On January 29, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order establishing The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI). Many non-government organizations (NGOs) including congregations, denominations, Social Service Organizations (SSOs), and LCMS Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs) were excited at the new partnership. Billions of dollars each year were possible in government contracts from the federal and state governments for case management and human care work.
What was not known at the time were the details, stipulations and limitations that would come with these new opportunities. Would Christian organizations be able to continue to follow their Christian identity and share the Gospel message within a holistic human care? Would government contract social work projects have to be provided in a non-religious and non-evangelistic manner? What would happen if the values and laws of the U.S. government did not line up with the values of the faith-based organization? Would Christian organizations have to violate their sixth commandment conscience and place children with adoptive parents who are unmarried or identify as LGBT?
More than ever before, government funding has had a strong influence on the implementation of faith-based charity work. This series of articles gives the reader a brief understanding about popular views of helping the poor, the benefits and limitations of NGOs receiving government funding for human care, and the uniqueness of Lutheran congregational mercy work.
Social Gospel, Liberation Theology, Social Justice and Mercy Work: A Difference of Goals
In the early church, Christians called financial help for the poor and needy “love.” In fact, “charity” is a derivate of the Latin caritas. For centuries, Christian and congregational help for the poor was called “charity” (Christian love). Because language changes over time, new words have emerged to explain the church and secular society’s role of concern for the poor and needy. In some cases there is not only a terminology change but also a different emphasis from the historic view of congregational care for the needy. It is this author’s belief that the best term for Lutheran congregations to use is “Christian Charity” or “Mercy Work/Ministry.” What follows is a brief overview of popular terms used currently or in the past by religious and non-religious organizations that help the poor.
Mercy Work: “Mercy Work,” as it is defined herein (Christian care for those in need—in body, mind, or spirit), flows directly from the mercy of God to us. The frequent apostolic blessing of “grace, mercy, and peace” should remind us of the import of the term. Mercy from us to others is always grounded in the mercy we have received. Mercy is an undeserved love and blessing which shows itself in love from God to humanity and in a Christian’s love toward neighbor (Ephesians 2:10). The focus of mercy work is on Christian compassion for the whole person, body and soul. Thus, the congregation’s mercy work:
- Cares for all people in their temporal needs throughout the world (1starticle of the Creed).
- Cares for the spiritual redemption of all people (2ndarticle of the Creed).
- Cares for the soul and spiritual needs of all people (3rdarticle of the Creed).
- Works primarily through Christians in their vocations and through the corporate service of Christian congregations toward the needy.
- Flowsfrom the congregation to help temporal needs; the community is invited intothe church to meet their spiritual needs.
- Is based on a subscription to Holy Scripture and Luther’s Small Catechism.
Three key Bible texts that inform our mercy work include: “Love your neighbor as yourself”(Matthew 22:39, ESV). “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10, ESV). “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18 ESV).
Social Gospel: The Social Gospel, starting in the early 1900s, is a Christian social movement popularized by Walter Rauschenbusch and his book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, in 1917. Social Gospel was anti-capitalism and promoted a form of Christian Socialism. Social Gospel de-emphasized the salvific message of faith alone in Christ and instead emphasized ethics. The Social Gospel’s focus was not on preaching and receiving the sacraments, but rather social activism that improved the quality of life of the community. The influence of the 20th century Social Gospel movement continues today in muted and mutated forms in various faith-based organizations, social ministry and missionary work.
The Social Gospel movement:
- Focuses the Christian message and the Christian life on an active love of the poor.
- Addresses the needs of the city with politically socialist and progressivist ideas.
- Focuses on the ethical teaching of Jesus and de-emphasizes Christ’s justification of sinners.
- Rather than church planting, it emphasizes spreading the love of Christ through social activism.
Liberation Theology: The goal is to liberate the poorest of humanity from unfavorable political, social and economic conditions. Liberation Theology emphasizes that one of God’s primary desires is to liberate the oppressed just as God used Moses to liberate the Israelites from the enslavement and abuse of the Egyptians. This movement was most popular in the 1970s and 1980s especially within Roman Catholicism and Latin American Churches. It was promoted by Gustavo Gutierrez in his 1971 book, A Theology for Liberation.
Liberation theology generally focuses on:
- Liberation of the politically, socially and economically oppressed.
- Christianity and the work of Jesus through a Marxist political ideology that is strongly anti-capitalism.
- Political change or revolution for the betterment of the poor.
Social Justice: Social Justice focuses on an equitable distribution of temporal goods, wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Although the term “social justice” was coined in the 1840s by the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli, only since the early 1990s has it gained popularity as unifying a social ethic on secular university campuses in international politics, social work, and political activism. Currently, the leading secular university primer on social justice theory is Michael J. Sandel’s book, Social Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
- Espouses economic fairness and equality for all people.
- Seeks a balance of power.
- Promotes redistribution of wealth from the most wealthy to the poorest of the poor.
- Is done primarily through governmental agencies and non-religious NGOs.
This is part one of three from an article published in “Issues in Christian Education.”
To read the full article click here.
 Now known as “White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”
 In the past The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has used other names for its mercy ministry with the creation of the Board of Social Ministry which later became World Relief and Human Care and now is LCMS Mercy Operations.
 Note that there are many nuances in the explanations of the popular terms today. This overview only surveys the terms in a broad manner to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the topic.
 Three recommended books to help understand the theology and history of mercy are:Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson. St. Louis, Missouri: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015. Uhlhorn, Johann.Christian Charity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883. Lindberg, Carter. Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993.
 See Matthew Harrison’s essay, What Does It Mean to be a Lutheran in Social Ministry? on page 413 of Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson. St. Louis, Missouri: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015.
 Forms of Liberation theology are also common in some African-American churches in the United States.
 For an analysis of the Social Justice Movement within mainline churches, I highly recommend “Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective” by Mark Mattes. Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Summer, 2012).
 Although social justice is a common theme among secular activists, mainline churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and movements with peace church and Anabaptist roots such as the emerging church circles and Sojourners Network, also have a very progressive Christianized view of social justice and the role of the church in society. See for example The Justice Project, edited by Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Saheley Bunting Seeber (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009). We may see more conservative evangelicals will start using the term “justice” in connection with a traditional biblical concept of God’s justice and a historical understanding of Christian charity work. For instance, some conservative Christian authors such as Timothy Keller and Douglas Wilson are discussing justice as a more traditional Christian understanding of charity work.