“The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” by Ron Sider

A strange thing happened to me about a week ago. I went out to get my mail and found a package inside my mailbox. “Interesting,” I thought. “I’m not expecting anything. What could this be?” Opening the package, I found what I can only describe as a promotional packet and a copy of the book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world? by Ron Sider (Baker, 2005). I haven’t really pinned down why on earth this package would be sent to me. But, being one who does not despise free books, I threw out the packet and took the enclosed copy of the book back up to my apartment with me. The book sat off to the side on my desk all through reading week, until I decided that I had to do something with it. So, I have decided to write up something of a review to share with you all.

Note to Baker Books: If you are reading this, please send me more free books and I will be happy to post little reviews of them. But, try to send me stuff from your Baker Academic section instead of this Christian living stuff. Sound like a plan?

A Brief Sketch of the Book:

Introduction: A couple pages, of similar theme and content to the first chapter, to kick off the volume by relating a story or two and lamenting the moral morass (I couldn’t resist the alliteration!) within American evangelicalism.

Chapter 1 - “The Depth of the Scandal”: Employment of a number of surveys and studies, the majority of which seem to be connected to George Barna in some way, proving that “evangelicals” do not live morally superior lives to those of the remainder of the population of the United States. In fact, sometimes evangelicals are worse! Throughout this chapter I couldn’t help but think that if we stopped defining “evangelical” according to Barna’s rather vacuous requirements, perhaps the numbers would be better. For the record, I’m not a big Barna fan and citing him does not impress, compel, or otherwise bother me at all. So, if you and I are one day engaged in a debate, don’t waste your time using Barna against me.

Chapter 2 – “The Biblical Vision”: The flow of this chapter resembles the path of a stone skipping across the surface of a calm lake, touching down here and there but possessing far more horizontal motion (breadth) than vertical motion (depth). Sider takes us briefly to most of the books in the NT in an effort to impress upon us the notion that as Christians it is important how we live.

Chapter 3 – “Cheap Grace vs. the Whole Gospel”: Citing Bonhoeffer in what I am not sure is a fitting attempt to link Sider’s argument with the German’s, this chapter has the most potential of any of the chapters in this volume. The first portion argues that the Gospel and Salvation do not have to do simply with our relation to God, but also with our relation to each other. In the second half of the chapter, Sider hashes this out in connection with two themes. Under the heading of “Persons,” Sider reminds us that people on not simply souls, but unions of soul and flesh who are meant to live in community. With reference to “Sin,” he laments that neither evangelicals nor mainliners talk much about sin anymore, and advocates attention to both personal and systemic sin. Also, we should remember that sin is also a personal force – the Devil, and that this personal force has other personal forces working for him – demons.

Chapter 4 – “Conforming to Culture or Being the Church”: All I will say about this chapter right now is that, although it is the most important chapter of the book in that it is the culmination of the argument, it is well intentioned but poorly executed. Below I will engage with a few particulars from this chapter that I think should be addressed.

Chapter 5 – “Rays of Hope”: A few pages meant to keep us from being too depressed by the current statistics and to encourage us to move forward to address this moral problem. In particular, Sider notes survey data that suggests that those who meet the criteria for holding to a “biblical worldview” are much more moral than the general population, even though there are few who hold such a position.

Issues in Chapter 4 – “Conforming to Culture or Being the Church”

At it’s most fundamental level, Sider argues that evangelicals have succumb to what I will call the “big 3” of cultural influences: (1) relativism, (2) materialism, and (3) individualism. He attempts to provide a short intellectual history of modernity, and such figures as Kant, Marx, Freud, and Darwin take it on the chin in passing. Postmodernism (not that I believe it exists) comes off pretty badly as well. Putting relativism in the hot seat, Sider offers the anecdote below, which I have provided in full:

The pastor of an Evangelical Covenant congregation shared with me a few years ago one of the most striking illustrations of how society’s relativism is invading the minds of evangelical youth. For the previous six years, at the end of a multiweek catechetical class preparing his teenagers for church membership, my friend had conducted a fascinating experiment. (90)

First, he placed a jar of marbles in front of the class. “How many marbles are in the jar?” he asked. The youngsters responded with different guesses: 150, 143, 177, and so on. He responded, “Well, I counted them and there are exactly 157 marbles in the jar. Now, which of your answers was closest to being right?” And they agreed it was the answer closest to 157. “Of course,” he concluded, “the quantity of marbles is a matter of fact, not personal opinion.”

Then he asked what their favorite songs were. As different persons named different songs, he wrote them on the blackboard. He then asked, “Which is the right song?” As expected, everyone said this was an unfair question because each person’s preference was right for him- or herself. “Exactly,” he concluded, “the right song has to do with a person’s musical tastes. It is a matter of personal opinion, not fact.”

He concluded the experiment by talking about the deity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection on the third day, reminding them that some people doubt both. He then said to them, “Now, are the deity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection matters of fact, or are they matters of personal opinion?” Are they like the question about the number of marbles or like the question of which music you prefer?” Sadly, he told me, every youngster for six years said the deity and resurrection of Christ are like the question about music – mere matters of personal opinion.

