The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, by Ronald Sider

review logoThe Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? By Ronald Sider. Baker Books, 2005. 144 pp. $15.00.

If Christians are called to live different lives why aren’t they? Ronald Sider, professor at Eastern Baptist seminary and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, has written a book to address just that issue. He feels that the fact that today’s disciples of Jesus do not act like Jesus and “this scandalous behavior mocks Christ, undermines evangelism, and destroys Christian credibility” (15). This book seeks to understand the crisis of evangelical behavior and state “obedient, faithful correctives” (15).

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience is comprised of five chapters. In the first chapter Sider deals with the extensive problem of Christian actions reflecting the world instead of Jesus. Chapter two briefly sketches the intended actions of Christians by looking at some of the New Testament writings. Chapter three attempts to clarify the Christian message and the role of salvation. In the fourth chapter, Sider discusses the relationship between culture and the church because “not even the evangelical community has effectively resisted popular culture’s corrosive influence” (85). The concluding chapter suggests that a change is occurring in the evangelical conscience.

The behaviors of Christians that are of specific concern for Ronald Sider are divorce, materialism, racism, sexual disobedience, and physical abuse within marriage. Relying on statistics largely gathered by the George Barna group, Sider shows that the actions of Christians do not differ drastically from those who are not Christians. Sider emphasizes that Christian behavior does not currently reflect obedience to the life Jesus called his disciples to live. “Obedience is essential” (32). Not only is it essential for the individual but, as evidenced by the early church, it also produces “powerful evangelistic results” (37). The lives of modern day Christians do not reflect the “radically countercultural people living according to Jesus rather than the world” that Paul described (40).

So why is there this pervasive problem of Christians acting contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the evangelical church? Sider writes, “I am convinced that at the heart of our problem is a one-sided, unbiblical, reductionist understanding of the gospel and salvation. Too many evangelicals in too many ways give the impression that the really important part of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins…Justification and sanctification are both central parts of the biblical teaching on the gospel and salvation. To overstate the importance of the one is to run the danger of neglecting the other” (57,59). Appealing to both the actions and teachings of Jesus, Sider emphasizes that Jesus not only forgave sins but also taught his disciples to live according to the Kingdom of God. Evangelicals for too long have focused only on personal sin and avoided discussing systemic sin. Without awareness of the full scope of sin “we will never understand either the full set of causes or a comprehensive set of solutions to racism and economic injustice – or, for that matter, the destruction of the family and the loss of respect for the sanctity of human life” (82).

Sider proposes practical advice to recover the biblical understanding of church that he feels is lacking. First, there must be greater accountability structures for church communities and parachurch organizations. Second, the root of materialism must be uprooted by wiser use of money. To accomplish these goals, Sider suggests church practices such as a recovery of biblical church discipline (114), stricter requirements for church membership (116), higher rates of giving (118), and persistent prayer (123). By focusing on right theology and right behavior, Sider believes that we can “expect that a longing for holiness will sweep through our churches,” that “Christians will lead the way in more vigorous efforts to reduce dramatically domestic abuse, racism, materialism, and poverty” and that “the promise of the gospel is that [transformation] can and does [happen] – whenever people truly surrender to the biblical Christ” (125).

Ronald Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience creates about as many problems as it attempts to solve. Sider honestly and insightfully addresses a serious problem he has identified in the evangelical church. Clearly targeted to an evangelical audience, he does the hard job of calling evangelicals out where he feels it needs to be done. When he looks at the behavior of evangelicals he sees a “tragedy of widespread, scandalous disobedience among those who call themselves evangelicals” (28) and believes “weeping and repentance are the only faithful responses” (122). Although honest and astute in regards to his own tradition, the same cannot be said of his critique of non-evangelicals. When speaking of the impact of societal influences he writes, “That is why evangelicals rightly resist sending their children to schools that teach relativism, affirm wrong sexual values, and encourage children to hang out with drug users. Bad structures foster immoral behavior. Good structures encourage moral behavior” (77). What school would possibly encourage students to hang out with drug users?

Even more offensive is a comment that Sider makes that not only presumes the ethnicity of his audience but also possibly expresses racism. Sider writes about how to forsake the idol of materialism:

Again it must start with biblical teaching and preaching: not one evangelical pastor in ten comes even close to talking as much about the poor as the Bible does. Our evangelical preachers must correct this heretical disobedience. ... But words alone are not enough. Our people, especially congregational leaders, need to see poverty firsthand. Mission trips, either across town to spend a weekend with an African American or Latino congregation or to another country in Africa or Latin America, can be powerful change agents (118).

How would an evangelical African-American pastor or congregation read such a statement? This type of statement is dangerous and runs the risk of perpetuating the type of racism this book describes as disobedient Christian behavior.

Sider challenges evangelicals to live in obedience to Jesus. This is a difficult and passionate plea to the evangelical church. Sider argues for a shift from a faith based primarily on salvation to a faith focused on both salvation and transformation. The evangelical church might need such a book. Sider’s plea to reduce the rates of divorce and spousal abuse, as well as reduce racism and materialism in the church is warranted and should be applauded. However, it is Sider’s underlying goal that is problematic.

We find Sider’s underlying goal in the concluding chapter of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, which offers comments of hope for the evangelical church. He adopts George Barna’s criteria for those holding a biblical worldview as: the Bible is the moral standard; absolute moral truths are conveyed through the Bible; God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; Satan is a real, living entity; salvation is a free gift, not something we can earn; every Christian has a personal responsibility to evangelize; and the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches (127). He then holds up the relatively tiny group of Christians who hold a biblical worldview (9 percent of born-again adults and 2 percent of born-again teenagers – 128) as truly demonstrating different behavior. Those with a biblical worldview view less adult-only material, are more willing to “boycott objectionable companies,” are less likely to “use tobacco products” and more likely “to volunteer time to help needy people” than those without a biblical worldview (128).

But this list does not contain any of the serious problems that he felt needed to be addressed – divorce, spousal abuse, racism and materialism. Sider offers only one brief mention of the issues that most concerned him at the beginning of the book. He writes, “there is accumulating evidence that theologically conservative Protestant men who attend church regularly have lower rates of domestic abuse than others” (128). Sider concludes this different behavior of Christians with a biblical worldview displays the important role of theology and that “one important way to end the scandal of contemporary Christian behavior is to work and pray fervently for the growth of orthodox belief in our churches” (130). We see that Sider’s real intention is a return to what he labels as biblical orthodoxy, and that in doing so the major behavioral problems will also be solved. Here I take great issue with Sider’s argument because he argues for a change in theology under the guise of calling for behavioral change. There is good reason that such a small group of people holds a “biblical worldview.” The sheer implausibility of Satan as a living entity, moving about somewhere on earth, is probably enough for most critically thinking individuals in the 21st century to reject a biblical worldview. But that is only one of the criteria for a biblical worldview. There are also clearly inaccuracies in the Bible and this generation finds it increasingly problematic to locate absolute moral truth in any document. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience might point out several areas of necessary repentance and change in the evangelical church, but its ulterior goal of reclaiming a “biblical worldview” makes this book more problematic than helpful.

Jason Ford
Boston University