Book Review

Book Review: ‘From Dependence to Dignity’

December 10, 2015

"If you’re going to follow Jesus, you’d better love the poor (7).”

Rick Warren issued this powerful statement in his foreword to the book From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance, by authors Brian Fikkert and Russell Mask. Warren’s statement is true and biblically sound. Christ makes it clear in his Word that believers are to love the poor and defend the oppressed. We are to “take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow (Isa. 1:17),” and serve “the least of these” (Mat. 24:40) in Jesus’ name. Just by looking at the number of religious nonprofits, global and domestic based out of the United States, it seems as though evangelical Americans are loving the poor. But the real question is, are they loving the poor well?

This is the purpose behind From Dependence to Dignity: to teach the global church howto serve the poor. At the beginning of chapter five, authors Fikkert and Mask address this very issue:

What is poverty? This is not just an academic question, for the way that we diagnose the problem of poverty determines the solutions that we use to alleviate poverty. If we get the diagnosis wrong or if we treat symptoms rather than underlying causes, we won’t help poor people get better. Indeed, we could even make their situation worse. We have to get the diagnosis right. Good intentions are not enough. (75)

Fikkert and Mask are not writing to encourage more giving and more funding for nonprofits. They are not asking their readers to continue to pour money into the endless cause of poverty relief. In fact, that is exactly the opposite of what they are proposing. In their own words, they are suggesting that ministries no longer “use relief when the context calls for development” (139).

In true teaching fashion, these two Covenant College professors manage to take a daunting topic with overwhelming academic research and make it more accessible to those of us for whom financial concepts don’t come as easily. For that, I applaud them. It was surely not a simple task to take all the information they have accumulated over years of research and hard work and translate it into three hundred pages of relatively readable material for the average layperson.

Though most of this book is an explanation of the “how” principles needed to develop microfinance ministry in the local church, the first portion lays a strong foundation for the “why” that exists in the need. In chapter two, “What is the Mission of the Church,” Fikkert and Mask argue in great detail for the need of contextualization in evangelism. The authors lay out three reasons why: “contextualization means communicating the eternal truth of the gospel in a way that is understandable, relevant, and attractive (31).”

Without preaching a false “health and wealth” gospel to their readers, Fikkert and Mask point out that, ultimately, poverty stems from creation’s broken relationship with its Creator. Because of this, our main focus as the church on mission should not be to simply meet the physical needs of the poor. However, by relating to those in need in a way that is understandable, relevant, and attractive, we are creating an avenue to fulfill the ultimate purpose of any ministry: to preach the good news of the gospel and see others restored to a right relationship with their Creator. Instead of allowing the academic research to take over as the main act, every outline, principle, and concept in the book revolved around this ultimate purpose of Christian ministry. Fikkert and Mask have managed to combine the academic and the spiritual by providing extensive research and clear principles for microfinance ministry, while also maintaining the ultimate truth, that Christ is the only One who heals the broken.

However, though this book is very helpful and will prove to be a good tool for the start-up of many microfinance ministries, I have some minor critiques with how the material was arranged. Until the introduction to part three, my critiques of this work were minor and mostly editorial. However, when I noticed the section header at the bottom of page 156, I was confused. There, in bold letters, was the question I had been asking for the first 155 pages: “What Exactly is Microfinance?” I was halfway through before I was offered a definition for the most-often used word in the book. In Fikkert and Mask’s defense, I am not a financial expert, so perhaps some level of understanding of microfinance is assumed in the first section. However, by their own admission in the preface, Fikkert and Mask specifically state their intentions for this book: “to help the global body of Christ understand both the possibilities and potential pitfalls of using microfinance as a ministry of the church (10).” They also write here that the “book is designed to be accessible to nonexperts (11).” They are explicitly writing to the local church. The layperson. The deacon. The missions committee member. The pastor and staff.

On page 198, the authors state the obvious:

“It is vital that those in a position of governance know enough about the basic principles of financial systems…. In particular, churches, missions, and ministries might have some learning to do about the principles of finance before they can allow their staff or members to establish microfinance systems.” (198)

If the authors’ primary concern is to instruct, inform, and enable the local church and parachurch organizations to create and sustain these microfinance ministries, and if the authors are writing with the assumption that there is indeed a learning curve to be overcome by their target audience, I might suggest those explanatory terms be included closer to the beginning.

In the preface, Fikkert and Mask lay out the basic outline of their work, explaining the purpose and order of each section. Part 1 begins by “exploring the unique challenges facing the global church in the twenty-first century (11).” The section ends with the fourth chapter, which “introduces readers to the field of microfinance in order to provide a context for the following sections (11).” However, it is not until part three that the reader is introduced to “the key terms and financial principles needed to understand microfinance (11).”

Because the material in this book is so important and because the authors present this material so well, I might suggest an out-of-order way of reading From Dependence to Dignity for future readers. I would begin with part two, which “explores the nature of poverty and its alleviation, arguing that most relief and development efforts are rooted in the materialism and rationalism of the Enlightenment worldview (11).” It is the basis for understanding the rest of the points made by the authors. Ultimately, one must understand the problem before one can be adequately equipped to confront it. I would then move to part three in order to learn about “the key terms and financial principles needed to understand microfinance (11).” This will help the non-expert establish some financial vocabulary about the development of complicated microfinance ministries and organizations.

Because the first section most closely relates to the last section, I would read it next. That way, as I finish reading about how “wealthy Christians [can] partner well with poor churches (11),” I can go straight into the final section, which “introduces and evaluates three possible models that churches and missionaries can use to pursue microfinance ministries (11).”

These are minor critiques, to be sure. Fikkert and Mask’s content was excellent. They deftly explained some difficult material and made complicated years of research and study applicable in the context of local church ministry. Too many Christians have an impoverished grasp of finance that could be improved by reading From Dependence to Dignity. Fikkert and Mask continue to serve the body of Christ well in this way. I would certainly recommend this book to any leader who is looking to establish a microfinance ministry within his own church or organization.

Elizabeth Brock
Elizabeth Brock in an intern for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Elizabeth Brock

Elizabeth Brock moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 2016 to work as a sells rep for a local music label. She enjoys writing in her free time. You can find her writing at elizabethbrock.com. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24