Posted on

Review of David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands?

David L. Baker. Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 411 pp. $36.00.

Some may remember the opening decade of the 21st century as the time when many churches turned wholeheartedly toward helping the poor. Young missionaries flocked to the poverty stricken areas of the majority world, new congregations popped up in blighted neighborhoods of American inner cities, and workers sprinted to every major disaster area. While this development gives me great satisfaction, I sense that our practice of mercy has outdistanced our theology. Whenever I preach or teach about the biblical call to justice, too many people continue to respond by saying, “That’s the first sermon or class I’ve ever heard about the poor.” Our theology of justice should motivate and define our practice.

David L. Baker addresses this exact issue. After years of living among the poor in Indonesia, with academic training in the Old Testament, and now working as senior lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity Theological College in Perth, Australia, Baker focuses on what the Pentateuchal laws say about wealth and poverty within the ancient Near Eastern context.

He takes a canonical approach which offers a common ground for those with a variety of views on Scripture. He limits the work to the Pentateuch. Given the assumption that the entire Bible has a consistent view of a just God, what we learn about the theology of wealth and poverty in the law could serve as a foundation for all that the Bible says on the subject.

Baker follows a distinct pattern. After a brief introduction to each category of law relating to wealth and poverty, he presents how the 16 extant ancient Near Eastern non-biblical law codes treat that category of law before turning to the biblical material. In each section, a conclusion summarizes the data and draws limited implications.

Baker’s volume is noteworthy for its range of coverage. His work is exhaustive: comprehensive in its identification of biblical laws relating to wealth and poverty, meticulous in finding corollary laws in the non-biblical codes, and thorough in citing the secondary literature (the bibliography runs 53 pages). Baker clearly provides the reader with the raw data.

By this raw data, Baker affirms the claim of Deut 4:8 that the Mosaic laws are more just than those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, biblical law penalizes lawbreakers less frequently with mutilation, beating, or death than the ancient Near Eastern laws. The biblical laws are more just than the other codes in these ways: they more often protect the vulnerable, more frequently favor the poor who borrow or rent over the rich who own, more equally apply to all members of the community, and more often are rooted in concern for a just community over economic protection of the wealthy. Additionally, Baker finds few or no laws in the ancient world outside Scripture that prohibit coveting, protect resident aliens, call for a Sabbatical Year, provide for gleaning, regulate tithing, permit scrumping, demand judicial impartiality, or designate holidays for rest. Each of these biblical laws has distinct implications for the community’s most vulnerable people.

Despite this remarkable achievement, Baker leaves much unsaid. First, the volume does not explain the structure of the study. The book is organized into three broad categories of “Property and Land,” “Marginal People,” and “Justice and Generosity,” each with multiple sub points, yet there is no explanation about why these categories were chosen or how they function in comprehensively describing Israel’s laws on wealth and poverty.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, some of the presentations end abruptly without drawing out the implications for a theology of justice. On occasion Baker does synthesize and theologize, showing that he recognizes the significance of moving beyond the data, but there is no consistency to these moves or attempt to provide a comprehensive theological view based on the laws about the poor.

His treatment of slavery illustrates both the achievements and the shortcomings of this work. The biblical and non-biblical laws differ radically on the matter of fugitive slaves. The ancient world obligated all citizens to return a fugitive slave while the Pentateuch commanded Israelites to provide hospitality and refuge. The ancient Near Eastern laws about slaves rested on economic concerns, while the biblical laws grew out of the value of human life. This compassion toward slaves recalled Israel’s own slavery in Egypt. He argues that fixed-term slavery in Israel would be roughly the same as paid employment today. Baker helpfully explains the various kinds of slavery implied in the biblical laws. These kinds of significant insights are too infrequent in this volume, and even these are never stitched into a visualized whole.

For instance, Baker draws attention to how the biblical laws allow fugitive slaves freedom to determine where they are to live. He notes that generally the Old Testament laws provided this choice to those at the margins of society, not the elite (David and Solomon must live in Jerusalem). Given one definition of poverty as the lack of choices, this is a striking revelation, but Baker stops short of such implications.

In another case, he argues that the ancient world was not ready for a ban on slavery any more than the contemporary world, which statistically has more enslaved people than any other point in history. However, Baker makes no attempt to process this remarkable conclusion. The reader often wishes for another paragraph or two that reflects theologically on the justice implications of these laws.

Baker’s volume provides the valuable raw material for constructing a comprehensive theology of justice and in a way reminds us that much work remains to be done. Contemporary Christians seemingly willing to go anywhere or do anything to help the poor would do well to ponder the implications of the Old Testament laws about the marginal and, in that reflection, find biblical motivations for going and theologically sound goals to accomplish.

Harold Shank

Professor of Old Testament

Oklahoma Christian University

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA

Dr. Shank has written broadly on the topic of social justice. A bibliography of his work appears at

Posted on

Review of Richard A. Horsley, Covenant Economics

Richard A. Horsley. Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 193 pp. $25.00.

In his book Covenant Economics, Richard Horsley, author of twenty books in the field of New Testament studies, examines how the economic principles of the biblical covenant could apply to US society today. Horsley begins by stating his conviction that the nation’s founders desired to set up a society that was rooted in the biblical covenant. Over time, though, an ideology of freedom and individual self-interest pushed the covenant principles to the margins, which then “gave license to entrepreneurs in nascent capitalist enterprises” (xii). Corporations were formed, grew, and began to be treated as entities; eventually they were given stronger “rights” than individuals. Bankruptcy laws meant to protect families experiencing hardship were revised to provide less protection for the family and more protection for the corporation. Recalling the recent economic crises, the author notes that “there are huge government bailouts for corporations, but not for families” (xv). In contrast to living a life defined by the imperial economy, we are reminded that the people of God are called to create covenant communities concerned with economic rights.

