Mercy & Justice: Balancing Evangelism and Compassion for the Poor

The verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to work in tandem with compassion for the poor and the marginalized. Compassion for the poor is insufficient unless it includes both mercy and justice. When done in this way, the dividing line between evangelism and compassion for the poor is reduced as the holistic effects of evangelism are realized.

When justice is added to mercy, the evangelist works to not only to meet the recipient’s urgent physical needs, but also to liberate them from the oppressive system of sin that is causing those needs, whether internal or external. And this in turn cannot be properly done without exposing them to the liberating power of the gospel; this is how evangelism and compassion for the poor work hand in hand. The church can benefit by prayerfully and proactively pursing this holistic evangelism.

The Biblical Link of Evangelism and Compassion for the Poor

The scriptural examples below show the necessity placed on compassion for the poor and the marginalized in Jesus’ and the church’s evangelistic missions. Jesus’ mission statement, if you will, can be summed up when he quoted Isaiah 61 at the start of his public ministry.[1] When John the Baptist questioned his qualifications as Messiah, he again referenced Isaiah, “And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.[2]

The proclamation of the good news and the compassion that accompanied it was towards and among the poor and marginalized. Jesus purposefully did much of his ministry in Galilee, an area abounding in those forgotten or excluded by the religious leaders of Jerusalem.[3] While Jesus’ verbal message of repent and believe[4] was foundational, his salvific outreach was holistic in practice. When Jesus delivered a crippled woman from her bondage,[5] the healing was “physical, social and spiritual.”[6] When Judas suddenly departed during the middle of the Last Supper, it did not seem abnormal to the disciples that perhaps he was leaving to give money to the poor.[7] When Paul had received blessing from Jerusalem to take the gospel to the Gentiles, their one request in this important assignment was that he would remember the poor, a thing which Paul confirmed he was “eager to do” anyway.[8] The care of widows from the Old Testament was assumed in Acts 6, and 1st Timothy 5:9-16 gives guidelines for the continuation of this ministry in the assemblies. Reflecting on worldly social status, James says, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”[9] And finally in a straightforward commandment, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”[10] This scripture will set up the necessity of mercy and justice in evangelism.

Mercy and Justice in Compassion for the Poor

Mercy and justice are two of the three weightier matters of the law given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Justice is “the claim that everyone has by right.”[11] Mercy means “works of charity”[12] as shown later on in Matthew when Jesus speaks of those who gave food and drink to the hungry, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners.[13]

A surface level reading of the above mentioned Luke 6:30-31 might lead a Christian to believe that they should strive to give everyone specifically what they monetarily or physically ask for.

[Luk 6:30-31 ESV] 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

But upon closer examination, the principle in this scripture is about disciples doing unto others what they would want done to themselves. The method is giving to everyone who begs (or ask/request[14]) of us. The giver then must ask herself, “If I were this person, what would I want done for me?” It is here where mercy and justice collide. To enact both justice and mercy, thought and care must be put into the situation.

Take the example of a drug addict. The addict needs to hear the gospel, yes, he needs some food to satisfy his immediate hunger, yes, but he also needs treatment (mental, physical and emotional), and an immediate evacuation from a corrupt system or environment that is enabling him.

Take the example of Haiti, which has received more charitable aid than any other country in the western hemisphere, 8.3 billion between 1970 and 2010, and the aid has increased even more after the 2010 earthquake, yet the poverty continues to increase.[15] “I don’t even think the problem is resources…The big problem is lack of accountability, lack of a mechanism to pressure aid agencies into effective, long-term development”, says Timothy Schwartz, an anthropologist and longtime resident of Haiti.[16]

Lupton writes “Mercy that doesn’t move intentionally in the direction of development (justice) will end up doing more harm than good—to both giver and recipient.”[17] Therefore evangelism and compassion for the poor cannot be thought of as simply the proclamation of the gospel accompanied with physical relief. Relief (mercy) is “an opening, an invitation to touch a life”[18], but it must lead to development. Relief for the poor and marginalized can be connected to the weightier matter of mercy and development can be connected to the weightier matter of justice. “‘Development’ is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved—both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’— closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.”[19] When proper mercy (relief) and justice (development) accompany Biblical evangelism, it will benefit both those serving and those being served. The following examples will demonstrate this.

