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Rethinking Biblical, Historical and Pedagogical Perspectives on Christian Development by Dr. Benjamin Hartley


Jonathan Blanchard once said that “[e]very true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns.”  I fear that often we evangelicals are far too reluctant to wrestle with such statements from our heritage.

The purpose of this paper is to rethink biblical and historical perspectives on Christian development and conclude by raising some questions regarding how we might go about teaching Christian perspectives on development. These are issues that I am currently trying to “rethink” as a first-year faculty member at Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist) of Eastern University. My thoughts represent an attempt to integrate my graduate work in the fields of international development at Michigan State University and missiology and religious history at Boston University. The vocational identity I have as an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church is also related to these reflections. For the past few months I have been co-designing a course entitled “Theology of Poverty” for Eastern University’s MBA program in International Economic Development, a task begun by my predecessor at Eastern, Professor Samuel Escobar. This work has reminded me that “rethinking” is most effective when it is dialogical in nature.

Rethinking Biblical Foundations for Development

Much can be said about biblical foundations for development that would not amount to rethinking at all. Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God and missiological reflection on the missio Dei are often the starting points for Christian reflection on mission. These themes are also adequate places to begin thinking about development and are shared in common by many development scholars and practitioners. The biblical term diakonia, however, is one concept that biblical scholars are rethinking, and their reflections have important implications for a Christian understanding of development. This term (and its related cognates diakonos, diakonein, etc.) has usually been interpreted to mean “loving and caring service.” The transliteration of diakonia in several European languages to mean, in essence, “Christian social work” (e.g. diakonie in German) was one of the reasons why, several decades ago, the World Council of Churches sought to theologically understand its work in international development through an understanding of diakonia.

 In the 1960s the worldwide ecumenical community realized the importance of finding theological grounding for their work in relief and development. The six WCC-sponsored worldwide gatherings between 1965 and 1994 focused on diakonia as the place to begin thinking theologically about development. The understanding of diakonia at these events was often poorly defined, but it usually had something to do with the notion of “loving and caring service.” The joint WCC-Roman Catholic Committee on Society, Development, and Peace (SODEPAX) conference in 1969 entitled “In Search ofa Theology of Development” had less of an emphasis on diakonia, although the WCC’s focus on the term remained an important background to this gathering. This history of the World Council of Churches is important for evangelicals for at least three reasons. First, we must acknowledge that WCC-related institutions were striving to answer the question about what exactly was distinctively Christian about their development work before evangelical relief and development organizations had begun seriously asking the same questions. Second, development organizations affiliated with the WCC continue to do a great deal of work in poor countries, and it is important for evangelical development practitioners to be acquainted with their history. Finally, as there continues to be growing convergence in perspectives between conciliar Protestant groups affiliated  with the WCC and evangelicals, it is important to rethink together development and revisit our understanding of diakonia. The understanding of diakonia has been important in the history of the WCC, but, as a biblical term, it is also a place for evangelicals to join in the task of rethinking theologies of development.

The rethinking of the term diakonia began among biblical scholars with the publication of John N. Collins’s extensive linguistic research of the term in 1990. Collins demonstrated that every instance of the verb form of diakonia in the New Testament stresses the relationship of the minister to the church community that has given him or her authority, rather than the particular nature of the activity (such as charity work). In the past fifteen years scholars around the world have engaged in conversation over Collins’s research and have largely agreed with his assessment that the definition of diakonia meaning “care, concern, and love” is “just not part of [ diakonia and its cognates’] field of meaning.” The most ringing endorsement of his research came in 2000, when a respected Greek-English lexicon largely adopted Collins’s views. Norwegian theologian Kjell Nordstokke has suggested that diakonia be understood as “conscious mission with divine authority and with the mandate to be a go-between in contexts of conflict and suffering. In other words, where the periphery has deprived people of all dignity and hope, where their belonging to the community is being denied, the authority of Jesus is manifested as a power to invert values and relations.”

If this way of rethinking diakonia is correct, then there are at least three implications for Christian development that must be considered. First, the field of development studies in the past has too often focused heavily on “technology transfers” and has given mere lip-service to “partnership.” A reinterpretation of diakonia places the stress of ministry not on our frenetic activities of service but rather on the difficult and time-consuming task of building relationships for effective partnerships. Of course, one could look in many places in Scripture besides the diakon- terms and come to a similar conclusion. For example, much theological reflection on the nature of the church and the stress upon Christian koinonia in the writings on wealth and poverty among early church fathers would also support Collins’s understanding of diakonia.