Now, I would like to start out by saying that I am very impressed with the “youngsters” in question in this story. They were perfectly correct to see that how once views Jesus’ deity and resurrection are NOT matters of fact. Why? Let’s break this down a little. The question about the number of marbles in the jar is clearly a question of fact (these “youngsters” at least still believe in objective empirical truth at some level). Why is it a question of fact? Because, if they doubted the pastor’s assertion that there were 157 marbles in the jar, they could have taken the marbles out of the jar and counted them. They could have done this multiple times and verified their conclusions through repetition. What we have here is the bedrock of the empirical scientific method: sensory data that can be reproduced. Now, if we look at the question of Jesus’ deity and resurrection, do we have a simply case? Absolutely not. Why? Because no one but Jesus will ever be God incarnate, and Jesus isn’t here to ask about it. Second, the resurrection was a miraculous occurrence that we cannot repeat. Thus, because we have no sensory data that can be reproduced, there is, on the basis of the empirical scientific method, no possible way to conclude that Jesus’ deity and resurrection are “fact.” They cannot even be hypotheses that require further testing. So, if these things cannot be matters of fact, what can they be? A subset of matters of personal opinion, that is, matters of faith. Like I said, I’m proud of these “youngsters.” They didn’t deny the reality of these things, they just knew better than to afford them an empirical status that they did not deserve. One of these days more people are going to figure out that Christians live by faith, and not by empirically reproducible facts, or by trying to argue that matters of faith should be considered matters of fact. But, enough said.

When Sider comes to individualism, he has another illustration that I find to be slightly off. Here is what he writes:

Individualism creeps into the best of our contemporary Christian songs. I deeply love and regularly feel a surge of genuine religious emotion as I sing “As the Deer Panteth for the Waters.” It is a simply wonderful song about the fact that God must be the absolute center of our lives. But one of the lines says, “You alone are my strength and shield, to you alone doth my spirit yield.” Oops. Should I not listen carefully and indeed yield to other mature brothers and sisters in the body of Christ? Am I supposed to listen only to what I hear Christ saying and not submit to other Christians? Fewer and fewer evangelicals today do not submit to others. If our local church does not meet our needs and offer what feels good to us, we simply move on to another congregation. (93)

Now, let me start by saying that I am very sympathetic to what Sider is arguing for here. There is way too seeking of self-fulfillment in churches today. So, I’m willing to overlook Sider’s use of the phrase “genuine religious emotion” as well as his use of the word “fact,” which seems to be one of his favorite terms. However, I will not overlook the contrast that he sets up between listening to Christ and submitting to other Christians. I am sure that Sider would agree with what I am about to say, but the above illustration muddies the waters. It is not a proper understanding of Christian freedom (see Calvin’s discussion in Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.19). We must distinguish between two kinds of “yield”-ing. On the one hand, our “Spirit” or conscience can yield (as the song mentions), and other the other hand, our physical actions can yield. In no circumstances are our consciences bound to yield to any authority other that Christ’s. This is the whole point of the Reformation: the Church cannot place requirements upon Christians that have to be fulfilled in order to be saved. There are no moral requirements that other human beings can place upon the Christian conscience. Only God’s requirements matter. This is the freedom of a Christian. On the other hand, we ought to be aware of our neighbors and do what we can to keep them from sinning. This can take two forms. First, if there are people who are trying to bind your conscience, we are to use our Christian freedom to demonstrate that they cannot in fact do this. Thus, if people are being legalistic, we are free to flout their presumed authority. Second, if there are people who are struggling with recognizing their own Christian freedom, we are to abstain from the use of our freedom when in their company. Thus, if it has not quite gotten through to someone that you do not need to cut your hair a certain way in order to be saved, we should lovingly lead them into a better understanding instead of trying to shock them into it. The interesting thing here is that it finally comes down to personal responsibility on the part of a Christian, and this is what Sider is going for. He just isn’t flexing the theological muscle necessary to get it in its proper form. So, I repeat, our Spirit’s yield to no one but Christ, but we should live responsibly with our brothers and sisters.

Last, I want to address the issue of church discipline. This is one of the major themes in Sider’s argument. He wants to return to church discipline, which he understands as calling for increased accountability as well as more corporate disciplinary action. There are a couple of practical points that I want to make. First, Sider does mention that members should expect the exercise of church discipline (cf. 116), but he stops there. From a legal standpoint, I think that it is a good idea to have written into the church constitution or bylaws or whatever, that members of the church are subject to church discipline. It should also state what forms of church discipline the church reserves the right to employ. Also, when people become new members, these things need to be explained to them. All of this will go a long way in protecting the church from defamation lawsuits. Second, Sider shows his low-church sentimentality when discussing accountability. He argues implicitly that while parachurch organizations need to have external accountability, local congregations should have internal accountability. I think that this is simply special pleading. Why should local congregations not also have external accountability? This is one of the things that denominations are important and good for. Each local congregation is not and should not be left on its own to keep itself accountable, either morally or theologically. This, in my opinion, is something that non-denominational evangelical churches should take far more seriously.

I hope that this has been helpful. It was interesting for me to read this book and write this kind of review. There is much more that could have been said, but I am very sympathetic to Sider’s cause in this volume and so determined that I would be charitable. I think that this book would be very handy for adult education classes in local congregations if employed by those who know how to be on the lookout for the kind of things that I pointed out above. That said, if I needed to teach adult laypeople about these issues, I would reach for this volume.


Anonymous said…
A good review, but I was puzzled. You developed your objections well and then told me that you would recommend the book for an adult education curriculum. Tell me more about the strengths sometime.

Regarding "low" church eccelsiology, it is important to point out that there is a way to be "low" church that is not non-denominational. Part of recognizing the autonomy of the local church is responding to any departures from what the churches it associates with teach and believe. These real associations can be ended for real reasons. (While the PCUSA cannot kick anybody out, the SBC certanly did.) Baptist churches associate with one another. Non-denominationals often do not.


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