How the Doctrine of the Image of God Changed My Life

Growing up in a Presbyterian family, it was always assumed that theology was important for me to know. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad doing extended Bible lessons on Sunday afternoons and my mom teaching Bible stories and children’s catechism using flannelgraph during the week. There was one lesson in particular that we repeated several times about being made in God’s image. The doctrine of the image of God—in Latin Imago Dei—originates in Genesis 1:27, which states that God made humans, male and female, in His image—His likeness.

Starting in first grade, I had the privilege of attending a Christian school where I lived in Davao, Philippines. Each year we studied the Bible, worldview, apologetics, or theology. My teachers, like my parents, assumed that it was the most natural thing in the world for me to learn about my faith—that biblical knowledge and good theology was important for all people. I generally was quite interested in my Bible classes, sometimes doing research on my own and enjoying in-class debates and projects.

When I got to college in South Carolina, the strong foundation built by parents, teachers, and my own study served me well in my pursuit of degrees in Bible and early childhood education. In one of my classes on education, we spoke of our future students as being image-bearers and the implications that had. Students had an intellect, were capable of learning, were relational, and had immeasurable potential. We ourselves, as image-bearers, were to reflect God’s character and steward our responsibilities by treating our students well, even when they posed educational or behavioral challenges.

However, after I finished college, instead of becoming a teacher, I became mostly-housebound due to chronic illness. My intense physical suffering was concurrent with a growing awareness of some of the great evil believed and practiced within the Christian community and the immense damage this caused; together, these two things shook my faith, making it difficult to listen to sermons, read my Bible, or participate in corporate prayer.

By this time, I was living in Mississippi and starting to learn about the realities of racism. As part of this, I listened to a few episodes of a podcast called Pass the Mic. Though mostly engaging topics related to race relations in the United States, biblical anthropology and emotionally-healthy spirituality were frequent topics as well. I remember crying as I realized there were indeed Christians teaching that lament over evil and pain was an important part of the Christian life, things don’t always turn out to have a happy ending, and it’s okay to take trauma seriously.

In one podcast, Mr. Jemar Tisby asserted that aside from beliefs about God and salvation, believing in the image of God is the most important doctrine in Christianity and that its implications were enormous and far-reaching. I couldn’t stop thinking about this for weeks! Now, years later, it continues to have a profound impact on my thinking and life.

But what does it mean for humans to be made in the image of God? Much has been written on the topic, but here is a summary. Humans are like God in some limited ways, including being rational beings, having moral agency, and being relational. Humans are also God’s viceroys on Earth, here to steward the natural world for God’s glory. Likewise, though all of God’s creation is precious and valuable, humans have a special place of honor and value; only they bear God’s image.

In Psalm 8, King David hyperbolically writes of humans as being made “a little lower than God,” describing them as being crowned with glory and majesty, made to rule over all of God’s works:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty! (Psalm 8:3-5)

(I’ll briefly note that in Hebrews 2, we learn that this Psalm is also prophetic, pointing to Christ as the ultimate human to whom God subjected all things and crowned with glory and honor. This “image of Christ” in salvation is an important doctrinal development upon the image of God doctrine of creation.)

To summarize, being made in the image of God means 1) that humans are like God in some ways, 2) that humans are to act to fulfill God’s purposes on Earth, 3) and that humans have immense and intrinsic worth. This doctrine makes a huge impact on the Christian understanding of anthropology—the study of man.

One caveat: as humans, we are image-bearers, but we are not just image bears. We are also sinners, both in our nature and in our behavior. This has marred, though not erased, God’s image in us. Some humans, in addition to being image-bearers and sinners, are also saints; this is how the New Testament writers describe all those who are in Christ by faith. Saints, by the power of new life through the Spirit, are empowered to grow in Christlikeness, progressively growing in reflecting God’s original design for image-bearers. As Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son.” (See also Colossians 3:10.)

Meditating on the doctrine of the image of God has shaped many of my beliefs, convictions, passions, and behaviors over the past few years. For example, it gave theological validation for calling out and grieving the profound evil of race-based chattel slavery, rape, and murder. Furthermore, it buttressed my calls for justice to be done in the face of evil done to image-bearers (because evil done to those who bear God’s image is very serious). However, in my pursuit of justice, believing in the image of God also undercut thoughts of revenge, because even humans who perpetrate great evil deserve to have their humanity respected.

This doctrine impacted me in other ways too. It gave words to my concerns about how some New Calvinists emphasize the sinfulness of humans almost to the exclusion of acknowledging the image of God in humans. It gave me joy in seeing how much humans can achieve. Simultaneously, it assured me that though my health struggles limited my productivity, my value as a human was not diminished. It encouraged me to have an accurate view of myself, one that was neither too high nor too low.

It gave me the clarity to say that one of the reasons pornography and abortion are wrong is that they both exploit image bearers for the sake of another’s sexual gratification. It made me more compassionate towards animals, feeling responsible to care for them as I am able. It made me passionate in proclaiming that more important than people respecting a leader’s authority are leaders respecting other’s humanity. It meant that all human life has value, even if young, old, or disabled. It gave me a framework for learning from, honoring the accomplishments of, and seeing the good in those who hold differing beliefs than I do. It renewed my belief that the Christian’s roles in work, society, and culture are good because they reflect aspects of who God is and how he works in the universe. It provided a litmus test for myself as I sought to think of each person first as an image-bearer, whatever else they might also be.

I continue to suffer from health struggles and to grieve over many things, but most days, I feel more at peace with myself, with God, with his church, and in society. Correctly understanding doctrines such as the image of God has made a practical difference in my life. It has provided a foundation and guidebook for navigating the complexities, evils, joys, and sorrows of life. It is often a weary and weighty task, yet I am immensely thankful for God’s truth as an anchor for my soul.

