by J. Keith Bateman
Missions organizations increasingly offer “foreign aid.” While such assistance has always been part of Christian missions, the shift of emphasis in these programs concerns me.
Several years ago the Wall Street Journal carried a report on the East African nation of Tanzania. In her piece entitled "Third World Saga: Tanzania’s Case Shows Foreign Aid’s Pluses and Its Many Minuses," staff reporter June Kronholtz noted: "No country in black Africa is a bigger beneficiary of foreign aid and largess than Tanzania." In one year alone, Western governments and international organizations poured $644 million into Tanzania; in the 70s they gave Tanzania $3 billion. Yet on the 20th anniversary of Tanzania’s independence, President Julius Nyerere surveyed the wreckage of its economy and concluded, "We are poorer now than we were in 1972."
What has the economy of Tanzania got to do with missions? Perhaps more than we would think. Evangelicals differ over the content of the gospel, i.e., what we mean when we speak of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ. On the one side some contend that preaching the gospel is the essential element in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission; while physical assistance is important, they say, its primary function is to validate the message.
On the other side, equally sincere believers contend that showing the gospel through physical acts of compassion is necessary as a sort of pre-evangelism. These people tend to be doers, not preachers. Consciously or unconsciously, they make the message subservient to the medium.
Consequently, missions organizations increasingly offer "foreign aid." In their efforts to make both their presence and their message more palatable, they stress relief and development and other forms of physical and economic assistance. While such assistance, as we will see, has always been part of Christian missions, the shift of emphasis in these programs concerns me.
Why this change? Is it good or bad? What part should physical assistance play in missions today?
SOCIAL GOSPEL OVERLOOKED SIN
In the early part of this century when liberalism was sweeping through our churches, a new gospel was announced. Proponents called it the social gospel. In the place of the good news of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins came the gospel of service. These people looked principally at Christ’s acts of kindness and ignored New Testament doctrines about sin and the necessity of repentance and faith. Evangelical Christians rejected this false gospel. Evangelical missionaries continued to preach and teach the true gospel, and yet, they, too, showed acts of kindness.
Evangelical missionaries did not lack compassion for people’s physical and social problems. They did, however, recognize the primacy of the verbal message. They recognized the primary problem was sin. They believed that the physical problems they encountered were the products of sin. All of their kindness could never save a sinner. Therefore, the verbal message was always primary.
People were saved, churches planted, and lives changed. But, they also started medical and educational programs, many of which are still the best in these countries. Earlier missionaries were not blind to the social needs of people. This is our heritage in evangelical missions: the message verbalized and demonstrated.
SUBTLE CHANGE TAKING PLACE
But over the years a subtle change has been taking place. In the past acts of mercy were an outgrowth of a primary desire to verbalize the gospel. Now, however, acts of mercy are seen as primary-a wedge for the message-with the hope that as an outgrowth of these works, the gospel might somehow be shared. You may ask, aren’t the results essentially the same? After all, they are evangelicals, too. They’re not denying how people are saved. Their theology is biblical. Aren’t you guilty of theological hair-splitting?
I do not think so, because there is a difference in both emphasis and results. Since I have been serving in medical ministries in various places over the past 19 years, let me use medical missions as an example.
Fortunately, those of us in medical missions have the best example of the proper use of a medical ministry ever in the person of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals eagerly point to the example of Jesus Christ as one who was concerned with peoples’ physical needs. Mission societies have been busily recruiting and sending all of the medically-trained people they can lay their hands on. They have the ideal skills needed to win people to Christ.
The vision is a good one. In fact, it’s an excellent one- people being healed, and as a result of Christ’s love being shown to them, becoming Christians, too. But what actually happens is often a different story.
At the beginning of my missions experience, in 1970, I visited several islands in the Caribbean with a medical team of Christian doctors and nurses. What a fantastic opportunity to tell the gospel, I thought. I didn’t do it even once. In fact, as far as I know, no one in our team did. We were all busy in pre-evangelism from sun-up until sunset, six days a week.
There was nothing wrong with my theology; I was just too busy. In three weeks not one person that I know of came to Christ. I was inundated with unsaved people, people who needed to hear Jesus died for their sins, but they didn’t hear it from me, the one best qualified, since I was the one touching their bodies to heal them. The only difference in the people before and after was that some had a few less painful teeth.