Mercy without Justice

A predominately white Creekside Community Church decided to reach out to the poorer African America community neighboring theirs by providing Christmas gifts to needy families. While seemingly a joy at first, the Pastor noticed over the years that the fathers of the recipients were rarely present for the gift giving because they would slip out of the house in shame when the time drew near. These men did not need material handouts; they needed deliverance from a system of poverty. “The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy. In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, Creekside Community Church increased these fathers’ poverty of being.”[20] Additionally, the members doing the giving at first had a sense of pride, which turned to distain when the poorer residents seemingly did nothing to improve their situation. Because of this, the distance between the church and the people they were supposedly reaching out to actually increased. Roberts makes the powerful statement that “mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient.” Creekside’s hearts were possibly in the right place, but the gifts were a cheap form of mercy that ended up doing more harm than good. A far more valuable (and costly) gift would be to take the time to establish relationships with the men and leaders of the neighborhoods, find out what unique gifts and abilities they have[21] and be supportive in their development as equals. Recognizing the mutual poverty between giver and receiver is essential. Corbett speaks of the “god-complexes” that can unconsciously arise when the giver sees the receiver as a means to accomplish some personal liberation.[22] Isaiah 58:10 tells Israel to “spend yourselves” or “pour yourselves out” on behalf of the hungry and oppressed; this takes time and devoted effort. A genuine relationship with God cannot be had by the mere giving of money, and it is foolishness to think it so with those created in God’s image.

Mercy with Justice

A more successful example occurred in a 72 block area in Baltimore, Maryland called Sandtown where New Song Urban Ministries and Community Church reside. The founders relocated to this rough inner city neighborhood not to save it or push their own agenda on it, but to become friends and neighbors to it. They waited to create any outreach plans until they had been there two whole years and developed foundational relationships that ministry could be built on. As they began to dream of a better future together with their neighbors, it was brought up (by the community) that improved housing was the priority. The community took the ownership and initiative, and although the first houses could have been built much faster if an outside group had just hired someone to build them, the development of the leaders in the community is something money could never have bought. These people were reminded that they have value and are fully capable of building up their community, families and economic base when given the opportunity and resources to arise out of a difficult and often oppressive system. In fact, the leaders who began the ministry have since stepped down and handed the leadership off to local community members. Now consider if this community had just had just been labeled an outreach project and an outside source whom they have never met began raising money to build cheap housing in a neighborhood they knew nothing about. To raise funds they’d have to compete with other causes, which means exemplifying the worst traits about the community in order to gain potential donors, i.e. the percentage of one-parent families, the amount of high school dropouts or graphs showing the rising amount of thefts over the past five years. The community would feel inferior, and when the completed housing project made little difference because there had been no development (justice) of the people or their poor economic system, they would feel even worse, while the donors would likely feel frustrated or blame the community for not taking the initiative to change their own situation.

The questions that must be asked of any ministry to the poor that accompanies the proclamation of the gospel is, “Why am I really doing this?” and “Whom am I doing this for?” Short-term mission trips from the United States to foreign countries (also labeled “Religious tourism”[23]) typically make very little economic sense when one takes into account the amount of money spent compared to the value of the work being done. Research from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School suggests that there is little to no lasting change from these trips. They do not empower those being served, improve local quality of life, nor do they relieve poverty. There is evidence that they “deepen dependency, erode recipients’ work ethic, and foster dishonest relationships.”[24] There are countless stories of the ineffectiveness of short-term missions. Only one will be briefly mentioned.

A group of 20 young, enthusiastic volunteers arrived to a seminary in Cuba to lay tile. They had little to no experience with the laying of tile and the process was slow and subpar. The indigenous, skilled tile layers stood outside the seminary waiting for them to finish to see if there would still be any work left for them once there stay was over. The seminary president made sure local supervisors, tour guides, cooks and housing were provided for this group, but in her heart she was torn when thinking about how far the $30,000 the group spent on this trip would have gone to helping the real needs of the seminary and surrounding community. Did she tell the young missionaries? No, for that might have caused the sponsoring church to cut off funding, so she patiently endured. If this young group had honestly asked themselves for whom and why they are doing this, their answers might have been sobering. There is nothing wrong with visiting and fellowshipping with foreign brothers and sisters in the faith, but we must be cautious about what we label evangelism and compassion for the poor.

It has been shown by scriptural examples that evangelism and compassion for the poor are linked. It has been shown that when compassion for the poor consists of mercy and justice it then becomes Biblical, holistic evangelism. But what if compassion for the poor is both merciful and strategic, but the proclamation of the gospel is lacking? Examining the church in China will show an example of this.