I am grateful that he has revealed his truth to us in his word. I am grateful for the people throughout my life who have taught me good theology. And I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit, who continues to apply God’s truth to my life, forming my mind, heart, and actions to be further in accordance with his will.

So let us press on to know and serve the Lord and to equip others to better know and serve him. And let us rejoice in the honor of being made in God’s likeness, taking seriously his call upon our lives, and treating others as the valuable masterpieces that they are.

(Special thanks to Joshua Torrey for helping me edit this article and for sharing a portion of it on the Torrey Gazette.)

When “Biblical Gender Roles” Aren’t So Biblical: An Evangelical Woman Reviews “Beyond Authority and Submission” by Rachel Green Miller

Some Christians ask, “Is it appropriate for men to read Bible commentaries written by women?” Or “Are women allowed to be police officers?” Others suggest that women are more easily deceived than men, and therefore cannot be trusted. Still others suggest that the fundamental difference between the sexes is authority and submission. For many people, these are the things conjured by the term “complementarian”.

About a year ago, I remember having a conversation with myself about gender roles. I’ve heard enough bizarre teaching and seen enough horrific behavior in my years as an evangelical to have gotten burned out on the topic of gender roles.

But last year I started wondering what the truth really is after we cut through all the distortions and cultural layers. It was in this context that I said to myself, “I’m not sure what I believe about gender roles, but it’ll probably end up being what Rachel Miller and Aimee Byrd believe.”

Thus, when Rachel Green Miller put out a tweet asking for volunteers for her book launch team, I, in faith and with some trepidation, volunteered.

Rachel Green Miller is a theological conservative, a member in good standing at a Presbyterian church, the former editor of The Aquila Report, and a prolific blogger. All of her work is highly researched and clearly communicated, and she possesses the uncanny ability to see and trace connections between ideas and people. I know her primarily from her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and from Twitter. I gravitated towards her work immediately, feeling that she was both discerning enough and conservative enough for me to feel safe with and trust her thought processes. She has been immensely helpful for me in moving from being a “cynical evangelical” to a “discerning evangelical,” and for that I am immensely grateful.

For a more “official” introduction, here’s her bio taken from the P&R Publishing website:

Rachel Green Miller is a researcher and popular blogger who is passionate about elevating the dignity of women, improving the cultural conversation about gender relations, and defending orthodox Christianity. A member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, she lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Matt, and their three sons.

In Beyond Authority and Submission, Miller overviews the history of gender roles and the nature of men and women before looking to how these concepts apply in marriage, the church, and society. She summarizes the message of her book in this way:

“…as theologically conservative Christians, we must acknowledge where extrabiblical and unbiblical ideas about women and men have permeated, weakened, and confused our teachings. We need to move beyond a focus on authority and submission in order to incorporate equally important biblical themes in our discussions, such as unity, interdependence, and service. As we do, we will strengthen our vital relationship as co-laborers in Christ.”

In this book review, I will share highlights from each section and then give my response and recommendation.

Summary

Miller begins her book by clarifying that she is not comfortable identifying as egalitarian, complementarian, feminist, or patriarchalist. She does, however, believe that God created men and women to be equal and interdependent; that marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life; that husbands are called to servant headship and wives are called to voluntary submission; and that ordained church leadership is restricted to qualified men.

She does, however, disagree with many voices in complementarianism, such as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Voddie Baucham, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Doug Wilson, and Mark Driscoll. Throughout her book, she provides dozens direct quotes from these organizations and individuals to back up her claims about what complementarians believe and practice.

History

In Greco-Roman times, women were viewed as inferior to men, had few legal rights, and were thought to operate in the “private sphere” whereas the “public sphere” belonged to to men. In Victorian times, women were treated as children, were expected to endure abuse by their husbands, and had no legal recourse if their husbands were unfaithful.

Things begin to change with first-wave feminism, which emphasized votes, education, and employment opportunities for women and chasity for men. Second-wave feminism pushed for allowing divorce in cases of abuse. Some feminists of this time bought into the sexual revolution as well as promoting abortion, whereas other feminists saw industries such as abortion and pornography as exploitative of women. Third-wave feminism is largely joined to the abortion and LGBT movements, with some exceptions, as well as being one of the drivers behind and the #MeToo movement, which helps men and women speak up against sexual violence.

From a historical Christian perspective, feminism is a mixed bag—doing much good as well as sometimes supporting immorality. As evangelicals grew in their concerns regarding feminism, they rightly spoke up for biblical truth, but unfortunately often “corrected” by doubling down on ideas borrowed from Greco-Romans and Victorians rather than Scripture; this has resulted in concerning teachings and practices in evangelicalism today.

The Nature of Men and Women

For many complementarians, the fundamental difference between men and women is authority and submission. A tandem belief is that women are more easily deceived and have a core desire to usurp male authority. Together, these beliefs set men and women up to be at enmity with one another.

Miller describes the typical complementarian belief that women are to be “submissive, gentle, quiet, responsive, soft, life-giving, and helping” while men are to be characterized by “strength, authority, and theological discernment and as being initiating, providing, and protecting.” She suggests that these stereotypes come not from Scripture but from culture. In fact, in looking at Scripture,there are positive examples of women leading and initiating (Deborah), providing (Lydia), protecting (Miriam and Abigail), demonstrating strength (Jael), and having theological discernment (Lois and Eunice, Priscilla). Likewise, there are biblical examples of men helping (Barnabas), being gentle and quiet (see the instructions in Paul’s letters to both men and women), giving life (Adam), responding to other’s leadership (Barak and Apollos), and being soft and tender-hearted (David and Paul).

