Review (pt.3): When Helping Hurts

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

Corbett_Helping HurtsThird Concern: Mis-defining Poverty

The authors apparently see poverty as a disease. On page 56 they ask: “how can we diagnose such a complex disease?” Later on the same page they refer to the “disease of poverty”. They say, “reconciling relationships is the essence of poverty alleviation” (130). Again, the book is filled with schemes and charts and diagrams but surprisingly, very little Scripture.

Just imagine John Paton’s pastor saying this to him before he reached the shore of the New Hebrides, where the cannibals there had cooked and eaten two missionaries several years earlier: “A significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time! This should give us a sense of humility and awe as we enter poor communities, for part of what we see there reflects the very hand of God” (60). Corbett and Fikkert refuse to assert that there may be some people groups that are godless in every sphere of their society. This would imply inequality, which they are against. Were Jewish and Amalekite cultures equal?

Who are the poor? “Every human being is poor in the sense of not experiencing these four relationships in the way God intended.” To say that only some are poor would make them feel bad. So, we’re all poor! (62) Poverty is “broken relationships”. Its not until page 71 that they finally acknowledge that the poor are “those who are economically destitute.”

“If anyone dares suggest to me that the poor are poor because they are less spiritual than the rest of us—which is what the health and wealth gospel teaches—I am quick to rebuke them.” Mr. Corbett, is the poor lazy man in Proverbs 10:4 less spiritual than the wealthy hard worker of character?

The general feeling I got from this book is that people are poor because of outsiders. The problem is without and not within. Now that is partially true. Jesus, the sinless man, was poor. Scripture speaks of poverty as a result of wicked resources and natural disasters. But there is also a wide swath of verses pointing to laziness, poor planning, deception, broken families and a host of other sins as the root of economic poverty. After living nearly a decade within a poor village, my conclusion has been that much of the poverty is due to an unbiblical worldview. Polygamy, sleeping around, and child grants to 16 year olds has pushed the HIV rate in Mbhokota to 50%. My unemployed neighbor got his teeth kicked in last week, but when I went to visit him his wife said he was back at the same bar where it happened. Roads are in disarray as the contractors use half the materials in order to pocket the rest. President Zuma has built himself a multimillion-dollar compound on taxpayer money.

Instead, the authors rebuke churches with “god complexes” that are trying to help.

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Review (pt.2): When Helping Hurts

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

Corbett_Helping HurtsSecond Concern: Naivety

I wrote “naïve” in the margin of the book over a dozen times. Because many of the authors’ conclusions were based off observations from short-term mission trips and slanted statistics, many of his comments made me roll my eyes. He said Africa will replace the United States as the center of Christianity in 2025. I live in Africa. They are as one African theologian said, “incurably religious”. But a deeper analysis tells us that the foundation of most churches is rotten to the core due to syncretism and the onslaught of the Prosperity Gospel.

The authors tell us as story of a tall and muscular man crying because the missionaries did not teach him social justice (47). He paints most missionaries in the 20th century as only concerned with people’s souls but not interested in making disciples of all nations, later defined as no classes on business and farming.

Another example of naivety came in the final chapter on Business as Missions (BAM), which represents businessmen businesspeople who want to establish corporations abroad to help the poor. Apparently, BAM “is as old as the New Testament” (216) and “finds its roots in the ministries of Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla, who used tent making as a means of supporting their missionary work” (215). The authors give four benefits to BAM and I would like to go through each one.

(1) Gaining access to a closed country. This is a valid reason. When I visited the Comorian Islands, which is just a tiny Lilli pad of lava floating in the Indian Ocean, there is no chance of entering the country as a missionary. Evangelism and churches are illegal. NGOs appear to be the route many missionaries must take to gain access to the most closed countries in the world.

(2) Providing the income needed for a ministry. This reason is surprising since this book is specifically addressed to North Americans. The authors have taken much of the book to show how Americans are the wealthiest people ever to live on planet earth. This indeed is an immense responsibility. We should be sending out church planters by the thousands. But I don’t see how getting an 8-4 job selling vacuums in Honduras is any different from the man who buried his talent in the ground. Weekly I tell my wife how thankful I am for the stateside churches whose generous giving allows us give all of our time to the ministry. According to 1 Corinthians 9, Paul The Tentmaker is the exception and Paul the Church Planter is the rule.

(3) A natural context for relationships. The utopian view is that we manage a hardware shop where people come in to buy a pickaxe and instead sit down for an hour of evangelist and leave with a MacArthur Study Bible. But businessmen know that running a company well takes lots of time and headaches. So Paul said: “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).

