by Corey Vernot
Here are my best thoughts on whether Christians should prioritize reducing the suffering of Christians over reducing the suffering of non-Christians.
God is glorified when we help those in need, regardless of religion
It is clear from scripture that God is glorified when we love others, whether or not they are Christians. In Mark 12:31, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in Luke 10 He clarifies the meaning of “neighbor” by giving the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus confirms the Samaritan in the story was more a neighbor to the man in need than the Levite or the priest, even though he was from a different ethnic and religious group, and commands us to “go and do likewise” in reference to the Samaritan’s actions. I interpret this as a clear direction for us to go and help those in need, even if they are of a different culture or religion. There are examples in the New Testament of early followers of Christ reiterating this command to love people regardless of faith (James 1:27 , 1 Thessalonians 3:12).
Clarifying the different definitions of ‘prioritization’
Some Christians, however, argue that while we are meant to serve all people, we should prioritize helping Christians in need over helping non-Christians. In order to discuss this, I think it matters what we mean by prioritizing Christians in our giving. I can think of two different possible definitions–I will call them strong prioritization and weak prioritization.
Strong prioritization: Given the option, I will choose to help a smaller number of Christians instead of helping a larger number of people of unspecified religion when all other things are held equal. For example, suppose I can either alleviate the suffering of two non-Christians or one Christian from the same ordeal. I choose to allow the two non-Christians to suffer and alleviate the suffering of the one Christian.
Weak prioritization: Given the option, I will choose to help Christians instead of helping an equal number of non-Christians when all other things are equal. Suppose I can either alleviate the suffering of one non-Christian or one Christian from the same ordeal. I choose to allow the non-Christian to suffer and alleviate the suffering of the Christian.
Strong prioritization is not representative of God’s love for people
I do not think that strong prioritization of Christians in our giving as I have defined it is in line with how God wants us to love others. The reason begins with my belief that my giving to others is meant to be motivated by love, and that this love is a reflection of the love God has for us. The Bible tells us that God is love, and that Christians love others first and foremost because of His love for us.
Strong prioritization is only possible if I care more about the suffering of one Christian than I do the suffering of more than one non-Christian. Since my giving is meant to be an expression of God’s own love, this should only happen if I believe God loves me, a Christian, more than God loves someone who is not a Christian. How can I know how much God loves me or anyone else? The Bible tells us that God demonstrated His love at the cross, and that there is no greater love than the love Christ showed through His sacrifice.
Christ’s sacrifice is the greatest measure of God’s love for me. And this is why I don’t believe I can say God loves me more than someone who is not a Christian–His sacrifice on the cross, the greatest evidence of His love for us as Christians, was also extended to the entire world.
When Christ died on the cross, He died for all people. My faith in Christ versus a non-Christian’s lack of faith is not evidence of different amounts of love from God, only of different actions by the people He loves. Christ’s sacrifice was universal, unconditional love, and this is what my giving should emulate. I would not believe I was genuinely expressing God’s love for the world if I treated the suffering of non-Christians as less important than the suffering of Christians.
Weak prioritization and Galatians 6:10
Some Christians may disagree with this view, and in defense of what I call strong prioritization they might quote Galatians 6:10, where Paul writes
Here Paul does seem to place a special emphasis on fulfilling the needs of Christians relative to others. But this doesn’t necessarily refer to strong prioritization. It could instead refer to what I call weak prioritization, which fits in the context but doesn’t clearly imply the suffering of non-Christians is less important than that of Christians. The church in Galatia only had the ability to help the poor that were in their communities; they could not donate to poverty relief in distant nations as we can today. With limited resources, the early church may have first served the extreme poor in their congregation, which probably included some of society’s neediest (1 Corinthians 1:26), before serving people of comparable need in the broader community. This would not be choosing to serve fewer Christians instead of a larger number of non-Christians. This would be serving the Christian first, all other things being equal.
Unlike the church in Galatia, I have the ability to give to individuals that are in extreme poverty, who are in greater need and who can be helped at lower cost than the most vulnerable members of my own congregation. (I agree with Dominic’s arguments against prioritizing based on personal relationships.) A modern example of weak prioritization would require finding an organization that is both among the most effective organizations helping others and that exclusively helps Christians. I am not aware of an organization like this (although I haven’t searched thoroughly). I would also be cautious if there appeared to be such an organization, because I know that I have a subconscious bias towards helping those that that I perceive as within my “group”. It could be easy to slip into motivated reasoning looking for evidence of an effective charity serving Christians exclusively.
Even if you subscribe to strong prioritization, you may not want to choose Christian targeted charities. This is because the best interventions can be 10 -100 times as effective as the average in international aid (see examples here and here ). Choosing a charity that targets Christians may mean helping an order of magnitude fewer people. Many who believe in the strong prioritization of Christians still wouldn’t support a trade-off as large as helping one Christian at the expense of ten non-Christians.
For those who do prioritize Christians, you can still have a huge impact
I am sure there will be some Christians who disagree with my thoughts here, and I’d love to hear their views on the subject. For Christians that do feel the need to strongly prioritize reducing Christian suffering over the suffering of non-Christians and to target Christians in their giving, I would still encourage them to be thoughtful with their giving and try and help the most Christians they can in the biggest way they can. Donating to global poverty relief in the DRC or Liberia–both countries with many in extreme poverty and 85% + Christian populations–would help many more Christians at a much lower cost than giving to Christians in developed nations.
In the end, it is our responsibility to emulate Christ in the best way we can. I’ve expressed my thoughts at the moment on how this applies to prioritizing Christians in our giving, but I’m sure they are incomplete. I’d love to see other ideas in the comments section to help move the conversation forward.