The Jim Harries Mission Page



Jim's Work



Contact Us



Difficulties in Giving

What to give, how to give,

why to give, who to give,

when to give, if to give?

Response to: Rowell, John, 2006. To Give or not to Give?: rethinking dependency, restoring generosity and redefining sustainability. London: Authentic

By Jim Harries on 7th Feb. 2007.


Rowell's impassioned heart-felt plea for generosity on the part of North American Christians reflects the mental anguish of many on this Continent and in the wider Western world who genuinely desire to help the poor around the globe that they constantly see, hear and read about in media and other reports. He expresses frustration over those in the Christian missions world who, rather than advocating more generosity, promote (apparent) stinginess in order to avoid the creation of dependence. To Rowell, this is wrong. For Rowell generosity is an obligation that true Christianity puts onto the rich in this world. His book contains thrust and counter-thrust in defence of this fundamental position. For Rowell, those who discourage wealth transfers from West to East and South are villains denying others a quality of life that is rightfully theirs.

My interest in responding to Rowell arises from my own strongly held convictions rooted in long term service in the 'poor' (or underdeveloped etc.) world to the contrary. I at one time held similar convictions to those of Rowell. My journey in mission in Southern and Eastern Africa over 19 years have caused me to revise my understanding, reaching a position starkly different from Rowell's. I intend in this essay to outline my defence of what I term 'vulnerable Christian mission' to those in the poor world, that is not rooted in wealth transfers but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that seeks to identify with indigenous peoples.

Rowell's experience in mission is in Eastern Europe, in a context which is very foreign to me. But he does not confine his recommendations to Eastern Europe. He seems to apply his counsel universally, urging wealthy churches and Christians to concentrate on providing aid to anyone outside of the Western world who can loosely be labelled as 'poor'. The title of Rowell's article; to give or not to give, sets up a dichotomy that ignores more complex questions such as 'how' or 'what' to give. The most important thing to give in God's service, I suggest, is oneself. Nevertheless, Rowell has done a good service by laying out his arguments and stating a defence for his position.

Before I go on I would like to emphasise that, while I find a lot of the activity engaged in by the 'aid' fraternity to be objectionable, I am not saying that all aid must instantly 'stop'. Rather, I am arguing for some (even if only a few initially) Western missionaries to the 'poor world' to be excused from the role of wealth distribution so as to be able to identify closely with non-Western people. I have found through painful experience that one's cultural identity as a Westerner being strongly identified with a tendency to ad hoc, reflex and compulsive giving of money in many forms is a very damaging barrier to true cross-cultural understanding and relationship. The long term and profound damage done by this is to me clearly greater than advantages gained through the financial contributions made.

This essay falls far short from covering all the ground in defence of 'vulnerable mission'. Because it is primarily a response to Rowell many key arguments are not presented in it. I cover other key arguments in other articles.

Points at which Rowell gives helpful advice

Included amongst the mixed messages of Rowell's book are doubtless a lot of profound, well thought out and helpful missiological recommendations. Dispersed through his book are many points at which one has to say 'yes, he is right'! Rowell tells us that interdependence is much preferred to 'dependency' (24). He concedes that the actions of the wealthy West have caused stresses through the misuse of money in missions (25). He points out the high cost of missionary affluence (in Chapter 10 of his book). He tells us that wealth isolates, gives illusions of superiority and intensifies the advantages of Westerners over poor nationals. He adds that introduced wealth can generate envy between nationals. In Chapter 14 he helpfully tells us that we need to be 'helping the unreached poor help themselves' and that 'they need our friendship as much as our finances' (185). (I personally suggest that they need our friendship more than our finances.) In the same Chapter he goes so far as to say that we must 'raise our estimate of the relative value of nonmaterial contributions to the cause of missions' (195). I want to say 'yes' to Chapter 14! Rowell goes so far as to tell us that 'our sense of economics will likely be forced to shift . . . ' (73), a point with which I agree wholeheartedly and to which I will return later in this essay.

