Should We Give Christians Priority?

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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

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to the family of faith.”

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.

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6 thoughts on “Should We Give Christians Priority?

  1. Thanks for this – the comparison of weak and strong prioritization is an interesting notion.

    I’m commenting though to mention why I’m not convinced by section entitled “Strong prioritization is not representative of God’s love for people”. It comes down to underlying understandings about the relation between God’s sovereignty and human free will. For example, I don’t think I agree that “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.” It’s the last ten words in particuar that I disagree on. I don’t think I’m a Christian because of some good inherent in me, as opposed to those who haven’t (yet) come to faith in Christ. Instead I believe that I am a Christian because God, in his mercy, has brought me to himself. He has chosen not to do that (yet) for those who aren’t Christians. I would be willing therefore to say that God does love different people in different senses. (What I’ve outlined in this paragraph is a common, but certainly not universal Christian view, for a brief overview see https://www.gotquestions.org/calvinism.html).

    On a separate note, at the start you mention James 1:27 and 1 Thessalonians 3:12 as examples of the “command to love people regardless of faith”. I’m not sure that the James reference makes that clear. The 1 Thess verse may well do, but if so, it has a similar emphasis to Galatians 6:10 in that the priority is placed a little on loving others in their church.

    Having said all that, the notion of “neighbour” in the parable of the good Samaritan does seem to be much broader than just Christians. That is what persuades me that a Christian’s responsibility is not exclusively to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

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    1. Thanks for your input Greg.
      I think you’re right that the the phrase “commands to love people, regardless of faith” doesn’t quite fit here. What I should have said is that these verses defend the idea that “God is glorified when we love people, both Christians and non-Christians”. Do you think that is a more supported statement?

      I’m also glad you brought up that many Christians would disagree with my statement “God doesn’t love Christians more than non-Christians”. I understand the line of thinking that because God in His sovereignty has not led them to a relationship with Himself that He does not love non-Christians as much as He loves us as Christians. If this is the case, I can see the argument for strongly prioritizing reducing the suffering of Christians over non-Christians. I don’t personally think that God loves Christians more than non-Christians, but I wouldn’t claim to know that my view is correct.

      Another interesting question that could be asked is “What types of strong prioritization are representative of God’s love?”. The way I’ve defined it, strong prioritization is a large bucket – it could include anything from choosing to help 1 Christian instead of 10,000 non-Christians to choosing to help 3 Christians instead of 4 non-Christians. Believing that some levels of prioritization are warranted is not the same as believing any level of prioritization is warranted. I’d be curious to hear what your thoughts are on that question.

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  2. This article makes a lot of good points, but I think the argument could be framed better in a couple of ways.  

    1.  It seems like it’s better to view Galatians 6:10 in the context of kinship group identity.  Ancient people’s identities were totally wrapped up in the “group” they belonged to (e.g., physical family, ethnic group, nation), so it was important to instill in Christians a strong sense of group identity that was stronger than their ethnic and national identities.  Since the early Christian leaders were trying to create a new “family” that transcended ethnicity and nationality, they needed to prevent natural kinship ties from fracturing the unity of the church, as well as to prevent pagan values from pulling Christians away.  Living like a family was important for Christians to remain faithful to God and to each other.

    2.  Most people who take something like the “prioritization” view probably do so from more of a deontological, duty-based perspective, and so it doesn’t seem like an accurate representation of that view to describe it in consequentialist terms.  Prioritizing Person A over Person B isn’t the same as saying that God loves Person A more than Person B.  If, hypothetically, you could save you own mother’s life by spending $10,000 (even though donating it to the Against Malaria Foundation might save three lives), then choosing to do so wouldn’t mean that you thought her life was three times as valuable as a stranger’s.

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  3. Thanks for the very helpful post, and also the comments so far. Here are some further thoughts.

    — 1 — Just like Andy, I think that strongly prioritizing person A over person B might have other reasons than caring more for person A. I think it’s a good point by Andy to compare prioritizing Christians to prioritizing within one’s family. Most of us think that it is to some extent legitimate to focus more on helping one’s own mother than someone else’s mother. (Indeed, there was a bit of a debate about how Peter Singer cared for his own mother when she was old and sick). Here are two (debatable) reasons why it might be OK to prioritize family members:

    (a) Division of Labour: If I look after my own mother first, you after your own mother first, etc. then everyone’s Mom is looked after.

    (b) Building community bonds: Helping someone doesn’t have the sole purpose of benefitting the person who is helped. By helping someone, we also build community between the helper and the helped. Mutually helping each other within the family is an expression of the fact that we stick together and that we value belonging together. And given that communities — such as families — are seen as important in a Christian worldview and given that vibrant communities require that we help each other over and above the help that is required towards strangers, this might amount to a certain kind of prioritization.

    There might be further reasons to justify stronger duties of helping each other within families besides (a) and (b). And once we have listed such reasons for the more straightforward case of the family, we could then ask whether they can also be applied to the “family of faith”.

    — 2 — It just occurred to me that one might make further distinctions in addition to those you make in the blogpost:

    (a) We could not only ask whether we *must* prioritize Christians but also — in case there is no duty to prioritize Christians — whether it is at least *permissible* to do so.

    (b) We could also ask the more radical question: should we prioritize helping non-Christians? On an individual level, we sometimes think that we should not only love others as much as ourselves, but that we should even sacrifice ourselves for others and place their concerns *higher* than ours. In the same way, the community of Christians might think that we should not only show equal love to non-Christians as we do to Christians, but that we should even sacrifice ourselves for them and help them *more* than ourselves.

    (c) One could ask them same question about prioritization that this blogpost asks about helping “One Christian vs Many Non-Christians” but focus on the question of prioritizing the less important wants of Christians versus the more important needs of Non-Christians.

    Here are two points I particularly appreciated in this blogpost:

    (a) “Even if you subscribe to strong prioritization, you may not want to choose Christian targeted charities.” This is forceful.

    (b) I also like the thoughtfulness that even those who prioritize Christians can focus much more on effectiveness with this strategy: “Donating to global poverty relief in the DRC or Liberia–both countries with many in extreme poverty and 85% + Christian populations…”

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  4. Thanks for this Corey, I’ve found it really clarifying in getting my thoughts together.

    I think the points other commenters have made about protecting the Christian community seem important. The development of the early Christian communities was a vitally important cause area at the time the new testament books were being written, given how much good has come about of the millions of people who have been able to have relationships with Christ as a result of their stewardship of the gospel. So perhaps any encouragement for strong-prioritisation is time-relevant consequentialist advice, given the different sociological context of Christianity today it seems less critical that we prioritise the Christian community in this way now.

    The following is the killer point in my view…

    ‘Even if you subscribe to strong prioritisation, 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 prioritisation of Christians still wouldn’t support a trade-off as large as helping one Christian at the expense of ten non-Christians.’

    Unless you have an extremely strong weighting for Christians over non-Christians then it is almost certain that you should go with the typical EA recommendations. For in absolute terms these charities are likely to do much more per dollar for Christians than classic interventions. If successful it seems that this move allows us to side-step any difficult theological questions and keep the EA outcomes?

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