For centuries, Christians have been the primary agents of charity and compassion in Western culture. From the first century forward to the founding of the American colonies, Christians took the lead in caring for the hungry, the dispossessed, the needy, and the afflicted. This was, in fact, the hallmark of authentic Christianity.
Even the enemies of the church begrudgingly admitted that there was something about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that compelled Christians to perform extraordinary feats of selfless compassion. For instance, during his short reign as emperor in the fourth century, Julian the Apostate tried to restore the paganism of Rome’s earlier days and undermine Christianity. But he just could not get around the Christians’ works of love. Indeed, in urging his government officials to charitable works, he said, “We ought to be ashamed. Not a beggar is to be found among the Jews, and those godless Galileans feed not only their own people, but ours as well, whereas our people receive no assistance whatever from us.”
Christ modeled a life and ministry of compassion to the poor and needy. He was forever mingling with them (Luke 5:1-11), eating with them (Luke 5:27-32), comforting them (Luke 12:22-34), feeding them (Luke 9:10-17), restoring them to health (Luke 5:12-16), and ministering to them (Luke 7:18-23). He even went so far as to use the dramatic words of Isaiah to summarize and epitomize His life’s purpose: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).
It is not surprising, then, that His disciples, those called to “conform themselves to His image” (Romans 8:29), would similarly place a high priority on the care of the poor. Even a cursory glance through the New Testament “hall of fame” reveals a startling level of commitment to ministries of compassion.
Tabitha, for example, was a godly woman whose chief occupation was “helping the poor” (Acts 9:36-41).
Barnabas was a man of some means who made an indelible mark on the early Christian communities, first by supplying the needs of the needy out of his own coffers (Acts 4:36-37), and later by spearheading relief efforts and taking up collections for famine-stricken Judeans (Acts 11:27-30).
Titus was the young emissary of the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 8:23) who organized a collection for the needy Christians in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:3-6). Later he superintended further relief efforts in Corinth, and delivered Paul's second letter to the church there, all on his own initiative (2 Corinthians 8:16-17). When last we see Titus, he has taken over the monumental task of mobilizing the Cretan church for similar “good works (Titus 2:3,7,12; 3:8).
The Apostle Paul himself was a man deeply committed to “remembering the poor” (Galatians 2:7-10). His widespread ministry began with a poverty outreach (Acts 11:27-30) and ultimately centered on coordinating the resources of Churches in Greece and Macedonia for relief purposes (2 Corinthians 8-9). In the end, he willingly risked his life for this mission of compassion (Acts 20:17-35).
The Good Samaritan is the unnamed lead character in one of Christ’s best-loved parables (Luke 10:25-37). When all others, including supposed men of righteousness, had skirted the responsibility of charity, the Samaritan took up its mantle. Christ concluded the narrative, saying, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
These early Christian heroes fully comprehended that “the religion our God and Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). They knew that true repentance evidenced itself in sharing food and sustenance with the poor (Luke 3:7-11). And they understood that selfless giving would be honored and blessed (Luke 6:38; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8) as a sign of genuine faith (James 2:14-17).
Biblical teaching concerning the believer’s obligation to the needy permeated the thinking of the early Christians. They knew that if they were kind and generous to the poor they would themselves be happy (Proverbs 14:21). God would preserve them (Psalm 41:1-2). They would never suffer need (Proverbs 28:27). They would prosper (Proverbs 11:25). They would even be raised and restored from beds of sickness (Psalm 41:3).
On the other hand, to refuse to exercise charity to the poor would have meant hurling contempt upon the name of the Lord (Proverbs 14:31). And for such an offense, they knew that their worship would have been rendered useless (Isaiah 1:10-17) and their prayers would have gone unanswered (Proverbs 21:13). They knew that they would in no wise escape punishment (Proverbs 17:5).
The result was that every aspect of their lives was shaped to some degree by this high call to compassion. From the ordering of their homes (Romans 12:13) to the conducting of their businesses (Ephesians 4:28), from the training of their disciples (Titus 3:14) to the character of their worship (James 2:2-7), they were compelled by the Author and Finisher of their faith to live lives of charity.
This is nowhere more evident than in the way their churches were structured. Besides the elders, who were charged with the weighty task of caring for the flock (Acts 20:28) and ruling the affairs of the congregation (Hebrews 13:17), those early fellowships were also served by deacons--or more literally, servants. According to Acts 6:1-6, the deacons were charged with the responsibility of coordinating, administering, and conducting the charitable function of the church.
It seems that because of the spectacular growth of the Jerusalem church, the distribution of food to the needy had gradually become uneven and inefficient. A number of the Grecian widows had been overlooked.