I am grateful to Rowell for all the above observations and good advice. I am disappointed that he does not concentrate more on such valid arguments. It is almost as if these profound truths have been so interspersed within his book so as to distract the unsuspecting reader from its less commendable over-all thrust. There are many other instances, that I will begin to look at in more detail below, at which he makes important and valid points, before shooting himself in the foot. Before looking at those however, we need to consider in more detail Rowell's suggestion that money or wealth should be handed over without the strings traditionally attached to it (18).

The 'No-Strings' Option

Rowell does not seem to have realised that 'removing strings' could very quickly result in the curtailment of the entire donor project. I will try to explain why. An apparently 'stringless' way of donating would be handing over a suitcase of money to a person that you happen to meet on a street in a 'poor' country. But, once this person has realised that there is something of value in the suitcase, they are likely to be interested in knowing who it has come from. If you are identified and there is a possibility that you may repeat your benevolent act, the recipient will try to ascertain if/when you are going to come back to do so, so as to make sure that he is there to intercept you to prevent anyone else from receiving the next windfall. (The recipient may well use the new found power arising from the gift received to assist him in doing this.) If you find him standing waiting for you as you come off your plane, are you going to give to him again, or are you going to make sure you give this time to someone else? Either way you have began to make decisions about 'strings', such as 'if you have already received a windfall, then you don't deserve another' or 'because you are waiting for me, I will give this to you'. Whichever means you decide to use to determine who is the appropriate beneficiary to your generosity is now a 'string'. You may decide that your beneficiary needs to be a 'pastor', or should be a leader in the city. Would you be happy for the beneficiary to flush your hard earned dollars down the toilet, to use them all to pay for a personal pleasure cruise, or to move himself to the USA and buy a cattle-ranch? If the answer is 'no', then you have 'strings'. You certainly should not expect to receive any further donations from third parties if you have no strings and then it is discovered that your money has gone to pay prostitutes or push drugs!

It is possible to delegate strings. If you have simply handed over a suitcase of money to an otherwise unknown citizen of a foreign country to do with as he wills, you have delegated to him the task of deciding how the finance is going to be used. What will he do with it when he gets home? If he gives it to his wife, or anyone else, then he is postponing decisions on 'strings'. (In a sense he will already have attached a string, being the person who has received the gift.) If he wants to do anything with the money then he must attach strings such as: (To a shopkeeper), I will give you $X if you give me item Y. (To someone looking for a job), I will give you $Z if you do for me task P. (To a banker), I will give you $Q providing you keep it for me according to procedure B (bank account regulations).

I hope it has become clear that donating resources without strings attached, is a nonsense! 'Strings' can be delegated, but they cannot be done away with. Inappropriate delegation can be referred to as 'irresponsibility'. If a donor's only decision is to whom to give the wealth, that is still a 'string'. So then, is it possible for 'authority' and 'assistance' be separated, as Rowell suggests (35)? Only by delegating the attaching of strings to someone else. To be truly without authority, delegation must be entirelly unconditional. Any retention of veto power or 'interference' represents a string. The nature or intensity of strings may vary, but they must be there.

Rowell advocates that 'national leaders need to be included in the discussion as we seek to decide whether to 'give or not to give'' (22). I wonder how he is going to choose, or who is going to choose, just which national leaders are going to be included? If he is going to leave it for nationals to decide who, for example, will be their bishop, when the role of the bishop is to decide whether or not to receive funds which have no other strings attached, then the 'competition' for the role of bishop is likely to be extremely hot, to say the least. Earning the bishop's seat will be like landing on a goldmine. Who can keep the election campaign from corruption, especially if all the candidates are 'poor' (as in the cases that Rowell is considering)?

