Sewing False Dichotomies Back Together

As we’re sure you know quite well, every issue involving human beings and their intertwined relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation is vastly more complex than we’d like it to be. Even when you’ve trained yourself to expect complexity and avoid over-simplifying things—wonder of wonders!—every person and community you engage turns out to be more complicated than they were at first glance!

A major theme of our work at the Chalmers Center is undoing the false dichotomies that people tend to operate under when we think about serving the poor. This is particularly necessary for Americans working in the United States, where (perhaps because of our long-standing 2-party political system) almost every idea or activity seems to get lumped into one or other socio-political camp.

Of course, this sort of in-group/out-group dynamic—i.e. we do things this way and they are bad and do it wrong!—is common to people around the world. Whatever its expression in a given community, though, it can have devastating consequences that often fall hardest on the poorest among us.

The Bible teaches, emphatically, that there are some things that are really right—trusting in Jesus Christ for our hope and salvation, obeying God’s moral commands to love our neighbors. It also teaches that some things that are really wrong—rejecting Christ, denying God’s authority, intentionally sinning against others.

At the same time, many other issues that people tend to be very dogmatic about are actually less obvious in Scripture than we might think. In our quest for clarity and simplicity, sometimes we miss the big picture of what God is teaching us, and make secondary issues matters of first importance. We want to suggest, too, that this is often a function of Satan’s desire to divide and confuse as much as any lack of information or understanding—holding hard truths in tension is a battleground of spiritual warfare!

The 5 Causes of Poverty

We often talk about this theme using the language of the 5 Causes of Material Poverty:

  1. False gods and erroneous stories of change.
  2. Broken and destructive formative practices.
  3. Broken Systems.
  4. Broken People.
  5. Demonic Forces.

Looking at material poverty in this way helps us think more clearly about the way to create tools for churches and ministries to use that are faithful to the long-term, holistic, relational nature of transformative work with people in material poverty.

In everything we share with you here on our blog or teach in our books or walk through in our various training curriculums, we try to hold this line. This is not because we are trying to steer clear of controversial topics or somehow live “above the fray” of political and social life, but because we want to be firmly planted in God’s story of change in all things, not letting the good work to which the church is called get swept up in one side or other of any cultural debate. Scripture offers us not just a middle way between the false dichotomies the world sets up for us but a path to follow Jesus that is (in the words of our board member Karen Ellis) “Other-cultural, other-political, and other-economic” than any of the world’s systems.

Some Key Divides

Here are some key areas (by no means an exhaustive list) where the world wants to tell us things don’t fit together. We have to insist, though, that they are tangled up with each other, so that we can hold to a true understanding of who people are and what real ministry requires. These brief overviews are necessarily light on details, and we commend to you our books Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream and A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries for a longer discussion of each of these.

People Are Broken and Systems Are Broken

This is perhaps the most common false dichotomy we see, and we’ve written about it a good deal before (here, and here). What it often boils down to is an assumption that people are living in poverty for only one reason. We think people are materially poor due to systemic factors outside their control—so we should work to change social structures that lead to poverty. Or perhaps people are because of their own personal choices and brokenness—so we should help people learn better habits and behaviors that will lead to more stable financial lives.

The reality is that both sets of brokenness can deeply affect people and so in any given situation, we should have eyes to see which one—or both!—must be addressed. We can’t simply engineer social programs to eliminate poverty, but neither can we tell people to make positive changes in their lives without examining and addressing the external factors that have contributed to their brokenness. Systemic and personal sin and brokenness often feed off each other as well. Broken people create broken systems, and broken systems actually contribute to inner brokenness in individuals.

People Are Spiritual and People Are Physical

Our wider world (particularly in the secular West) tends to approach issues of poverty as though the problems are only physical, and that the right application of food, medicine, money, education, etc. will lift people out of poverty. You might think that this is not an issue in the church, but we have all-too-often bought into the sacred-secular divide as well, either A) addressing people’s physical needs and tacking on an altar call, or B) focusing on sharing the gospel and addressing people’s deep spiritual need while leaving them to fend for their own physical needs. But we need to address people as whole people in all our ministry efforts, recognizing that you can’t separate the physical and spiritual. This is why we insist that relational approaches to poverty are required—the church’s call is never to say “go in peace; keep warm and well fed” (James 2:16), but to say “come in and join our family as we care for one another.”

People in Material Poverty Need to Help Themselves and We Need to Help Them, or to put it another way, People Can Be Hurt through Doing Nothing to Help and Doing the Wrong Things to Help

This is a perpetual “thorn in our sides” at the Chalmers Center, as far too many people seemed to read our first book, When Helping Hurts (or at least the title!), and decide that it justified their general lack of concern for the poor. “If people need to take ownership of their own situations to really change, and doing things for them that they can do for themselves hurts them, I shouldn’t get involved.” But the call of Scripture (and our book) is “spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isa. 58:10). This means giving generously of our resources, but also our time, presence, and social capital.

People don’t often need us to do things for them (except in times of crisis), but material poverty is so bound up in being cut off from the social structures that lead to flourishing, materially poor people do often need people to walk with them as they navigate the complexity of poverty. The sum of all our work at Chalmers is to help churches and ministries grasp this dynamic and apply best practices to their work.

The Church Can’t Do Everything and The Church Can Do So Much More

Lastly, we know that in light of all the complex brokenness of the world, it can be very easy for local churches to be overwhelmed, and so they default to reducing poverty alleviation ministry to the spiritual side of things (see above) and well-intentioned handouts of resources to those in need. Everything else is left up to nonprofits or government agencies.

We want to firmly suggest that local churches should see their call to love their neighbors as so much more than evangelism (though it is not less than that!). Churches are equipped with a knowledge of God’s story of change and a community of faithful believers who can live it out together, folding people into God’s family as he works in their lives. At the same time, the nonprofits and social services in a community aren’t your church’s competitors—God is using these groups too! Your church can partner with such agencies to provide long-term relational care and more tangible needs like transportation and help with documents, banking, etc., even as the agencies address a person’s more complex needs like addiction, mental health issues, or homelessness.

Grace and Hope

In all this, we want to try our best to help you think critically and biblically about the problems that come our way as we try to equip you to walk faithfully in ministry among the materially poor. More than that, we want to encourage you to treat the people with whom you serve with the greatest possible measure of grace, understanding, and hope for their long-term good through Christ’s transforming power. As James reminds us, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20, NIV).

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.


  1. Álvaro Sierra on November 19, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    Es una bendición su ministerio, para nosotros que trabajamos entre la gente necesitada.

  2. Ria Breed on September 14, 2023 at 7:33 am

    So, so true!!!!
    Love this-thanks

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