The Church’s Role in Providing Sanitation Explained by Gospel for Asia

WILLS POINT, TEXAS – World Toilet Day was November 19, and the chances that you celebrated the day are probably quite slim. Neither is it likely that you even discussed the matter at the dinner table that day or three days later on Thanksgiving—even though having functioning toilets is something that the Western world should be thankful for.Did you know that one-third (2.5 billion) of the people in the world have no toilet facility available to them.Gospel for Asia (GFA) publishes articles about and provides people with the opportunity to fund the building of toilets on a regular basis.Why would we and other faith-based organizations (FBO) be concerned about providing toilets and improved sanitation to people in Asia or elsewhere? Why should that be something that should matter to Christians? Shouldn’t that be an issue for governments to resolve?GFA offers two responses to help us understand the Church’s role in providing sanitation where it does not exist.

World Toilet Day was November 19th. The chances that you 'celebrated' the day are probably quite slim. Neither is it likely that you even discussed the matter at the dinner table that day or three days later on Thanksgiving – even though having functioning toilets is something that the Western world should be thankful for but that we take for granted.

1. It Is Not Primarily a Government Issue

We have come to accept that sanitation is primarily a government issue because we are accustomed to local ordinances that require functioning bathroom facilities, because inspectors will not issue certificates of occupancy for building without functioning facilities, and because municipal or district governments maintain the systems through which human waste is safely transported to sanitation plants.

Note that it is not generally a government’s responsibility to provide a toilet for a household but to require one. Individual households are responsible.

Sanitation, as we know it in a practical sense, is a local issue.

We have also come to expect that sanitation is primarily a government issue because of the link between humanitarian agencies and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that place the burden for supplying accessible toilets on federal governments. We, therefore, assume that providing sanitation is a global, governmental issue.

However, recent reports from the UN regarding the progress on the 17 SDG’s indicate that “progress is too slow” and it is not “sufficient to meet the targets.” That indicator is true, not only of the sanitation issues but of all 17 goals.

Many theologians refer to this current age as the “Dispensation of Human Government.” That is, a period of time in which the Lord is allowing people to reach the understanding that human government is not capable of handling the world’s most pressing issues.

On the other hand, the title of this article might lead some to infer that sanitation is somehow the Church’s responsibility. The Church at large is no more capable of achieving universally acceptable sanitation than global government is. But the Church does have a role to play.

2. The Church has a Role to Play

What is our responsibility?

The Bible teaches believers to “esteem cleanliness or issues bordering on sanitation.”[1] After the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery, He gave Moses a panoply of laws, many of which deal with cleanliness and are contained in the seldom read book of Leviticus.

As strange as some of those laws may seem, history has proven that they were, as the Lord specifically said, to ensure that the Israelites contracted “none of these diseases” that they had experienced in Egypt (see Exodus 15:26). An entire book entitled None of These Diseases written by McMillen and Stern was originally published in 1963 and revised in 2000. It is still a worthwhile read.

Although not pleasing to read, one of the accepted practices in Egypt was to cover wounds with human excrement. But did you know that the Lord also gave specific instructions to His chosen people regarding toilet sanitation?

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12–13 NIV)

The point of this passage is that God told the people to build sanitary toilet facilities appropriate for that time and place!

Spirituality is, at least in part, “the practical outworking of religious experiences into everyday living.”[2] Since we understand the application of the principles of God’s Word and we understand the necessity for sanitary standards, it is a responsibility of believers to teach others.

What is our role?

Tearfund, an FBO based in Great Britain lists five roles believers can fill through the Church. Depending upon the context and the capacity of a church to do so, we may be able to fill one or more, even all, of these roles.

  1. Messenger – communicating messages about improved sanitation and hygiene.
  2. Demonstrator – offering individuals and communities the chance to see and experience improved sanitation through a well-kept toilet or hand-washing facility.
  3. Implementer – helping individuals and communities to attain improved sanitation and hygiene facilities, through technical and financial support.
  4. Advocate – speaking out to those in authority with and on behalf of communities to express their needs and their desire to have improved sanitation.
  5. Guardian – helping communities and individuals maintain the gains achieved through improved sanitation and hygiene.

What can we really achieve?

FBOs such as GFA minister to communities through local pastors and churches in remote villages and slum areas where open defecation is a way of life. Those communities are unnecessarily exposed to the multiple infectious diseases that can be transmitted by open and untreated excrement.

“This is the essence of a holistic ministry within a community. We are there to demonstrate the love of Christ by helping the helpless to see how that can be accomplished.”
The pastors and churches we partner with typically become a central part of the community. Our heart is to help these people to have healthy physical and spiritual lives.

Like governments and global initiatives, we should not expect to be able to completely eradicate the world’s sanitation problems. However, by being messengers, demonstrators, implementers, advocates and guardians of safe sanitation, we can help one community at a time and do it effectively.

This is the essence of a holistic ministry within a community. We are there to demonstrate the love of Christ by helping the helpless to see how that can be accomplished.

Building household or community toilet and latrine systems is a fundamental need that many communities neither have nor understand. FBOs don’t just build toilets to satisfy an initiative. They do it because it is the right thing to do, and they help to maintain the facilities and the continued use of them.

To learn more about the global problem of open defecation and the need for sanitation, please read “Saving Lives at Risk from Open Defecation,” parts one, two and three.

To learn how you can help GFA provide sanitary toilet facilities in impoverished communities in Asia, read this page on its website.


To read more news on the need for toilet facilities and improved sanitation to combat open defecation practices, go here.