"They asked us to remember the poor"
In preparation for this Sunday's sermon, I've been reading through the first two chapters of Galatians. The entire section is a call for the church not to abandon the Gospel, but to hold firm to its truths. In Galatians 2:7-9 Paul is describing his own ministry of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. Of course, this was controversial in Paul's day as the Jews and Gentiles didn't exactly get along.
But here Paul is defending his ministry, saying that even the other apostles recognized the legitimacy and necessity of what Paul and Barnabas were doing. He says that James, Peter, and John "perceived the grace that was given" to him (v.9) and endorsed his ministry. For all involved, the ministry of evangelism (and thus church planting) was the foremost ministry of the church.
OK. Being someone who loves the Gospel I get this. I can understand why preaching about Christ is important to Peter, James, and John. I understand why they were excited about what Paul and Barnabas proposed to do.
But then I noticed the next verse (Galatians 2:10).
Before sending Paul and Barnabas on their way to preach the Gospel, the three apostles gave one stipulation: "Only they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
Remember the poor.
I grew up in deeply conservative circles that were suspicious of anything that looked like 'social action'. Evangelism was simply (and only) preaching the Gospel. Now, I also knew conservative believers and entire churches that were generous and helpful to the poor, but sadly the loudest voices in the ultra-Fundamentalist movement were often those decrying such efforts. At the very least, "missions" and "benevolence" were seen as two distinct categories. One was necessary, and the other a good idea if you had the time and resources.
Another error also exists. Currently we exist in an Evangelical world that equates providing clean water or teaching sustainable agricultural techniques as being "missions". One is often considered a missionary if he serves overseas as a doctor, engineer, or social advocate, regardless of whether or not he ever shares Christ.
I see the apostles shunning and strongly repudiating both of the above views.
Missions is always Gospel-centered. It always involves something we say. The oft-cited (but highly dubious) quote from Francis of Assisi may sound faithful, but the Gospel writers would have reacted in horror (he supposedly said, "Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words"). Words are always necessary. Elsewhere Paul asks rhetorically, "and how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching" (Rom 10:14)?
But just as much as the missional activity of the church requires (always) the preaching of the Gospel, it also requires more. Peter, James, and John believed a concern for the poor was important enough to make it a mandate for Paul and Barnabas.
Paul took this council to heart, because he frequently exhorted the Gentile church to help out the poor believer in Judea (Acts 24:17; Rm 15:25-27; 1 Cor 16:1-4).
Think about that! In what is perhaps the earliest recorded commissioning of a missionary, the apostles refuse to endorse or approve the missional activity unless it includes a component of trying to help relieve the physical & emotional sufferings of the poor.
Or to put it another way, any church today that does not have a ministry to the poor does not have the blessing of the apostles.