The State and the Current State of Lutheranism: Serving the Poor


The State and the Current State of Lutheranism: Serving the Poor

Rev. Ross Johnson, Director, Disaster Response, LCMS Office
of National Mission
Ross Johnson is editor of Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Relief (St. Louis: LCMS, 2015)

On January 29, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order establishing The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI).[1] Many non-government organizations (NGOs) including congregations, denominations, Social Service Organizations (SSOs), and LCMS Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs) were excited at the new partnership. Billions of dollars each year were possible in government contracts from the federal and state governments for case management and human care work. What was not known at the time were the details, stipulations and limitations that would come with these new opportunities. Would Christian organizations be able to continue to follow their Christian identity and share the Gospel message within a holistic human care? Would government contract social work projects have to be provided in a non-religious and non-evangelistic manner? What would happen if the values and laws of the U.S. government did not line up with the values of the faith-based organization? Would Christian organizations have to violate their sixth commandment conscience and place children with adoptive parents who are unmarried or identify as LGBT? More than ever before, government funding has had a strong influence on the implementation of faith-based charity work. This article gives the reader a brief understanding about popular views of helping the poor, the benefits and limitations of NGOs receiving government funding for human care, and the uniqueness of Lutheran congregational mercy work.

Social Gospel, Liberation Theology, Social Justice and Mercy Work: A Difference of Goals

In the early church, Christians called financial help for the poor and needy “love.” In fact, “charity” is a derivate of the Latin caritas. For centuries, Christian and congregational help for the poor was called “charity” (Christian love). Because language changes over time, new words have emerged to explain the church and secular society’s role of concern for the poor and needy. In some cases there is not only a terminology change but also a different emphasis from the historic view of congregational care for the needy. It is this author’s belief that the best term for Lutheran congregations to use is “Christian Charity” or “Mercy Work/Ministry.”[2] What follows is a brief overview of popular terms[3] used currently or in the past by religious and non-religious organizations that help the poor.[4]

Mercy Work: “Mercy Work,” as it is defined herein (Christian care for those in need—in body, mind, or spirit), flows directly from the mercy of God to us. The frequent apostolic blessing of “grace, mercy, and peace” should remind us of the import of the term. Mercy from us to others is always grounded in the mercy we have received. Mercy is an undeserved love and blessing which shows itself in love from God to humanity and in a Christian’s love toward neighbor (Ephesians 2:10). The focus of mercy work is on Christian compassion for the whole person, body and soul. Thus, the congregation’s mercy work:

  1. Cares for all people in their temporal needs throughout the world (1st article of the Creed).
  2. Cares for the spiritual redemption of all people (2nd article of the Creed).
  3. Cares for the soul and spiritual needs of all people (3rd article of the Creed).
  4. Works primarily through Christians in their vocations and through the corporate service of Christian congregations toward the needy.
  5. Flows from the congregation to help temporal needs; the community is invited into the church to meet their spiritual needs.
  6. Is based on a subscription to Holy Scripture and Luther’s Small Catechism.[5]

Three key Bible texts that inform our mercy work include: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, ESV). “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10, ESV). “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18 ESV).

Social Gospel: The Social Gospel, starting in the early 1900s, is a Christian social movement popularized by Walter Rauschenbusch and his book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, in 1917. Social Gospel was anti-capitalism and promoted a form of Christian Socialism. Social Gospel de-emphasized the salvific message of faith alone in Christ and instead emphasized ethics. The Social Gospel’s focus was not on preaching and receiving the sacraments, but rather social activism that improved the quality of life of the community. The influence of the 20th century Social Gospel movement continues today in muted and mutated forms in various faith-based organizations, social ministry and missionary work.

The Social Gospel movement:

  1. Focuses the Christian message and the Christian life on an active love of the poor.
  2. Addresses the needs of the city with politically socialist and progressivist ideas.
  3. Focuses on the ethical teaching of Jesus and de-emphasizes Christ’s justification of sinners.
  4. Rather than church planting, it emphasizes spreading the love of Christ through social activism.

