Being Missionaries in Both Word and Deed

Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).[1] James, the half-brother of the Lord wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jam. 1:22). In Scripture, gospel proclamation and gospel living are inextricably linked. The early church greatly exemplified this in their desire to not only address the spiritual needs of those they ministered too, but also their physical needs. Though caring for the physical needs of those they ministered to was a missionary strategy it is hard to simply categorize it as that, as many early missionaries saw this as simply an extension of Christian living (love your neighbor, count others as more significant, etc.).

This care for the needy can be seen in early Christian writings like the Didache. At the first century, the author of the Didache repeated the scriptural teachings that people are faced with two options: they can choose the way of life or way of death. The Christians who choose the way of life must first love God, and then his neighbor as themselves. In practice, if one had material possessions, they would freely give to those who are in need: “Give to anyone that asks, without looking for any repayment, for it is the Father’s pleasure that we should share his gracious bounty with all men.”[2] The Christians care for the poor, needy, and marginalized did not go unnoticed. Many were aware not only of the Christian message that was being preached, but of the Christian ethic that was being displayed. Emperor Julian in the fourth century comments on this Christian ethic when he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) not only care for their poor, but ours as well.”[3] What is most important to understand regarding this missional strategy is that the deeds were never divorced from the word.  Nowhere else is this better seen than in the life of Basil of Caesarea. Basil greatly believed in caring for the poor and the needy. He established inner city mission work to provide compassionate care to the down trodden, but all of this was another outlet by which the spiritual needs of these individuals could be met through the preached word. Writing on Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus states, “Basil provided the nourishment of the Word…whereby souls hungry for God are fed and given to drink.[4]

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A word and deed missionary strategy is still vital for today’s mission work. Missionaries should first and foremost prioritize the spiritual needs of their mission field through the proclamation of the Word of God, “for faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Missionaries however should seek to be holistic in their approach though. Our Savior revealed his heart for the lost with compassion (Matt. 9:36). When he saw that they were hungry he provided them with bread and fish (Matt. 14:13-21). As Christians we are called to reveal Christ through word and deed, likewise it is this same approach that will serve to advance the missio dei. Missionaries who are both gospel speakers and gospel servants.

I think that Acts 6 can provide an understanding of how  the two fit together. The ministry of the word (the Twelve) was being hampered because physical needs (Hellenistic Widows) were not being met. When physical needs were present and not being cared for, those needs became the focus rather than the word. The Apostles had the people select deacons to serve them, so that while they continued to primarily focus on the spiritual needs, the physical needs were not being neglected . Acts 6 shows us that both word and deed ministry are necessary for the holistic (spiritual and physical) support of the individual.

[1] All Bible verse are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Didache, 1.1, 5.

[3] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and reflection, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 128.

[4] Smither, 139.

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