Reviewed by Robin W.
Walking with the Poor, by Bryant L Myers
Orbis Books, 1999, 279 pages, $22
Commenting on the relationship between evangelism and social action Carl F. H. Henry once wrote,
The God of the Bible is the God of justice and of justification. The Christian evangelist has a message doubly relevant to the modern scene: he knows that justice is due to all because a just God created mankind in his holy image, and he knows that all men need justification because the Holy Creator sees us as rebellious sinners. The Gospel is good news not simply because it reinforces modern mans lost sense of personal worth and confirms the demands for universal justice on the basis of creation, but also because it offers rebellious men as doomed sinners that justification and redemption without which no man can see God.
In other words, any ministry which seeks to be biblical must seek to keep in tension the fact that we serve and proclaim the God of justice and of justification. Or as Ranald Macaulay has put it, evangelicals must "relate the Gospel Commission of the New Testament to the Commission of Genesis (the Creation Mandate)."
Bryant Myers book, Walking with the Poor, is in many ways a seminal book and has become one of the key textbooks in Christian development work. In it he explores crucial issues related to the God of justice and the creation mandate. Written out of his many years of international experience with World Vision, Myers has reflected deeply on the nature of poverty and development. The result is a synthesis of theology, spirituality, and social science. The book is primarily directed perhaps at those involved in full time Christian development work, but those of us who pastor churches must certainly engage with what it means to serve "the God of justice."
Myers biblical focus is clear from the outset as he seeks to set poverty and development within the context of Gods revelation. Throughout the book he works hard to hold together "the constellation of stories" (22) as he tries to locate "our [the developers] story" within "the peoples story" which is part of the bigger "human story" and "Biblical story." In doing so he restates the importance of the community which can sometimes be downplayed by those who (rightly) insist that the gospel must be personally appropriated. Thus, "there is no transformational development apart from people who themselves are being transformed and who live in the community that is the home of their transformation" (44).
In his detailed examination of the issues connected with poverty and the poor, Myers makes shrewd observations. In questioning who really is "poor," he states, "It seems as if having too much is as bad for us as having too little. Too little food makes us weak and susceptible to disease; too much food makes us overweight and susceptible to heart disease and cancer" (89). He is also right to point out that the goal of any development work is transformed people and that "at the end of the day, any transformation, justice, and peace will be because God made it so" (121).
Refreshingly, Myers affirms possibilities for the church in development. Criticising those who see the church as a distraction or impediment to transformation, he says, "Our goal must be to help the church be what it is intended to be, not to judge it or relegate it to the transformational sidelines" (126).
As he brings together Christian witness and transformational development, there is also a helpful emphasis on the need for humility and the centrality of the Scriptures.
Whilst there is much in this book that is good, several things will concern the thinking Bible believer.
The Gospel and Repentance
Myers commendably connects his discussion on poverty with the gospel, but at times his view of the gospel appears deficient. Thus, in his section on the fall (27ff), the consequences of sin are presented primarily in terms of their impact on the world. There is no mention of sin deserving the wrath of God. The atonement is then presented in terms of liberation and identification"Jesus died alone on the cross" (36)rather than in terms of propitiation and satisfaction.
Of course, this leaves little reason for repentance. So he writes, "the best news I have is the knowledge that God has, through his Son, made it possible for every human being to be in covenant relationship with God. We need only say yes to this offer" (3). Later he writes, "There is very little for us to do except say yes to Gods invitation to faith in Jesus Christ" (118). How about repent?!
The Link Between Justice and Justification
In seeking to serve the God of justice, Myers loses sight of the God of justification and would do well to learn from history. The year 2007 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The great architect of British abolition William Wilberforce showed in his one major book, A Practical View of Christianity, that he saw with incredible clarity how the issues of justice and justification are linked. He said that all the spiritual and practical errors of the nominal Christians of his age "result from the mistaken conception entertained of the fundamental principles of Christianity. They consider not that Christianity is a scheme for justifying the ungodly (Romans 4:5), by Christs dying for them when yet sinners (Romans 5:6-8), a scheme for reconciling us to God when enemies (Romans 5:10); and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled."
Commenting on Wilberforces insight, John Piper writes,
It is a remarkable thing that a politician...should not only know the workings of God in justification and sanctification, but consider them utterly essential for Christian piety and public virtue. Many people say that changing society requires changing people, but few show the depth of understanding Wilberforce does concerning how that comes about. For him the right grasp of the central doctrine of justification and its relation to sanctificationan emerging Christ likeness in private and publicwere essential for the reformation of the morals of England.
We have much to learn from the biblical clarity which Wilberforce espoused. It was this kind of clarity which enabled him to grieve over not only physical poverty but spiritual poverty. He therefore regarded emancipating people from the spiritual slavery of other religions every bit as important as emancipating Africans from slavery.
Indeed, he believed it was more important. Wilberforce regarded gospel access to Asia to be "the greatest of all causes, for I really place it before Abolition [of the slave trade]." In one of the most popular evangelistic tracts of the day, Wilberforce wrote that one soul saved was of more eternal value than 20,000 slaves set free. All this stemmed from his incredible ability to hold onto the fact that the God of justice is also the God of justification. Wilberforce knew that getting the gospel right mattered when it came to addressing issues of social concern.
