The Evangelical Scandal
Ron Sider has been a burr in the ethical saddle of the evangelical world for decades. His 1977 book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, took fellow believers to task for materialism in the face of desperate global needs. Sider, who is professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has just released a new jeremiad: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Baker Books, 2005). In it, Sider plays off Mark Noll's critique of American evangelicalism's anti-intellectualism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Sider says the current crisis encompasses both mind and heart. Stan Guthrie, Christianity Today's senior associate news editor, interviewed Sider.
What troubles you the most about evangelicals today?
The heart of the matter is the scandalous failure to live what we preach. The tragedy is that poll after poll by Gallup and Barna show that evangelicals live just like the world. Contrast that with what the New Testament says about what happens when people come to living faith in Christ. There's supposed to be radical transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit. The disconnect between our biblical beliefs and our practice is just, I think, heart-rending.
I'm a deeply committed evangelical. I've been committed to evangelical beliefs and to renewing the evangelical church all of my life. And the stats just break my heart. They make me weep. And somehow we must face that reality and change it.
You have often spoken about evangelical failures in society, for example, in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. This latest critique covers not only social justice issues but also issues of personal morality. Was that intentional?
I've always been concerned with a whole range of biblical things. My commitment is to be biblically faithful, not to pick out one issue. But a good bit of my writing has dealt with the social issues that have called evangelicals to be more engaged, for example, with questions of poverty here and abroad. But you're right. This book is talking about a range of things that we evangelicals all agree are biblical demands.
Evangelical Christians and born-again Christians get divorced just as often, if not a little more, than the general population. And Barna has discovered that 90 percent of the born-again Christians who are divorced got divorced after they accepted Christ. On sexual promiscuity, we're probably doing a little better than the general population. Josh McDowell has estimated that maybe our evangelical youth are 10 percent better, Lord help us.
So at least it's a measurable difference.
Well it is measurable, although there's not so much hard [data] on that question as with some of the others. John Green, one of the best evangelical pollsters, says that about a third of all evangelicals say that premarital sex is okay. And about 15 percent say that adultery is okay.
Take the issue of racism. A Gallup study discovered that when they asked the question, "Do you object if a black neighbor moves in next door?" the least prejudiced were Catholics and non-evangelicals. The next group, in terms of prejudice, was mainline Protestants. Evangelicals and Southern Baptists were the worst.
Several studies find that physical and sexual abuse in theologically conservative homes is about the same as elsewhere. A large study of the Christian Reformed Church, a member of the nae, discovered that the frequency of physical and sexual abuse in this evangelical denomination was about the same as in the general population. One recent study, though, suggests that evangelical men who attend church regularly are less likely than the general population to commit domestic violence.