by Alex Rattee
Many Christians want to direct their charitable donations to specifically Christian organisations. In this blog I argue that Christians are not bound to only support Christian organisations. In a follow-up post I explore what pro-active steps the Christian EA community could take given that some Christians will only ever want to give to Christian organisations.
Note that I only focus on organisations doing good in terms of material needs (i.e. those that secular EAs would consider) and so this excludes Christian evangelism or other more Christian takes on how to measure well-being.
What makes an organisation a Christian organisation?
The concept of a ‘Christian organisation’ means different things to different people. Below are some factors which may be relevant:
- The organisation clearly communicates the Christian message to its beneficiaries, regardless of what their direct service is
- The organisation is internally run in a way that engages with Christian practices e.g. prayer
- The organisation’s external messaging explicitly references Christian goals
- The organisation’s leadership team (or entire staff) are committed Christians
- The organisation has a broad Christian ethos
Clearly, what makes an organisation Christian is somewhat subjective. For the purposes of this post, I won’t take a view on exactly what combinations of the above factors make an organisation Christian.
Are there good reasons to only donate to Christian organisations?
There do not seem to be any clear biblical injunctions to only do good through Christian organisations/individuals. On the other hand we have the example of God using the pagan King Cyrus to achieve his ends which suggests that if God is willing to work with non-Christians then perhaps we should too.
So, what are some of the potential motivations for wanting to give to Christian organisations? Here are some possible reasons:
- It feels satisfying to support the visions of other Christians running organisations
- Charity work is more impactful when done by Christian organisations
- It improves the brand of Christianity by showing that Christians are doing charitable work
- So that God gets the glory for the charitable work done
Let’s look at these reasons in turn.
It feels satisfying to support the visions of other Christians running organisations
Admittedly it’s often exciting to support people working on projects who are similar to us. However, we need to remember that giving is about those we benefit and not about us. Part of choosing to become living sacrifices (Rom 12:1) is a willingness to do as much as we can to help those that God dearly cares for, even if it requires a slightly less satisfying way of doing charity. As a result, it’s not clear that the fact that we find it satisfying to support an organisation because we feel a connection with it justifies us choosing that organisation over a more effective organisation.
Charity work is more impactful when done by Christian organisations
If it is true that the best Christian organisations are more impactful than the best secular organisations, then secular and Christian effective altruists alike should be looking to direct their funds to Christian organisations. We are not currently aware of any evidence to suggest that this is the case at least for the way well-being is typically measured. If there is compelling evidence for this then please do get in contact. GiveWell, a widely respected charity evaluator which is methodologically open to evaluating Christian charities does not at the point of writing have an obviously Christian organisation in their top recommendations.
One view common in the Christian community is that there is something particularly effective about ‘holistic’ charitable interventions, where they help on both material and spiritual levels. The inclusion of Christian spiritual work would naturally require the organisation to be Christian. Whilst it is true that there is often an intuitive appeal to a holistic approach, it’s not obvious that it is more effective to combine the material and spiritual interventions rather than keeping them separate. Typical organisational theory suggests that specialisation and division of labour increases the efficiency of output. As such, until there is clear evidence that there are efficiency synergies from holistic charitable work rather than keeping the two types of interventions separate the default assumption should be that it’s more effective overall to keep them separate.
It improves the brand of Christianity by showing that Christians are doing good work
It seems plausible that having explicitly Christian organisations doing positive work, especially where not connected with sensitivities around evangelism, helps make Christianity come across more positively. This is especially the case in an age where society is often hostile to the Christian faith.
For Christians who think it’s important that Christianity comes across well (perhaps because it makes people more likely to become Christians) then this could carry some weight, however this benefit could also be realised to some degree by better publicising that Christians are giving to non-Christian organisations.
So that God gets the glory for the charitable work done
Matthew 5:13-16 and John 15:8 provide biblical evidence that glory to God results when Christians do good motivated by their love for God. Given that most Christians believe that bringing God glory is intrinsically valuable, if giving directly to Christian organisations is a better route to bringing God glory than giving to non-Christian organisations then this would create an argument in favour of directing our giving through Christian organisations.
One view, along the lines of Matt 5:13-16, is that it is others recognising that the good act was motivated by God that brings God the glory. Therefore, more glory will result if more people recognise that the good act was motivated by Christianity and this is more likely if the money is given to Christian organisations.
It’s worth noting however that John 15:8 doesn’t require the good work to have been recognised by someone else for it to bring God glory and so this passage doesn’t create an argument for supporting specifically Christian organisations.
The first two arguments I examined, that it feels satisfying to support the visions of other Christians running organisations and that charity work is more impactful when done by Christian organisations, don’t currently seem successful. The third and fourth arguments, about the brand benefits and God getting more glory, seem to have some merit. The question then is how we should weigh these two arguments against the fact that there are clear downsides to prioritising Christian organisations when the most effective organisations are not Christian.
To me, the most intuitive option is that given that the best non-Christian organisations serving material needs could currently easily be at least an order of magnitude more effective than the best equivalent Christian organisations, this differential is likely to outweigh any benefits from the arguments above. However, perhaps there are ways to harvest some of the ‘brand’ and ‘glory to God’ benefits without sacrificing effectiveness (see part two of this post for more on this). It also seems plausible that God would want our primary motivation to be about helping others as maximally as possible rather than optimising for indirect effects such as bringing him glory. As such, I think that as things stand Christians should give to organisations on the basis of effectiveness and should not take too much consideration of whether an organisation is Christian or not.