Horsley’s book, which is divided into two sections, examines the arc of the biblical story through the lens of economics and highlights the interconnectedness of religion, politics, and economics. The first section looks at “Economic Justice and the Common Good” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Horsley moves chronologically, examining Israel’s socio-economic situation under the Egyptian imperial economy and the subsequent establishment of a covenantal society, and then considering how that society changed throughout the monarchy and the time of the prophets. He looks carefully at the roots of the Mosaic covenant and how it established “a relationship between the people and Yahweh . . . patterned after international treaties that were also inseparably political-economic-religious, enforced by the gods and ceremonial blessings and curses” (23). Yahweh’s ideal is spelled out clearly: families should have a right to their land in order to produce enough to live on, and the poor should be protected. Ultimately, “in Israel’s Covenant the society or body politic . . . is charged with responsibility for guaranteeing the economic rights of the members of the society to an adequate living” (48–49).

In the second section, Horsley examines “The Renewal of Covenantal Community” in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. Horsley examines how Mark and Matthew use insights from the Qumran community to contextualize Jesus’ call for the renewal of the covenant. He carefully explores the economic circumstances of Jesus’ day, describing the levels of economic exploitation—the multiple “layers of rulers simultaneously making demands on [the people] for tithes, taxes, and/or tribute” (88). Horsley believes that “Jesus was concerned directly and in a primary way with economic issues” (113) and that “if anything, he intensified the covenantal demands for communal cooperation and mutual aid, to love enemies, do good, and lend liberally, despite or perhaps precisely because of the [economic] pressures” (114). He also looks at how Paul worked to establish Messianic covenantal communities across the Roman Empire.

In his final chapter Horsley looks briefly at some possible applications of the economic dimensions of the biblical covenant to contemporary society. He argues that today’s corporations are the new transnational empires, wielding political influence and growing unchecked as they feed off their subjects through powerful marketing tools based on fear and through high interest rates (168–69). And only in the book’s final two pages does Horsley offer categories of practices for communities of faith to expand the economic dimension of their witness: (1) serve the community (homeless shelters, food pantries, etc.); (2) speak prophetically against corporate abuses and educate the public; and (3) take economic action as a group against injustice (179–80).

Overall I found his description of the historical situation of the New Testament to be helpful, but some of his assumptions about the make-up of the early church were puzzling. He assumes, for example, that only poor people were among Jesus’ early followers, ignoring references in the biblical text to wealthy supporters of Christ’s ministry. He says that “virtually all of those who joined the assemblies of Christ, including both slaves and those who may have been heads of households, thus would have lived around the subsistence level. There is simply no evidence that any were wealthy” (139). Then later he says that “the picture in the book of Acts of a few well-off members is historically unreliable” (142). His decision not to see any wealthy people in the early Messianic communities is problematic, because it limits who then belongs to the covenant community. Assuming that all of the early church was exclusively poor distorts the picture of the early church and keeps us from appreciating and realizing the kind of transformative and inclusive covenant community that God desires—where both rich and poor love and bless each other.

Horsley’s examination of the economic situation of Israel and the early church is enlightening, but my major critique of his book is that he ignores a biblical text, the book of Revelation, that could have strengthened his case for the impact of covenant economics on faith communities. It would have been helpful to see how the Christian communities after Jesus and Paul tried to apply the covenant ideals in their urban environments. Those communities were clearly being squeezed by an imperial economic superpower, and that text could provide valuable insight for his final chapter, where he looks quickly at how communities of faith today can position themselves as a godly alternative to the political-economic powers. While I believe that Horsley could have made a stronger case for an economic vision of justice throughout the whole biblical text, I would still recommend this book as a valuable resource for those who are interested in the economic situation of Israel and the early church and how those faith communities tried to respond to the economic systems of their day in godly ways.

Alan Howell

Missionary serving the Makua-Metto people

Montepuez, Mozambique

Posted on

Review of Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Powers

Richard A. Horsley. Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 248 pp. $29.00.

Richard Horsley’s most recent work builds on his prolific writing concerning the socio-political context of first-century Palestine. In Jesus and the Powers, Horsley refutes various anachronistic assumptions that lead recent biblical interpreters to discount or ignore the struggle against oppressive powers depicted in the Gospels. He seeks to show that Jesus led a socio-political prophetic movement that culminated in a direct challenge to the Roman authorities resulting in his martyrdom. This catalyzed an alternative social order that grew exponentially despite the real possibility that his followers might also face crucifixion. For Horsley, the core of the gospel message is Jesus’ renewal of the Mosaic covenant whose socio-economic principals give hope to the poor.

Horsley’s first three chapters set the backdrop for Jesus’ life and ministry. Citizens of ancient empires offered their labor and produce to the imperial order out of fear of the superhuman powers whom the rulers represented. This scheme perpetuated the wealth of the powerful and the subjection of the peasants. The Israelites defined themselves as an alternative society, free of imperial powers and sustained by the “principles of social-economic policy” in the Mosaic covenant. The kingship developed as a provisional means of defending independence. Prophets arose to protest against subsequent kings, beginning a tradition that grew as Israel fell under the control of other empires again. Under the Romans and their client kings, a number of scribes and peasants led protests or revolts deeply rooted in prophetic traditions.

