As we wrestle with holism, let us avoid the unhelpful generalizations which posit that those who are engaged in compassionate ministries do not proclaim, that those who evangelize do not touch with compassion, and that compassion or evangelism are best done through programs rather than interpersonal reach. Arguing against straw men generates heat but not much light.
The body is important, vitally so. There is no biblical support for a Gnostic dualism that devalues the body, temporal or resurrected. It’s just that the soul is more important. Temporally, the consequences of losing a part of your body are much less severe than losing a part of your soul. Temporally, the body can only inevitably wear out while the soul can eternally be ever young and grow from glory to glory. Ministry to the physical body is “necessary but not sufficient.” If as we feed, clothe, soothe, educate and medicate without proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior, we have hated not loved.
Biblical holism values and cares for the needs of the temporal body while retaining a priority on the eternal soul.
There is therefore an undeniable priority on preaching, verbal evangelism and conversion of the soul in biblical holism. Faith still comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). The prioritization of proclamation in life and mission need not and should not diminish ordinate attention to physical needs. Prioritizing verbal proclamation is no insult to compassionate touching, in the same way that prioritizing loving God in no way diminishes love for my wife and children.
A hypothesizing of a primacy or priority of proclamation in biblical holism is based on the recorded action of biblical figures. What the Bible relates about how Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, John and Stephen actually ministered is indicative of what the Spirit thinks is important.
Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:18-19 when He begins His ministry. Sometimes this reference is used to propose that social action is equal to (or can replace) verbal proclamation. This is impossible on three fronts. First, the preponderance of proclamation verbs in the reference (preach, proclaim) gives a focus on proclamation, and the other verbs (heal, set free) were most often accomplished supernaturally and spiritually in the life of Jesus. Second, Jesus gives multiple clear pronouncements on why He came, and taken in the collective, there is a decided emphasis on verbal proclamation and the soul. Thirdly, Jesus’ life and ministry clearly prioritized verbal proclamation.
Jesus left no doubt why He came. His own testimony reveals His priority on the proclamation and the soul.
And Jesus was undeniably holistic, demonstrated by His healing of physical and emotional brokenness. In order to start on clear biblical ground, here are the Gospel references in which Jesus gives reasons for why He came: Matthew 10:35; Mark 1:38; 2:17; John 6:38; 8:42; 9:39; 10:10; 12:46; 15:22; 17:13; 18:37. Taken together a clear priority on the soul and verbal proclamation emerges.
There is one clear distinction between Jesus and any before or after Him. Jesus was the Living Word whose primary destiny was to die as atonement for sin and to break death’s power by His resurrection from the dead. One could make an argument that Jesus’ one redemptive act outweighs all His spoken words, that all Jesus’ words were empty without the cross and that the cross would have been efficacious even without all of His words. While this is obviously an unnecessary and hypothetical proposition even for Jesus, it cannot be true or considered for anyone else. Our deaths cannot atone for sin. We have no inherent resurrection power. We are not Christ. There is one Christ and His work on the cross is done. Our work is to proclaim what Christ has accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection. Because humans attribute their own meanings to the actions of others, the clearest way we can communicate a truth is through verbal or written communication.
Interesting to note is that what remains of the prophetic contribution to holism is their spoken/recorded verbal proclamation. The holism of the prophets is generally implied, not exemplified. We have little to no record of Isaiah’s, Hosea’s or the other prophets’ social or compassionate action outside of their exhortation of others to the same. We correctly assume that they had the integrity to live consistent with their own exhortations: justice, orphan care, provision for widows and kindness to the captive. The prophets were primarily oracles, speaking the Word of the Lord. To build a case for compassionate ministry being valid in and of itself outside of verbal proclamation from the prophets relies somewhat ironically on the prophetic word – not the prophetic deed. Did the prophets compassionately touch the poor? Undoubtedly! Was it their priority? Absolutely not! The priority of every biblical prophet was speaking the Word of God.
John the Baptist
Jesus declared that John the Baptist was the greatest human ever (Matt. 11:11). No one born of women was greater than John the Baptist. This is the same John who never dug a well, never held an orphan, never built a school, and never fed a widow – not at as far as we know. What do we know about John the Baptist? He considered himself a voice (John 1:23); he preached repentance (Luke 3:3); and he offended a ton of people. He even lost his head as a result of his words (Matt. 14:3, 10). John, the best witness ever, was a proclaimer. Certainly John loved on people; he had disciples after all. But the priority of his life was to open his mouth and preach repentance.