Since this situation was entirely unacceptable, the Twelve gathered all the Disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Words (Acts 6:2-3). Thus, these seven men, or deacons as they would later be called (1 Timothy 3:8-10), had as their primary duty the oversight of the poverty ministry of the Church. This was the essence of the diaconal function.
All throughout church history, the diaconal function has been more or less faithfully carried out by men of passion, conviction, and concern--men like William Olney and Joseph Passmore.
Olney and Passmore were deacons for many years at London's Metropolitan Tabernacle during the pastorate of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Their busy ministry in service to the needy involved the administration of almshouses, orphanages, relief missions, training schools, retirement homes, tract societies, and colporterages. In a lecture to young Bible college students in 1862, Olney stated, “Deacons are called of God to a magnificent field of service, white unto harvest…Ours is the holy duty of stopping by the way, when all others have passed by, to ministrate Christ's healing. Thus, we take the Good Samaritan as our model, lest the pilgrim perish.” To that same audience, Passmore said, “It is ironic indeed that our type of diaconal faithfulness comes not from the life of a disciple of our blessed Lord. Nay, not even is our type from the ancient fathers of faith, the Jews. Instead, our type is from the life of a Samaritan. Mongrel, as touching doctrine, this Good Samaritan is all of pedigree as touching righteousness. Oh, that the Church of our day had such men. Oh, that the church of our day bred such men, men of unswerving devotion to the care of the poor and broken-hearted. Oh, that the church of our day was filled with such men, men driven by the Good Samaritan faith . . . offering both word and deed, the fullness of the Gospel.”
Sadly, in our churches today we have virtually lost all sight of the diaconal function. Instead of meting out the succor of compassion to the needy, our deacons spend most of their time sitting on committees and launching building drives. Instead of spending and being spent on behalf of the needy, instead of modeling the Word and deed Good Samaritan faith, our deacons are waxing the floors of the fellowship hall or dusting the dampers, pew by pew, “and goodness knows what other trifles.”
The condemnation written by John Calvin in 1559 is just as applicable in our own day as it was in his: “Today the poor get nothing more of alms than if they were cast into the sea. Therefore, the church is mocked with a false diaconate…there is nothing of the care of the poor nothing of that whole function which the deacons once performed.”
The Good Samaritan faith and the mandate to care for the poor and afflicted is by no means the sole domain of the diaconate. God desires us all to display the Good Samaritan faith by offering the needy a Gospel of Word and deed. The testimony of Scripture is clear: all of us who are called by His name must walk in love (Ephesians 5:2). We must exercise compassion (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). We must live lives of service (Luke 22:24-30). We must struggle for justice and secure mercy, comfort, and liberty for men, women, and children everywhere (Zechariah 7:8-10).
When Jesus was asked to summarize briefly the law of God, the standard against which all spirituality is to be measured, He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. And the second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22: 37-40).
Jesus reduced the whole of the law, and thus, the whole of faith, to love. Love toward God, and then, love toward man. But, at the same time, Jesus defined love in terms of law. In one bold, deft stroke, He freed the Christian faith from subjectivity. By so linking love and law, Christ has unclouded our purblind vision of both. Love suddenly takes on responsible objectivity while law takes on passionate applicability.
This sheds a whole new light on what it means for us to “walk in love.” If our love is real, then it must be expressed; it will be expressed. If our love is real, then action will result because love is something you do, not merely something you feel. Love is the “Royal Law” (James 2:8). It is a law that weds Word and deed (James 2:14-26).
Authentic Christian faith, according to Jesus, is verifiable, testable, and objective because it is manifested in a verifiable, testable, and objective love. Thus, Jesus could confidently assert that love is the final apologetic (John 13:34-35). And Paul could argue that all effort for the Kingdom is in vain if not marked by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). And James could disavow as genuine any and all loveless, lawless, workless faith (James 2:14-26).
True faith gets its hands dirty in the work of compassion because that is the way of love. Faith cannot be personalized, privatized, and esoteric because love cannot be personalized, privatized, and esoteric. True faith moves out into the push and shove of daily living and shows forth its authenticity via love.
It is not surprising then to find that Scripture repeatedly mentions love evidenced in faith in contexts that focus on service to the poor' the hungry, the dispossessed, and the lonely. “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him” (Proverbs 14:31). “He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives of his food to the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). “The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, the wicked does not understand such concerns (Proverbs 29:7). “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with work or with tongue, but in deed and truths (1 John 3:16-18).
This is the faith, the love-evidenced faith, the Good Samaritan faith, the Word and deed faith, the authentic Christian faith to which God has called us.