Not only are the complementarian stereotypes not biblical; they can also cause harm and unnecessary pressure. Women who have strong muscles or leadership qualities may feel condemned in their femininity. Men who are short, like poetry, or have emotional intelligence may feel inadequate in their masculinity. However, these stereotypes are merely cultural. There is much freedom within the biblical definitions of maleness and femaleness for uniqueness, and we do well not to add cultural rules to biblical ones.

Marriage

When authority and submission are the main lenses through which complementarians view marriage, the man is seen to be the ruler (prophet, priest, and king) of the house while the woman’s role is to run the home in practical matters. Miller, on the other hand, believes that from a biblical perspective, companionship is at the heart of marriage, along with interdependence, unity, and service. Within this context, she affirms men are to be servant heads and women are called to voluntary submission.

When marriage goes wrong, the question of divorce is raised. There are three main views held by evangelicals. The first is the “Permanence View”, which is that no marriage is ever to be broken by divorce. The second is the “Adultery-Desertion View”, which is that divorce is permitted only in cases of adultery and desertion. The third view is the “Serious Sin View”, which allows for divorce in cases of serious sin such as all kinds of abuse. Miller advocates for the third, asserting that serious sin breaks the marriage covenant; divorce, when chosen, merely makes the broken covenant legal while freeing the aggrieved party from a broken situation. She writes:

Because we hold a high view of marriage, we need to acknowledge that some sins are so heinous that they destroy a marriage. Hard-hearted sinners who break their marriage vows shouldn’t be allowed to make a mockery of marriage through their actions. Marriage is important, but it’s not meant to be preserved at all costs.

Church

When it comes to church, some complementarians believe that men should be the priority, that women are theologically inferior, that men mediate between God and women, and that the church should have a masculine culture. All men are to lead in some capacity, and women may participate in hospitality and childcare.

Miller affirms that women have direct access to God and that only qualified men should be ordained (and therefore preach, administer church discipline, and administer the sacraments) while pointing out that in the Bible, women are shown as singing, praying, prophesying, evangelizing, learning theology, and serving. Miller suggests that women should generally be able to do anything that an unordained man can do.

Miller’s final topic in this section is abuse. Domestic abuse exists in all circles and is justified by people of all belief systems, but there is a particular kind of man who finds cover in hyper-complementarian churches. It’s imperative that we are honest about this, that we condemn both the abuse and the wrong teachings used to justify it, and that we prioritize the lives and safety of the women at risk. The world is watching, and the name of Christ is often slandered because of how churches respond to abuse victims.

Society

When it comes to men’s and women’s roles in society, some complementarians teach that men are to initiate and form while women are to complete and fill. They suggest that godly societies and persons will prefer male leadership in business and government and that female co-workers are dangerous. (Miller, as usual, provides ample documentation that these views are actually widely taught.)

Miller, on the other hand, points to Genesis in saying that work is a shared calling for both men and women. Education, also, is rightly given to all people. There is much freedom as to how men and women work and function in society, to be guided by wisdom, situation, needs, and preferences. Miller also points out that Scripture dignifies both business leaders and employees.

My Response

As I read this book, I found myself often and involuntarily saying either “yes!” or “ew!” as I was struck by Miller’s insights or horrified by quotes from others. What I read put words to my concerns and beliefs. Miller provided data and quotes backing up my intuitions regarding the problems in much of complementarianism. She connected the dots and showed where things came from.

I loved the biblical examples of men and women performing different kinds of tasks and displaying different types of character qualities! I felt a sense of relief and assurance that it’s okay not to fit societal stereotypes. I found myself wishing that various friends and acquaintances of mine who have struggled unnecessarily in the past could feel the same relief.

I love how Miller points to Jesus as the ultimate example of both authority and submission and urges both men and women to look to him as their model for both!

I really appreciated Miller’s balanced approach to feminism. It was fascinating to read a good summary of each of the different “waves” and then to realize that I’m probably a 60 to 66% feminist.

I love the emphasis Miller put on companionship in marriage. Over the years, I’ve been unsure and uncomfortable when I’ve heard people talk about marriage being primarily about either hierarchy or holiness. I think that in the biblical text, particularly the beginning of Genesis, companionship is at the heart of marriage.

In recent years, I have researched the topic of different Christian views on divorce. Hearing Miller list the three main views gave categories for me to better understand. The “Serious Sin View” lines up well with the PCA’s position on divorce, which is that unrepentant serious sin is a form of abandonment and therefore biblical cause for divorce. This is my position as well, and it was helpful to have Miller’s reasoning to further strengthen my position.

I’m very thankful that Miller touched on the topic of abuse in the church. This is something close to my heart, and I think there is opportunity for Christians both to repent of how they have dealt with abuse in the past and then to set an example for the watching world of what it looks like to treat with dignity and truth those who have been victimized by all kinds of abuse.

In general, reading Beyond Authority and Submission has made me less afraid of the topic of gender roles and more confident in my faith, the Bible, and in the wisdom that I have developed over the years. I feel affirmed in my belief that the Bible is safe for women when properly understood and practiced.

My Recommendation

In summary, Miller engages insightfully with topics vital to the health the church, the dignity of all image bearers, and the witness of the church before the watching world. I recommend this book for those interested in the connection between history and current Evangelical teachings, for those who want a robust interaction with Biblical truth, and for those who are developing their own theology of gender roles. This book is good for both church leaders as well as lay people, both men and women.

I will note that this book is from a primarily Western and Caucasian perspective, meaning that it looks at the history of the West and specific teachings prevalent in white evangelicalism in the United States today. Other cultures may be able to relate to varying degrees, but I want to acknowledge that Miller’s critiques may or may not be true of other cultures. (She never claims that they are, but for those reading in a different cultural context, I just want them to be aware.) For example, Kyle James Howard, a seminary student and biblical counselor, has written about the teachings and practices regarding gender roles in the African American church and how they differ from teachings and practices in many white churches.