This World Or the Next
Woven into much of Myers book are arguments against what he sees as modern blind spots, namely that God is more interested in the soul than the body and that life divides into two categories, the sacred and the secular. Whilst we must not be neo-platonic and downplay the importance of the body, does the Lord Jesus not suggest that our souls are of infinite value (c.f. Mark 8:36-37)? Moreover, whilst Myers rightly tries to break the secular and the sacred divide, is he right also to break the time and eternity divide given the eschatological nature of the gospel (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:25-31)?
According to the chart on page 229 of Myers book, I am a "traditional Protestant" because I understand the Bible as "primarily about the world to come." Myers understands that it is "primarily about this world, and by extension, the world the come." One of the great insights of an earlier generations of "traditional Protestant" social reformers (like William Wilberforce) was that, in abolishing the non-New Testament distinction between the sacred and the secular, they upheld its distinction between the temporal and the eternal. One wonders if the modern churchs mission would not be more effective and urgent if it maintained this biblical distinction between time and eternity.
It is good to find a book on transformational development that has so much to say about evangelism. But Myers views on evangelism also raise questions. For example, he believes that word, deed, and sign are all integral parts of evangelism. Thus, "in dealing with the gospel message, we cannot separate word, deed, and sign without truncating our message. Words clarify the meaning of deeds. Deeds verify the meaning of words. Most critically, signs announce the presence and the power of One who is radically other
" (10). How does that square with Pauls insistence to "preach Christ crucified" despite the call for him to perform signs (1 Cor 1:22-23)? For Myers, evangelism seems less about proclaiming Christ, and more about provoking questions.
So, with questionable exegesis and the help of Lesslie Newbigin, Myers states that in Acts "the gospel is proclaimed, not by intent or plan, but in response to a question provoked by the activity of God in the community" (210). Thus the biblical command to repent becomes an invitation to faith. He quotes favourably Walter Brueggemanns definition of evangelism as "an invitation to choose a new story" (206). Perhaps Myers has lived and worked in so many developing countries that hes doing all that he can to avoid being "imperialistic" and to be more "customer-centred" (213) in his evangelism. Perhaps he has imbibed too many assumptions of the development world. But is it really the case that, "Go and tell evangelism and participatory, grass-roots-driven development are not consistent methodologies (226)? From my own limited experience in Asia over the last seven years, they can be and often are consistent and work very powerfully together.
Scripture & Preaching
Its good to see that Scripture forms a large part of Myers discussion. Again, though, the development worlds assumptions seem to shape his approach. Just like he thinks that "Go and tell" evangelism is inconsistent with participatory, grass-roots-driven development," so too he thinks that "the study, preach, and teach frameworks of the expository preacher
contradicts the principles of local ownership" (226-227). This sounds like a case of the development tail wagging the Scriptural dog.
By all means we need the Bible to be "released from its spiritual captivity to Sunday morning" (19), and for the Word to penetrate peoples lives in the community. But the two models Myers holds up as exemplary negate fairly fundamental biblical principles. In his "Scripture Search" method, "preaching or teaching from the text is discouraged" (230). In the "Seven Steps" method, developed by a lay Catholic institute in South Africa, "the emphasis is in group listening and receiving, not on the left-brain work of determining meaning" (231). Again, "this is not a time for discussion, teaching, or preaching" (232).
This is a good book for helping pastors think through crucial issues of serving the God of justice who is deeply concerned for the created order, the poor, and the oppressed. And we do well to heed John Coffeys warning that "we should avoid one reductionist view of the Christian mission (the social gospel) only to replace it with another kind of reductionism (a Christianity shorn of concern for the created order, for the poor and the oppressed)."
However, if youre looking for a book which is consistently biblical in its approach to social action, I would not recommend this one.
Something like Tim Chesters Good News to the Poor (IVP, 2004) might be better. Chester, who is no stranger to these debates having worked extensively for Tear Fund, argues compellingly that preaching the gospel is the priority; that social action and the relief of suffering and hardship is not the same as evangelism; and that preaching the gospel will always be accompanied by social concern. Putting it another way, we do not bring about the kingdom of God by our social action, but we do reveal that we are citizens of the kingdom by our active compassion on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Or as Carl F. H. Henry said so clearly, and as William Wilberforce lived so powerfully, we must serve and proclaim the God of justice and of justification.
Robin W, originally from the United Kingdom, now pastors a church in a South Asian metropolis. His name has been hidden for security reasons.
1 Quoted in Luis K Bush, Catalysts of World Evangelisation, (Bangalore: CCC, 2006) pp. 93-94.
2 Ranald Macaulay, Cambridge Papers, Volume 7 no 2 June, 1998.
3 William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed. Kevin Charles Belomonte (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), p. 198.
4 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 25.
5 Quoted in John Keay, A History of India (London: Harper Collins, 2001), 429.
6 John Coffey, Cambridge Papers, Volume 15 no 2 June, 2006.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: ©9Marks. Website: www.9Marks.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Toll Free: (888) 543-1030.