Have you ever lost sleep worrying about a matter of principle? On Thursday, August 6, 2009, I experienced such a sleepless night. That afternoon, at the General Council meeting in Orlando, Florida, delegates debated a resolution to amend our Constitution and make compassion the Assemblies of God’s fourth reason for being. (The first three are evangelism, worship, and discipleship.) After debate, the delegates voted, and the resolution lost.
That night I could not sleep. Here we are, a compassionate Movement telling the world we are not compassionate, I thought. This does not add up. This does not make sense.
I determined in the early morning hours of Friday, August 7, that I was going to yield the chair during the next business session, go to the floor, and appeal to the delegates to reconsider Thursday’s action and adopt the resolution. One of the most satisfying moments in my life came when the delegates did just that.
Some feared that adding compassion as a reason for being would dilute our Fellowship’s historic resolve to do “the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen.” Others worried that adding compassion would lead us down the slippery slope to the “Social Gospel” our fathers and mothers in the faith explicitly rejected. These are understandable concerns. I do not want to be part of any Christian movement that discounts evangelism or disregards orthodoxy in favor of mere social or political action. But I do not fear that adding compassion to our reasons for being will do either. Instead, I worry that discounting or disregarding compassion will result in a less-than-biblical form of ministry. Compassion played a crucial role in the ministries of Christ and the New Testament church. Should it not play a crucial role in our ministries as well?
Humanity’s Three Needs
What needs did Jesus’ proclamation and performance of the Kingdom meet in the lives of His hearers? Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6 speak of proclamation:
- “to the poor”
- of “freedom for prisoners”
- of “recovery of sight for the blind”
- “to set free the oppressed”
- and “of the year of the Lord’s favor”
These five items speak to the spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic needs of humanity. When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, He proclaimed it to the whole person. The gospel touches every aspect of a person’s existence.
Jesus commanded His disciples: “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:35,36, emphasis added). Jesus linked financial generosity toward those in need, enemies — the ultimate “outsiders,” with God’s kindness and mercy. These passages question the notion that we should minister compassionately only toward “insiders.” Instead, they exemplify what Paul said in Galatians 6:10: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
Just as Jesus proclaimed and performed the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit, so too the New Testament church proclaimed the King and performed “signs and wonders” and good works in the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as He ministered to humanity’s spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic need, so did they. And so should we.
A Compassionate Church
The Assemblies of God practices compassion for several pragmatic reasons. It opens doors into the community for evangelism and discipleship, both nationally and internationally. In the late 80s and early 90s, my cousin, David Plymire, and I returned to the area of northwest China where our parents had been missionaries. We raised money to outfit a regional hospital with up-to-date medical equipment, and we included the local pastors in our presentation of the gifts. These gifts resulted in the government treating the churches favorably and also refuted the longtime Communist lie that Christians do not care about the physical and material needs of people. Today, Assemblies of God missionaries serve in approximately 80 countries as leaders of compassion ministries. Those compassion ministries open doors for the gospel in countries that do not allow traditional evangelistic ministries.
But there is a principled reason, too. We practice compassion because a compassionate Christ demands a compassionate church. Evangelism has a priority to it that healing and help for the poor do not. We do no favors to people if we fill their bellies but don’t save their souls. But we never have to choose between evangelism and healing or evangelism and compassion. The Spirit of Jesus Christ empowers us to do them all. That kind of empowered ministry — for evangelism, worship, discipleship, and compassion — is our reason for being.