The 'national leaders' who are interested in a discussion with a wealthy potential donor are presumably there for a reason, quite likely an interest in profit. I wonder which national leader will be able, without it subsequently causing them major difficulties, to refuse Rowell's offer of assistance? How many Americans refuse a pay-rise? How many leaders are able to refuse outside assistance, and not thereby jeopardise their own positions and authority, should this ever be known by people who might have been beneficiaries? How many husbands can tell their wives that they have refused a pay rise and not suffer negative consequences? I am afraid 'national leaders' as other leaders, find themselves in a dependency-trap when they are offered resources. Just look at the failure of the valiant attempt by African church leaders in seeking a 'moratorium on missions' in the 1970s (Adoyo 1990). Without dictatorship powers (which we are presumably not advocating) those who 'jump ship' on such a moratorium can end up stinking rich! (Like the person who breaks a strike can end up the favourite of the boss.) An offer of 'aid' rarely, if ever, leaves the potential recipient truly free to refuse. The offer itself is a trap.

Self-contradicting Points

Rowell tells us that true mission needs 'staying power' (12) when the church sends people to points of disaster even when the disaster itself, such as the recent tsunami, are over. He does not seem to have considered that staying power is likely to be inversely correlated to the size of the economic impact made on a community. That is; a large economic impact arising from the use of a lot of money by a (relatively) ignorant foreigner will cause more upsets and dissension than a foreigner who comes ready to accept and adjust to what he finds. Or does Rowell think that a visitor determined to throw his financial weight around can have a smooth landing and trouble free existence? How does he prefer visitors to his home to behave over an extended stay? Does he expect a foreign visitor to extend his house, re-landscape his garden, refit his kitchen and give gifts of fast cars to his wife and all his children, or to accept the existing status quo and perhaps just pay for his meals? (Some hosts do not like their guests to pay for anything at all. One reason for this is that paying guests can then consider themselves to have rights that can clash with those of the householder.) Which kind of visitor will be able to 'stick around' (in good standing) for the longest? In fact, careful use of one's finances is a vital part of ensuring and perpetuating good relationships, that can in turn enable 'staying power' in a place where one is a guest.

Rowell admirably advocates that missionaries 'learn new languages, and . . . master strange cultures' (14-15). But I wonder how this is ever going to happen when they are pre-occupied with giving materially? Does he think that giving money is as simple as stuffing it into a suitcase and handing it to a man on the street who he happens to meet and like the look of and who he will never see again (as discussed above)? How will he acquire large sums of money without a lot of attention to donors and fundraising back home and then ensuring that all funds are properly designated and used in 'the field'? He who 'gives, gives, and gives' materially will not, I suggest, have much time left to 'hang around' with people so as to learn their language and culture. He may not even have anyone left in his proximity who will be honest and not desperate to learn more of his culture so as also to discover how to access the source of such massive funds? (See section on 'no-strings' option above.)


Many of Rowell's points are well argued. But his key position belittling those missiologians who are countering dependency, is rooted in assertions. His assertion, made repeatedly through his book, that more (financial and material) giving will be advantageous to the world's poor is in effect totally devoid of evidence. So Rowell is 'suggesting' that ' . . . the negative realities we associate with dependency can be largely reduced without denying legitimately needed support for the poor' (23). His resistance to the notion that there are 'dangers of dependency' arise from his getting 'so frustrated' (167). I do not agree with Rowell (or with Kuzmic who has written the international foreword to Rowell's book) that Rowell has 'offered principles for restoring Western generosity in a world awash in need' (199). Rowell has made assertions, that Western generosity (as he calls it) should be restored, but he has certainly not explained just how that is supposed to help the poor.


