Among churches that focus on both the physical and spiritual elements of the gospel, there are still two subtle but serious mistakes that are often made. These two mistakes are only found in churches that are trying to meet both physical needs and spiritual needs, and in recent years, both of these types of churches are much more common than either of the extreme churches above.
We will look at one mistake today, and the second tomorrow.
Needs a Doorway to “True” Evangelism
The first mistake is when we think that meeting a physical need is just preliminary to meeting the spiritual need.
These churches believe that meeting the spiritual need is of primary importance, and meeting the spiritual need is simply a means to an end. Meeting physical needs is almost seen as a necessary evil. In this view, meeting physical needs are a waste of time and money unless they help the church accomplish its real goal of saving people’s souls. In this view, meeting people’s physical needs is not really part of the Gospel, but is simply a way to gain a hearing for the Gospel. For these churches, the Gospel is still just a message about how to receive eternal life, and the free meals, the clothes closet, and community service projects are just ways of gathering an audience and grabbing people’s ears.
Churches that function under this mindset usually require the people who show up to receive the free service—whether it is free clothes, food, or counseling—to sit through a gospel presentation as the “entrance fee.” You want a free meal? Fine. First listen to this sermon. You want marriage counseling? Great. But let’s first deal with your broken relationship with God. You want a free coat for the winter? We can give you one, but let me first go through this tract with you about how to get clothed with the righteousness of God. You want your car washed for free? We can do that. But while you wait, let me tell you how you can be washed from all your sin.
See how this works? The problem with this is twofold.
Cheapens the Gospel
First, it cheapens the Gospel. It makes us sound like we are selling timeshares in Florida: “You want a free vacation in the sunny Florida beaches? We’ll give you one, but first you must sit through this high-pressure sales presentation.” Is this really how we want to tell others about Jesus?
Teaches Gnostic Dualism
But the more serious problem is this: Separating the gospel into two sides, the physical and the spiritual, and then setting the spiritual up as higher and more important than the physical, is nothing but Gnostic dualism. Briefly, Gnostic dualism is the idea that the universe is divided into two sides, the physical and the spiritual, and the physical side is mostly bad while the spiritual side is mostly good. Therefore, we should focus primarily on the spiritual side of life.
Dualism is so prevalent in churches today it is hard to recognize. But it is found in statements like, “Earth is not my home; I’m just passing through” and in the complacent and barely-masked glee that some churches feel when we hear about tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, disease, and famine destroying our world. “After all,” we are told, “these are the signs that the end is near. The worse things get, the closer we are!” It is found in the idea of some churches that we can do whatever we want with our bodies and with this world, because the only thing that really matters is the condition of our soul. Dualism is found in the idea that we in the west are the enlightened ones, with our modern science and technology, and all the world must bow to our superior knowledge. It is found in the message of some sermons that seem to imply the belief that we can bomb people into freedom, justice, and liberty, that we can use and abuse this planet, because it will all burn in the end, and we’re going to get a new earth anyway.
The basic problem with Gnostic dualism is that it severs people and issues into two. Dualistic thinking believes that people and issues have two sides: physical and spiritual, and the two never meet. Therefore, when we are meeting physical needs, it has nothing to do with spiritual needs, and meeting spiritual needs does nothing for the physical. But since the spiritual is clearly the more important of the two, if the physical needs are a necessary evil to gain access to the spiritual, then so be it.
It is far better to view people as both physical and spiritual, with both aspects being intimately connected and intertwined. There is no such thing as helping a person physically and not spiritually. Helping a person physically also helps them spiritually. And vice versa. Spiritual help pours over into all areas of life: emotional, mental, and physical. Churches must come to recognize that everything is spiritual, and everything is physical. The dividing line between the two where one is seen to be superior to the other, or one is seen as the doorway to the other is an artificial, unbiblical, and dangerous idea. The physical and spiritual were created together by God and must remain together. What God has joined together, let no man separate.