An Example of Compassion Without the Gospel.

Before the Communist Mao Tse-tung took power, there were about 2 million Christians in China whose churches were modeled very much after Western ideals due to colonization. Tse-tung then banned all foreign missionaries, made existing churches state property, banished public meetings of Christians on pains of death or torture, and killed many Christian leaders.

Upon the end of Tse-tung’s reign, (the late 1970s) the ban was lifted and foreign Christians could once again enter China. One might think that they would find a weak and decimated church, but instead they found that it had grown to 60 million—and today it is probably closer to 80 million. During this growth period they had, “very few Bibles (at times they shared only one page to a house church and then swapped that page with another house group). They had no professional clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew like mad.”[25]

How did this happen? Shortly before Tse-tung’s takeover, a Chinese Communist official was having a conversation with missionary John Meadows. The official declared that in the 100 years they had been there, the Christians had not won China over to the Christian cause as a nation. The Communists on the other hand, had done in 10 years what the Christians could not do in 100. He then pointed out the ineffectiveness of the countless schools and orphanages the Christians had created versus the power of the printed message of Communism that quickly spread throughout the country and influenced people’s minds. Years later when analyzing the situation, one Christian leader agreed saying, “If the Church had spent as much time on preaching the Gospel as it did on hospitals, orphanages, schools and rest homes—needful though they were—the Bamboo Curtain would never have existed.”[26]

These two accounts of the same situation show that between a lukewarm gospel with over-reliance on compassion for the needy versus a organic, on-fire indigenous gospel with very little support from the outside, the latter was much more effective in reaching lost souls with the gospel. While a bit of a generalization, it’s fair to say that much of the early evangelism of China probably leaned too far towards spreading Christian good will and Western ideals than spreading the gospel of freedom from sin and dedicated discipleship. This is not the only example of such occurrences.

Throughout Christendom it has sometimes been easier and less offensive to diminish the offense of the gospel and lift up the earthly church’s humanitarian efforts. Many will cite such fallacies as justification for the church to be strictly about the spreading of the word though evangelism and discipleship and not getting bogged down with such earthly humanitarian outreaches that hold no eternal consequence. This is understandable, but an incorrect conclusion.

Balancing Evangelism with Compassion for the Poor

“Properly understood, biblical evangelism ought to be both proclamation in word and proclamation through action, that is, actions that are intentional demonstrations of God’s kingdom in this world.”[27] Hopefully as this paper has progressed, the reader has found that when biblical evangelism and compassion for the poor are carried out properly, the dividing lines between the two become somewhat blurred. What then of priority? Does one need to come before the other? There are sayings that float around the Western church that go something like this, “A hungry soul will not hear you unless your first attend to his hungry stomach”, or something along those lines. There is some wisdom in this saying, but it is not scriptural. Yohannan says, “A man’s stomach has nothing to do with his heart condition of being a rebel against a holy God.”[28]

Instead of seeing evangelism and compassion for the poor as separate entities, Wright suggests that they be viewed as “divine interventions in a circle of all the needs that God intends to ultimately address in a person’s life.”[29] The context of the need determines where one enters the circle, and the focus on ‘ultimacy’ reminds us that the gospel addresses the whole range of human needs,[30] so regardless of where one starts, God has holistic salvation in view. A proper evangelistic message will lead to a spiritual transformation into the body of Christ that will now meet the person’s physical needs. A proper compassion outreach should uplift the mercy and justice of Christ, leading to a spiritual transformation unto salvation.

Some have used the passage where Jesus was anointed with costly ointment as justification for minimizing the importance of caring for the poor. When expensive ointment was exhausted entirely on Jesus, the disciples asked why the ointment was not instead sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus replies that the poor “you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”[31] One might conclude that if Jesus predicts the poor will never go away, what is the point in caring for them? This line of reasoning is contrary to the theme of Jesus’ ministry. “No single statement or obscure passage of one book can be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages.”[32] It is because we will always have the poor that we are specifically told to care for them. Jesus is actually upholding an established practice, “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”[33]

The ongoing presence of the poor does not give reason to ignore them; the opposite it true. It “provides the ongoing opportunity and stimulus to help them.”[34] This call is applicable to the body of Christ today as demonstrated in the opening New Testament scriptures above. There are misplaced priorities in this story, mainly those of the disciples. The alabaster ointment today cannot and should not be made to represent financially unbalanced multi-million dollar church buildings, programs and salaries (which actually can increase financial and moral poverty in the body and surrounding community), the ointment represents radical devotion and sacrificial love to Jesus. Today Christians show sacrificial love to Jesus by using all their resources for the work of the kingdom, which includes serving the poor.[35]

The disciples were not wrong to be concerned for the poor, but had they been in tune with the Master’s warning of his upcoming passion they would have perhaps understood better the unique situation they found themselves in. Part of maintaining balance between the proclamation of the gospel and devotion to the poor is listening for what God is saying and what he wants to do in each unique situation. Proclaiming the gospel, mercy (relief), and justice (development) to the poor/marginalized can never become a passive relationship in the same way our mutual relationship to God through Christ was never intended to be passive.

