March 03, 2014

Review: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody, 2014), 288 pp.

In When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert helpfully remind the reader that, when it comes to helping those in need, "good intentions are not enough" because "it is possible to hurt poor people, and ourselves, in the process of trying to help them" (p. 16). The book is intended to answer this problem by offering a guide to poverty alleviation that is grounded in the gospel as well as sound economic principles.

After a brief introduction offering an example of why a book like this is necessary (pp. 21-27), part 1 (pp. 31-95) provides the biblical-theological rationale for the type of poverty alleviation that is being advocated. Chapter 1 concerns the gospel and the church's mission. Chapters 2 and 3 then offer a biblical framework for understanding poverty and its causes. Part 2 (pp. 97-148) focuses on general economic principles. Parts 3 and 4 (pp. 149-249) offer practical guidance and strategies for those hoping to put the principles learned in parts 1 and 2 into practice.

When Helping Hurts is to be commended for several reasons. First of all, the authors rightly recognize that discipleship, just as much as evangelism, is a part of the church's mission, and they also understand that training "in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ's lordship for all of life" is an essential element of discipleship (p 45, see also pp. 79-83, 90-93).

The book's critique of the popular (wasteful) model of doing short-term missions is also on target (pp. 160-163). In many cases, STMs are little more than sanctified vacations that do more harm than good. If believers are to be faithful stewards over the resources we've been blessed with, we need to rethink the way we do short-term missions, and Corbett and Fikkert offer some much needed guidance.

The book's treatment of the nature and causes of poverty is also balanced, and offers a helpful corrective to those who would emphasize either personal responsibility or systemic injustice to the exclusion of the other (pp. 86-87, 171-172). Poverty is caused by broken systems AND broken people, and effective methods of poverty alleviation must take both aspects into account.

The authors are also careful to ground their approach in the gospel (pp. 54-58, 76). Their ultimate goal is not merely to see poor people pull themselves out of poverty by becoming more disciplined, hardworking sinners but to see them repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ (p. 92).

There are, however, a few problems with the book. Mostly these problems arise from the authors' failure to make three crucial distinctions. First of all, they do not clearly distinguish between the responsibility of the individual Christian and the mission of the church as a whole. Secondly, Corbett and Fikkert fail to distinguish between the mission of Christ and the mission of his church. Finally, they also fail to distinguish between the church's responsibility to her own members and the church's responsibility to outsiders.

I agree with Corbett and Fikkert that "all Christians have a responsibility to help the poor" (p. 14). Believers are commanded to love their neighbors (Mark 12:31) and to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), and, from time to time, this will include helping those in need. However, the church as an institution is called to a narrower mission, that of spreading the gospel and then discipling those who respond to the gospel message in faith and repentance (Matthew 28:18-20). In the same way that it is not my job as an individual believer to single-handedly spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, it is not the responsibility of the church as a whole to do all of those things that I have been commanded to do as an individual Christian. Yet, Corbett and Fikkert seem to conflate the two (pp. 14, 40, 44, 73-75). This is problematic because it unnecessarily widens the church's mission, which can very easily lead to mission-drift.

The authors also seem to make the unfounded assumption that the mission of Christ and the mission of his church are one and the same (pp. 37, 41,73). While the two are certainly related, they are not identical. Though the mission of the church is, in some sense, a continuation of Christ's mission (Acts 1:1), it is distinct. Strictly speaking, the church is to do what Christ has commanded, not what Christ himself did. To suggest otherwise is to compromise the unique, once-for-all nature of Christ's earthly ministry.

Finally, and perhaps most damaging to the overall aim of the book, is the authors' failure to recognize that the church is called to help, not the poor in general but a very particular group of poor people—her own members. When viewed in context, the prooftexts that Corbett and Fikkert cite to support the idea of the church's mission to the poor do not actually support this idea at all (they attempt to make this case on pp. 38-40). The New Testament texts are qualified in such a way as to make it clear that the poor in view are not the poor outside the church but the poor within the church. Similarly, their appeals to the Old Testament, when understood in context, actually hurt their case. These Old Testament texts initially applied to the nation of Israel, and the New Covenant equivalent of Israel is the church, so, if Israel cared for the poor in her midst, the church should do the same. God did not, however call Israel to care for the poor of the surrounding nations. Similarly, the church is only called to care for the poor in her midst not among those outside.

Overall, When Helping Hurts is a good book and should be read by those involved in missions and/or benevolence ministry. There is much prudential wisdom here for believers who want to help those in need around them. Unfortunately, the aforementioned lack of important distinctions will almost inevitably lead to mission-drift among those who embrace the book's teachings uncritically. In order to combat this, I recommend that all those who read When Helping Hurts also read What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and/or Social Justice and the Christian Church by Ronald Nash.

Recommended, but with qualifications.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

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