Liberation Theology: The goal is to liberate the poorest of humanity from unfavorable political, social and economic conditions. Liberation Theology emphasizes that one of God’s primary desires is to liberate the oppressed just as God used Moses to liberate the Israelites from the enslavement and abuse of the Egyptians. This movement was most popular in the 1970s and 1980s especially within Roman Catholicism and Latin American Churches.[6] It was promoted by Gustavo Gutierrez in his 1971 book, A Theology for Liberation.

Liberation theology generally focuses on:

  1. Liberation of the politically, socially and economically oppressed.
  2. Christianity and the work of Jesus through a Marxist political ideology that is strongly anti-capitalism.
  3. Political change or revolution for the betterment of the poor.

Social Justice: Social Justice focuses on an equitable distribution of temporal goods, wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Although the term “social justice” was coined in the 1840s by the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli, only since the early 1990s has it gained popularity as unifying a social ethic on secular university campuses in international politics, social work, and political activism.[7] Currently, the leading secular university primer on social justice theory is Michael J. Sandel’s book, Social Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Social Justice:

  1. Espouses economic fairness and equality for all people.
  2. Seeks a balance of power.
  3. Promotes redistribution of wealth from the most wealthy to the poorest of the poor.
  4. Is done primarily through governmental agencies and non-religious NGOs.[8]

Issues for Government Funded Faith-Based Charity Work in the Public Square

The 2001 White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives brought mixed blessings to Christian charitable organizations and other NGOs. Its primary benefit was that it brought enormous financial capacity through funding social work projects that serve people with disabilities, the poor, and natural disaster victims.[9] However, for almost two decades there has been an increased reliance on government funding NGOs. Many large faith-based organizations now get well over 50 percent of their annual income from the government funding sources and depend substantially on government budgets, election results, and political parties for funding their social work projects.

Federal, state and local requirements often impose funding restrictions on faith-based organizations to qualify for support. Organizations that receive government funds are required to follow strict and ever-changing government regulations; sometimes these regulations and laws affect Christian moral and ethical issues that conflict with the organization’s core religious beliefs.[10] Additionally, some Christian organizations that try to incorporate the Gospel message or Lutheran chaplains into their mercy work have to be very careful not to co-mingle government funds and projects with any form of mercy work that involves evangelization, Gospel proclamation or overtly Christian spiritual care.[11] One example widely covered in the news has been the changes in Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Section 3 was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor (2013). Homosexual marriage and the LGBT agenda have had complex impacts on the funding of NGOs in many fields of social work, and changes vary from state to state.

In addition to increased reliance on federal funding, legal pressures are increasing for SSOs, NGOs and Christian charities to conform to new laws regarding LGBT issues in order to maintain eligibility for government funds and case management grants. For example, some states are beginning to require that all SSOs receiving government funds for adoptive services must place children into qualifying unwed or homosexual homes, even if doing so goes against the organization’s religious views. Tragically, courts are often attributing a higher value to sexual liberty than to religious freedom, particularly if the case involves government funding. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal agency founded by American evangelicals, has expressed concern that religious expression about sexual issues is now becoming an issue for Christian congregations, high schools and universities that receive government funding, grants, subsidized student loans and tax exemption status.[12] Hence, LCMS RSOs facilitating adoption and foster care are faced with challenges from government sources as they strive to live out their Lutheran identity and faith. In the past, these organizations were allowed by the State to refer clients to other organizations that would willingly facilitate adoption services for homosexual or transgender couples. However, this is now being challenged especially with the passage of new federal and state marriage laws which are being supported by the Supreme Court. Some organizations no longer choose to hold RSO status with the LCMS. However, to preserve their theological convictions, some RSOs involved in adoption services have strengthened and revised their bylaws and policies in order to continue, when necessary, to refer clients to other agencies.[13]

When a natural catastrophe is given a presidential disaster declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) releases large amounts of funds to qualifying social service organizations for case management. Many who are poor, desperate, or needy, and seek assistance from faith-based organizations need economic aid but also need spiritual care in the midst of their crisis. Case managers do a great job at helping disaster victims navigate the complexities of the various government and non-governmental programs. And federally funded faith-based programs and case managers can refer their clients to a Christian church, but only if the client requests religious care. However, all services that have government funding for case management must provide equal treatment for all clients. Thus, in this situation, faith-based organizations including Lutheran RSOs are forbidden to give Christians or Lutherans any form of religious preference. Additionally, case managers working for faith-based organizations are not allowed to give explicit Christian spiritual care, nor are they allowed to evangelize in any form if it is a part of federally funded case management. Hence, if Christian NGOs and social service organizations are doing federally funded case management for disaster victims, they are working in the kingdom of the left.