Even when a church agrees that proclamation of the gospel must go hand in hand with a compassion for the poor that upholds both mercy and justice, there can be questions about how the implementation of such a thing should take shape. Other than certain qualifications for the care for widows in 1st Timothy, scripture does not give strict guidelines. This is because every situation is unique, and in the same way Jesus under the anointing of the Holy Spirit did not always do ministry the same, the church today is under the law of liberty.[36] Sider reminds us that there is a large gap between Biblical revealed principles and their modern application. He goes as far as to say, “The application of biblical norms to socioeconomic questions today leaves room for creativity and honest disagreement among biblical Christians.”[37] What the church must strive to agree upon are the radical, Biblical principles driving evangelism and compassion for the poor.

A church must first look to its immediate community. Roberts challenges us to ask the question, “If community transformation became the measure of our success, how would our churches and our communities look different?”[38] While there are times when relief will be needed, i.e. a natural disaster has ravished a neighborhood; most churches will find themselves in a position to promote development. Applying relief in situation when development is needed is one of the biggest mistakes made today, whether at home or abroad. “Development is not done to people or for people but with people.”[39] As stated earlier, ministry that has lasting effects cannot be done outside of genuinely doing for others as we would have them do unto us.


All evangelism and outreach starts with surveying what God has placed before us and being “moved with compassion”[40] as Jesus was as he surveyed the lost sheep before him. It was in this context that he both preached the gospel in their synagogues and healed the sick and diseased.[41] The verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. Mercy and justice for the poor and marginalized should always accompany this good news.

[1]. Luke 4:18-21.

[2]. Luke 7:22 (ESV).

[3]. Dario Rodriguez The Liberating Message of Jesus: The Message of the Gospel of Luke (Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publication , 2012), 31.

[4]. Mark 1:15 (ESV).

[5]. Luke 13:10-17 (ESV).

[6]. Stephen Wright. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (London: SPCK ;, 2005), 468.

[7]. John 13:29 (ESV).

[8]. Galatians 2:9-10 (ESV).

[9]. James 2:5 (ESV).

[10]. Luke 6:30-30 (ESV).

[11]. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2005), 124.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Matthew 25:35-36 (ESV).

[14]. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

[15]. Robert D. Lupton Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It (HarperCollins, 2011), 35, Kindle

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid, 42.

[18]. Ibid.

[19]. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody Publishers, 2009), 100, Kindle.

[20]. Corbett, 63.

[21]. Ibid, 53.

[22]. Ibid, 61.

[23]. Lupton, 14.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Baker Publishing Group, 2006), 20, Kindle.

[26]. K. P. Yohannan Revolution in World Missions (Carrollton, TX: GFA Books, 2004), 117.

[27]. Chip M. Anderson Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church’s Task of Evangelism / A journey in the Gospel of Mark (Resource Publications, 2013), 225, Kindle.

[28]. Yohannan, 113.

[29]. Johan Mostert Pentecostal Mission and Global Christianity Edited by Veli-Matti Ka?rkka?inen (Oxford, UK: Regnum Books International, 2014), 179.

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Matthew 26:11, ESV.

[32]. Milton Terry Biblical Hermeneutics : a Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Eaton & Mains, NY, 1890), 10929, Kindle.

[33]. Deuteronomy 15:11 (NASB)

[34]. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, vol. 33B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 759.

[35]. Craig S. Keener, Matthew, vol. 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Mt 26:6.

[36]. James 1:25 (NASB).

[37]. Ron Sider Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Thomas Nelson) 222, Kindle.

[38]. Bob Roberts Jr. Transformation: Discipleship that Turns Lives, Churches, and the World

Upside Down (Zondervan, 2006), 24, Kindle.

[39]. Corbett, 100.

[40]. Matthew 9:36 (NKJV).

[41]. Matthew 9:35.