Paul’s priority was to preach the gospel. Paul saw his appointment as being commissioned to proclaim (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Paul stated in passionate fire-in-his-bones fashion, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16), and even gave the strategic “where” to his fiery passion when he declared: “I have made it my aim to preach the gospel not where Christ was named” (Rom. 15:20). Paul told the Corinthians that he came to them “with the gospel”and the aim to “preach the gospel in the regions beyond”(2 Cor. 10:14-16). Paul obviously was eager to care for the poor (Gal. 2:10) but his undeniable priority was the verbal proclamation of the gospel. It was what he rejoiced in (Phil. 1:18) and the primacy of the eternal soul.
Peter and John
The first eight chapters of Acts give us a concise overview of the effect of the baptism of the Holy Spirit on the early apostles. Consistent with the breadth of Scripture, the baptism of the Holy Spirit always affects the tongue. The same group filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:4, speaking in tongues, are assembled in Acts 4:31 and refilled with the Spirit, speaking the Word of God with boldness.
Peter and John do not give a handout; they pray out a healing in Jesus’ name and the healing leads to extended public proclamation (Acts 3:11-26). In Acts 4:19, Peter and John protest: “We can but speak the things we have seen and heard.” Miraculous signs and healings were common (Acts 5:12-16) and the priority of the apostles’ ministry (soul over body, proclamation over service) is then clearly spelled out in Acts 6:2-4. In this passage we again see the clear biblical priority. Meeting physical needs is important. Men full of the Spirit were appointed to wait on tables (Acts 6:3), but more important were prayer and the preaching of the Word. There was an undeniable priority for the apostles.
What is often overlooked is how Stephen fulfilled his service role. What do we know about Stephen’s holism? How many widows did he serve? What kind of programs did he run? The Bible is surprisingly silent on the logistical details of Stephen’s social ministry – and equally and surprisingly verbose on Stephen’s priority of proclamation (Acts 6:8-14). If Stephen is the model for holism, then you have no hole. For while we know little of his compassionate work (which he surely did and was incredibly important), we have 52 verses of his sermon (Acts 7:2-53) and the testimony of his detractors regarding his constant proclamation.
A priority on proclamation is not just for apostles. It is also for the layman, the everyday believer, the volunteer at the soup kitchen, the staff at the orphanage, the engineer digging wells and the dedicated rescuer of the trafficked.
I sincerely advocate the importance and the necessity of touching the lost with the love of Jesus. My wife and I have started centers for women, humanitarian organizations for refugees, schools with feeding programs for children, and adult education centers for the illiterate. We have dug wells and built bio-filters and encourage others to do the same. But we believe completely that followers of Jesus should minister in word, sign and deed to body, soul and spirit. AND we believe there is biblical priority on proclamation and the saving of the soul.
Whenever we have physically loved the lost (through compassionate acts), we have been embraced and lauded. Mohammed is reported to have said: “The worthiest acts are water for the thirsty and knowledge for the ignorant.” Muslims love me when I help their bodies; they hate me when I help their souls. Often when we have spiritually loved the lost (by calling them to repentance), we have been vilified, rejected and expelled. Let us not minister to the body and neglect the soul because that is how the world accepts us. Let us be careful that we do not cease proclaiming because of what it costs us. Let us with Stephen never cease to speak even as we wait on tables.
Further let us be careful that we do not take up institutional compassion because we are bereft of spiritual power. The biblical blueprint for ministry to the sick is divine healing. Every follower of Jesus can pray for the sick. Jesus was not a medical doctor, nor was Peter, John or Stephen. Their ministry to the sick was to pray for divine healing. By all means, let us start clinics, dispense medicine and bind up wounds. But let us never stop standing in faith, praying with risk, that God would demonstrate His love and power through the miraculous. Let us with Stephen be used by God in divine healings, signs and wonders.
For a Muslim to come to Jesus, it often takes an interworking of three encounters: Love, truth and power. A love encounter is a physical act; it is life on life and loving compassion that meets a legitimate need in the body or emotions. A truth encounter is a verbal presentation of the gospel, some precept of the Bible and a call to repentance. A power encounter is some supernatural intervention, a miracle, healing or some obvious answer to prayer.
Let us be truly biblically holistic. Let our lives and ministries constantly include acts of truth, love and power. If we lack any one of these three, there is a hole in our holism. Let us with Stephen be full of the Holy Spirit and prioritize proclaiming the gospel verbally as we seek to save eternal souls.
PHOTO CREDIT: Soraya gets a check up at the local medical health clinic via photopin (license)