Written texts such as Rowell's contain implicit suppositions in addition to overt statements. Rowell's main argument on the paramount importance of material/financial provisions for the relief of poverty reveals assumptions that he is making regarding the nature of man, what is desirable in peoples lives, and the nature of God. His assumptions clearly include the paramount importance of financial/material satisfaction in human existence. His evaluation of missionaries is on the basis of their propensity to give. The correct way to do missionary work for Rowell, is to give more (materially and financially). Has Rowell forgotten Christ's command to ' . . . seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well' (NIV Matthew 6:33)? Can a value system that truly puts the material and financial as number one, honestly be considered Christian?

The Marshall plan is Rowell's model for development (141). Rowell has not considered that there may be a difference between the Western European nations that benefited through help from the Marshall plan after world war II, and African nations that he now presumably includes in his focus. Europe and America are cultural cousins, the foundations for life in America were after all laid down by people from Europe. They have similar ways of life. Their people (or the pace-setters amongst their people) have passed through the enlightenment and (as we shall consider in more detail later) have acquired principles of economics through the likes of Adam Smith (Smith 1905)). European nations were already what we would these days call 'developed', but they suffered a setback in the second world war. On the contrary, nations of the Third World have never been 'developed' in the Western sense. The Marshall plan was a means to assist countries already operating on the basis of economics to recover their prior state, and was not required to force or bring economies out of the blue. (Many non-Western societies had, in a sense, no 'economies' in the legal-rational sense, because their productive activities were largely guided by traditional taboos and rituals designed to bring blessings.)

Rowell's suggestion that 'Western clarity on the issue of dependency may be borne more out of repetition of the concern than from the reality of the problem' (41), in total contradiction of experienced missionary Troutman who he refers to, I suggest is simply not true. The concern is repeated, because it is real.

Needs and Salaries

Rowell says that Christianity that is presented in a way devoid of a vision of 'development' is 'crippled Christianity'. 'Neither role ( . . . evangelism . . . nor development . . . ) is adequate when pursued alone' he tells us (9). Hence we need 'transformational development professionals' he emphasises (8). Whether he realises it or not, Rowell is attempting to pull the rug from under pastors who happen not to have powerful Western allies. He might as well ban 90% of the pastors on the Continent of Africa, who love God's word and have a relationship with Jesus Christ, from preaching. Before preaching, he says in effect, one has to have a European or American friend so as to have money or materials to distribute. And indeed, this is exactly the problem besetting the church in much of the Third World today. The legitimacy of preachers in the eyes of a growing proportion of the population of many countries in Africa, it seems, arises from their friendships with Westerners. The only legitimate preacher, more and more people are told, is the wealthy preacher. This is seen clearly as more and more people insist that to be legitimate churches must have PA systems. Legitimate pastors must also know English, travel internationally, and so on. The policies that Rowell is promoting are the ones 'crippling Christianity' by making it a religion of the rich!

Despite this, Rowell tells us that ' . . . all ministers . . . deserve similar sorts of recognition, appreciation, and honour, and perhaps even comparable remuneration' (20)! I wonder who it is who is to give this honour? Who are these ministers serving? It sounds as if Rowell wants 'the West' to 'honour' Christian ministers around the globe. Surely Christian ministers work for God, and his honour, not for the West or even their own honour? Rowell advocates comparable remuneration. What does he mean by this? Does he mean the same income in dollar terms regardless of where in the world someone is 'serving'? How on earth is he going to police this? What makes someone qualify to be considered a pastor? Does he first have to learn English so as to pass through a recognised (by whom?) theological seminary? In fact - most of the pastors around the world are here being delegitimised by Rowell. Is Rowell suggesting that a rural African pastor whose parishioners survive on 'less than a dollar a day' now deserves a salary of $50,000 annually? This despite the fact that the parishioners are all within walking distance, there are no roads that a car could run on anyway, the pastor has no mortgage to pay (he lives in a mud house that he built himself ) or insurance even available to him at all . . . that is ridiculous. These questions are insurmountable. Attempts at surmounting them, are likely to lead to corruption. It is clear to me that ministers should serve God, and not Westerners who offer salaries.

