I’ve been asked to conduct a training on the biblical foundations of integral mission, also known as holistic ministry and transformational development. This is the first session. There are many folks who have addressed this question more ably than I. My favorite discussion so far is Bryant Myers in the second edition of his book Walking with the Poor. But I’d like to put what I’m discussing out there for input from the broader community.
A Terrible Question
Which is more important: the spiritual or the physical? Or, when talking about the Christian faith, is it more important to share the gospel or to meet physical and social needs?
That is a terrible question, and like all terrible questions, it leads the discussion to unfortunate places. A better question is “Why on earth would you ask that question?!” To ask the question is to admit that you have not understood the gospel.
There is a spiritual reality that underlies everything. God is spirit. Humanity (including Jesus) is embodied spirit. Jesus holds everything physical together constantly by his spiritual power. The spirit is obviously “more important”. But what does that mean really? It obviously doesn’t mean that physical needs aren’t important or else there would be a lot fewer miracles done in the Bible. The only reason that someone will ask this question is so that we can prioritize one domain over the other, as if they were separable.
When you meet a human with no spirit (a zombie), or a spirit with no body (a ghost), then you can prioritize. Until then, they are inseparable. If someone wants to spread the “message” of the gospel while pretending that that message has no actual consequences in physical life (in other words, without doing anything that the gospel actually says to do), then James 2 has a strong condemnation for him. Even the demons believe, fool! It’s not about believing the fact of God’s existence or sharing that fact with others, it’s about allegiance to God’s kingdom and values. And that allegiance requires that you actually love your brother instead of encouraging him to stay “warm and filled”, to actually help your neighbor instead of crossing to the other side of the road to avoid his broken body on your way to church.
On the other hand, those who want to just do good things: have you heard of the Pharisees? Or the good people of any (or no) religion? What makes your good deeds different from theirs? Nothing! Nothing. Deeds without words are mute. And the gospel of love, forgiveness and new life in Jesus is the most important message that exists. If you doubt that, read through the gospels again and see how much importance Jesus puts on himself and his Father as opposed to anything else. To offer only physical water to the thirsty is to be short-sighted to the point of blindness and to have forgotten what importance Jesus placed on the spiritual. HE DIED FOR IT, remember?
The gospel, like humanity, must be embodied.
God acted in the Old Testament (mostly) through his prophets. Jesus acted in the Gospels. The apostles and the church acted in the Acts and the Epistles. The idea that you can hand out a tract as a presentation of the gospel is absurd, and has no relation with the way God works throughout Scripture. God can use absurd things to accomplish his will, after all, he used Balaam’s donkey. (Side note: I LOVE that donkey. Wow! I really, really, really appreciate being able to say that God spoke through a donkey.)
Bringing The Two Together
But the message of Scripture is “I’ll show you MY faith by my deeds.” One without the other is dead.
Think of it this way. The physical (deeds) and the spiritual (faith) are two sides of the same coin. If you cut a coin in half, it becomes worthless. So too, deeds without faith are worthless (Hebrews 11). And faith without deeds is worthless (James 2). If you want to take the analogy farther, even if you cut a coin in half, it still has two sides. One side is now blank. Meaning that your deeds or your faith are still related, but you just don’t want to admit what it is. Here’s my bet. Whichever half you decide to ignore is the half that you don’t like because it is an ugly part of your life.
All that to say, both sides of the fundamentalist/liberal conflict that split Christianity in the early 20th century were wrong. The liberals kept social justice, but forgot that social justice is based on God’s justice and forgiveness, and that the most important part of justice is the divine justice (and mercy!) shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fundamentalists kept evangelism, and soon enough found that their evangelism of words only produces Christians in name only, fire insurance seekers with no real allegiance to the gospel and no understanding that the words “love God and your neighbor” actually mean something.
What is holistic ministry in your life? In your work? In your organization?
In what areas are you trying to separate the physical and the spiritual?
What are the consequences going to be?