Bread or the Gospel? Priorities in Ministry

One hallmark of many mainline churches is their social activism.  Some would say that political liberation for many in the mainline has taken precedence over spiritual salvation.  Sin, which traditionally has been viewed as a personal offense committed against a holy God is, for many in the mainline, is often associated with the very broad category of “unjust [political] structures” or legislation.  Overall, there is a great deal of emphasis on the earthly kingdom, even over and above the Kingdom of God.[1]

Some would ask, “What’s the big deal?  Wasn’t Jesus all about justice?  Didn’t he fight for the weak and the oppressed?  Wasn’t he a man for the poor?  Wouldn’t an unjust political scheme bother Jesus too?”  Some of these same folk might also add that many evangelicals have been wrong to care more about saving souls from hell than ministering to bodies here on earth.  Those who have done so have fulfilled the popular, old adage that says if you are too heavenly minded you will prove to be of no earthly good.  What matters is justice now.

None can deny that Jesus cared about justice and that he loved the weak and the despised, but do these simple statements capture Jesus’ message or do they in some ways betray it?  Would Jesus have made the same accusation that many in the mainline do (and those in other places), saying that evangelicals have been preoccupied with spiritual salvation to the neglect of earthly ministry?

So what should our priorities be?  As Dr. Ligon Duncanasks bluntly: “Is the Great Commission to make disciples or to love our neighbor?  Is there a priority on sharing the gospel or on ministering to the urgent and manifold needs of millions worldwide?  Should we care about people’s eternal destiny or their present predicament?”[2]  Many would simply say that both should be a priority.  But this is not the question.  Which should be of greater priority.  If you had the choice of giving a person a loaf of bread or the gospel, which would you give them?

For those who don’t believe in Hell, the question is easy.  Bread.  There is no suffering after death, so why worry about something that is never coming?  For these people, gospel proclamation seems silly if its goal is not or cannot be politically or economically realized.  Unfortunately, such views are very popular today.[3]

But John Piper, at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, South Africalast year, gives a true diagnosis of such a stance.  He says, “Christians care about all suffering now, especially eternal suffering…if we don’t, we either have a defective heart or a defective view of hell.”[4]  Those who think that bread should be given over and above the gospel, do not grasp the doctrine of hell; that a person would choose to give a starving individual a morsel of bread instead of The Bread of Life is astounding.  One will alleviate but a moment of agony, the other has the power to alleviate an eternity of horror, loneliness, and unimaginable torment.

This is not to say that Christians shouldn’t care about earthly suffering, it is simply to say that Christians should be most concerned about eternal suffering.  Duncan writes: “Hell, rightly understood, doesn’t make us hard; it makes us tender.  Hell, rightly understood, doesn’t make us complacent; it moves us to action.  Hell, rightly understood, gives us perspective—a perspective that refuses merely to work for the good of people now, but always and especially for their everlasting good.  As A.A. Hodge once said: ‘A man who realizes in any measure the awful force of the words eternal hell won’t shut up about it, but will speak with all tenderness.”[5]

Those of us who believe in hell and who believe that apart from Christ there is no hope of escaping the wrath to come, have another reason to go and minister in the mainline churches. Many of these churches have flatly rejected the doctrine though they continue to passionately seek to alleviate suffering in this world.  In so doing they miscommunicate the priorities of Jesus and give people a false hope.  Only faithful preaching and teaching of the word of God to these struggling denominations can breathe the reality of an eternal hell back into their hearts and minds.

More on this later.

[1] K. L. Billingsley, From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches  (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1990), 180.

[2] Ligon Duncan, “An Unpopular Doctrine: Our Attitude Toward Eternal Suffering Reveals the Condition of our Heart,” in Reformed Theological Seminary: Ministry and Leadership, (Spring/Summer 2011), 6.

[3] See, for example, Al Mohler’s blog entry which was posted just today about such radical views which stand in sharp contrast to all traditional Christian orthodoxy.  In this particular article he addresses Kirby Godsey’s new book Is God a Christian? in which he denies the divinity of Jesus, the coming wrath of God and virtually every other historic Christian doctrine.

[4] SeeDuncan, “An Unpopular Doctrine,” 6.

[5]Duncan, “An Unpopular Doctrine,” 7.

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