Miller’s writing itself is clear and concise, well-organized and easy to follow. The concepts are fascinating, the historical overview is helpful, and the many quotes shared back up her claims regarding prevalent teachings in evangelicalism. She is committed to historical and credal understanding of the Christian faith and she has the endorsements of people such as Carl Truman, Aimee Byrd, Jacob Denhollander, Wendy Alsup, and Liam Goligher.

In conclusion, thank you, Rachel, for writing such an insightful and helpful book! I give it five out of five stars, and I highly recommend it. I found it personally refreshing, clarifying, and helpful. I believe it is an invaluable resource for the church as we wrestle with what it means to be biblically male and female in our homes, our churches, and our societies.

You can purchase it from Amazon here or P&R Publishing here.

I’ll leave you with a superb summary quote and call to action from Rachel Green Miller herself:

Too often we find ourselves fighting each other face-to-face instead of fighting side-by-side as we were meant to. From the beginning, when Eve was made to be a helper for Adam, they were meant to work together for God’s glory and for His kingdom. As believing men and women, we have been united together in Christ. Instead of being distracted by what could divide us, we should focus on what unites us. We are the body—the church. Through the work of the Spirit, we are knit together and our true goal has been restored: women and men united and interdependent, serving together as co-laborers, glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.

Brief Thoughts on Pastor Platt’s Public Prayer for President Trump

This past Sunday, President Trump unexpectedly showed up at David Platt’s church, McLean Bible Church, and asked for prayer.

Platt prayed. Trump stood silently. The crowd applauded. Trump left. And social media erupted.

I wish to share some of my thoughts as well as some of the critiques that are important to consider. To start, here is a transcription of the prayer.

The Prayer Itself

I think the prayer was fantastic:

  • Acknowledging God as ruler of all
  • Praising God for salvation
  • Praying that Trump will look to Jesus in faith
  • Praying that Trump will lead with wisdom in the cause of righteousness and justice and equity
  • Praying for Trump’s family
  • Praying for all of our governing officials
  • And back to praising God as ruler of all.

This prayer is very biblical and very non-partisan. It clearly spoke the gospel over our president and called him to rule with wisdom and righteousness.

Other Considerations

Many opinions have been offered and many critiques have been made. Some of the ideas I find ridiculous. Others make sense to me and are worth our consideration; there are three in particular that I want share.

First, some have pointed out that we should not give extra honor to the wealthy or the powerful when they come to our services. That we ought to pray for our leaders, but that to do so from the pulpit may or may not be appropriate.

Second, it’s plausible to assume that that Trump was using Platt and Platt’s church for optics sake, and they, therefore, should have refused to what could be viewed as complicity in using the church to prop up Trump’s reputation.

And third, there are people of color and victims of sexual assault who would have (and did!) find seeing Trump on stage extremely distressing. People such as these need to be taken into account when situations of this nature arise. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I can see how empathy and sensitivity is needed. (See Kyle James Howard’s comments on Twitter to learn more about this perspective.)

Note: Pastor Platt wrote an explanation of what happened and his thought processes throughout, as well as expressing genuine empathy for those who were hurt by his choice. (Some have mischaracterized this as an apology, but it does not read that way to me.) You can read it here.

Concluding Thoughts

Pastor David Platt was put in a difficult situation for which he had little time to prepare. I think that he made a reasonable, good faith choice. The prayer itself was awesome! I also think the conversations surrounding the intersection of faith and political leaders, the powerful and the marginalized are vital and profitable.

Check out some of my other articles:

Jesus: The Ultimate Example of Biblical Manhood?

The question was first posed when I read a Twitter thread asking questions about biblical manhood and womanhood, particularly as relates to being like Jesus. Soon afterwards, I heard someone assert that Jesus is the ultimate example biblical manhood. And these things got me thinking…

Christians are called to follow the example of Christ in some ways. We are not God and we are not called to die to save humanity from sin, but we are called to Christlikeness. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the apostle Paul says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” And again, Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”

In some ways, it makes sense to say that Jesus could be described as the ultimate example of biblical manhood: Jesus was, of course, the perfect human, and he was a man. Thus it seems reasonable to tell men to follow the example of Christ as a way to live out their maleness in a healthy and holy way.

However, there are at least two potential problems. First, nowhere in the Bible are men in particular called to emulate the example of Christ as an example of godly masculinity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong to do so, but it’s important to note that the Bible itself does not make this call. Second, if men are to follow Christ’s example as the ultimate example of biblical masculinity, then who are women to look to as the ultimate example of biblical femininity? To ask it in a different way, if women follow Christ, will they not be walking in obedience? Are women to follow Christ only in some ways?

I don’t have answers to these questions (yet), but I do think it’s worth considering. I’m curious if you all have any thoughts on this.

Here’s what I do know: Jesus Christ, God become human, is not primarily our example; he is primarily our Savior. He knew neither sinful nature nor particular sins, yet he (in some mysterious way) took on our sin and the punishment we deserved for it, so that we could, by faith, receive the gift of the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.That is the most important thing to know about Jesus.

And secondly, we are called, once we are saved, to live out our new identity as ones who are forgiven and adopted children of God. This is possible because of Christ in us, making us new. And it is reasonable in light of the great work of salvation God has joyfully wrought for those who trust him.

So let us all–male and female–press on to know, love, imitate, and serve our Savior today and every day.

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (A book review)

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What if most people get poverty all wrong? What if the way we try to alleviate poverty makes things worse for everyone?

Several years ago, when my sister came to visit on a college break, she talked about community development and poverty in a way that mesmerised me. She described poverty as being about broken relationships and poverty alleviation as being about restoring those relationships. She talked about the need to differentiate between relief, rehabilitation, and development and the disastrous results when we don’t.

