Word Ministry and Deed Ministry (1 of 3)



About a year ago, a group of us at 9Marks decided to meet together semi-regularly to discuss that thorny bramble of a topic—the mission of the church. It’s a tough topic because it involves you in all sorts of controversial theological questions: what is the gospel; what’s the relationship of the gospel and moral action like social justice and caring for the poor; what is the difference between the universal church and the institution of the local church; what’s the balance of continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church; how much of the “not yet” can we expect in the “already”; how should the church relate to the state; and more. Do you see what I mean? It’s a thorn bush!

Further, I’ve felt reluctant to address the issue publicly on the blog or in articles because my own understanding of how these issues fit together is still settling. But I want to try something I’m not really  good at, which is to express tentatively a few basic ideas even though my own thinking is still in process. I’m not saying this is normally how one should operate publicly because there are all sort of pastoral implications to throwing out half-baked ideas. Still, this is a blog, which seems like as an appropriate place as any to work out half-baked ideas. So in this post and the next two I want to throw a few things onto the wall and see if they stick. Or call it a test drive. You can help the conversation by offering any critiques. Here it goes…

To oversimplify a bit, I see two basic camps for understanding the relationship between Word ministry (preaching, evangelism, missions) and Deed ministry (loving neighbor, caring for poor, seeking justice, serving the church, etc.): the “word as primary” camp and the “two-wings of a bird” camp.

Camp 1: “Word as Primary”—EITHER/OR

The first camp, which is where I’ve always placed myself, says that ministries of the Word preaching, evangelism, and missions. It’s the Great Commission camp. God creates life through his Word, and that’s what we must do. The Word is primary, and everything else is secondary.

To people in camp 2 (below), the emphasis on Word ministry feels like an either/or, because as soon as you make everything else secondary, everything else gets pushed into the realm of unimportant. So general Christian obedience, caring for the poor, sacrificial love, and all that becomes unimportant, downplayed, and eventually forgotten.

Now, that’s a caricature, of course. I don’t know anyone who says obedience is unimportant. Still, as a matter of theological articulation or formulation, the framework risks falling into what Don Carson calls the “antithesis.” The theological formulation pits Word ministry against other necessary areas of obedience in the Christian life in a way the Bible does not. Check out the next post for texts which emphasize how integrated word and deed are for Christian witness.

Camp 2: “Two Wings of a Bird”—BOTH/AND

Observing the biblical texts which integrate word and deed in witness (see next post), a second camp emphasizes the fact that ministry and mission require both words and deeds. Both are necessary like the two wings of a bird are necessary.

The campers in this camp tend to use phrases like “incarnational ministry,” “holistic evangelism,” “proclaiming the whole gospel to the whole person,” or “doing justice and preaching grace.”

To people in camp 1, the equal emphasis given to word and deed fails to account for the unique power attributed to God’s Word in Scripture—“Faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17)—and the fact that the gospel is an announcement of what God has done, not a command for what we must do.

Furthermore, the “both/and” formulation, like the “two-wings” formulation, prevents us from seeing the different emphases Scripture might give to words and deed. The two wings of a bird do the same thing, and they are equally important. But what if Scripture treats them both as necessary, but one as “more necessary” or “more important” than the other? What if they receive different emphases because they are doing DIFFERENT KINDS of things? Is there room for acknowledging this?

In summary:

  • The problem with the “primacy camp”: falls into the antithesis and pits biblical commands against one another.
  • The problem with the “two wings” camp: it makes Word and deed equally important, like two wings of a bird. It smothers what both Word and deed distinctively contribute to ministry or mission.

Now, I tend to be a little suspicious of “third ways.” Still, let me give it a whirl, and credit Carson and Piper with the basic insights which inform the following synthesis:

A Synthesis: “Word as Central”—A BOTH/AND with DISTINCTIONS

What’s needed, I think, is a conception of the whole that allows for distinctions or different emphases to be made. We must recognize that words and deeds are both necessary for mission or missions, but that they play different roles and are necessary in different ways. The Word declares what God has done. The good deed provides evidence for it.

This doesn’t sound as neat and tidy as “either/or” or “both/and.” But remember, this is a complex subject, and striking the right balance may require a solution with more nuance. We don’t want an either/or, but nor do we want a both/and which smothers all distinctions and emphases. We want a both/and with differing emphases.

When we speak of the word being “central”—a term which I take from D. A. Carson—we acknowledge that the Word is of utmost importance; it’s the highest peak in the landscape. But the metaphor of “central” allow for there to be other features on the landscape. It connects the central thing with everything else.

Word ministry really is the most important. It’s the highest mountain. But that mountain is resting upon everything surrounding it. The Scripture makes it manifestly clear that our deeds should adorn our doctrine for the sake of witness.

So what do you think? Like I said, the cement is still wet here and I’m happy to be told to rethink all this. Before you answer, let me try explaining myself one more time, this time focusing on the question of what’s “necessary”…

Update: click here for part 2 of this series.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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