Mercy Ministry and Union
The first practical route to pursuing unity in the church (and eventual union) is to cooperate in geographically local mercy ministry. Jesus commands us to care for our own poor, for the stranger, and for our enemies. Inter-congregational cooperation in this task will bind us together as well as increasing the effectiveness of our mercy and the glory of God in our cities and communities.
Markus Bockmuehl describes the origin of Christian public ethics in his Jewish Law in Gentile Churches. The earliest (and longest-lived) form of apologetics was simple description of what Christians do at their worship services and how they care for the poor – the pagan poor as well as their own. Emperor Julian “the Apostate” complained that “it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us”.
When Christians turn their attention to the relief of the poor, they imitate God, who sends rain on the righteous and wicked alike. They also testify to grace and against legalism, since they understand their own blessings to be unmerited and therefore don’t withhold mercy from those who don’t “deserve it”. It is a symptom of how reactive church-based Protestant charity tends to be that for many of us, our primary contact with the poor is with those who systemically abuse kindness (e.g. someone who goes from church to church with a hard-luck story looking for handouts). If we were more proactive in our approach we would be at once more effective and less jaded.
Parachurch organizations have applied for years the common-sense observation that organized, unified relief is effective relief. In most cities common databases are kept so that clients and the care they receive are tracked and neither under- nor over-served. If Protestants are to be proactive in the relief of the poor, they must similarly cooperate in this basic matter. Further, there are many ways to show mercy that are impossible for a single congregation to do on its own. Even the burden of a weekend soup kitchen could break the back of a small church. The big projects must be the work of churches that are geographically proximate, done in humility and love for one another, as well as for the poor.
There are also cases in which one congregation sees or has a need but needs the resources of another congregation to meet it. A small or poor city congregation faces the prospect of its people and community being displaced en masse by gentrification in its neighborhood. A richer suburban church comes to its aid by helping finance and administer low-interest loans to help locals buy their apartments rather than be evicted. The suburban church ministers outside of its normal sphere of contact and both churches are enabled to bless their city and their members. This model is actually being pursued in Atlanta and other urban areas.
What we do in the name of Jesus Christ speaks louder than our words. If in our “mercy” we act as if other Christians do not exist we betray the unity of Christ and his church. If we treat one another as fellow-heirs and fellow-workers, we make a statement that will be heard.