The Lutheran Health Alliance and Bridge Building

by Dr. Lawernce Olson
Martin Luther College, New Ulm, MN

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The Lutheran Health Alliance and Bridge Building

An old Latin proverb, Veritas in media stat, tells us that “the truth lies in the middle.” It often does. Prof. Daniel Deutschlander, in his book The Narrow Lutheran Middle: Following the Scriptural Road,[1] examines a number of theological issues ­– predestination, election, and worship among them – where it is essential to stay “in the middle” of the road laid out by Scripture in order to avoid meandering into dangerous ditches on either side.

We do well to follow that same approach in thinking about and implementing strategies to respond to the human needs that people have, including what we do in health ministry. The ditch on the left side of the road would be to replace the disciple-making mission of the Church with humanitarian efforts; the ditch on the right side of the road would be to reject any role at all for the church in responding to human need.

As we journey down the road, the North Star that guides us remains the Bible’s clear message of sin and grace and its clear commission to share that message. That is what drives us: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5:14-15). So we “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mk 16:15) in order to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), and when the Spirit works in the Word to bring them into God’s family, we continue to nurture them with that same Word.

Let’s be clear: nothing outranks that ministry of the Word. Period. But that does not mean that other kinds of ministry, of service, are unimportant. Acts 6:1-7 is instructive in this regard:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

The Jerusalem congregation was a growing church with a large “pastoral staff” that found it increasingly difficult to accomplish all of their tasks. Although it is not obvious in the English, the Greek in v.2 uses the same word, “ministry,” to refer to two different activities: “the ministry of the word of God” and what Luke literally records as “to minister to tables.” This clearly shows that nothing is ever more important than the Word, and the Twelve wanted to address the problem that they were being stretched so thin that they did not have time to carry that ministry out. However, note that they did not at all look down on their kind of a first-century version of a “meals on wheels” program as mere “social work” that the church should abandon. In fact, it was just the opposite: they valued it so much that they wanted to ensure that it would be carried out, but not in a way that would detract from the more important ministry of the Word. The solution that they proposed was to expand the “ministerial staff” with a new category of church worker, and the seven men chosen – who became known as the Deacons – took over the work of caring for the widows so that the Twelve could “give [their] attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The result? “So the word of God spread.”

Our primary concern is always for people’s spiritual needs. However, as in the case of the Jerusalem congregation, we are also concerned about people’s physical needs. We see both of those concerns when Jesus sent out the Twelve to “proclaim this message: ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10:7). As Prof. David Valleskey aptly comments about this sending:

Christians, individually or corporately, will not want to turn a blind eye or deaf ear to people’s physical needs. When Jesus sent out the Twelve, he not only gave them authority to drive out evil spirits with the powerful Word, a spiritual mission, but also “to heal every disease and sickness” (Mt 10:1), a social mission. With this commission, Jesus demonstrated the same concern for soul and body he himself had exhibited in his own ministry.[2]

To use Prof. Valleskey’s phrase, the Lutheran Health Alliance is an example of a “social mission.” Nor is it by any means the first such effort in our circles. Please permit a lengthier quotation from Prof. Valleskey:

The medical mission carried on since 1961 by WELS in Central Africa, first in Zambia and then also in Malawi, is a contemporary example of the social aspect of ministry functioning on a corporate level. Over the years thousands of people have been helped through this humanitarian ministry of mercy. In the recently published history of WELS world missions, the writer asserts about the medical mission: “The program stands in its own right as a ministry of mercy and compassion. An older African one day told one of our nurses, ‘If you were not here, we would be dying like flies.’ As an arm of the mission the medical program has shown the love of Christ to the people and in this way has helped break down some barriers to the gospel.”

The intent of the medical mission is to show mercy to people in their physical need and at the same time to serve as a point of contact through which healing for the soul can be administered: “Not to be forgotten is the direct gospel ministry carried on at the clinics through the daily devotions in God’s word..., the spiritual counsel for the ailing and their families, as well as the emergency baptisms of many babies at the clinics...The angels of heaven have been given good reason to rejoice at the healing of souls as well as of bodies that has occurred through the years in the medical mission program.”[3]

The Lutheran Health Alliance is “A Christ-centered development ministry that provides targeted support for families, congregations, and communities to improve their health and well-being by connecting people, ideas, and resources so that the gospel is shared.” Note that purpose clause: “so that the Gospel is shared.” That is not an essential part of responding to human need; after all, the Apostle Paul writes, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people” (Gal 6:10). However, what a blessing it is when “humanitarian deeds of Christian love might build a bridge for bringing the gospel to people.”[4]

That is what the LHA prays for; that is what we work at. It is directly aligned with the mission of Kingdom Workers: “Kingdom Workers will proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, using volunteers in mission fields, in partnership with ministries of our fellowship.” May God bless that proclamation so that his Kingdom comes and his will is done.

[1] Deutschlander, Daniel M. The Narrow Lutheran Middle: Following the Scriptural Road. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2011.

[2] Valleskey, David J. “A Biblical, Lutheran Theology of Missions.” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Library Essay File, 1996.

[3] Valleskey, ibid. The book Valleskey quotes from was edited by Harold R. Johne and Ernst H. Wendland, To Every Nation, Tribe, Language, and People: A Century of WELS World Missions. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1992

 [4] Valleskey, ibid.