With nearly 250,000 copies sold, When Helping Hurts is touching a nerve in the church. As I worked through the text keenly interested because of the ministry God has called me to, I was consistently disappointed. My frown first came on the first page of the first chapter when Fikkert set the stage for social ministry as the goal of the church rather than churchplanting.
The chapter is entitled “Why Did Jesus Come to Earth?” and he argues something like this:
- Jesus came to earth to fix everything that is wrong with the world. (32)
- The main job of the church is to take Jesus’ place doing what he did. (37 and 41)
- Therefore, the Church is supposed to fix everything wrong with the world. (37 ff)
In 2009 the book that I awarded as Best of the Year that I had read was How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt. It is an inspiring catalog of social changes that Christians have produced because of their faith in Christ. The list includes schools, hospitals, legal rights for women, and the world’s greatest pieces of art. That book should be read by every believer (and unbeliever) since all things are under Christ’s feet, and we must master every legitimate cultural expression to His glory. In short, I am glad to encourage Christians to take part in societal change.
But is that the most Biblical way to explain the church’s mission on the earth? No, it is not. Interestingly, on the first page of chapter 1, Fikkert recognizes that there is some controversy on this point which he calls “nuanced differences (32).” In the next sentence he admits that this “small differences can have dramatic consequences for all endeavors, including how the church responds to the plight of the poor.” (32) So, the author knows that he is entering disputed territory. There is no consensus on the theological foundation he is trying to lay.
He quotes Luke 4:17-21, a favorite of liberation theologians, and then assumes that each of the terms such as poor, prisoner, and oppressed are to be taken literally. Yet on the same page when he cites Luke 4:43 “the kingdom of God” is to be taken figuratively. By what hermeneutic?
None needed because he has a preconceived conclusion about social ministry that he wants to support with Scripture. And to add some star power, in the same paragraph, the second page of actual text in the book, he quotes Tim Keller who is well known for his position on social ministry (32).
Fikkert correctly says, “The mission of Jesus was and is to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God” then he adds his interpretation of what this means: “I am using my power to fix everything that sin has ruined.” How did we get from preaching about the kingdom to fixing everything? Only an amillennial could explain that.
Throughout this chapter, there are fuzzy definitions of the gospel (“Jesus is making all things new” 33) the task of the church (37), and the poor and the oppressed (39). And we can be sure that the bricks he lays here will support the applications that come later on.
In a 17-page chapter on the purpose of Christ on the earth, evangelism is barely referenced. When he gives about 6 pages to explaining “What is the task of the church?” (37-43) evangelism does not feature prominently. I am sure that he does believe in evangelism, but this chapter will not encourage anyone to do that. It’s supposed to be about the main theme of Christ and his church, but apparently that main theme does not have much to do with turning people from darkness to light.
This chapter forms a critical part of his argument (See the syllogism above), but he handles Scripture in such a way that the church’s mission at the end of his exegesis has little do with evangelism. Can’t we all see that the believers in Acts did not think of the church’s role that way?
Therein lies a critical category of Scriptural data almost totally neglected by the authors: the book of Acts. What exactly did Paul do? How often does the NT record him being involved with social ministry? Isn’t he said to be our earthly pattern on at least three occasions (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17)? If so, then why aren’t we following him?
And if we are supposed to do what Christ did, then why don’t we atone for the sins of the lost as well? Why don’t we use parables so that the truth will be obscured from some?
Because of this theological confusion at the beginning (the role of the church is to fix all the problems in the world), there is basically no concern for the next world in this book. I found “Hell” referred to two times (23, 66). In both instances it referred to a slum in Africa. Does this writer have any concourse with eternal realities to speak this way? Does he really believe in literal conscious torment as the Westminster Confession teaches? When the apostle tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4) based on the fact that Christ will return and fix the problems with our bodies (just 5 verses earlier), I have to ask if they believe that? Why not tell the poor what Paul told them?
This book will not help us to plant churches or evangelize like the believers in Acts, and yet it wants to pretend that the emphasis it places on poverty alleviation is rooted in the NT model of the church. There may be some temporal pain caused by placing the great majority of our resources into churchplanting in contrast to helping unbelievers out of poverty, but if we believe the NT model is best, then there will be little helping without it.