Avoid Paternalism & Dependency

Many, great, Western missiological thinkers have battled with the issue of paternalism in cross cultural contexts for decades. What exactly is paternalism?

The essence of paternalism is providing outside direction and resources by some “mature” party to someone considered “immature” and not yet capable to carry full leadership responsibility. Though it is much more than providing money, money is a tremendous force for paternalism.

It was an issue I battled in Brasil when I planted the “Good News Church.” We wanted to pass full responsibility on to a Brasilian pastor pretty quickly but many missionaries felt that I needed to stay longer to “train and develop” the people. I was 31 years old, had only been saved 8 years, it was my first church plant, I spoke basic Portuguese and I had limited pastoral experience. The man they wanted me to “train and develop” was in his late 40’s, had been a believer for over 20 years, a pastor for at least 15 of them, was a professor of Greek and Hebrew at a local seminary and wanted to take over the pastorate of the church. You tell me who needed “training and development?” The issue was because I was white, Western and had a few more quid in the bank that somehow I was better qualified than my Brasilian friend. They were wrong and we left.

Paternalism can be a danger in schemes, particularly when middle class believers can (sometimes inadvertently) come across as superior to those who may not have had the same basic education or even read as many books as them. They can view the “people” here as somehow inferior and in need of their particular brand of godliness and expertise. In Niddrie I work hard to ensure that people know we are all equal in God’ sight and some of us have particular talents. The point is that ALL who come to Christ have been saved to serve and thus the Holy Spirit empowers, equips and gives gifts to ALL people in order for them to serve Him better. The key is to not elevate one gift above another and to unlock the gifting in each individual. We must give people a chance to serve and not wait until they are somehow magically “ready” or we feel that they have every part of their life “in order.” Otherwise, we will be waiting a long time for development at any level on the schemes. Paternalism (closely linked to control) is a safe game to play but it usually results in stunted growth, both for the individual concerned and the gospel witness in the community.

Closely aligned to this is the problem of dependency. Once we have reached out to people and they have become a part of our community (both as Christians and otherwise) we have a duty to teach them to take responsibility for their own lives. The danger for many ministries in council schemes is that they can create dependency. The government (and society) is paying the price for this now with our current benefits system. In the OT, in particular, we read that God taught his people to care for the poor but we also read in Deuteronomy 24 and Leviticus 19 that he set in store the principle of “gleaning” so that they could take care of themselves. Yes, we must try to take care of the needs of our own people first (believers) and then those in the wider community, but we must also try to operate systems where people can work to ease their situation (we offer various incentives for this at Niddrie). If they are not prepared to look at ways (in partnership with us) to better their own lives, then we are not prepared to do it for them. I think we are on solid, biblical ground with this approach to both evangelism and discipleship here.

We have made some mistakes in these areas at Niddrie but, thankfully, God has been gracious to us. I pray that he would continue to be so as we make some more mistakes in the future. Sometimes it is messy in schemes and there are no easy answers. Sometimes there are quick solutions (rarely) but often it is painstaking stuff. People just want help out of the moment of pain they are in and our instinct is to do it for them, but we have to be brave enough to see the bigger picture and not just stick a plaster on a gaping wound. God help us as we reach out to the very many needy on our doorstep in ways that glorify God, honour the gospel of the Lord Jesus, serve our communities and empower those in need to partner with us in helping themselves and giving back to society instead of just taking all the time.

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