Does an intentional and deliberate concern for the needy distract from the work of the gospel?
It can of course. But does it have to? Should we look on any church leader with a particular burden for the poor suspiciously? In a series of posts, I want to look to the great leaders of the past and see if this is necessarily so. We will start with Charles Spurgeon. I doubt any would deny his great commitment to the proclamation of the gospel first and foremost. No one certainly could charge him with having a worldly agenda for the church. But it is interesting to at least notice his commitment to mercy ministry. As he himself once said, “I, as one of God’s ministers, will never cease to speak on behalf of the rights of the poor.”
He laid great stress on the Christian’s responsibility to think about the good of those who are in need.
He writes, “To think about the poor and let them lie on our hearts is a Christian man’s duty . . . Many give their money to the poor in a hurry, without thought; and many more give nothing at all.”
Speaking of Psalm 41:1, he says, “This precious promise belongs to those who “consider” the poor, look into their case, devise plans for their benefit, and considerately carry them out. We can do more by care than by cash, and most with two together. To those who consider the poor, the LORD promises His own consideration in times of distress. He will bring us out of trouble if we help others when they are in trouble. We shall receive very singular providential help if the LORD sees that we try to provide for others. We shall have a time of trouble, however generous we may be; but if we are charitable, we may put in a claim for peculiar deliverance, and the LORD will not deny His own word and bond. Miserly curmudgeons may help themselves, but considerate and generous believers the LORD will help. As you have done unto others, so will the LORD do unto you. Empty your pockets.”
When preaching on the Sermon on the Mount he charged his congregation, “No merciful man could forget the poor. He who passed by their ills without sympathy and saw their suffering without relieving them,might prate as he would about inward Grace, but Divine Grace in his heart there could not be! The Lord does not acknowledge as of His family one who can see his brother has needs and shuts up “his heart of compassion from him.” The Apostle John rightly asks, “How dwells the love of God in him?” No, the truly merciful are considerate of those who are poor. They think of them. Their own comforts make them think of them. At other times, their own discomforts will. When they are sick and they are surrounded with many alleviations, they wonder how those fare who are sick and in poverty. When the cold is keen about them and their garments are warm, they think with pity of those who shiver in the same cold, but are scantily covered with rags. Their sufferings and their joys alike help them to consider the poor. And they consider them practically. They do not merely say that they sympathize and hope others will help, but they give of their substance according to their ability, joyfully and cheerfully, that the poor may not lack—and in dealing with them, they are not harsh. They will remit, as far as they can justly do so, anything they may have demanded of them and will not persecute them to the utmost extremity, and pinch and cheat them, as those do who seek to skin a flint and to obtain the last morsel and the uttermost farthing from the poorest of the poor. No, where God has given a man a new heart and a right spirit, there is great tenderness to all the poor—and especially great love to the poor saints—for, while every saint is an image of Christ, the poor saint is a picture of Christ set in the same frame in which Christ’s picture must always be set—the frame of humble poverty. I see in a rich saint much that is like his Master, but I do not see how he could truthfully say, “I have not where to lay my head.” Nor do I wish him to say it. But when I see poverty, as well as everything else that is like Christ, I think I am bound to feel my heart specially going forth there. This is how we can still wash Christ’s feet by caring for the poorest of His people. This is how honorable women can still minister to Him of their substance. This is how we can still make a great feast to which we may invite Him, when we call together the poor, the lame, the halt and the blind who cannot recompense us—and we are content to do it for Jesus Christ’s sake. It is said of Chrysostom that he so continually preached the Doctrine of almsgiving in the Christian Church that they called him the Preacher of Alms—and I think it was not a bad title for a man to wear.”
He also spoke of the church’s responsibility to care for the needs of others,
“Churches are not made that men of ready speech may stand up on Sundays and talk, and so win daily bread from their admirers. No, there is another end and aim for this. These places of worship are not built that you may sit comfortably and hear something that shall make you pass away your Sundays with pleasure. A church which does not exist to do good in the slums, and dens, and kennels of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existing. A church that does not exist to reclaim heathenism, to fight with evil, to destroy error, to put down falsehood, a church that does not exist to take the side of the poor, to denounce injustice and to hold up righteousness, is a church that has no right to be. Not for yourself, O church, do you exist, any more than Christ existed for Himself. His glory was that He laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside he respectability and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts, and her highest honor to seek amid the foulest mire the priceless jewels for which Jesus shed His blood. To rescue souls from hell and lead to God, to hope, to heaven, this is her heavenly occupation. O that the church would always feel this!”
Spurgeon did not only speak about this issue, he also acted.
One of his biographers, W.Y Fullerton, in a chapter entitled Spurgeon’s Orphanage writes,
“For many years the church which now has its home in the tabernacle maintained almshouses. In previous chapters it has been noted how Mr. Spurgeon devoted large sums of money to their enlargement. But at one of the Monday evening prayer meetings, which in his day were phenomenal, he said, “We are a large church, and should be doing more for the Lord in this great city. I want us to ask Him to send us some new work; and if we need money to carry it on, let us pray that the means may also be sent.” So the Stockwell Orphanage was really born in a prayer meeting.”