Rowell talks of nationals who have 'very real needs' (40). He suggests that any defence that we put up to avoid meeting those needs is like 'greed' (40). I will talk more of this below but want now to consider what 'very real needs' are. What makes a need real, or very real? What kind of needs is Rowell here referring to? Let us take the African scene before the arrival of the colonialist and the missionary. Did the people have needs, say, for bicycles? Well, yes and no. Not having been aware of the option of 'having a bicycle', people were of course not aware of the 'need' for it. The same can be said of all the 'assistance' that the West can these days offer. Needs have arisen, as the means to meet them have become known. There is no end to the 'real needs' that people can have. Medicine perhaps illustrates this case the most clearly. The need for medical help is frankly endless, because none of us (or very few of us?) actually want to die. I suggest that we all have endless 'real needs', but that an important principle in life that the Bible teaches is to be content with one's lot.

All too often the West works by generating 'needs', and then seeking to fulfil them. That is how the compassionate come to rule the poor. Perhaps one of the 'real needs' that the poor have, is to be left alone to live their own lives for a while.


Rowell suggests that 'Curiously enough, we manage to convince ourselves that we are somehow acting in the best interests of impoverished people by keeping what is ours, even as we observe their incredible needs' (3) and that ' . . . missiological principles that emphasise Western concerns about dependency are sometimes being applied today to serve selfish ends rather than moving us toward a search for more sacrificial means . . . ' (3) and ' . . . securing a convenient formula that secures our wealth while offering little relief to the plight of the poor is an ineffective answer to our dilemma' (5). I would like to take issue with Rowell on these claims, and suggest that in fact the reverse is the case. That is, it is the Christian who refuses to accept that merely passing on his wealth is a sufficient solution to the needs of the poor who is the most strongly challenged to take alternative action and who ends up poorer as a result. It is the people who acknowledge concerns about dependency who end up searching for 'more sacrificial means'. The notion that giving of resources should have pride of place in our relationships with the 'poor world' is the cop out.

I have already mentioned above how a charitable stance insulates the giver from many of the real issues being faced by a foreign people. (You don't bite the hand that feeds you.) Rowell does not seem to realise that by suggesting that the rest of the Globe is in desperate need of Western goods, he is playing into the hands of wealthy Western businessmen who (as I have mentioned above) continually expand their profiteering interests exactly by creating demand for their products. The world's big businessmen will jump for joy at the prospect of having Westerners pay for them to spread their products around the poor world (that cannot of itself afford to buy them). They will make great financial gains out of this. They will be very grateful to Rowell and his colleagues who are attempting to force Christians and presumably governments to follow this route of 'massive charity'. Hence they will try as much as they can to ensure that the likes of Rowell do not go hungry. Those promoting massive charity, in other words, themselves become the target of even more focused generosity by those who seek to gain from the implementation of the very massive charity! (I have heard this called 'street level bureaucracy. People who make decisions on who will be given contracts in business are particularly liable to receive kickbacks, whether hidden or otherwise.)

It is perhaps ironic, but very true, that those who are engaged in materially assisting the poor, often come to be amongst the very rich! People living in poor nations who are busy distributing wealth easily justify having vehicles, computers, much education, foreign travel, good food and large and smart houses, as a necessary means for operating networks, welcoming visitors, and distributing goods. Increasing numbers of multinational organisations such as World Vision, Tear Fund, and Oxfam these days operate not on a 'spiritual' basis, but on an economic basis. Those who approach them and say 'I am going to teach the words of Jesus to people X' may at best be given a blessing, and told to get on with it. (They may not even be given a blessing, as they may be told that 'preaching the Gospel' is immoral without also being engaged in handing out wealth.) But the person who approaches these organisations asking for funding for a certain project will elicit a totally different response. Immediately I am sure that they will be given forms to fill. An important committee consisting of (relatively) highly paid and qualified personnel will sit to consider their proposal. They may be asked to adjust and reiterate key parts of their plan. Once the proposal has been agreed upon, accountability structures and timelines will be put into place. They will be asked for regular updates, their project will be closely monitored, important people will come to visit on a regular basis, there may well be widespread publicity, and discussions, conferences, training programmes and educational sessions will be held. Their personal transport, communication and probably also other costs will be covered. In other words, those Westerners following Rowell's advice and advocating the spreading of Western wealth around the globe are almost guaranteeing attention, fame and wealth for themselves, whereas those who choose instead to follow the way of Christ and give their life in humble service from a position of poverty will easily come to be ignored, and even despised.