The last five chapters examine Jesus’ movement in this context. Jesus sought to renew the socio-economic practices of the Mosaic covenant in order to restore family and community relationships that were disintegrating under Roman oppression. Jesus’ message empowered the people with the hope that through solidarity they might meet one another’s needs. Jesus also engaged in direct political resistance by declaring God’s judgment against the temple and the high priests who were propped up by the Roman rulers. He posed a significant threat to the Roman order. He entered Jerusalem at a politically charged time in a politically evocative way to make a forcible demonstration in the temple itself. Jesus’ crucifixion was the decisive event for the eruption of active resistance by his followers.

Jesus and the Powers pulls together much of Horsley’s previous work and offers an excellent initiation to or summary of his perspective. His illumination of Jesus’ socio-political context is provocative and enriches one’s reading of Scripture. Horsley’s themes change little between volumes and those familiar with his work will find much overlap. He refers to his earlier writings often and rarely adds new insights to the more rehearsed parts of his arguments. Chapter five, on Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, does reflect more recent research, and his discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion is fresh.

Horsley clearly has an agenda in Jesus and the Powers that does not include an assessment of opposing views. At several points he relies heavily on other individual studies, especially political scientist James C. Scott’s analysis of peasant communities and Norman K. Gottwald’s history of Israel. He does not balance these perspectives with alternative proposals, instead focusing on the research that bolsters his own conclusions. He turns to medical anthropology and studies of spirit possession in modern Africa for comparisons to Jesus’ acts of power because “information on spirit possession in ancient Palestine is limited and fragmentary” (114). This peculiar turn seems suspect, as Horsley makes little use of what limited information does exist. Horsley argues persuasively for his thesis, but the evidence seems skewed in his favor at crucial points.

Most alarming is Horsley’s use of Scripture. For Horsley, the Gospels are primary sources for understanding the early Christian movement, but they are not the inspired Word of God. Therefore we need to “read between the lines” so that we may disregard later additions that buoyed the editors’ imperial agenda (44). The biblical authors exaggerate (106) and embellish (183), though sometimes they also “tone it down” (172). The earliest gospel sources (Mark and Q) are most reliable, but even these reflect only how Jesus was remembered by his followers (201). The passion narratives are the least historically reliable parts of Scripture (158). These assertions allow Horsley to mold Scripture to fit his historical reconstruction.

The strength of Horsley’s work is also its weakness. In many cases he reduces Jesus’ concerns to the socio-economic realm and removes any religious dimension to his teaching. For example, Horsley asserts, “Only people who have become rich by defrauding the poor are interested in ‘eternal life’ ” (143). Thus in Mark 10:29–30, Jesus referred only to the restoration that comes with covenantal economic relations. The final phrase about eternal life is a “throwaway line” or an “oh, by the way” (143). But in this Horsley oversimplifies the poor. People living in poverty show concern for life after death, as evidenced, for example, by their often elaborate funerary rites.

More troublesome is how Horsley minimizes the resurrection to give greater prominence to Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Horsley, the resurrection, “the most prominent theological construction of Christian origins . . . effectively reduces or even eliminates the historical (social-political) significance of Jesus’ crucifixion as a force in the dynamics of his movement” (194). He devalues the religious significance of the passion narratives to the point that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is unnecessary and even contrary to the rest of the gospel. Can Jesus’ life and ministry not have two foci? Could his actions have significance both for this age and for the age to come? Horsley himself insists that acts with political implications may also have religious significance. But he errs at the opposite extreme of his antagonists by rejecting the key religious event for fear of sacrificing political force.

Despite these criticisms, Jesus and the Powers still holds great value for the attention Horsley draws to an often overlooked dimension of Scripture. Horsley challenges us to consider carefully the political and economic ramifications of the gospel we preach. Ministers and missionaries of all kinds engage in Jesus’ mission of bringing renewal to communities. We ought to share the gospel in a way that is more conscious of its economic currents so that we can help others overcome the fatalism that often characterizes those trapped in poverty. We must shed light on the gospel’s political context so that we can give hope to those surrounded by oppressive governments and corrupt patron-client relationships. In so doing, we help lay the groundwork for the radical, alternative communities to which Christ called us.

Robert J. Meyer



Posted on

Review of Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker, Transformission

Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker. Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 247 pp. $19.99.

Transformission, by academics and former youth pastors Michael S. Wilder and Shane W. Parker, takes on the subject of how short-term missions (STM) can be used to develop disciples of Christ. Although there is no definitive length for STM, the authors narrowly define STM as trips of one to two weeks in length for the purposes of their book. The audience they have in mind are those people from a sending country—presumably the US in this case—who are involved in the process of planning and executing STM.

Commendably, the book’s focus is in many ways the practice of discipleship independent of its connection to STM. There is a lot of wisdom in the content on discipleship, much of which the authors connect only casually to STM. Wilder and Parker assert that God intended the Great Commission to include not only making disciples of people of all nations but also the transformation of the believing Christians who take the gospel message abroad. In light of this assertion, the authors challenge the misguided practice of sending ill-prepared young people to far-away lands in the name of making disciples while little thought is given to making disciples of those being sent. They expose the tendency to treat STM as the end when they should be seen as a contributing means to the greater task of disciple-making.