(4) Poverty alleviation. Here, the business is not a cover for the real thing. The business is the real thing—the missionary’s goal is the business itself to help the poor. If a family that moves to Ecuador for the primary purpose of giving employment to the poor are called “missionaries”, then the word has lost its meaning. Moreover, let me give an example of how BAM would need to start in our village. Take a year to get the proper paper work. Spend $7,000 for plane tickets and another few thousands to send your stuff. There are no places to rent in the village, so you’ll need to live outside of town until you can find a place to build a house. This will take a good year. In the mean time, take a couple of years to learn the language, since you won’t get far selling in English. Three years later, in a village of 60% unemployment, you get your hardware and agricultural plantation started. Most of your stock is stolen the first week…and I could go on and on. Would it be easier to do in the big city? Of course, but that is where the jobs are and then you’re not needed. The point: since working in a poor, destitute place is very difficult, put all of your time into gospel-centered work.

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.

Review: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?

Roland Allen, Eerdmans, 1962, 130 pages

Missionary MethodsRoland Allen was a missionary in China for eight years at the turn of the 20th century. He was a minister in the Anglican Church and was nurtured in the Catholic understanding of churchmanship though—surprisingly—this background does not come out in his writings as one would expect.

Allen observes that St. Paul had immense church planting success in a relatively short time—about ten years. Though most missionaries today have not replicated this level of success, they argue it is because Paul had special advantages like background, calling, and gifts. Allen argues against this. After all, there were others in the NT besides Paul who were also successful. Modern man has several advantages that Paul did not. And even if Paul did have an advantage, it was not so great as to except the modern missionary’s lack of success.

Allen’s thesis could be syllogized as follows. Paul successfully planted many churches in a short amount of time. Missionaries today do not. Therefore, missionaries today must not be following Paul’s example. Or, in Allen’s words, “I propose in this book to attempt to set forth the methods which [St. Paul] used to produce this amazing result.” (7)

It will not be long until an angry choir rails with shouts of “yeah but”. In fact, the majority of Allen’s book is an answer to all of the “yeah buts”. He anticipates the arguments that point out certain advantages Paul had which missionaries today do not.

The format of Allen’s book is simple and I shall try to do the same. He rebuts 10 apparent advantages, offers three conclusions, and closes with several applications. Below I will summarize Allen’s perspective on five of the apparent advantages and applications and insert my thoughts below each one.

  1. Strategic Points: “Was Paul’s success due to the strategic places he went?”

No. Paul was not deliberate and didn’t even plan his journeys ahead of time. The Spirit led and forbid him. He went to provinces that were Roman (and thus had protection), Greek (and thus had no language barrier) and Jewish (and thus had a familiarity with their religion and culture). His strategy was to assail the centers of world commerce.

These are major advantages afforded to Paul that led to his immediate success. Unlike Paul, most missionaries go to places where they have to learn a new language from ground zero. Unlike Paul, John Paton and Jim Elliot and thousands of others do not have political protection by birth. Unlike Paul, modern missionaries enter a completely foreign culture and religious worldview. Thus, Paul had advantages in the four major obstacles missionaries face: language, culture, religion, and government.

  1. Audience: “Was Paul’s success due to a special kind of audience or class of people?”

No. It is true that Paul always started by preaching to the Jews in synagogues. But after he was rejected, he went to the Gentiles, most often of the lower class. Therefore, we can’t excuse our poor results because Paul had a synagogue or special group.

To minister in a culture where a location is set aside in every town for the public reading and discussion of the Law is a tremendous advantage. Paul shared the same background and esteem for the law. Hebrew and Greek had vocabulary that could carry the heaviest of theological terms. Jewish roots were in a book. I minister in Tsonga, a culture rooted in oral tradition. The language does not have words for adoption, redemption, and propitiation. There is no way to say “justifier”. There is one word for want and need; for leg and foot. Continue reading

Review: The Essential Guide to Speaking in Tongues

Ron Phillips, Charisma House, 2011, 129 pages

TonguesOn the declining scale of literature, there are good books, there are bad books, and then there is The Selective Writings of Schleiermacher. Speaking in Tongues may not have reached that level of schlock, but its certainly on the same podium.

Were all of Phillips’ errors addressed, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (Jn. 21:25), but I shall spar with a few. Here are six weaknesses of the book. First, Phillips ignores the gospel. He asks the question: “How does one receive the Spirit?” (10), then fails to give the way of salvation. Nowhere do we find the message of sin, judgment, and the sacrificial death of Jesus. This is standard procedure among the prosperity crowd.

