the flock, pray for the church privately and lead the church in public prayers, be in charge of care for the poor, publically excommunicate the stubborn and again receive those who repent and reconcile them with the church, appoint pastors to the church according to the instruction of Paul, with consent of the church institute rites that serve the ministry and do not militate against the Word of God nor burden consciences but serve good, dignity, decorum, tranquility, edification, etc. For these are the things which belong to these two chief points, namely, to the power of order and the power of jurisdiction.” Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent Part II, 678–679.

[7] Martin Chemnitz, “On Almsgiving,” Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015), 329.

[8] Martin Chemnitz, “On Almsgiving,” 332–333.

[9] Johann Gerhard, On the Ecclesiastical Ministry: Part Two, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia, 2012), 138.

[10] Gerhard, On the Ecclesiastical Ministry, 138.

[11] Walther, Pastoral Theology, 348.

[12] “Like a horrible cancerous sore, the secret societies are eating away at the body of the Church. Thousands upon thousands join them, usually at first only to secure themselves for times of scarcity, sickness, and other need, but the result is that they finally become completely estranged from the church and regard their secret society as a better bearer of true, because active, religion than the church.” Walther, Pastoral Theology, 348.