Review (pt.1): When Helping Hurts

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody, 2009, 230 pages 

Corbett_Helping HurtsA sober review of When Helping Hurts is important because the book accurately presents how many evangelicals think about poverty. It is published by Moody, recommended by David Platt, and promoted in World Magazine—ministers and ministries for whom we cheer and pray. So a critique of the book is really a critique of the social ministry movement.

The twenty recommendations are telling. Most are CEOs or presidents of colleges or para-church aid organizations. There are only three pastors and no missionaries, though this latter group would be most familiar with working alongside the poor. There are no recommendations from people living among the poor, only from those—including the authors—who are analyzing poverty from a distance. Three-week trips to Uganda don’t count.

My comments here may carry some unusual weight for at least two reasons. First, if modern US statistics are accurate, the salary of my family and I may put us under the poverty line. I do not say this for sympathy; there is not a day in Africa we don’t feel rich. But this point is crucial because one of the arguments the authors’ imply is that rich Americans are to blame for much or the poverty in the world. Since I do not fit in this category, I’m safe from the charge.

Second, I have something Corbett and Fikkert do not possess, something that cannot be bought or obtained in a short time: interaction and ministry among the world’s poor after the novelty of my western-ness and whiteness has worn off. I do not doubt that their conclusions after short-term visits with the poor are sincere and with conviction, but I deny those convictions would be the same had he lived with them for ten years.

I reviewed this book back in 2012 and gave it a positive review. The authors should be commended for devoting an entire chapter to short-term missions (ch. 7), distinguishing between different kinds of poverty relief (p. 104) and acknowledging that not all poverty is created equal (ch. 4). Nonetheless, more experience on the field and a second run through of the book has changed my perspective. I’ll begin a brief series of posts with some concerns.

First Concern: Lack of Scripture

Outside of chapter one, where they explore why Jesus came to earth, the authors reference Scripture only sixteen times in the remaining 180 pages, and only one passage is given any kind of explanation. The chapter on short-term missions didn’t reference a single verse. Money, Possessions, and Eternity this is not, where Randy Alcorn references that many Scriptures on a single page. What is the Mission of the Church? has 48 columns of texts in the Scripture index.

The only passage that is given any kind of extended explanation is Colossians 1:19-20: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Indeed, God in Christ has come to set everything right on earth, but this is his work alone. Paul is not imploring Christians to partner with God by addressing social problems.

Directly before their definition of poverty alleviation, they then inconceivably reference 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Paul speaks of our “trespasses” (19) and the old things passing away (17) due—on the human level, to preachers persuading people (11) and on the divine level due to the work of Christ on the cross. While Paul makes no mention of material poverty alleviation, the authors make no mention of the cross or sin.

They then quote passages from Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 58 where Judah is essentially on trial for their sins of injustice. The authors write: “translate this into the modern era, and we might say these folks were faithfully going to church each Sunday, attending midweek prayer meeting, going on the annual church retreat, and singing contemporary praise music. But God was disgusted with them, going so far as to call them ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’! Why was God so displeased? Both passages emphasize that God was furious over Israel’s failure to care for the poor and the oppressed.” (40) Is it true this passage is speaking of the faithful church attender who is not actively involved in social ministry? I agree that Christians should hate injustice and love to help the poor, but many of the author’s conclusions are built on the faulty premise that oppression and economic inequality are synonymous. God did not rebuke Israel because poor people existed but because the greedy and corrupt were stealing and taking bribes and profiting from the poor. “Everyone loves a bribe” (v.23).

This is significant because if God wants us to be wise stewards of our money and if we are considering gearing a large portion of our time, effort, and finances toward social ministry and poverty alleviation, then we better know that this is what Scripture has commanded us to do. Helping is filled with bold, yet unproven assertions like that on page 46: “The Bible teaches that the local church must care for the both the spiritual and physical needs of the poor.” They gave far too little Scripture to substantiate such a claim.

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