Second, he admits that God decides who gets which gift (12), but later says speaking in tongues “is a sign that accompanies not simply apostles but also those who are people of faith” (27). So does everyone have the gift to speak in tongues or not? He often implies everyone should speak in tongues.

Third, he often asserts with no proof. He avers that the “spiritual songs” in Ephesians 5:19 includes singing in tongues, but never shows why. And since this singing is for the purpose of “addressing one another”, wouldn’t that mean an interpreter would be needed? And how could this be done with multiple tongues at the same time? Again, he says that all “prayer in the Spirit” includes tongues, but again, never proves this.

Fourth, he overemphasizes the disputed ending in Mark. Most conservative scholars believe that chapter 16 ends with verse 8, a significant point because the text after this verse is where Phillips draws many of his arguments (most of chapter 4). He points to v. 17 and says: “Let me say unequivocally that Jesus endorsed and prophesied about speaking in tongues” (21).

Fifth, he discounts the evidence of history. “There is not a single shred of evidence in Scripture or history in support of [the cessation of tongues after the apostles” (29). Not a shred? That none of the church fathers, Reformers, and great 18th century evangelists spoke in tongues is insufficient evidence for Phillips. Besides giving only one citation in his entire historical survey (brotherMel.com), he presents the heretical Montanists, the schismatic Donatists, and the Red River Revival as historical evidence for tongue speaking.

Sixth, he misrepresents the cessationist position. In opposition to John MacArthur’s assertion that the three seasons of miracles in Scripture were during Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, and Christ/the apostles, he points to other “miracles” in other epochs such as the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But Cessationists do not define a miracle proper as anything supernatural; in this case, every time a person is converted is a miracle. Rather, we define a miracle narrowly as the supernatural done by the hand of a human being.

Finally, in his tenth chapter on tongues and order, he almost completely ignores the four guidelines for tongue in 1 Corinthians 14: at the most two or three total (27), one at a time (27), use an interpreter (27), and no women (34). While he did briefly address the matter of women speaking in tongues, I would argue that the even if tongues do exist today, I have never been to a church that advocates tongues that follows these four indisputable guidelines.

Review: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

Thomas Brooks, Banner of Truth, 1652, 253 pages

Brooks’ greatest strength is his ability to support his arguments with texts from every corner of Scripture. He shows it is no disparagement to seek reconciliation first because Abraham the elder did so with Lot the younger in Genesis 13. To prove that self-seekers are self-destroyers, he points to prideful men like Judas, Absalom, Saul and Pharaoh who killed themselves. To demonstrate that the smallest sins bring the greatest punishment, he references the eating of the apple, the touching of the ark, and the picking up of sticks on the Sabbath. These men knew their Bibles indeed.

Another strength, as in all Puritan books, is the large number of lists. This allows the busy reader to maximize the 15 minutes he has by following a complete thought on, say, the importance of keeping a great distance from sin.

A giant in metaphor Brooks in not, but his assault upon Satan’s devices is peerless.

Review: The Doctrine of Repentance

Thomas Watson, Banner of Truth, 1668, 128 pages

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Thomas Watson is my favorite Puritan because of his unrivaled usage of metaphor. “Your Best Life Now” just isn’t winsome after reading “the sword of God’s justice lies quiet in the scabbard till sin draws it out” (49) or “there is no rowing to paradise except upon the stream of repenting tears” (63). The pastor who dwells with such men is bound to preach like them.

This book is great for its endless lists: the six ingredients of repentance, the six qualifications of godly sorrow, the nine ways sin brings shame, the ten impediments to repentance, the sixteen motives to excite repentance. It is also holistic in scope–when is the last time you heard a preach urge you to “repent of…your non-improvement of talents” (71)? Like tuxedos and Converse All-Stars, Puritan sermons are timeless. I could preach through this book to my rural African congregation and they wouldn’t be lost or lethargic.

This is because the Puritans placed all of their sermons on accessible pedestals. Pedestals in that everyone could see and understand them. Grannies can comprehend propositions like “It is not falling into water that drowns, but lying it” or “turning from sin is like pulling the arrow out of the wound; turning to God is like pouring in the balm.” Their sermons are accessible in that they are on matters to which everyone can relate. For example, his fifth ingredient of repentance is the hatred of sin. “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed” (45). Then he argues that if there is a real hatred, we must not oppose sin in ourselves only but in others as well. Then he gives five passages to prove this. Who cannot relate with that?