A Response to Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s ‘The Beautiful Question of the Incarnational Gospel’
There is a story that I cannot forget from one of the Egyptian villages where we have done development and social work through CEOSS (Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services).One day we found many children had diarrhoea, and some of them were close to death. The council of the village met and decided to open two new clinics to deal with the problem, but surprisingly the problem was not solved. Many more children suffered from diarrhoea, and the situation became worse and worse. The council met again. When they analysed the situation they discovered that there was a pool of dirty water at the entrance of the village where flies and mosquitoes bred and carried the virus to the children. The council decided to clean the area, and the result was no more diarrhoea among the children.
I take that as a parable about ministry. Each context is unique. We need to understand carefully the situation we live in so that we can apply the Word of God effectively and go beyond the problems to the root causes of these problems. This, I think, relates to Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s point that we must listen to ‘outsiders.’ Very often outsiders offer unexpected insights into the true nature of the problems, and help us see the root causes that are hidden to us.
In the Middle East we are living in a very difficult time. The world economic crisis, terrorism, climate change, political instability and religious extremism all contribute to the current thorny context. Yet when we study the ministry of the early church in the book of Acts, we find a context that could be even more difficult than today—a climate of persecutions, economic sanctions on believers, poverty and political oppression.
Reading Van Dyke and Rocke’s thoughts on ministry to and with the poor, I found myself thinking about that early church and its response to community needs. I believe that they had a clear understanding of the root causes of the problems in their context, and that their ministry directly targeted those. Their context is not exactly ours, but their response is a good template for us as we shape our unique response. It fits very well with the holistic ministry the authors describe in Central America. Acts 2:42–47, which sums up the early church’s operations, indicates three main focal points: 1) the teaching of the apostles, 2) partnership and 3) social responsibility.
The teaching of the apostles
When facing poverty and persecution, it would be very easy to overlook the importance of teaching. Yet the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).
The unique knowledge of the apostles was the life of Jesus. They had been with him and must have been eager to pass on their experience. Their teaching surely emphasized:
a) The human aspect of the life of Jesus – the man they knew and lived with.
b) Jesus’ miracles as a response to the needs of people. For example, the story of the transfiguration tells how Jesus left his glory up on the mountain and went down to heal a human being who was in need. Jesus went out of his way to respond to human need.
c) Jesus’ openness to the outsider. Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan because he would not consider anyone beyond the reach of God or unable to contribute to ministry. The Samaritan was not an object of charity; he was the ‘outsider’ who showed everyone else how to behave as a genuine neighbour.
d) Jesus was committed to a holistic mission. He did not just do good works; he did them while preaching and living the Good News. In the early church there was always a connection between doctrine and action, a connection that reflected the teachings of the apostles about Jesus.
To follow the apostles’ teaching is to go to the root of our problems, for it takes us to the way of Jesus.
People under stress are tempted to act individualistically, but the church in Acts 2 was devoted to the fellowship. This devotion created a sense of partnership.
Their partnership was not artificial or contrived. Rather, it was based on the early church’s awareness of its true identity. They believed that they were the remaining faithful in Israel and that all prophecies of the Old Testament were coming true in their lives, fulfilled in the Messiah. Resurrection opened a window through which they were able to reread the life of Jesus and to understand his mission in a prophetic way. And that mission was also their mission, because they were the redeemed people of God called into existence by the Messiah himself. They shared bread together and experienced the power of prayer (2:42).
The Lord’s Supper was a meal where there were no poor and rich, educated and illiterate, men and women, elite and grassroots people. Everyone was equal and they ate together as the people of God.
As they prayed they became aware that their actions were also a part of God’s response to prayer. You cannot pray for the poor if you are not ready to give some of your money to those in need and you cannot pray for people’s salvation if you are not ready to participate in evangelistic campaigns. The church in Acts 2 knew that they were part of God’s response to prayer.
The social responsibilities of the church in Acts 2 were based on Jesus’ resurrection. He was truly alive, he had conquered death, and those who belonged to his kingdom had no reason whatsoever to fear or to cling to their resources.
Many of the new believers were poor, and some suffered economic sanctions for their new beliefs. In that context the early church carried out its social responsibilities in two ways. Some sold all they owned and gave it to the church. Others shared what they had with those who had nothing. I believe that how those early believers responded to financial needs was not as important as their attitudes. They honoured their brothers and sisters more than their possessions. Today we need not replicate the exact steps they took. We need to follow the concept rather than the methods.
We learn from Acts 2 that the witness of the church must be holistic. It involves devoted teaching, which places a high value on the needs of others and connects word with deed. It leads to partnership, so that all members of the body are treated as family, and all share in a common identity regardless of their social status. Such a church can live up to its social responsibilities without fear, for we serve a risen Lord who will protect us and provide all we need. The church cannot preach and close its eyes to its social commitments.
When the church takes on this holistic approach, it carries out its prophetic role. That is what the church did in Acts 2. That is what is needed in the very complicated contexts in which we live today.
Andrea Zaki Stephanous serves asvice general director for Program Affairs in theCoptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services.
This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)