Lutheran Congregational Mercy Work

Over the last 15 years there has been a renaissance of congregational mercy work across the congregations in the LCMS. Much of this resurgence was due to the leadership of President Rev. Matthew C. Harrison who was then the head of LCMS World Relief and Human Care. In 2002, Harrison began to speak and write passionately to pastors and lay leaders of the LCMS on the theology of mercy and how to incorporate a mercy that flows from Lutheran congregations to the needy in their community. Part of this renaissance includes Mercy in Action, the writing, translation, and re-publishing of essays from leading Lutheran theologians from the past and present (see bibliography). In addition, the 2001 Synod convention opened up the deaconess program to both seminaries for women to study deaconess ministry as a vocation. This expansion of the Synod’s deaconess program and increasing number of deaconess church workers has advanced our awareness of mercy work and its influence across the Synod.

At its core, congregational mercy work is based on deeply held convictions that just as Christ has been merciful to sinful humanity, Christians are merciful to others in both physical and spiritual need. This leads to care for the whole person. Congregations are calling and inducting deaconesses, parish nurses, pastoral staff, teachers, lay leaders, Stephen ministers, and others to care for their community’s needs. Lutheran congregations active in mercy look for ways to serve their community’s needs in the name of Christ. As Christ freely gives, congregations mercifully give to all in need.

Over the last decade across The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod there has been an explosion of churches that offer parish nursing to senior citizens, community health education, food pantries, soup kitchens, advocacy for the unborn and unwed mothers, care and outreach to immigrants, and every year millions of dollars are given to those affected by natural disaster. Each year thousands of Lutheran laity are trained as part of Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) members, ready to help their communities after natural disasters. Congregation members fund congregational mercy programs, sometimes combined with large grants from their districts and Synod to expand the congregation’s capacity to serve. Because LCMS congregations normally do not receive any government funding, this enables them to serve without having to silence their Christian voice according to government restrictions.[14] When appropriate, Christian church workers and laity on behalf of the local congregation share the Gospel message. They give comfort with Christ’s words, and invite those they serve into the Christian community for continued spiritual care. The Lutheran congregation’s merciful work of service done in the name of Christ is more than “charity” in the modern sense—it is a good Christian work because it is done in faith and directly connected to the Gospel.

Mercy work in and of itself is not the Gospel message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. That is, it is not a means of grace. However, mercy work and service to one’s neighbor is the natural outgrowth of the Gospel message within a believer’s life (Ephesians 2:10). One benefit of congregational mercy work is that it often breaks down barriers that many unchurched people have toward the church and Gospel message. When congregations show up at disaster sites to help victims rebuild their lives, Lutheran pastors and members are welcomed by those who would otherwise never enter a church building. Additionally, through merciful service projects, pastors and lay members are able to build relationships and plant the seeds of the Gospel message.

Our motivation for mercy work is the Gospel, and our primary aim of mercy work seeks to serve the community’s temporal and spiritual needs. The Lutheran congregation holistically serves the needs of both body and soul through the marks of the church. And when people are going through times of crisis, they often also have spiritual needs that only God can fill. In the mist of disaster, victims of tragedy can encounter the office of holy ministry which includes preaching of the Law and Gospel, confession and absolution, Baptism, confirmation, and the distribution of the Lord’s Supper for the ongoing forgiveness of sins. By caring for temporal needs, the Lutheran congregation creates opportunities of care for the universal spiritual needs of forgiveness and peace with God that comes from Christ’s forgiveness.