Second, this interpretation of diakonia challenges the way one of the first accounts in Scripture of what could (anachronistically) be described as international Christian relief and development has often been understood. Consider the passage in Acts 11:29 where Luke tells of the apostles’ organizing a collection for Christians in Judea. The meaning of the passage changes significantly if the diakon – term is understood in light of Collins’s research. The traditional translation of Acts 11:29 speaks of the disciples’ decision to “provide help” (NIV) or “relief” (NRSV) to the church in Judea. A re-interpretation of the diakon- term in this passage would give a different sense to the passage: “…without exception the community of disciples determined to send representatives on a mission to the brothers and sisters living in Judea.” It is the relationship of Barnabas and Saul as emissaries from the Antioch community that is of utmost importance. Indeed, financial assistance was offered, but it seems the relationship was primary.

Finally, I am reminded of a lecture I heard a few years ago by Professor Andrew Walls on the new “Ephesian Moment” of church history. Walls describes our current situation as being similar to, although far more complex than, the situation described in the letter to the Ephesians, where Paul is urging the Gentile and Jewish Christians to not be divided but to recognize their unity in Christ. Today we have a nearly infinite number of different cultures and languages that comprise the body of Christ; thus the message of the letter to the Ephesians is important to hear afresh. Christian development practitioners and missionaries have a vital opportunity to serve as go-betweens (a key component of the meaning of diakonia) between churches of the global South and North in order to strengthen the relationships among these churches. A place to begin, Walls suggests, may very well be in  strengthening the relationships between immigrant Christian communities and Anglo Christian communities in North America.

Rethinking Historical Perspectives on Development

As I began the process of designing a course on theology and development, I was immediately struck by the tendency of evangelicals to forget their history of development involvement prior to the 1950s. This corporate amnesia may have something to do with the unfortunate tendency of Christian development practitioners to unreflectively adopt the styles and priorities of development theory as they have been developed (and redeveloped) by secular bilateral and multilateral organizations around the world. There has been a fair amount of recent scholarship devoted to gaining a historical perspective on the field of development studies but relatively little historical work on specifically Christian development efforts. David Beckman of Bread for the World has recently called for precisely such historical analysis in order to help his organization determine how they have been most effective in the past in engaging U.S. Christians in their advocacy work.

If Christian development work is to be more than “Oxfam with hymns,” then one way to understand our identity as distinct from other aid agencies would be to remind ourselves of our history. Modern evangelical involvement in relief and development work historically preceded that of the Bretton Woods institutions and USAID. I will briefly highlight two historical “touchstones” for evangelical relief and development work that are rarely mentioned but which were very important in late nineteenthand early twentieth century mission work. One could also recount the thousands of efforts in medical missions, education, and agriculture done by missionaries since the inception of the modern missionarymovement. These stories are well-known to mission historians, but are rarely given much attention in the field of development studies (and even in many evangelical college’s departments of missiology).

Timothy Richard and Famine Relief in China-Timothy Richard was a missionary of the British Baptist Missionary Society in China from 1869 to 1916. His long and distinguished missionary career, in itself, is worthy of further examination, but his involvement in famine relief is most pertinent to this discussion. A disastrous famine struck the provinces of northern China between 1876 and 1879. Richard gradually came to realize that he must act in a dramatic way equal to the tragedy unfolding before him. He mobilized vast fundraising efforts among foreigners in China and in western lands. The Missionary Herald magazine was an important vehicle in getting the word out to Christians in Britain. “Never before, at least since the days of slave emancipation, had such consciousness raising about basic human need operated on such a scale.” Famine relief became the principal task of missionaries in the region for several years.

The historical importance of Timothy Richard’s famine relief efforts is evident in at least three different ways. First, it was “a watershed in Western awareness of hunger” in a missionary field of service. Other famines had struck before in India and elsewhere and missionaries had done what they could, but western awareness of the problem had not been as fully realized as it was in China in the 1870s. Second, with the famine relief efforts in Shansi province of northern China, the first missionaries in this area came not as preachers of the Gospel (as had been the case in Shandong prior to the onset of the famine) but rather as famine relief workers. This was an alteration of the traditional ordering of missionary priorities. The needs of the people afflicted by famine came before the verbal proclamation of the Gospel. Providing food was not valued only to the extent that it “opened doors” to preaching the Gospel (even if that did often follow) but because it was the Christian thing to do. Finally, Timothy Richard’s work in famine relief in China also led to his ability to appeal to the Chinese government for structural change in national preparedness for famine and other natural disasters. Although key officials in the Chinese government only half-heartedly adopted many of his proposals, Richard’s work
represents a pioneer effort in the now increasingly common collaborative efforts between NGOs and “majority world” governments. The influence of NGOs in such recent endeavors as the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers is just one of the many examples of government–NGO collaboration.

Near East Relief – While the story of Timothy Richard’s famine relief efforts describes popular consciousness-raising about the problems in missionary lands in the British context, the story of Near East Relief is most germane for the North America context. Near East Relief was organized and run primarily by American missionary administrators (of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission) and missionaries working in Turkey and neighboring countries between 1915 and 1930.

