Should Christians Be Humanitarian?
Written by Phylicia Masonheimer | June 8, 2016
You might have clicked on this post because the title seemed absurd. Shouldn’t everyone be humanitarian, including Christians?
Humanitarians promote the welfare of people in their community. Humanitarianism is simply doing what we can to help those around us, providing for their most basic needs, improving living conditions and increasing the value of the people within our reach. But for Christians, humanitarianism falls short of their full purpose.
The early church was very involved in their community. The apostle Paul’s letters to the entire Mediterranean area were rife with references to the good works they accomplished: providing food, shelter and clothing to the needy; treating servants with respect; caring for widows and orphans. But the church wasn’t just filling needs—they were sharing the gospel.
Humanitarianism accomplishes good in this world, but it is not always a lasting good. There is a key principle missing in our world’s efforts to solve the problems of poverty, hunger and violence. That principle is the transformation of human hearts. We can rush into a community and bring external change. We can improve the conditions, feed the hungry and remove the gangs. But unless hearts are changed along with the environment, with time, many of those conditions will return.
The early church understood this. Motivated by the grace they received from Christ, they poured themselves into the community. The apostles saw our personal gifts as equipment for service, and encouraged early church members to influence the community by providing for the immediate needs:
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace… (1 Peter 4:10)
But the church didn’t just bring food to the hungry. Jesus made it clear that material needs were just part of the church’s mission on earth. Their primary directive was (and still is) to share God’s saving grace with a perishing world. This is where humanitarianism falls short of Christian purpose. While we should be actively caring for the needs of our community, we should be just as actively telling people why we do it. For the Christian, evangelism and humanitarianism are one and the same. We give because He gave to us. We serve because He set that example. We love because He first loved us.
Simply filling human needs without sharing the gospel leaves the people we touch full and clothed, but spiritually empty and abandoned. On the flip side, if we share the gospel but ignore the practical needs of our community, how active is our faith?
What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
Jesus said: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40) The best we can offer to our community is a gospel clothed in selfless service. This is the model Jesus gave us, and it is the model He expects. Works are hollow and empty without the power of God’s love, and the love of God always inspires true generosity and service in the hearts of those touched by His grace.