Rowell has not realised that economics in the modern Western world is demand-led. If he is to increase demand, he is playing into the hands of the wealthy businessmen, that is exactly what they want to happen. This has very little to do with the poor. To assist the poor, I suggest, one must know the poor, and this requires sharing the poverty so as to break down barriers to them, not the handing out of wealth.

Rowell tells us that development and Christianity should go together as we seek to reach the poor and the lost (8). What is an appropriate relationship between the two? It seems these days that development, that should be the tail, is trying to wag the dog, i.e. the Gospel. Is that not the wrong way around? Then what is a Biblical model for development? What is the 'good life' for a Christian? Well, that is the task of Christians to discover, and the need to discover it is the reason we have 'teaching' in churches. Theologians have been engaged in this task for generations. I believe that they will 'discover' it better by taking the Gospel to people from a position of vulnerability, than by filling patronising positions loaded with funds from 'abroad'.

Giving our money to people in a foreign country, is more complex than may first appear. Let's consider this in a bit more detail. The American dollar can be used in America to acquire American goods and services. Someone from Uganda (for arguments sake) who obtains dollars must either use them to make a purchase from America, or exchange them for Uganda shillings. (I am here assuming that our 'help' to the poor is in the form of finance. Giving goods acquired in the 'Western' country is much more clearly generative of unhealthy dependency.) To obtain Uganda shillings, our person must first locate someone who wants to exchange shillings for dollars. That person must be interested in acquiring some service in America, or in exchanging his American currency with another person who intends to acquire a service in America, and so on. In short, a dollar given to Uganda, must be spent in America. Every dollar that leaves America, will return to be spent in America. How does the dollar help the citizens of Uganda? Because the incoming dollar increases the demand for shillings, it will keep a lid on the exchange rate, so making it cheaper for Ugandan people to acquire dollars. Which Ugandan people are particularly interested in acquiring dollars? The wealthy Ugandans of course.

So then how does the receipt of aid money affect a country? Firstly of course, it relieves local authorities of the responsibility of caring for their own people. Then it makes American dollars cheaper to purchase. So it leaves money in the pockets of the rich that they would otherwise have used to do the job that the donated dollars are now doing. In other words, it discourages the wealthy sector of a country from taking responsibility for their own people, it empowers the wealthy, and encourages them (by keeping down the cost of foreign currency) to invest in, be educated in, travel to and generally be oriented to a foreign country. That is, it discourages the growth of local institutions, infrastructure and capacity by increasing the competitiveness of foreign alternatives. When people realise that those feeding them are not their own leaders, but citizens of a distant economy, this will in turn undermine the confidence and respect that the people would otherwise have for their own government. This will then reduce the capability of a government (or elite of a country) to rule their own people, as government policies will not be followed unless backed up by force, which will be more and more difficult to do because the people in this country are less and less dependent on their own government. In other words, aid empowers foreign leaders economically, orients them to the West, and reduces their hold over their own people. Aid is a form of imperialism, i.e. of taking power from indigenous leaders in poor countries.