Near East Relief was brought into existence when American missionaries in Turkey confronted the tragedy and horror of the Armenian genocide. Initially, Near East Relief set out with a preliminary goal of raising $100,000 to address the problem. In its fifteen years of existence, the organization eventually spent over ten times that amount and helped an estimated one to two million refugees.

Its impact at home was perhaps equally momentous. Near East Relief introduced the concept of thinking internationally to many American Christians and brought the problems of the region to the consciousness of Americans. Fundraising efforts of Near East Relief were also a departure from traditional methods. Laypersons with keen business skills replaced the volunteers and clergy who had previously directed the efforts. The Special Sunday observances across the nation and the collaboration with members of the press corps to get out the word about the relief efforts were impressive. “Between 1915 and 1928, over twenty different American magazines ran hundreds of stories on the Armenians, which by the relief committee’s design, were central to raising money.” This national exposure led to significant lobbying efforts in Washington to promote the Armenian cause. Close collaboration between Near East Relief and the U.S. State Department was common from the very beginning of Near East Relief’s existence.

While no single organization is in a similar position in North America today, the story of Near East Relief does illustrate what can be accomplished when American Christians are educated about Christian development and moved to act in ways that can affect American foreign policy. With all of the attention being given in recent years to evangelical mission work in Muslim lands, one can hope that mission education in local congregations about these regions of the world will eventually raise the level of conversation about American foreign policy in the region. Near East Relief was quite effective in mobilizing American Christians across a wide range of theological positions. Might there be similar ways to mobilize Christians today across equally diverse denominational and theological orientations? What might such a movement look like?

Pedagogical Questions about Development – After designing a course on theological perspectives on development, I am left with two very basic questions. First, how should one teach development from a Christian perspective? One of the challenges in teaching about Christian perspectives on development is that it is inherently an extremely multi- and inter-disciplinary task. In spite of important contributions by Vinay Samuel, Samuel Escobar, and others, there often is a disconnect between Christian development thinking and missiological thinking. This disconnect occurs at the individual and institutional levels for several reasons. In their career choices, many Christian students considering a career as a development practitioner choose to follow an educational trajectory in the social sciences at a secular research university rather than one in theology or missiology, since education in the social sciences often seems more immediately practical.

This is my own story, as I first gained a Master of Science degree in international development at a state university before being drawn to theological education. Such a choice makes a certain amount of sense. Too often the research interests of Western theologians have very little to do with majority world contexts which have been less influenced by enlightenment and postmodern thought. At the institutional level, the discipline of missiology is rarely found at large research universities in North America, thus making a lively conversation between Christian development work and missiology difficult. The joint conference in September 2005 among the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (and other organizations) may be a hopeful sign of collaboration between missiology and development studies in the years to come.

These boundaries between development studies and missiology have resulted in important missiological research being virtually ignored by Christian development scholars and practitioners. For example, Professor Marthinus Daneel’s African Earthkeepers is the most creative text bringing togethermissiological reflection and environmental stewardship that I have seen. The book tells the story of Daneel’s many years of grassroots organizing in Zimbabwe with adherents of African Traditional Religions and African Initiated Churches in a large tree-planting effort. However, I have rarely found it in the bibliographies or syllabi for courses on Christian development work.

My second pedagogical question has more to do with the intersection of Christian development work and the work that is being done by secular organizations and development practitioners who are sympathetic with but not adherents of the Christian faith. How can an explicitly Christian perspective on development most helpfully contribute to the wider conversation about development taking place in American universities? Courses with titles such as “Religion and Development” are now being taught at such major universities as Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Harvard, and Brandeis.

These courses would benefit from a book that synthesizes and gives an historical account of a spectrum of Christian perspectives on development. Such a book does not yet exist. It seems that the time is right for Christians to collaborate on such a project. The recent conference in 2003 between Christian economists and development practitioners is a helpful step in the right direction, as is the collaborative work that has been done in recent years under the auspices of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and the World Bank. I welcome further conversation about such projects and the mutual sharing of course syllabi on the topic of Christianity and development.


These topics of biblical scholarship on diakonia, the history of Christian development work, and the challenge of teaching development may seem disparate in some respects. A connection between them, however, can be found in the term diakonia itself. Using the idea of a “go-between,” one could think theologically about the “go-between” nature of historical reflection on development as a way of allowing past learnings to inform present and future work. Development pedagogy also has a go-between quality, in that Christian teaching about development must be faithful to the church, the academy, and the practice of development among the poor. As an academic with graduate training in both development and missiology, I have tried in this paper as well as more generally in my teaching and scholarship to play the role of “go-between” for scholars and practitioners in these two related, but often disconnected, disciplines. These go-between efforts are often difficult. But in this year when we also celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Azusa Street revival (and other similar movements of the Spirit around the world) it is important that we engage in this effort boldly and with the help of the Holy Spirit – the “go-between God.”


Benjamin Hartley is the Assistant Professor of Christian Mission at Palmer Theological Seminary.