All these thoughts came from her studies in Community Development at Covenant College. Her (now former) professors are some of the world’s leading experts on poverty alleviation. So I decided to read the book her professors wrote: When Helping Hurts by Mr. Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert. I was blown away by their insights, and it revolutionized the way I viewed poverty. To this day, I regularly think about principles in their book, which have effected the way I approach people, theology, social ills, and politics. Recently, I decided it was time to re-read it, except this time I took notes. (Which makes it much easier for me to write this book review. 😉)

Before we begin, I will note that this book is written primarily to North American Christians, though certainly anyone could benefit. It also acknowledges the fact that most North American Christians are some of the wealthiest people in the world, even if not all are wealthy by American standards. However, I’m aware that some of my readers may themselves have experienced or be experiencing poverty. For those in that category, I hope this book review can be an encouragement.

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The Book’s Purpose

Authors Corbett and Fikkert begin with the assertion that the North American Church is composed of some of the wealthiest people ever to live. Conversely, 40% of the world population struggles even to eat everyday. This book was written because North American Christians, as a whole, are failing to adequately care about an address poverty in North America and in the rest of the world. It was also written because when North American Christians DO attempt poverty alleviation, it often makes worse the very problems they are trying to solve by applying simplistic solutions TO the poor instead of working WITH the poor, thereby perpetuating shame amongst the poor and god-complexes amongst those trying to help the poor.

The call, then, is to care about and do more for poverty alleviation AND to do it in a way that gets to the root of issues, while neither hurting the poor nor ourselves in the process. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is imperative for Christians to care about poverty.

Why Should Christians Care About Poverty?

Christians are called to care for God’s creation and to participate in spreading God’s kingdom IN A HOLISTIC MANNER. In other words, though personal piety and the preaching of the gospel are VITAL, they are not the sum total of what Christians are Christians are to be about. In the words of Tim Keller, “The kingdom [of Jesus] is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ’s rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom.” Jesus died to reconcile us to God, BUT ALSO to reconcile us to one another and to creation.

Before the 20th century, Christian’s led the way in ministering to the poor in both physical and spiritual ways. This changed in the 1930s when evangelicals battled theological liberals over core doctrinal beliefs. At this time, because of its supposed connection to theological liberalism, evangelicals largely abandoned the poor. The shift was so dramatic, it has been called “The Great Reversal.” (It should be noted that this happened decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which evangelicals sometimes blame for the church’s retreat from poverty alleviation efforts.) In other words, throughout much of the history of the North American Church, theologically-conservative Christians were deeply and practically concerned about the poor.

What is Poverty?

How you answer this question will have profound effects on how you IDENTIFY poor people, what you BELIEVE about them, and HOW YOU SEEK ADDRESS THEIR SITUATION. If you believe poverty comes from lack of knowledge, you will want to EDUCATE the poor. If you believe poverty is a result of oppression, you will seek JUSTICE through social and legal means. If poverty comes from sinful and unwise choices, you will share the GOSPEL and truths about Christian living. If you believe poverty is due to lack of financial resources, you will donate MONEY. (Does this remind anyone else of the divergent ways Republicans and Democrats speak about and seek to address poverty?)

Brian Myers, a Christian development leader defines poverty in the following way: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Corbett and Fikkert echo the sentiment by describing poverty as being about broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and/or with creation. When these relationships are intact and functioning in a healthy way, people are able to fulfill their purpose AND provide for themselves.

An important aspect of these definitions is the realization that ALL of us are poor in some way. All of us need to have relationships restored to healthy functioning. “One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” (Page 61) This cuts to the heart of the god-complexes that many American Christians possess. ALL of us are broken, and ALL of us need restoration and healing, not just the obviously poor.

It is important, however, to specifically differentiate between the broad concept of poverty and material poverty in particular, which is a lack of material resources. Usually when people talk about poverty, this is the kind of poverty to which they are referring. Though the Bible uses “poor” in multiple senses (e.g. “poor in spirit”), the Bible’s called to help the poor is talking specifically about the materially poor.

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

One of the most important components of poverty alleviation is rightly differentiating between relief, rehabilitation, and development. The authors assert that one of the biggest problems when North American Christian try to alleviate poverty is the application of relief principles to rehabilitation or development situations. This might look like building a person a house while they sit, able-bodied, watching. So what’s the difference?

RELIEF addresses immediate needs when a person or group of people are incapable of meeting their own needs. This might occur immediately after a natural disaster or in the cases of mentally disabled homeless people, the very old, the very sick, and the very young. In cases such as these, relief is given to the poor with little participation from the poor themselves. Situations requiring relief are not the norm, but they do exist and should be dealt with quickly. Relief should be immediate, practical, rare, and temporary.

REHABILITATION begins “after the bleeding has stopped” and its goal is to restore the person or community to their pre-crisis level of functioning. In this stage, poverty alleviation happens in conjunction WITH the poor.

DEVELOPMENT then seeks to restore both the helpers and the helped to full levels of flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This also happens in partnership WITH poor.

One of the most important components of rehabilitation and development is “asset assessment.” This means that instead of starting with what the poor lack, the goal is to participate in analyzing the resources the poor ALREADY HAVE. This is called “asset-based community development” which is in opposition to “needs-based community development.” The goal is to evaluate the resources, skills, abilities, ideas, and solutions of the affected population, using these as the basis for facilitating poverty alleviation. How are their communities already organized? What programs or organizations are already in place to address these needs? What skills and resources do the poor already have? This process should be done in concert WITH those needing help, which in itself starts to restore a proper relationship with self as it encourages a sense of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

Other principles of good relief, rehabilitation, and development include the following. When possible, allow LOCAL organizations to help the affected community, perhaps partnering with them to assist their efforts. Start by taking care of the MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLE and the MOST IMMEDIATE NEEDS, and do it in a fair and just way. Those assisting in poverty alleviation should be adequately trained both in their worldview (no paternalism; believing in the dignity of the poor; believing that God is already at work amongst the poor) and in the skills needed to do the work required. And finally, generally speaking, what people CAN do for themselves, they SHOULD do for themselves; feeling this sense of power and responsibility is actually PART OF THE PROCESS of restoring the broken relationships cause poverty.