The authors are emphatic that STM are subordinate to the making of disciples and that if the local church is not serious about disciple-making, then it should reconsider sending people on STM. In making this point, they go so far as to state, “We see STM as having little value for long-term initiatives and intentions of the Church and kingdom unless they occur, primarily, as an element in the discipleship process of all who go” (173). While it may seem odd for proponents of STM to describe them as “having little value,” the quotation clearly demonstrates the primacy they place on discipleship. The authors also recognize the oft-heralded shortcomings of STM but counter that the problem lies in the traditional focus of STM. If the entities that commission STM would see making disciples—especially of those being sent—as the goal and adjust their preparation, execution, and expectations accordingly, then STM would yield more abundant and longer-lasting fruit for the kingdom.

The authors dedicate several chapters of their book to reporting historical precedence, academic research, and anecdotal evidence in the attempt to change the mind of those cynics who do not believe that STM have a place in serious long-term missions. While these chapters lay an interesting foundation for the rest of the book, they do not seem to have the weight of argument necessary to convince those who doubt the value of STM. The recounting of the history of student-led STM as carried out by the likes of the Wesley brothers, Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission, and others is unconvincing due to their abbreviated treatment. The encapsulated summaries do not tell enough of their stories, especially with respect to the results of their work, to sufficiently make the point. Similarly, while some of the academic research is compelling, in the end even the authors admit that the dearth of information and lack of consensus among researchers make it difficult to draw a convincing conclusion as to the efficacy of STM with respect to the development of disciples. As for the testimonies from former STM participants, their inclusion certainly makes for interesting reading, but few skeptics will be convinced by a handful of biased anecdotes from former student missionaries.

The authors devote a considerable portion of their book to the persuasion and instruction of those leaders (e.g., youth and campus ministers, parents of students) who already employ STM and those who may consider it in the future. The members of this group are in need of field-tested principles and practices which might convince them of STM’s potential role in discipleship and provide them a means for realizing it. Unfortunately, with regard to such content, the authors offer too little, too late. Only the latter chapters cover this subject and even then fall short in developing clear and concrete proposals that the reader could synthesize and apply to his or her context. On one hand, I sympathize with the authors’ disclaimer that they cannot prescribe “a [mission] trip in a box” (174) due to the complexity involved in considering the cultural specifics and diverse objectives that each mission point presents. Yet, it seems reasonable that most readers of a book whose title is Transformission: Making Disciples Through Short-Term Missions are going to expect a bit more how-to material than is given by two men who have the wealth of STM experience and education that Wilder and Parker have. Certainly the reader will not go away emptyhanded, but they still seem to have left room for developing more universal principles and practices without running the risk of handing the reader a cookie-cutter STM program.

As a whole, the section on STM apologetics is likely too light to convert many skeptics while the portion devoted to practical application may be lacking for those looking for STM best practices. As such, it runs the risk of not satisfying either audience. At the same time, this book may well serve to pique someone’s interest in STM’s potential for discipleship and serve as a primer on how best to pursue them in their context. If that is indeed the case for some readers of Transformission, then Wilder and Parker should consider their contribution successful.

Speaking personally, I can relate to the premise of Transformission, since I became a career missionary as a result of STM experiences while studying natural resource management at Texas A&M. Without those experiences, it is doubtful that I would have ever considered missions as a career. As a missionary on the field I have worked with a number of short-term student missionaries and interns and have seen some of them return to the field. In fact, I am currently assisting one former campaign participant and his teammates to settle in Chile, where they will begin their work as career missionaries. Of course, the majority of those who have come to Chile on STM have not returned, but many of them are more involved in mission ministries through their local churches than they would have been otherwise. In a fitting twist, a young married couple who spent 18 months on the field as interns under my supervision are now serving on the missions committee at my supporting church in Denver, Colorado, as my supervisors. Without this couple’s service on the field, which inspired a greater commitment to world missions, my family may have been forced to return to the US when we lost financial support in our tenth year. In my supervision of STM workers, I consistently tried to make sure they had a personally transforming experience by approximating as much as possible genuine missionary life while facilitating meaningful interactions with the local people and culture. Any results produced for the work on the field were always a secondary concern. The priority was given to who the volunteers would become through what they experienced. That reflects the premise of Transformission, and I am confident that the aforementioned results testify to the efficacy of that philosophy.

Hopefully more of those involved in planning trips and receiving groups will be awakened to STM’s potential in the critical area of disciple-making. The success of STM should no longer be measured by whether people had a good time and were kept sufficiently busy for ten days, whether they went home with a feeling of mission accomplished, however fleeting, or whether they returned with good stories to post on a social networking site. Surely the Great Commission, as envisioned by God, given by Jesus, and carried out with the help of the Holy Spirit, was meant to play a greater part in the transformation of lives and the expansion of the kingdom than that. Being made into disciples while making disciples of others is what Christians are to be about; everything we do should be a means to that end. With that in mind, Wilder and Parker ask the hard questions, Should we even be doing STM? and, if so, Should we be doing STM like we have always done? Perhaps Transformission will inspire us to ask the same of our STM plans and convict us to give honest answers.

Scott Emery


Santiago, Chile

Posted on

Review of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People

Christopher J. H. Wright. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission. Biblical Theology for Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. 287 pp. $29.99.

