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Book Review: The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience

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Ron Sider, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like The Rest Of The World? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 144 pp.

“Summing Up Sider’s Legacy”

Ron Sider’s recent book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, is a noteworthy achievement. One the one hand, it represents an almost complete shift away from left-leaning government-oriented solutions to social and economic problems that characterize the first edition of his popular Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This movement had already become apparent by the time Sider released the twentieth anniversary edition of Rich Christians, in which he embraced increased access to markets and capital investment as necessary components of solutions to global poverty. In Scandal, Sider explicitly acknowledges this perspective, as he writes of “the stunning success of market economies in producing ever-greater material abundance.”

Sider is thus able to recognize the basic goodness of creation: “Historic Christianity has been profoundly materialistic. The created world is good. God wants us to create wealth and delight in the bounty of the material world.” A key part of Sider’s project is to properly and relatively value the material and temporal in light of the spiritual and eternal. Thus he rightly notes that “historic Christianity also placed firm boundaries on this materialism. Nothing, not even the whole material world, matters as much as one’s relationship with God.”
In this brief text, Sider time and again emphasizes the call to Christian faithfulness that has been the hallmark of his career. Freed from the pervasive distortions of leftist economic ideology, Sider’s corresponding message becomes even more clear and powerful. Thus he writes, “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

By acknowledging the relative but real good of wealth, Sider is able to incisively point out the dangers that necessarily flow out of affluence. Sider argues that the opportunity and responsibility that come with wealth have created a corresponding temptation, and “nurtured a practical materialism that has maximized individual choice. Desiring ever-growing sales to produce ever-greater profits, businesses discovered the power of seductive advertising.” He maintains that American Christians “must dethrone mammon and materialism in our hearts and congregations through a more faithful use of our money.”

Sider’s main adversary in this book is the licentious antinomianism of American evangelical Christianity. He writes, “Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most ‘Christians’ regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.” Sider’s call is to a rigorously faithful and pious Christianity, consistent in both theory and practice. As he argues, “We proudly trumpet our orthodox doctrine of Christ as true God and true man and then disobey his teaching.”

In this project, Sider issues a prophetic lament over the behavior of American Christians:

“We divorce, though doing so is contrary to his commands. We are the richest people in human history and know that tens of millions of brothers and sisters in Christ live in grinding poverty, and we give only a pittance, and almost all of that goes to our local congregation. Only a tiny fraction of what we do give ever reaches poor Christians in other places. Christ died to create one new multicultural body of believers, yet we display more racism than liberal Christians who doubt his deity.”

The downside of Sider’s prophetic zeal is that the book is characterized by a reactionary tone, and this leads to some conflicting emphases and propositions despite Sider’s desire for consistency. Thus he can say on the one hand, in good evangelical fashion, that nothing matters as much as one’s personal relationship with God, and that “forgiveness of sins is at the center of Jesus’s proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom.” But he can also say that “the gospel and salvation involve far more than forgiveness of sins” and, “An exclusive emphasis on personal, individualistic approaches without a parallel concern for structural causes and solutions is wrong at several points.”

Sider attempts to synthesize these truths by using the complementary images of Christ as both Savior and Lord. He writes, “Many contemporary Christians act as if it is possible to divide Jesus up, accepting him as Savior and neglecting him as Lord. But Jesus is one person. He cannot be torn apart that way. Either we accept the whole person, Lord and Savior, or we do not accept him at all.” Generally speaking, Christ as Savior refers to the personal forgiveness of sins, while Christ as Lord refers to the rule of Christ’s kingdom in social structures.

The challenge for Sider and those following him will be to rightly emphasize both the individual and social aspects of the gospel message without swinging the pendulum too far the opposite way. Indeed, if evangelicals have traditionally emphasized the personal at the cost of the social, progressives have traditionally done the reverse. Sider makes an admirable attempt to mediate between these two extremes, and although he is not completely successful, he does provide us a useful model. Is evangelism something for which resources are really just “left over”? Does Sider’s continuing affiliation with Jim Wallis and Call to Renewal adequately express this mediating position?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that for the Anglo-Saxon churches, the “blessings of suffering and of the rebirth that might follow from it are withdrawn from the church.” Sider’s book is an attempt to emphasize the costliness of grace and the sacrifices that we must be willing to make in faithful service to our Lord. The American church is a comfortable church and is not accustomed to suffering. For this reason, Sider’s message is a timely one that ought not be ignored.

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3:14-22 (NIV)

This review has been crossposted to Blogcritics.org.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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