Applications

After examining basic principles, Corbett and Fikkert turn to specific applications of these principles: short-term missions, U.S. material poverty, and global material poverty. I find it fascinating to see their philosophy applied in practical ways.

Short-term Missions

Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I myself have seen some bizarre things associated with short-term missions. From the arrogance of missionaries to the irresponsible use of funds. From culturally-insensitive behavior to paternalistic views of the local people.

But how can short-term missions be done well? Corbett and Fikkert suggest several practical ideas. First, make sure the host organization and local community are the ones initiating the request for help and are doing so in a way that is in line with good development principles. Along with this, those who will be going on the trip should have a clear understanding of what they will do and not do. Second, when recruiting team members, choose people who understand the purpose is less about saving the world and more about partnership and learning. It’s good if those interested in participating have already shown a heart for outreach and ministry in their local settings. Third, have adequate pre-field training that teaches some of the basic principles in this book including emphasizing that we are all poor. These conversations should continue WHILE ON THE MISSION TRIP and for A YEAR following the trip. Fourth, each member of the team should be required to pay part of their own expenses, perhaps raising an equal amount of money to donate to long-term missions or local development organizations. (Local organizations and long-term missionaries are generally much better equipped to make a lasting impact.)

US Material Poverty

What about in the United States? In the political arena, people often reference poverty, perhaps critiquing the way “the other side” deals with it. So what do Corbett and Fikkert have to say? In their view, the goal of material poverty alleviation is: “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Obstacles to this include BROKEN SYSTEMS and BROKEN INDIVIDUALS. Broken systems may include racism, classism, and difficulty accessing safe and affordable housing, adequate education, and basic health care. Broken individuals may lack a healthy view of themselves or knowledge of how to better their situation. The exact contributing factors will vary by situation.

To address material poverty in the United States, it’s important to implement a relational, participatory, and developmental approach. In other words, relief is not (usually) what is needed; rehabilitation or development is. This means that the materially poor should participate in their journey towards restored relationships and providing for themselves.

There will generally be several components to poverty alleviation. Often, the materially poor can benefit from the development of soft skills (such as a good work ethic, social skills, dependability, communication), hard skills (related to a specific vocation), financial education, and worldview training. It may also be appropriate to connect them with government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enables low-income workers to get tax credits for every hour they work; this, combined with a minimum wage salary may enable a family to live above the poverty line. Non-government organizations may be helpful in making available Individual Development Account Programs, which reward monthly savings via matching. One such program does a two-to-one match for every dollar saved.

Global Material Poverty

Global poverty is a huge issue. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Economists believe that the long-term solution is to increase the number of large manufacturing firms. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough being started, which means there are not enough jobs. As a result, many people turn to farming or small businesses to support themselves. This is challenging for those in poverty because they lack capital and/or access to loans. The exception may be loan sharks, who routinely take advantage of poor people.

Enter the micro-financing revolution! Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and economics professor, started a bank in Bangladesh to facilitate loans for poor people. Since it began in 1976, 7.58 million poor people have taken out loans from it for a total of $7.4 billion.

Through micro-financing, poor people are voluntarily put into borrowing groups and provide capital for other group members to take out small loans with a regimented repayment plan. In this system, poor people are coming together to help themselves and each other, and there is high accountability and motivation for loan repayment. While the number of large-scale manufacturing jobs are insufficient at present, micro-financing can be key to helping alleviate global poverty. However, the main disadvantage is that it focuses primarily on the material aspects of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert work for a Christian development organization called the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They have developed curricula to be used in conjunction WITH micro-financing that enables a more comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation. It includes business training, information on health, financial teaching, and worldview education (focusing on the four key relationships as well as the principles of dignity, stewardship, and discipline). This way, poor people are provided material resources to start small businesses WHILE gaining skills and support in other areas as well.

There are many ways that the North American Church can support micro-financing ventures globally. They can encourage and observe existing micro-financing efforts. They can subsidize training costs. They can facilitate training of those starting micro-financing ventures. They can donate to the evangelistic components of micro-financing institutions. They can financially invest in “business as missions” ventures. They can advocate for and promote organizations that use micro-financing. And they can pray for all the above.

Response

With so much information in this book, the authors then turn to what the proper response is, both for individuals and for communities.

Individual

Individuals, first of all, are called to repentance, if such repentance is necessary. Repentance for failure to care for the poor. Repentance for paternalistic attitudes and behaviors. Repentance for being disconnected from the full implications of Christ’s renewal of creation. “Without such repentance, our efforts to help the poor will continue to be characterized by providing material resources to the poor, rather than walking with them in humble and relational ways as we call on King Jesus to fix the root causes of both of our poverties.” (page 248)

Community

Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process whereby communities can mobilize together to address material property. “The goal of the process is to create a ‘community partnership,’ a group of individuals, associations (including churches), and institutions that cooperate to use the assets of the community to solve problems and to bring positive change to the community, i.e., to pursue ‘development.'”

The book recommends the following general process. First, interview all parties in the community. Second, identify community leaders, including those within the materially poor community. Third, form a team of identified leaders and conduct more interviews amongst the materially poor community. Fourth, choose a specific issue to begin addressing, one that is likely to be an easy success. Fifth, research and assess community assets, and begin the project. Sixth, evaluate the progress and celebrate successes. Finally, decide what is next; should the community partnership pick a different issue to work on or dig deeper into the current issue? Should the community partnership expand to include others or should it stay the same? In these ways, communities can pool their resources and expertise to address real problems in a way that honors the dignity, capabilities, and responsibilities of all involved.