In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright seeks to bring into focus two important questions for the people of God today: “Who are we” and “what are we here for?” From beginning to end Wright makes a strong biblical case that the mission of God’s people finds its roots long before the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Wright believes that a theology of mission for the modern-day church must begin with the Scriptures the Apostles read: the Old Testament. Concerning modern-day mission theology, Wright believes that tragically, “there is often not only a profound ignorance of great vistas of biblical revelation, but even impatience with the prolonged effort that is needed to soak ourselves in these texts until our whole thinking and behavior are shaped by the story they tell. . . . The attitude of some is that all you need is the Great Commission and the power of the Holy Spirit. Bible teaching or biblical theology will only serve to delay you in the urgent task” (39).

A truly biblical theology of mission finds its genesis all the way back at creation and the subsequent call of Abraham. “In the call of Abraham God set in motion a historical dynamic that would ultimately not only deal with the problem of human sin but also heal the dividedness of the nations” (41). The first Great Commission, says Wright, was Abraham’s commission to “Go . . . [and] be a blessing . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:1–3). Wright shows from the Scriptures that when God entered into a covenant with Abraham, he had in view the rest of the nations as well. The church of Christ, therefore, is nothing less than the multi-national fulfillment of the hope of Israel—that all nations will be blessed through the people of Abraham.

The people of God are those who are sent to “be a blessing” (Gen 12:2) and not simply to share a message of blessing. “When God set about his great project of world redemption in the wake of Genesis 12, he chose to do so not by whisking individuals off up to heaven, but by calling into existence a community of blessing” (73). When the people of Israel became a great nation (numerically) in Egypt God delivered them from their oppression in order for them to fulfill the next part of Abraham’s Great Commission: to be a blessing. The law, then, can be seen as God’s method of separating his people from the rest. The law was not God’s way of saving Israel (they had already been saved out of Egypt before the law came) but rather God’s way of making the saved into a blessing to the nations. A nation that behaved in the same oppressive, immoral, and ungodly ways as the surrounding nations could never be called a blessing to the nations. More of the same did no one any good. If Israel was to be a blessing they would need to keep the requirements of the law. They would need to evolve to become distinct from the nations. Likewise, a divided, fighting, unjust, and money-hungry church has nothing of worth to say to a divided, fighting, unjust, and money-hungry world. Or, in the words of Wright, “a church that is bad news in such ways has no good news to share. Or at least, it has, but its words are drowned out by its life” (95).

This is perhaps Wright’s greatest contribution to a modern biblical understanding of the mission of God’s people: that there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics. It is not enough to go and teach the gospel of Jesus in our communities through gospel meetings or street preaching for example. Such teaching (and baptizing) must necessarily be followed by an equally diligent endeavor to “make disciples.” For many churches today, their greatest battle in being God’s Abrahamic community is not the hard or unreceptive soils of their surroundings. We cannot revert to easy finger-pointing at our communities to make us feel better about our church condition. No, the finger must be pointed to ourselves: the only people we really have control over. The exodus story must become a model of behavior for the people of God. “Israel [and the church today] must live out the same qualities that motivated YHWH to act as their divine goel [kinsman-redeemer, family guardian]. Part of the mission of God’s redeemed people is to reflect the character of their redeemer in the way they behave to others. And that means especially the chief requirements of any goel: costly compassion, commitment to justice, caring generosity, redemptively effective action” (106–7).

Wright also believes that the call to be a blessing has strong implications in the workplace and requires a strong biblical theology of work. Work is inherently good and absolutely a part of the mission of God’s people. We cannot be satisfied with a theology of work that believes the only noble work is the work of evangelism, for evangelism becomes mere chatter if it is not communicated by communities of people who live redemptively.

Wright comes at The Mission of God’s People from a clearly Evangelical-Christian worldview. As an example, Wright frequently draws applications relevant to Evangelical, western Christians and may unintentionally lose non-Evangelical readers. On a couple of occasions he surfaces the Church’s tendency to reduce Christianity to evangelism alone: “There was mission beyond evangelism . . .” (86) and “What is our goal? Where is our heart? Are we obsessed with making converts only . . . ?” (95). The Mission of God’s People could be better titled An Evangelical-Christian Understanding of The Mission of God’s People.

In another instance Wright draws out the modern church’s ethical failures: “A divided, split and fighting church has nothing to say or to give to a divided, broken and violent world. An immoral church has nothing to say to an immoral world. A church riddled with corruption, caste discrimination and other forms of social, ethnic, or gender oppression has nothing to say to the world where such things are rampant . . .” (94–95). Although strongly applicable to the subject of the mission of God’s people, the reader would do well to understand Wright’s intended audience: the modern, Evangelical, Western Christian.

Shaun Dutile

Spiritual Leader

Brunswick Church of Christ

North Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

Posted on

Review of Christopher L. Huertz and Christine D. Pohl, Friendship at the Margins

Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission. Resources for Reconciliation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 160 pp. $15.00.

Christopher Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh (an organization devoted to serving Jesus among the poorest of the poor), and Christine Pohl, professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, team up to provide a compelling volume on friendship and ministry among the world’s poor, particularly the extreme and most vulnerable of the poor.

A programmatic statement that describes the thrust of the book is as follows: “Friendship with people who live on the margins of the larger society, who are generally feared, excluded or overlooked, invites us to reconsider the meaning and practice of mission” (73). In effect, this book calls the church to view relationality and gospel as necessary conditions of each other. Appropriately, the writing of the book itself is a product of friendship, as the authors’ brief narrative on how they came to collaborate on this book wonderfully recounts.

