Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Ronald J. Sider)

Cover of Robert Sider's The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

The book came up in conversation in July. First published in 2005, a quick trawl of the likely suspects in Belfast (Faith Mission, Wesley Owen and Waterstones) proved that no one had it in stock. (Never thought to check the Evangelical Bookshop!)

But with a recent review in CCCI’s Lion and Lamb, a copy of Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience was retrieved from the outsourced reading list pile that Amazon so kindly keep in a Milton Keynes warehouse to save my bedside table from collapsing.

The main premise of the book is that Christians lack distinction from their neighbours. In fact the longer version of the book’s title goes on to ask “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?” That includes those Christians who can be pushed into the researchers’ category of being evangelicals. Their moral standards are as shoddy and scrupulous as the next person, and certainly the transforming power of God seems curiously absent from the majority of their lives. While the book’s statistics are all US-based, I read little that would assure me that a similar Western European analysis would be any different.

It’s a quite a short book, but deserves a careful read and a long review/reaction ... though perhaps more concise that I’ve managed!

Sider’s view of the Christian position is crudely summarised in the book’s introductory chapter:

“In spite of the renewal movement’s proud claims to miraculous transformation, the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their spouses just as often as their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as often as their neighbors. They were almost as materialistic and even more racist that their pagan friends.

The hard-core sceptics smiled in cynical amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was puzzled and disgusted. Many of the renewal movement’s leaders simply stepped up the tempo of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional programs. Others wept.

This, alas, is roughly the situation of Western or at least American evangelicalism today.

... With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.”

The book takes a look at divorce, discovering that people willing to tick the “born again” box are very average in their rate of divorce, nearly always happening some time after their conversion. In the southern US Bible Belt, the rate was “roughly 50% above the national average”. Frank Keating (Governor of Oklahoma) pointed to “a scalding indictment of what isn’t being said behind the pulpits”.

The figures for materialism feel even worse. Patterns of tithing, generosity and justice for the poor seem to have gone out the window as household incomes have increased. Tithing amongst born again adults in the US dropped from 12% to 6% in the two years leading up to 2002. And by then, only 9% of “evangelicals” tithed. While there are many pockets of church-based social action, where is the evidence of Christians obeying God’s call to have concern for the poor?

And so the comparisons and disappointment continue.

While some evangelical leaders have called clearly for racial reconciliation across the US, Sider goes on to suggest:

“Evangelicals may have some good biblical theology about the body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white. But if they do not work out this theology in practice, such that white evangelicals welcome black neighbors and work to end racist structures, then ... the whole thing stinks.”

Starting with the Gospels, Acts and on through the New Testament, Sider looks at the biblical vision. Jesus intended his followers to be distinct, and warned the disciples that society would hate them for being counter cultural. (John 15:19).

“Today, unfortunately, many people despise Christians, not for their unswerving obedience to Christ, but because of the hypocritical disconnect between Jesus’s teaching and our actions. But precisely because Jesus expected his followers to live so differently from their neighbours, he could say that they would also be salt and light, preserving and even changing a corrupt, immoral world.”

Materialism wasn’t an option: “It is easier for a camel to go through their eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

Being Christ’s, being a Christian, wasn’t to be about a single moment, but about an ongoing journey. A process of following and obeying. Relying on God’s strength and guidance.

For the early Christians in Jerusalem “economic sharing was the norm” and was noticed by their neighbours. Noticing how the Hebrew leaderships had “neglected widows from the Greek-speaking minority ... they appointed seven deacons (their Greek names indicate they are all from the Greek-speaking minority!) to take charge of all the widows”. Integrity and obedience quickly overcame racial and economic discrimination.

In Romans, Paul lists lots of patterns which would be found in Christ followers as they continued to be daily transformed: “giving generously to those in need”, “blessing those who persecute you”, “sharing others’ joys and sorrows”, “not repaying evil with evil”, “love your neighbour as yourself” ...

1 Peter’s call to “be holy in all you do” seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside.
Julian the Apostate (an emperor briefly between AD361–3) made “a grudging comment” having “tried to roll back several decades of toleration and stamp out Christianity”.

But he was forced to admit to a fellow pagan that “the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also”. [He] acknowledged that his fellow pagans did not even help each other: “Those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them”.

Sider wonders if cheap grace (reducing salvation to “fire insurance from hell”) misses the point while

“slick marketers have offered eternal salvation as a free gift if you can just say yes to a simple formula ... eternal security ... no future payments, just simple verbal ascent ... deal specified nothing about life change”. While forgiveness of sins was at the centre of Jesus’ gospel message, “he formed a new community of forgiven sinners ... he challenged the rich to share with the poor ... he rejected the way society marginalized and neglected lepers, disabled folk and women ... he rejected the popular, Jewish revolutionaries of the time who were calling for armed rebellion against Rome.”

Individuals, acting within community, agitating and practically making a difference in society. Doing stuff as well as talking about it.

As well as becoming materialistic, we have also become individualistic. The me is more important than the us.

“Sin is both personal and social, so overcoming evil demands both personal and structural transformation.”

Sider returns to the subject of sin, pointing out that the sometimes forgotten community aspect.

“... the prophets make it perfectly clear that we sin both by lying, stealing, and committing adultery, and also by participating in unjust legal and economic systems without doing what God wants us to do to change them.”

The adage that “God moves in one heart at a time” is only partly correct. Wilberforce did not feel constrained to convert each individual slave owner in order to end slavery. He took a systemic approach to bring about new laws as well as pointing out the sinfulness. Being communal beings, we need to work as and in community as well as dealing with individuals.

“If we grasp the New Testament understanding of the church, then we realize that the modern, evangelical reduction of Christianity to some personal, privatized affair that only affects my personal relationship with God and perhaps my personal family life is blatant heresy.

The church is a new, visible social order. It is a radical new community visibly living a challenge to the sexual insanity, the racial and social prejudice, and the economic injustice that pervade the rest of society.”

This strikes me as being important.

Being countercultural means not being “a carbon copy” of the world. But instead to form a transformed community, faithful to Jesus and in stark contrast to the surrounding world. Also forming a community ahead of the rest of society, more tuned into poverty, housing, equal access to good education, racial tension, marital fidelity etc. A good place to start would be raising these issues from the pulpit, examining what God has to say about them in order to put them on the faith community’s agenda.

The book finishes with a strong call to accountability and discipline. Haddon Robinson is quoted:

“Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches we have a consumer mentality.”

If I find fault in the book, it is that occasionally it lapses into too easy stereotypes about sections of society. Even Darwin and his findings come across pretty one dimensional in their brief materialistic mention in the fourth chapter, not giving Darwin’s wobbly faith any credit.

But the overall premise stands, and the book is worth a read. Why is there so little evidence of the transforming power of Christ when you look at the lives of Christians? Why is their salt so bland?


Kate said...

Sounds interesting. Thanks for the review and recommendation. i really don't need much of an excuse to buy books from Amazon, but thanks for giving me one anyway!

supersimbo said...

Dude, shoulda came to ballymena for that book :)