My Reflections

When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was fascinated! I was also grieved to realize my own wrong beliefs and attitudes about poverty. Honestly, this was one of those books that shifted my worldview–a game changer. It opened my eyes to the idea that problems in society can be because of broken individuals AND broken systems. This was a paradigm shift for me, which ended up preparing me to learn about American racism, which I wrote about here.

Growing up as a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, I could definitely relate to some of the critiques of short-term missions. I’ve seen short-term teams be culturally insensitive and prideful. I’ve been angered and grieved over all the money that goes towards short-term missions when indigenous organizations and long-term missionaries often suffer from lack of funds. Reading this book helped to explain my unease as well as help me see a positive way short-term missions can be done.

I’ve also seen tastes of global poverty, and I sometimes wonder at the immense wealth in the US (and the way it is often taken for granted). I remember when I was in graduate school studying elementary education, I visited a local public school with my classmates. We sat in a reading resource room to debrief our experience after classroom observations. Every single wall in the classroom was filled with reading material, and at one point, I started sobbing because of the immense resources that surrounded us. I wondered if the people at that school had any idea how blessed they were. Along with this, I myself have been challenged towards more thankfulness and less entitlement.

And finally, I was challenged to donate not just to missions but to community development and poverty alleviation efforts as I realized the integral role they play in the holistic spread of Christ’s kingdom.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book–particularly to North American Christians, but to others as well. It changed my worldview in good ways and has empowered me with knowledge to see people more accurately and to express practical care for others in productive, loving ways.

Resources

The authors of the book head up an organization called Chalmers Center for Economic Development. That would be a good resource for learning more about community development for my best practices in biblical perspective. (website) (Facebook).

I’m still learning about good community development organizations, but if you’re looking to check out specific organizations or donate to their work, here are a few I recommend. Food For the Hungry (website) and Care of Creation Kenya (website) are both good. Mission organizations I am particularly fond of are Wycliffe Bible Translators (website) and Mission to the World (website). (I grew up as a WBT/MTW missionary kid, and I think both of these organizations are excellent! 😉)

What have been your experiences with poverty or poverty alleviation? What organizations do you know off that are doing good work?

~Hannah 🌸

Three Guiding Principles for the Church

Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. Doing so may reveal that we’ve gotten off track. Or it may affirm and empower us in the way in which we are already going.

With so many voices and competing truth claims pulling us this way and that, it behooves us to recall what it is that we are to be about as Christians, both individually and collectively. And when we turn to the Bible, God has given three main guiding principles. They are:

  • The Creation Mandate
  • The Great Commandment
  • The Great Commission

Let’s look at each briefly.

The Creation Mandate

Otherwise known as “The Cultural Mandate,” this is the nickname given to Genesis 1:28 which says: “God blessed them and said to them,Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” Christians throughout the ages have seen this as a call to cultural, familial, and societal participation. It calls people to get married and have children. To work to provide for yourself. To contribute to society. To pursue creative endeavors. To grow food. To take care of animals. To build cities. To seek the good of your community.

These ideas are echoed elsewhere in Scripture. To The Jewish exiles, the prophet Jeremiah passes on a message from God, urging them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) The Apostle Paul also reminds the Thessalonian church: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

This guiding principle tells us that God assigns dignity to the mundane, to the normal parts of life. God does not call us only to evangelism or only to loving one another; he calls us also to work in the contexts of creation and our families and communities.

The Great Commandment

We see this spoken by Jesus in Luke 10:27. “He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” It is the call to be guided by love in all we do–first by love for God and then by love of other people. We love God by learning about him, using our energy to serve him, and communing with him. 1st Corinthians 13 lists ways that we can love our fellow humans–by treating them with kindness, being patient, assuming the best, and speaking the truth. This principle, the call to be guided by love, reminds us that God cares not just about our knowledge, but also about our affections and motivations.

The Great Commission

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commissions his disciples specifically and the church generally, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Similar ideas are expressed in Acts 1:8, which quotes Jesus as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The idea is that Christ wants his church to grow—in breadth (making new converts) and in depth (creating mature disciples). Another component of “breadth” is that Jesus wants disciples of all kinds of people. Following the pattern of Acts 1:8, Christians are to evangelize and disciple those near to them (Jerusalem), those unlike them (Samaria), and those far away from them (the ends of the earth). This guiding principle reminds local church bodies to look beyond themselves in the cause of bringing people to maturity in Christ. It may require immense effort and discomfort, and yet it is what God has called and empowered the church to do! Christ will build his church, the Gates of Hell will not prevail, and he calls us to participate in such a work.

Conclusion

When the church neglects any one of these principles, it becomes unbalanced; worse, it fails to live according to the call that God has given. On a corporate level, various denominations may tend to focus on one principle while neglecting another. On individual level, a person’s culture or personality may lend itself more towards one over the others. The point is not that everyone needs to apply these principles in the same way, but rather that all three should be pursued in some way–individually, yes; but even moreso, corporately.

On the other hand, to those who feel discouraged, unsure if their tasks matter, may these principles offer encouragement. Whether you are caring for children at home, making beautiful YouTube videos, teaching missionary kids, holding the hands of the sick, praying with a co-worker, or participating in local government—what you are doing matters for God’s Kingdom! Press on, dear friends!

So, in closing, let us remember the dignity of work, the beauty of creativity, and the weight of our duties to society and family. May we be guided by holy affections and motivations. And may we live out the vision of the expansion and maturity of Christ’s church.

Let’s get back to basics, shall we?

~Hannah 🌸

7 Reasons Evangelicals Struggle to Respond Properly to Allegations of Abuse and Rape

Editor’s Note: contains references to rape, sexual harassment, and abuse.