Pohl and Heuertz discuss several key commitments inherent in the very fabric of the gospel. Such include the rejection of any type of ministry or benevolence that flows in a mono-directional way, simply a transfer of resources (spiritual or material) from “giver” to “receiver.” They also challenge the notion, often prominent in mission practice (look at missionary living arrangements and social practices!), that social distance between donors and recipients is a tolerable, good, or even necessary arrangement. Rather, ministry assumes relationship.

At the heart of this book, however, is the call to refuse to view others as “objects of charity” in ministry (26). They warn about the possibility (reality in many places!) of communities that have been saturated with missional activity but where the good news has not been embodied in a consistent presence of love, concern, and friendship. It is in such situations where “folks know that they have been targets of one more program” (73). Such is not ministry, gospel, or friendship, but religious marketing.

Ministry that follows in Jesus’ footsteps, instead, is about seeing the “Other” as friend. A person becomes a friend when they are “not seen as a project or needy recipient but as a fellow traveler” (102). This counters any tendency of reducing people to “targets” or “converts,” a constant temptation in our consumerist, marketing-driven culture.

As for specific practices, Pohl and Heuertz suggest that the core of friendship involves, among other things, eating together and sharing ourselves as much as we share our resources. Such practices can help move ministry from a “need/solutions” paradigm to one of sharing joy and sharing life (50).

This is an important book. In fact, for me it passes the litmus test of good theological literature—it made me rethink my own practices, both personal and ministerial. The authors illustrate in anecdotes and theoretical discussion concrete strategies for forging such real and gospel-laden friendships.

Taken seriously, the authors’ suggestions could reshape how many of us view ministry and practice evangelism. Their brief but powerful sections “Facing our Tangled Consumption Patterns” (61) and “Is the ‘Plunder from the Poor’ in My House?” (55) should be required reading for all who engage in ministry and mission as they force us to take inventory of our own complicity in certain forms of global injustice.

The chapters are full of rich and challenging personal anecdotes, but also include mature and wise discussions of weighty theological challenges and ministry issues. Also, they include a brief but helpful study guide.

I do not know if over the past few years I have read a book as compelling and critical as Friendship at the Margins. Buy it. Teach it. Put it into practice.

Chris Flanders

Associate Professor of Mission

Graduate School of Theology

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

Posted on

Review of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Chicago: Moody, 2009. 230 pp. $14.99.

Good intentions are seldom sufficient to insure effective development: indeed, considerable harm has been done in the name of helping. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert attempt to bolster good intentions with a theology of poverty and development and a handful of contemporary development principles in their primer, When Helping Hurts. An excellent introduction to Christian humanitarian development—accessible and mainstream in its development views—it brings development into holistic Christian mission and aligns it with contemporary development thought. The book is well-suited as an introduction to mission support groups—missions committees, non-profit boards, short-term mission teams, church leaders and members—who are exploring humanitarian activities in missions and ministry.

Under Brian Fikkert’s leadership, the Chalmers Center at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) has garnered a reputation for Christian-based education and training in micro-level development. When Helping Hurts is the second book of national note to come from its faculty, the first being Christian Microenterprise Development (David Bussau and Russell Mask, Paternoster, 2003).

When Helping Hurts is divided into three parts, with each part containing three chapters. Part one provides a theological glance at poverty which largely adopts Bryant Myers’s (Walking with the Poor, Orbis, 1999) framework reflecting a motif of restoring broken relationships with God, self, others, and creation. Starting from a biblical framework avoids an exclusive or competing view of spiritual versus material brokenness, and includes both as subject to the redemptive work of Christ. A biblical framework also draws attention to the criticality of surfacing perceptions about the causes of poverty that shape development policy and practice as well as helpers’ self-perceptions, including “god-complexes.” The authors offer a brief historical context of Evangelicals being repelled by early twentieth-century social Christianity. (Humanitarian engagements among conservative branches of the Stone-Campbell movement appear to follow a similar trajectory, but for somewhat different reasons.)

The second part of the book addresses basic development principles. The authors begin by differentiating among relief, rehabilitation, and development and outlining the appropriate role for each. This issue is important since sustainable impact and delivery are critical considerations in effective ministry organizing; too often, Christian humanitarian practice has applied short-term responses to long-term issues. The authors proceed to introduce an asset-based approach to development (How can we build upon assets?) in contrast to the common needs-based approach (How can we remedy deficits?). They also introduce the notion of co-participant roles in contrast to paternalistic roles. These perspectives are widely endorsed in development practice and deserve additional careful unpacking and application.

The third part of the book attempts to apply the theological and development insights offered thus far to short-term, domestic, and international missions and humanitarian efforts. The authors are largely critical of short-term missions, although they offer a few suggestions to minimize their harm. They provide examples of community development (including job preparedness, financial literacy programs, and individual development accounts) and introduce microfinance and business as mission. These topics require considerable additional development before they would be actionable. The authors recognize the complexity of development contexts and responses which prevent such an introductory work from exposing the reader to the kaleidoscope of unique contexts and participants.

When Helping Hurts is an introduction. As such, it offers brief examples but no in-depth case studies or first steps toward development planning. Christian ministries and individuals engaging in poverty alleviation is the focus; the reform of national or international policy, institutions, or development efforts on a macro scale is left unexplored. A website supports the book (, offering a study guide and inviting visitors to consider training courses from the Chalmers Center.