Over the last hundred years there have been many popular views of helping the poor. The expressions “mercy work” or “merciful service” best articulate the scriptural understanding of biblical service to one’s neighbor. Many SSOs and RSOs are doing well at helping the poorest and most desperate who are suffering. However, evolving federal laws and stipulations are dictating and limiting how SSOs and RSOs must use federal funding and how they carry out their mission of caring for human need. Sadly, it is possible that government regulations will force faith-based organizations either to abandon government funding or change their religious identity and convictions to retain their eligibility for government funding. However, there has been a resurgence of human care ministry within Lutheran congregations. Lutheran churches are calling a variety of church workers to do mercy work that holistically cares for body and soul. For Lutheran congregations, service to their neighborhood in need is not only caring for the temporal realities of this world’s tragedies. The church also cares for the spiritual heartache of its community, and the church holistically offers care which is found in the Cross of Christ.

Select Bibliography for Further Reading

Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response. ed. Ross Edward Johnson. St. Louis, Missouri: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015.
Mattes, Mark. Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective. Lutheran Quarterly, Volume 26, 2012, pages 142-163.
Harrison, Matthew C. Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action. St Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 2008.
Lindberg, Carter. Beyond Charity, Reformation Initiatives for the Poor. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993.
Lueking, F. Dean, A Century of Caring: The Welfare Ministry Among Missouri Synod Lutherans 1868-1968. St. Louis, Missouri: Board of Social Ministry, 1968.
Scharlemann, Martin H. The Church’s Social Responsibilities. St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1971.
Uhlhorn, Johann. Christian Charity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883.


[1] Now known as “White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”
[2] In the past The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has used other names for its mercy ministry with the creation of the Board of Social Ministry which later became World Relief and Human Care and now is LCMS Mercy Operations.
[3] Note that there are many nuances in the explanations of the popular terms today. This overview only surveys the terms in a broad manner to provide the reader with a greater understanding of the topic.
[4] Three recommended books to help understand the theology and history of mercy are: Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson. St. Louis, Missouri: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015. Uhlhorn, Johann. Christian Charity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883. Lindberg, Carter. Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993.
 [5] See Matthew Harrison’s essay, What Does It Mean to be a Lutheran in Social Ministry? on page 413 of Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response, ed. Ross Edward Johnson. St. Louis, Missouri: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2015.
[6] Forms of Liberation theology are also common in some African-American churches in the United States.
[7] For an analysis of the Social Justice Movement within mainline churches, I highly recommend “Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective” by Mark Mattes. Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Summer, 2012).
[8] Although social justice is a common theme among secular activists, mainline churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and movements with peace church and Anabaptist roots such as the emerging church circles and Sojourners Network, also have a very progressive Christianized view of social justice and the role of the church in society. See for example The Justice Project, edited by Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Saheley Bunting Seeber (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009). We may see more conservative evangelicals will start using the term “justice” in connection with a traditional biblical concept of God’s justice and a historical understanding of Christian charity work. For instance, some conservative Christian authors such as Timothy Keller and Douglas Wilson are discussing justice as a more traditional Christian understanding of charity work.
[9] Every year billions of federal dollars enable Lutheran Social Services organizations and various charities to do many helpful works for the community including senior care, after-school programs, child counseling services, helping people with disabilities, and case management for those who have gone through disasters recognized by FEMA.
[10] One of the laws that has drastically changed over the last five years alone has been the repeal of DOMA. Homosexual marriage and the LGBT agenda have had enormous impacts on the funding of NGOs in many fields of social work.
[11] It should be noted that some RSOs and Lutheran SSOs have Lutheran chaplains and/or deaconesses that are paid staff or volunteers. Some RSOs like Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) have multiple called church workers and they are very clear about their LCMS identity and directly work with LCMS congregations during times of natural disasters. However, LCC does not receive government funding for case management. This gives them more liberty to proclaim the Gospel message because they are directly supported by LCMS congregations and individuals.
[12] See Protecting Your Ministry From Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits: A Legal Guide for Churches, Christian Schools, and Christian Ministries published by the Alliance Defending Freedom (
[13] An excellent history of the origins of social ministry in the early LCMS is found in F. Dean Lueking’s book, A Century of Caring 1868-1968, (Board of Social Ministry, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1968).
[14] However, not using government funding greatly reduces that capacity and scale of their mercy work.

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