Why Do You Need to be A Christian to Feed the Hungry?

The flip-flop of World Vision on gay marriage has attracted lots and lots of comments but no one seems to be asking a couple of important questions. That’s why we have confessional Reformed Protestantism.

1) As the title here suggests, why is it necessary for Christians to dispense aid to the poor and hungry through a Christian organization? World Vision says, for instance:

We provide emergency assistance to children and families affected by natural disasters and civil conflict, work with communities to develop long-term solutions to alleviate poverty, and advocate for justice on behalf of the poor.

And

Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

That second part of their mission statement obviously raises lots of questions about WV’s original decision to accept gay marriage. But does it make a difference whether the poor and hungry receive aid from a Christian or a non-Christian, a homosexual or a heterosexual? Is the aid any different? And very much related, haven’t we been here before? Evangelicals were responsible for the original social gospel, called the Benevolent Empire associated with the Second Pretty Good Awakening. Eventually, the concern to eliminate poverty and inequality spawned theological liberalism and moral evasiveness. Did anyone really think that World Vision was pursuing humanitarian efforts (which are laudable) in a conservative Protestant way? If you look at the leadership pages for WV, no church is mentioned. Rich Stearns himself leaves church membership out of his “story.” Since membership in mainline (read liberal) Protestant churches is common at evangelical liberal arts colleges, WV would surprise me if they self-consciously steered staff and officers away from non-evangelical churches where humanitarianism did trump orthodoxy and biblical ethics.

Which leads to the second question:

2) Why haven’t the critics of WV brought up the ecclesiological question? It is similar to a point that Patrick Deneen just made about the significance of the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, namely, that social/religious conservatives often miss the forest of institutions and structures for the trees of specific moral convictions:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction.

The same goes for WV. The fund-raising world and structure of oversight in which WV operates is also abstracted or disembedded — in this case not from mom and pop businesses but from pastor-and-elder churches. Its model is like the parachurch more generally (and the New Calvinists since we’re obsessed right now) and, as Deneen puts it, its work is through “ministries of scale” that transcend the ordinary or local networks of fellowship and accountability by which denominations and congregations operate.

And that may explain why WV’s leadership could think about gay marriage the way they did. If church officers oversaw them, they would not have to flip in response to public pressure. But if that were the case, if WV were overseen by the church, it would likely not exist. That’s because churches have diaconal agencies — either locally or denominationally — and because church officers might likely conclude that this work is something that any number of state and non-state organizations already perform.

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20 thoughts on “Why Do You Need to be A Christian to Feed the Hungry?

  1. So that I understand your POV properly, Dr. Hart, are you of the opinion that instead of parachurch charity organizations, we should have church-run ones, or secular ones, instead? Or both?

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  2. Did anyone really think that World Vision was pursuing humanitarian efforts (which are laudable) in a conservative Protestant way?

    That’s it.

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  3. Nate, then the concern grows. What is WV doing teaching the faith? At least TGC has ministers of the gospel (who are only in imaginary fellowship through a website).

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  4. Will S., we have the welfare state, international aid, and foreign relations, no?

    But I wish charity were in private hands, in which case groups of people (Christian and non-Christian) should work just fine.

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  5. Sean, and for good measure, this: “I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the ‘utopia’ of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things.”

    Now I know why the howling over “tyranny” and “religious liberty” ring so hollow. Plus, have you ever tried to return something for your wife at Hobby Lobby? Now that’s tyranny, as long as we’re hyperventilating.

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  6. “Nate, then the concern grows. What is WV doing teaching the faith?”

    The reason most evangelicals wouldn’t see this as a problem is largely because their own churches are run more along parachurch lines anyway.

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  7. DG, my point isn’t to debate whether or not WV should be teaching the faith. Certainly it’s not the best situation and I presume it originated in a more stable situation than what exists now. My point is that, given what exists (A parachurch organization that seeks to serve the poor and represents themselves as not only Christian but also as those who seek to propagate the faith) that there is warrant for Christians to pull out of an organization that is losing its Christian moorings (whether they had them in the first place is a different issue).

    Your article presents an incomplete picture of what WV represents. They aren’t simply a humanitarian organization (though they probably have become that more so recently). Many Christians gave to the organization thinking that they would be providing primarily humanitarian resources but additionally providing a direct Christian witness. If WV is going to fly under the banner of providing a ‘Christian’ witness then it’s not inconsistent for Christians to abandoned supporting them if they are directly working against that Christian witness by supporting homosexuality.

    If WV wants to abandon it’s Christian moorings altogether and just call themselves a humanitarian organization, then that’s fine (and I’m with you that this would be the better situation). But that’s not the reality of what people are facing. Maybe supporting a least-common-denominator parachurch ministry is something Christians should just pull out of anyway since it’s inimical to Christian faith. But it’s a tough situation when lots of kids have been supported for many years, getting education, clothing, and a safe food & water supply and then lose their support.

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  8. Is it possible that our welfare society and these parachurch organizations have developed in part because the church has failed to care for its own? Have people left the church only to turn to the state and non-profits to find support?

    The office of deacon was instituted to fulfill a need without detracting from the ministry of the church. Therefore I don’t believe it is wrong for charity to be accompanied with the gospel, in fact it should -especially within the church.

    What motivation do non-Christians have to care for the poor and feed the hungry? Do Christians only love their neighbor because it is good/natural law and commanded? Or is it also because we are reflecting Christ’s love for us? Would it be better if there were local churches ministering the gospel and caring for the poor in these far off countries? Of course. But alas, in most cases I would rather support an organization (and my local church) where the gospel is shared with charity than one where it is absent. Charity doesn’t make sense without the gospel.

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  9. Cody, how could the church possibly take care of all the needy in the world when not even the wealthiest nation in the world can?

    Whatever motivation non-Christians have, they do think it is important to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Think the Democrats, and any number of philanthropic agencies.

    BTW, it seems to me a form of ingratitude to demean non-Christians’ care for the poor.

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  10. Cody,

    “What motivation do non-Christians have to care for the poor and feed the hungry? Charity doesn’t make sense without the gospel.”

    Non-christian humanitarians/philanthrophists (who often put christians to shame in their work) are just engaging in cognitive dissonance and are deluded? Come on.

    “But alas, in most cases I would rather support an organization (and my local church) where the gospel is shared with charity than one where it is absent.”

    You often don’t have that luxury. Do you just wait around when disasters happen and ignore supporting secular charities that are ready-to-go to aid those in need just until you hear about a christian organization getting involved which gives you the green light? Sometimes people need food and a place to sleep asap – they don’t need a gospel carrot stick first.

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  11. DGH, thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree, the church (or any nation) can’t very well take care of all the poor and needy. I think it’s unrealistic to think that it could; we will always have the poor with us.

    As for my comment about unbelievers, I was only trying to point out that a Christian should have a different perspective and response about caring for the poor. Even though a Christian and non-Christian’s response to the poor may be outwardly indistinguishable (or as CvD noted, the non-Christian may even put the Christian to shame), inwardly Christian’s should be responding to the love Christ first showed us.

    CvD: “Sometimes people need food and a place to sleep asap – they don’t need a gospel carrot stick first.”

    CvD, you’re right, in times of disaster relief it’s best to get food a shelter in place just to keep people alive. But, when you’re world is turned upside down, the comfort that the gospel brings can’t be found anywhere else.

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