George Grant explains that Spurgeon did not compartmentalize his Christianity, but instead saw works of mercy as connected to his faith in Christ and love for the gospel.
“Both Rippon and Spurgeon looked upon their work of sheltering the homeless as part and parcel of the rest of their ministry. It was inseparable from their other labors, preaching, writing, praying and evangelizing. It was inseparable in fact from their faith in Christ. Once a doubter accosted Spurgeon on a London thoroughfare and challenged the authenticity of his faith. Spurgeon answered the man by pointing out the failure of the secularists in mounting a practical and consistent program to help the needy thousands in the city. In contrast, he pointed out the multitudinous works of compassion that had sprung from faith in Christ: Whitefield’s mission, Mueller’s orphanage, Bernardo’s shelter. He then closed the conversation by paraphrasing the victorious cry of Elijah, boisterously asserting, “The God who answereth by orphanages, let him be God.”
Another of his biographers points to the expansive nature of Spurgeon’s efforts on behalf of the needy when he writes,
“A volume could be written on each social ministry Spurgeon inaugurated through the pastorates of the New Park Street Church and the Metropolitan Tabernacle…He will always be known as a great preacher, but he was a Christian philanthropist of the first order as well.”
Spurgeon did not simply write off godly pastors who were devoted to this work as compromising the ministry. The opposite. Consider the way he responded when he met George Muller as an example,
“The first time Spurgeon met Muller in November 1854, he was so awed, he said, ‘I could not speak a word for the life of me.’ He spoke of him as ‘that heavenly man.’ Charles once visited Muller’s orphanage and said, ‘I never heard such a sermon in my life as I saw there.’ Charles went on to say, ‘I think sometimes, that I would not mind changing places with George Muller for Time and Eternity, but I do not know of anybody else of whom I would say so much.'”
Dr. Pearson Johnson looks at the way in which Spurgeon pursued these kinds of ministries and demonstrates how he was able to help the church keep its focus on the gospel while demonstrating its love for Christ by its care for those in need.
“First, it is necessary to note the foundation of Spurgeon’s leadership in these areas. As Drummond notes, ‘It must be understood that Spurgeon’s approach to social problems essentially expressed itself as a personal one-to-one endeavor. . . he still believed that seeing an individual come to faith in Christ and become a converted person still presented the best and basic means of revolutionizing society [quipping] no social plans will make our earth a paradise while sin still curses it, and Satan is abroad. ‘ Thus, it was Spurgeon’s philosophy that the problems of the people in their community were best met by individuals in the church touching other individual’s lives and particularly in the leading of those people to Jesus Christ as Savior…
Second, the simple fact of the chosen location of the new Metropolitan Tabernacle tells us a great deal about Spurgeon’s concern for the community. The church purchased property near the Elephant and Castle, “a very busy pub, right in the heart of the working class district of London’s south side.” Because of this “He was considered ‘vulgar’ by the sophisticates of the day.” Spurgeon knew there was an recognized and definable class system in London. However, he also wanted the church to be a place where classes were not eliminated, but between which barriers were removed so they could worship together, and that they did.
Third, Spurgeon, viewing the societal ills brought on by industrialization and urbanization, provided educational opportunities for the needy. As part of the Pastor’s school, classes were taught in the evenings of a primary nature for those that were uneducated free of charge. About 200 attended each evening.
Fourth, through his leadership, he began some other humanitarian works as well. A women’s almshouse, started by the former pastor Rippon, was continued by Spurgeon. It was rebuilt to consist of 17 small houses connected in a row. Living and necessities were provided for these elderly women. A school was later constructed adjoining the almshouse which could accommodate 400 students. This almshouse was known as the “Old Ladies’ Home,” which would certainly raise an eyebrow today! The ladies were to be members of the Tabernacle, over sixty, and unable to care for themselves.
Fifth, the Stockwell orphanage was constructed in 1866 to meet the needs of the area in which it was built, with hundreds of orphans and street urchins. The original endowment was made by the widow of an Anglican Clergyman who, after her husband’s death, had joined the Tabernacle. She gave the sum of 20,000 pounds for its construction and outfit. Spurgeon purposed to maintain the orphanage by faith, inspired by the example of George Muller of Bristol, rather than by fundraising. It consisted of a row of houses, each keeping fourteen boys with a matron, “providing discipline, education, Christian instruction, sports and individuality.” Ten years later, an equal building for girls was constructed to form a quadrangle.
During the ministry a host of other ministries would be established as opportunities for individuals to get involved in ministry: the Ordinance Poor Fund, which centered on ministering to members of the Metropolitan Tabernacle was developed. The Ladies Benevolent Society and Maternal Society made clothes for the poor in the community. The Blind Mission held a Sunday school class for blind people and an afternoon tea outreach on Sundays. Lord Shaftesbury summed up the impact of Spurgeon’s social outreach: “Few men have preached so much and so well, and few men have combined so practically their words by their actions.”