But what if, my reader may be asking, the government of a 'poor' country does not have the resources with which to assist their own people? Because of the above mechanisms of 'empowering' elites of poor countries, this is of course becoming less and less likely these days. Instead more and more elites and governments, knowing the international community's propensity to intervene on behalf of 'their' poor, will keep their money in their pockets while waiting for the foreigners to act. In the past, if a country or authority was defeated to look after its own people, it would be forced to seek assistance from its neighbours. Such assistance can never be given without conditions or strings, so the more prosperous country will acquire influence over the less prosperous country. One would hope that the poorer country would learn from the more prosperous country on how to improve their own prosperity. (Assuming of course that the more prosperous country will genuinely be concerned to assist and not only enslave or kill the citizens of their poor neighbouring country/family/clan etc. One would hope that they would be so concerned should they be genuinely Christian. Hence the paramount importance of the work of the Gospel.)

A question that remains is: who will be the better teacher of a 'better way of life/economy'? A neighbouring country, with probably similar language, climate, culture and context (in general); or a distant country with an indecipherable language, strange foreign customs and, increasingly these days, a faceless bureaucracy? (A faceless bureaucracy because these days more and more of 'development' activities from the West are carried out via the internet, phone, texts, manuals and through 'locals' who have no hope of grasping the full complexity of what they are being asked to engage in. (See my 'language' article Harries 2006.)) As Rowell has said (already cited above): 'our sense of economics will likely be forced to shift as dramatically as our sense of ecclesiology . . . ' (73). Aid money is in other words, an immoral means of incapacitating a foreign country. And this presumably is why the Bible tells us to 'go and make disciples (???????????, students, of Jesus) of all nations' (NIV Matthew 28:19) and Jesus told his disciples to 'take nothing for the journey, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic' (NIV Luke 9:3). Giving money without 'giving' your life in service to a people, is seeking to ruin communities and societies; a serious aberration of Biblical imperative.

The Biblical Case

Consideration of a Scriptural case ideally requires a prior making overt of hermeneutical presuppositions. The Bible is read through many languages. Its readers are inclined to find that it agrees with their position in various of life's concerns. Once translated into a people's own language, the Bible speaks from the inside and not the outside of a society or community. Any derivation of a biblical case for or against 'giving' in the sense advocated by Rowell must clearly take account of this. Because answers depend largely on the approach taken by askers, I do not pretend to be able to make a universally applicable Scriptural case that undermines Rowell's or other's understanding of 'giving'. Instead, I will simply outline a few thoughts on how, as I comprehend it, the Bible talks about 'giving'.

The principle of sacrifice/offering (Hebrew: zebah/minha) runs throughout the Scriptures, from the sacrifices made by Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:2b-5 to Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross, and beyond. The essence of 'giving' in this case is clearly with a view to impacting an 'other world' or divine realm, and not to alleviate poverty or 'help others' in the modern sense of helping the poor by giving them things that they need (Leach 1985). Priests are one of the beneficiaries of the Biblical sacrificial system (Leviticus 3:16, 5:13 and 6:26). Closely linked to this sacrificial system is the need to pay a tithe, which goes back at least as far as Abraham's offering to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20) and is advocated at many points in the Old Testament. Tithes are at different times intended to be for the LORD (Yhwh, Leviticus 27:30), for the Levites (Numbers 18:26), for the person who offers the tithe to eat in the presence of the Lord (Deuteronomy 12:17-18 and 14:23) as well as for the priests (as above) and the poor.

There are a number of instances at which the Old Testament clearly instructs us to be concerned for 'the hungry'. Hence Deuteronomy 15:11 tells us (NIV) that: 'There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.' The author of Isaiah 58:6-7 asks 'Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen . . . Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?' Yet it would be wrong to say that the Old Testament has charitable material concern for the poor as its primary theme.