When Helping Hurts is an initial corrective to spiritual-material dualism, paternalism and dependence, material definitions of poverty, and generic development strategies. It offers caveats on short-term relief and missions and offers rudimentary principles for those unfamiliar with development studies. The volume hints that considerable development and theological resources exist on this topic and that both are worthwhile to explore when engaging in humanitarian ventures. Equipping should not stop with this book, but it is an excellent place to begin.

Monty L. Lynn


College of Business Administration

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

Posted on

Review of James Butare-Kiyovu, ed., International Development from a Kingdom Perspective

James Butare-Kiyovu, editor. International Development from a Kingdom Perspective. WCIU Press: International Development Series 2. Pasadena: William Carey International University Press, 2010. 166 pp. $9.95.

There continues to be a coming together of the two dominant paradigms in missions going back to the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974. The evangelistic emphasis underlying the unreached peoples paradigm is broadening to be more inclusive of the transformational development paradigm. No longer do Evangelicals wince at ministries of justice. Today’s gospel emissaries are blending the first words of Jesus (Luke 4:18–20) with the last words of Jesus (Matt 28:18–20) as they develop their missional theology. The church is out in the community and the world in force, be it adopting an underprivileged school, cleaning up the neighborhood, planting churches, or ministering to those with HIV/AIDS.

James Butare-Kiyovu is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at William Carey International University. He has edited an eclectic book, many of whose articles have been published elsewhere. With chapters on the last two centuries of missions (Ralph Winter), missio Dei (Eddie Arthur), economic justice (David Befus and Stephan Bauman), ministry to children (Luis Bush), shalom (Beth Snodderly), a prayer guide utilizing the Millennium Development Goals (Micah Challenge), the genocide in Rwanda (Butare-Kiyovu), and more, there is something here for everybody who has an interest in holistic mission.

In a seminar in 2007, Ralph Winter wondered aloud if there should be a fourth era of missions. He had previously written about three eras between 1800 and 2000 (the article is reprinted in this book), but was now suggesting a fourth one: the Kingdom Era. It was this concept that helped influence the titling of this volume.

Of special interest to readers of this journal is Eddie Arthur’s article, “Missio Dei” (49–66). Arthur traces the development of the concept through history, beginning with Augustine but especially emphasizing the period from World War II through the present. He concludes by linking missio Dei to trinitarian mission and stating that the concept saves the church from having to choose between either social change or fundamentalism (61).

David Befus and Stephan Bauman’s selection, “Economic Justice for the Poor” (89–100), begins with the biblical foundation for justice. After considering the church’s mandate for justice, they conclude with a series of twenty action steps. The following two quotations sum up the main thrust of these steps: “We need to invest in women and children with the message of economic justice as a means of transforming the next generation” (97). “We need to promote understanding of the negative ecological impact of economic injustice” (99). These twenty steps provide an undeniable agenda for mission in our time.

In his chapter, Luis Bush makes an eloquent plea for involvement in what he calls the 4/14 window. Bush, who had earlier coined the well-known phrase “10/40 window,” says that the top priority for missions should be working with children, those who range in age from four to fourteen. He points to the overlap between poverty, illiteracy, and hunger that wreak havoc on children, many of whom live in the 10/40 window. He writes about children at risk: “Millions are at risk from poverty, but millions are also at risk from prosperity! Many children and young people today have everything to live with, but nothing to live for” (129). Children are not to be targeted just so that they may have abundant and eternal life, but because they can transform the world (137).

The most unique and practical entry is supplied by the Micah Challenge, “Prayer Stations Guide on the Millennium Development Goals” (143–54). The Challenge transforms each goal into a prayer station. At each station there is a comment on the specific goal, a hands-on activity related to the goal, prayer suggestions, and a brief Scripture passage.

The book’s weakness, in addition to the annoying misspellings in the references and the bibliographies, is its lack of progression from chapter to chapter. There seems to be no logical flow to this book. It is as if the editor could not decide whether his book should be a biblical study, an overview of development theory in missions, or a collection of random case studies.

Doug Priest

Executive Director

Christian Missionary Fellowship International

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Posted on

Review of Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel

Richard Stearns. The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 303 pp. $15.99.

Richard Stearns has accomplished something very significant with The Hole in Our Gospel. Stearns presides over the US division of the well-known Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision International. Out of his experiences before and after assuming that post, he writes a moving and challenging call to all who identify themselves as Christians to move beyond common reductionisms and embrace the whole gospel of the kingdom of God. Specifically, he challenges the spiritualized gospel that overlooks Jesus’ good news for the poor and oppressed regarding their actual life circumstances—and therefore overlooks the church’s responsibility as proclaimers of that holistic message.

In keeping with the intention to reach a very broad audience, the book is written on a popular level. Stearns compellingly weaves together autobiography, narrative, biblical commentary, and statistics, making for an enjoyable but gripping read. The personal touch of his own story of calling, resistance, and revelation exudes humility, conveying to the reader that he writes from a place of empathy rather than judgment. In this way, he is able to make the bold claim that the very gospel the reader may have heard or accepted might be an incomplete and therefore falsified version of Jesus’ message and claim on the would-be disciple. In fact, the answer to the overlong subtitle is, “God asks us for everything” (1)—a claim the affluent American Christian audience that Stearns targets could easily dismiss as hyperbole were it not for the finesse of his presentation.

