Reflecting the dynamic ministry of a life spent teaching and serving
By Lowell C. Cooper
“Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”1
Where does the healing ministry fit in the mission of the church? Should the effectiveness of disaster relief and community development activities be measured in water wells and meals, or in baptisms? In light of the gospel commission, should everything we do be evaluated in terms of quantifiable church growth?
Questions like these often arise in the context of defining mission priorities and getting the maximum effect from limited resources. The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates 171 hospitals and sanitariums along with 429 clinics and dispensaries. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) implements humanitarian projects in more than 100 countries.
Seventh-day Adventists are familiar with the expressions “entering wedge” and “right arm” of the message. These terms often have been used to describe the function and relationship that ministry of the hand (helping, healing, and training) holds with ministry of the Word (preaching, teaching, baptizing, and discipling). Thus health care and other service-based programs are seen as instrumental or secondary to the main work of the church—that of proclaiming the gospel and preparing people for the soon coming of Jesus Christ.
These terms can create a caricature that robs Christian witness of wholeness, especially if they result in ranking the value and priority of different forms of ministry. The language of priority quickly tends to imply that all else is secondary at best. A different picture is seen when the ministry of the hand and the ministry of the Word both originate as a ministry of the heart. It was so in the life of Jesus. It was so in the prophetic themes of the Old Testament.
The prophet Jeremiah contrasts the ungodly and wicked king Jehoahaz with his illustrious father, Josiah. Of Josiah he writes: “‘Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.”2 Knowledge of God is here inseparable from serving the needs of individuals.
The overwhelming picture that emerges from the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus was deeply interested in every aspect of human life. His ministry embraced and addressed all of human experience: thoughts, relationships, disease, poverty, rejection, abuse received or rendered, worship, motives, lawsuits, property, hopes, fears, and failures. Whatever else can be said about his role in history and in salvation, He valued the least, the lost, and the lowest.
The contrast between Jesus and the crowd, between Jesus and His disciples, is highlighted in the story about the healing of blind Bartimaeus. This is the second to last healing miracle recorded in the Gospels. It occurs when Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. His ministry is coming to a climax. All the strands of His teaching, the great focus of prophecy, are about to be revealed. Big things are at stake. Yet the Master stops for a roadside ministry that would really make no difference to the great end He had in view.
The crowds that followed Jesus, even His disciples, had built a wall of distinction between religion and relief. Many of the burning issues of the day were theological: Who is the Christ? Have you kept the Sabbath? How did you calculate your tithe? And the crying need of humanity was relegated to the periphery of life.
Jesus shows that theology and service belong together. Any attempt to segregate the two diminishes both. Jesus’ response to the cry of Bartimaeus shows that poverty, suffering, unemployment, sickness, and hunger are also religious questions, for all human need is His business and all are created in His image.
The gospel commission recorded in Matthew 28 is widely regarded as the foundation for our mission in this world. Jesus’ teaching regarding service (see Matt. 25:31-46) enlarges the framework from which Christians are to view their service to God. Jesus makes it clear that service to those in need is service to Him.
Ellen White provided much in the way of vision for Seventh-day Adventist Church engagement in health education, healing, and practical service. She pointed to Jesus as the model to follow. “Christ stands before us as the pattern Man, the great Medical Missionary—an example for all who should come after. His love, pure and holy, blessed all who came within the sphere of its influence…. What, then, is the example that we are to set to the world? We are to do the same work that the great Medical Missionary undertook in our behalf.”3
Seventh-day Adventists are engaged in health education and health care, in disaster relief and development, because these activities reflect the ministry of Jesus. He wanted people to experience the fullness of God’s will for them. He ministered to them at the point of their pressing need. His interest in them encompassed their physical and spiritual needs, yet He did not heal them as a pretext for gaining their discipleship.
Ministry to others, whatever that specific ministry may be, can be used by God to awaken new hungers in the soul. The gospel message must be seen in its wholeness. Every aspect of life is addressed. Every ministry that adds quality and depth to life finds its place within the will and purposes of God. No ministry should be judged infer- ior or incomplete simply because it does not yield visible commitment to God and His work on the earth. Inordinate attention to measures of success (that is, baptisms) can lead to a preoccupation with short-term goals and the “success” of programming rather than the quality of service in the name of Jesus.
“Disinterested” service is ministry that seeks to address a person’s present needs without requiring that service to be a disguise for another agenda. Serving the world in the name of Jesus involves a multifaceted array of ministries. One form of ministry may touch a certain facet of life while another form of ministry addresses a wholly different aspect.
Each ministry has its part. Each should be evaluated by the degree it represents a true reflection of the heart of Jesus. Evangelism alone cannot release us from obedience to the Bible’s teaching about our social responsibility in the world. Social service alone cannot carry the weight of our obligation to evangelize. The gospel is for the whole person. Ultimately, it takes the whole church to give the whole gospel to the whole world.
Those who perform healing ministry and those who work in community development have enormous opportunities to serve in the name of Jesus, and thus set people on pathways to a better life—even pathways that lead to discipleship. The ministry itself is a necessary part of Christian service in this world. The measure of its effectiveness must be viewed from multiple perspectives.
3 Ellen G. White, Loma Linda Messages (1981), p. 61.
Lowell C. Cooper is a general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Among his other responsibilities he serves as board chair for Loma Linda University Medical Center and for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.