The New Testament understanding of 'helping the poor' is complex. Giving to the poor is clearly advocated, especially in the case of the rich ruler (Luke 18:22). Christ famously fed thousands of hungry people on two occasions, the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000 (Mark 6:30ff and 8:1ff). Yet John's Gospel makes it clear that Christ was misunderstood as a result of such bounteous material provision (John 6:15 and 25-71), resulting in people wanting to make him king by force (John 6:15), many disciples deserting him, and even the identification of Judas as the one who was subsequently to betray him (John 6:70-71). Jesus rejected the option of turning stones to bread in his temptations (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13), presumably thereby demonstrating that his primary ministry was not going to be achieved through material provision. Jesus appeared to reject the view held by some that expensive perfume should be sold so as to assist the poor rather than being poured onto his head (Mark 14:1-11). While the Gospels record many healings on Jesus' part, there are presumably many people in Israel, never mind other nations of the world, that he did not heal, as well as many people who died while Christ was on earth. Jesus did not attempt to heal everybody. Christ chose not to use his heavenly powers to instantly solve the problem of human suffering while on earth. He chose instead to share in that suffering. So Christ's teaching on compassion for the poor is certainly complex. One could even say that it is ambiguous, and perhaps intentionally so. He does not advocate a single universal solution to the 'problem of poverty'.

Modern perspectives on 'poverty eradication' and massive international aid flows are certainly not directly advocated by the Scriptures. Supporting them (or otherwise) is a matter of Scriptural interpretation (or hermeneutics). It is also a matter of being guided by God and by his Spirit. Options should not be considered without taking account of a global context that is currently very different from the time of Christ, or of the Old Testament. Describing the current context is a major task in itself. There are many diverse approaches and perspectives to solving global issues. The belief that men can change global conditions at all, socially and physically (as well illustrated by the concern over global warming) is, I would argue in itself new. Present day capitalist economies are quite unlike those of Biblical times. Communication and travel has certainly changed radically. This is particularly important because the means for providing for one's poor 'neighbour', and the scope of 'neighbour' have recently been transformed. We nowadays hear of and see 'problems' besetting people whose culture and way of life are very foreign to our own.


Rowell includes a lot of helpful profound missiological advice in his book. He also makes a few suggestions, such as that finance should be given without strings attached and that missionaries should learn people's languages and cultures while having an identity as donors, that reveal some naivety regarding interpersonal dynamics. His main argument regarding the unacceptability of the option of restricting giving so as not to create dependency is unfortunately rooted in assertions and not evidence. The underlying thrust of his book gives such a high valuation to the material/financial as to be barely Christian. He makes recommendations regarding provision of needs and salaries that have not been thought through economically. His claim that his case rests on biblical foundations is dubious.

I believe that when there is a choice of 'to give or not to give', we need to give. But the kind of 'giving' that I am advocating is I believe more difficult than that proposed by Rowell. Rowell is concerned with giving of finance, wealth and material. I believe that many of today's difficulties in missions from the Western world arise because we have concentrated on finance and been too slow to give our whole selves. Giving that leaves our 'comfortable' ways of life intact is surely inadequate for those seeking to serve the creator God. He calls for more; giving of our lives.


Adoyo, E.O.,
    1990, 'Mission and Moratorium in Africa: the issues underlying the proposal for a missionary moratorium and the implications of its failure for the future of mission/church relationships in Africa (with special reference to English-speaking Africa).' Master of Philosophy thesis, CNAA, October 1990.

Harries, Jim,
   nd. 'The immorality of Aid to the 'Third World'.' (accessed 4.02.07)

Harries, Jim,
   2006. 'Language in Education, Mission and Development in Africa: Appeals for Local Tongues and Local Contexts.' (accessed 4.02.07)

Leach, E.,
   1985. 'The Logic of Sacrifice.' 136-150 In: Lang, B., Anthropological Approaches to the Old Testament. Issues in Religion and Theology 8. London: SPCK

Rowell, John,
   2006. To Give or not to Give?: rethinking dependency, restoring generosity and redefining sustainability. London: Authentic

Smith, Adam,
   1905. The Wealth of Nations. Part 1 (2 and 3). New York: P.F. Collier and Son