The main idea of the book, then, is that the very essence of Christianity—the gospel—has been profoundly misunderstood by the majority of believers, in the Western world at least. This is, of course, a deeply theological claim that requires substantiation. Yet, it is a claim that the less accessible theological literature already widely confirms. Stearns admits he does not have theological training, though he evinces a familiarity with at least the contours of the corresponding academic discussion. In fact, the book fairly represents the emerging scholarly consensus on the holistic nature of Jesus’ kingdom message. The result is that the real contribution of the book is its ability to communicate more widely and effectively than other kinds of publications, which it accomplishes spectacularly.

Though there is a logical progression to the book, the sense of structure is minimized by the interjection of personal stories throughout, as well as the fact that some of the autobiography is not chronological. The movement begins with the problem (Part 1: The Hole in My Gospel—and Maybe Yours). It then brings the reader through a corrective (Part 2: The Hole Gets Deeper), an introduction to the need for the whole gospel (Part 3: A Hole in the World), and a look at the church’s common failure to respond (Part 4: A Hole in the Church). Finally, it ends with a challenge to practical action (Part 5: Repairing the Hole). It is a good introduction to the concerns of Christian charities and developmental organizations, from the core beliefs that motivate them to the challenges they face. Stearns’s portrayal of the struggle to bringing churches into substantial partnership may be particularly illuminating for readers from church traditions that have been historically reticent to allow parachurch organizations to do what ought to be the church’s work.

As someone who has become jaded about the emotional ploy of so many “sponsor a child” television commercials (of which World Vision has aired its share), I greatly appreciate the line that Stearns walks between guilt and motivation. In large part, the book’s emotionally convicting stories strike me as his personal testimony to the way that committed praxis has shaped his theology. That is a significant point by itself. The chapters on the “hole in the world” are especially well done, conveying the rather overwhelming statistical data in an understandable and humanized way, while at the same time managing sensitivity to the hopelessness that the information can instill. Another very helpful section is the brief discussion of the historical parting of the ways between liberals and conservatives over the social gospel. Stearns makes it clear that neither side came away with the whole gospel according to Jesus, helping some move beyond that dispute and conscientizing others to historical forces that shape their assumptions.

The author’s theological training aside, any book written for such a broad audience will inevitably oversimplify some things. With a view to the book’s purpose and style, that cannot be a criticism but must be an observation. This volume is a wonderful starting place for renewed reflection on the gospel, but the church cannot stop here. Notably, there is an overrealized eschatology evident in Stearns’s presentation. His rhetoric is probably justified, because the church is already so hesitant without mentioning the “not yet” aspect of God’s kingdom, but we must faithfully represent Jesus’ total message nonetheless.

There is also a Christendom mentality in the book, and Stearns actually refers to “Christendom” explicitly (216, 238). His vision for what could happen if all of Christendom were mobilized into generosity and service is a hopeful one, and an organization like World Vision cannot discriminate in its acceptance of donors and sponsors—nor should it. Yet, theologians in the late modern era have decried Christendom for good reason. Stearns needs to consider the implications of affirming Christendom on the basis of its economic potential, lest he sell out the whole gospel he intends to reclaim.

With these cautions registered, I heartily recommend the work as a vital and timely contribution. May the church ever return to a vision of the whole gospel!

Greg McKinzie


Arequipa, Peru

Visit to learn about the developmental ministry happening in Arequipa.

Posted on

What Is Good News to the Poor? (Cambodia)

While sitting with my neighbor, Chanthu, on her bamboo platform in the suburbs of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we watched some local dogs picking scraps from a garbage pile. The dear woman quietly mentioned how she and her young sons would one day be such mangy animals as these. She reasoned that their poverty was a sign of their bad karma.

“Does this bother you, Chanthu?” I asked, shocked.

“It is what it is,” she replied, “the truth.”

“Are you afraid?” I whispered.

“Yes, but there is nothing for me to do. My sins are more than my merit,” Chanthu said, hopelessly.

“Is there no one to forgive your sins?” I asked, hoping to lead her deeper into discussion about Jesus.

“No one,” she stated with finality.

“Aren’t you afraid?” I could not help but ask.

“Yes. I am afraid of my boys being dogs. I am afraid that no one will feed my ghost in the waiting time between lives. I have much fear.”

Yet, Chanthu, resigned to her fear, looks to money as a solution to at least the most pressing problems. Her husband recently moved to Australia to work as a migrant fruit picker. Chanthu says she misses him, but she would miss the money he was sending more. The money, she knows, will not change her karma. At least some relative comfort can be found before her next life as a dog. As much as Chanthu desires wealth, surely better good news exists than a TV and cell phone!

Freedom from fear is found in Christ, and that is good news! We, as Christians, know and believe this truth. Chanthu, however, can only focus on alleviating her poverty in this life and leaves dealing with the terrible prospects of the next life until later. We know later is too late, and, while we are rejoicing in Chanthu’s new income, we fear it will only distract her from God’s good news to the poor. As disciples, we are called to share Christ with others. We should be fearless, knowing that the only way we can fail is by not sharing.

In my early years in Cambodia, I had a discussion similar to the one I recently had with Chanthu. Considering her words now, I wonder whether I fully understand or appreciate Christ’s good news myself:

“What if there were someone who could pay for all your sins?” I asked.

“Well,” the woman replied, “that would be just too amazing to believe.”

Too amazing? Almost.

Casey Allison, along with her husband Chris and their three children, serves as a missionary among the Khmer people of Cambodia. Visit the Cambodia Mission website at or Casey’s personal blog at