Sadly, this pattern has continued throughout my full-time missionary dentistry in Africa. People have come to know Christ through me, but none of them as a result of my merely showing them my dental skills. I’m not alone in this. Nurses have told me that they can go months without ever talking about Christ with a patient. They are too busy. Physicians and surgeons have the same problems, often worse.
A FATAL FLAW
You might say, "But listen, you don’t have to talk about Jesus with your patients. You’ve shown them the love of Christ. Who knows, someday, somehow, some of them might become Christians as a result of your ministry of love. You’ve set the stage for someone else. You’ve pre-evangelized them."
There is one fatal flaw in this, the same one that the Apostle Paul pointed out in Romans 10:14: "And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" Good questions. What if no one does follow up? There are too many somedays, somehows, and might-bes in this approach. Our wedge of good works often ends up being the only thing we leave with spiritually needy people. Is this what Christ intended for a compassionate ministry?
HOW JESUS USED HIS HEALING
Let’s go back to the gospels and see how Jesus used a healing ministry as his wedge. First, while he used a wedge, he never lost sight of his primary objective. He could have healed the world. With one stroke he could have ended all pain and suffering for everybody. But he didn’t. Why? Because healing bodies was not his principal goal.
Many of us in missionary medicine seem to think that we should do what Christ did not try to do, heal the world. We go enthusiastically and lose our spiritual vision amid a mass of suture and gauze. Luke, a physician, tells how, after many acts of healing, Jesus was being sought by the crowd to stay with them. And so, Jesus built a hospital right there on the spot and started surgery? No, he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent" (Lk. 4:42-45, NIV).
Second, while Christ used healing as a wedge, he never divorced it from his verbal message. Few of us in the healing arts take advantage of the tremendous potential that medicine has for personal evangelism. Imagine the impact when a doctor (not the hospital evangelist or chaplain), while touching his patient to help him physically, also tells him why he has come to do what he is doing. The potential is unfathomable. Jesus apparently always gave a spiritual lesson along with the healing, commending faith, or using it as a sign of his authority and power to save people from their sins.
Third, Jesus used his physical ministry as a means to a spiritual end. Some missionaries now seem to think it’s wrong to use medicine, agriculture, education, or whatever, to share Christ.
We asked earlier if there is a difference in our approaches today. From Christ’s example we can see that there is. In the case of the paralytic, he dealt first with his spiritual problem and then healed him to prove that he was capable of forgiving his sins (Mk. 2:10, 11).
Fourth, Jesus did not permit his ministry of physical helps to overwhelm him. While we seem to feel that compassion demands that we take care of everyone, Jesus often walked away. Was he uncompassionate? No, he was smart. He healed all who came to him, but as soon as he could, he left, with good reason. He would have been swamped with patients. He made mobility his key: go in, preach the gospel, use healing to illustrate the point, and then move on. In contrast, the first thing we usually do in missionary medicine is to go in and set up an immobile hospital, where compassion demands that we care for everyone who comes.
Foreign aid alone is not enough to heal the world’s problems. If we take physical aid but little gospel message, what have we got? If we go into a country and treat physical needs only, hoping that sometime, somehow, someway, someone might accept Christ because of our kindnesses, what, in fact, have we got? If we bring our help and give people nothing to change their hearts, so that our work has a chance of lasting, what have we really given them? Foreign aid.
Foreign aid by itself does not work, because the problem of men is not principally social, political, economic, or environmental. It is spiritual. If we, as evangelicals, know this but fail to put our greatest efforts into verbalizing our message, we are guilty of hypocrisy.
"Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will follow," Kwame Nkramah of Ghana said as Africa moved toward independence 27 years ago. It has not worked that way. What kind of kingdom are we trying to establish?
I am not saying that we shouldn’t give aid. When Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" he told the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of caring for our neighbor. Missionaries have cared, better than most. There are a lot of us doing a lot of nice things. There are Christian doctors, nurses, bricklayers, teachers, and accountants. But there are a lot of secular ones as well.
The one thing that must distinguish what we do from what they do is that we have a message that can truly change people. "For how shall they believe in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" These are still pertinent questions.
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