In light of the Paige Patterson situation (read Rod Dreher’s description of and comments on it here), I’ve been reflecting on why time and time again evangelicals fail to respond properly to allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, or rape.

It looks like pastors telling abuse victims to return home and submit. Urging rape victims not to report crimes to the police. Sharing objectifying comments about young girls met with laughter rather than rebuke. Assuming alleged victims are lying or exaggerating. Handling allegations internally rather than reporting to the authorities and bringing in experts. Being unwilling to examine the evidence. Dismissing those who do as gossips or slanderers.

On the one hand, it blows my mind that people can be so ignorant and/or evil. And on the other hand, I recall that it’s only been in the last few years that I myself have learned about such things. But now that I do know, I see it everywhere—including in the church!

But why is this? Why do people, and particularly conservative Christians, repeatedly fail in these ways? Why the aversion to truth? Why so slow in the ways of justice? Why the failure to love neighbor? Why the disbelief that such evil could be in our midst?

One reason Christians fail is because people fail, and Christians are people. Other reasons relate to beliefs and fears that are specific to evangelical culture. In this second category, I’ve come up with seven reasons why Christians may tend to fail to respond properly to allegations of abuse or rape (or why they cannot tolerate the idea of those they respect having responded poorly). At the end of this article, I’ve included some suggestions for how Christians can respond better—in a manner befitting our commitment to love for one’s neighbor and love for God—and some resources for further study.

  1. A distorted view of authority. God is the ultimate authority and has created earthly authorities. He has given authority to governments, church elders, parents, and others. Christians are right to believe in and properly submit to such authority. The problem comes, however, when an earthly authority is made ultimate and unaccountable, above all critique or criticism. (Behind this is perhaps of fear of anarchy, of the dissolution of rightful authority, as well as a fear of losing control of those under authority.)
  2. Viewing specific churches, denominations, or organizations as ultimate and necessary. Sometimes Christians place too high an importance on specific churches or organizations which can lead to obsession about reputation and appearance over truth and justice. One might call this an idolization of power. This relates to a conflation of the success of a church or denomination with the success of the church or the gospel. People worry that if their organization falls because of “scandal,” the gospel itself will fall.
  3. Ignorance about harassment, abuse, and rape. Some Christians don’t understand abuse dynamics, reasons for delayed reporting, or even the basic definitions of harassment, rape, and abuse. Thus they fail to respond appropriately. Part of this may be because many Christians cannot fathom what it would be like to perpetrate abuse or rape, and they impose their “goodness” on those around them, failing to take into account the depth of evil possible even by professing Christians.
  4. Failure to understand the seriousness of sex crimes. Sometimes Christians engage in “sin leveling” when it comes to sexual sins, failing to recognize that sexual assault is much more grievous than lustful thoughts; in such cases, the result tends to being minimizing of sex crimes. Similarly, some fail to understand that some things are “merely” sinful while other things are both sinful and criminal.
  5. Misplaced opposition to liberalism. In American culture at present, liberals–whether political, cultural, or theological–tend to talk more about rape, harassment, and abuse than conservatives (who talk more about chastity, pornography, and adultery). This has led some conservatives to wrongly conflate opposition to sex crimes with liberalism. Perhaps it is difficult to accept truth when it comes from “the other side.” In my opinion, liberals have much they could learn about sexuality from conservatives; however, a proper understanding of and response to abuse and rape are some of the issues in which conservatives could learn from liberals.
  6. Fear of heroes falling. Humans like to have people to look up to. We love our heroes. The mere suggestion that those whom we respect could be guilty of grossly mishandling allegations of sex crimes (or of the sex crimes themselves!) can be extremely disconcerting. We wonder what will happen to us, and what it says about us, if our heroes are deeply flawed. And so it is easier not to entertain such thoughts, rejecting such accusations as being from “the haters.”
  7. Faulty theology of repentance and reconciliation. At the heart of Christianity are repentance and reconciliation. God, through Christ, reconciles sinful humanity to himself when they repent and believe. This reconciliation is echoed in relationships between people. Reconciliation, however, can be misapplied when victims of abuse are urged to “forgive and forget” at the expense of truth, justice, or healing. Or when the perpetrator feeling bad for being caught is mistaken for genuine repentance. Or when even genuine repentance is seen as necessitating the alleviation of consequences.

In summary, Christians may respond poorly to allegations of abuse due to ignorance, idolatry, fear, or flawed theology. The call, then, is: to embrace truth even when it’s difficult; to trust that Christ will build his church (even if our local churches or denominations fail); and to believe that doing justly on behalf of victims of abuse or rape is right and is actually a better testimony to the watching world than excusing or covering it up.

What Should Christians and Churches Do?

  • Learn about power dynamics and abuse dynamics.
  • Learn to recognize tactics abusers use to cover up their crimes and the likely responses to exposure.
  • Evaluate doctrines of authority, repentance, the church, and reconciliation to see if they are in line with truth.
  • Listen to and support (emotionally and practically) people leaving abusive relationships.
  • Speak up when you witness harassment and objectification.
  • Teach respect, chastity, and consent in your families and communities.
  • Support legislation based on best practices for dealing with harassment, abuse, and rape.
  • Advocate for good policies in churches, organizations, and denominations.
  • Be humble–willing to learn.
  • Admit when you’ve acted or believed wrongly, and seek to make it right.

Sample Resources

This concludes my current ponderings on the way Christians deal with abuse. Thank you for reading—especially as this is a serious and grieving topic. But friends, it is so important!

What about you? How have you seen Christians respond to abuse? What are some other factors that could contribute to poor responses? And what resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn more?

Until next time,

~Hannah 🌸

Check out some of my previous articles:

Believing Jane: Reflections on a Rape and it’s Cover-Up at The Master’s College & Seminary

When Traditional Values Create Toxic Churches