Being the Church in the Midst of Culture
The prophet Amos has again come down from the hills and pronounced a wide-ranging judgment. For three American evangelical sins and for four, he has articulated a scathing exposé of moral failure and glaring hypocrisy. His bold message echoes across the hills of Tekoa and resonates to the farthest reaches of the land. This prophet’s pronouncements shock all who will listen, from Savannah to Seattle and from Boston to San Diego.
Perhaps most salient for our time is [Sider’s] treatment of holy community. The faithful church . . . must function as a united body.
The essence of Ron Sider’s message can be summarized easily. He exposes the widespread shortfall of holy living among North American evangelicals. He rejects cheap grace and exposes complacency. He documents the widespread disconnect between evangelical dogma and evangelical living. He laments the extent to which a fallen society is shaping the evangelical church into its own mold. And he passionately challenges the Christian church to reform itself, to become true to the gospel which Jesus taught and for which he died.
The prophet’s message is assertive, forthright, hard-hitting, and at times confrontational. And as prophets are wont to do, this prophet validates his bold proclamations by being more subjective than objective. He is part of the audience. He is himself in pain when he diagnoses the malaise at hand, and he rejoices at signs of authentic ethical renewal.
This prophet’s dissecting of spiritual impotency constitutes a noteworthy strength of the book’s fourth chapter. He describes how the widespread evangelical acceptance of cheap grace has debilitated the evangelical church. Equally impressive are his critiques of individualism and materialism. The fact that much of this analysis parallels his message in earlier publications, such as Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (5th ed., W Publishing Group, 2005) and One-Sided Christianity (Zondervan, 1993), does not weaken it.
Sider is at his best when discussing what the true church should be. His emphasis on Jesus as the center of the church’s existence and mission is timely and carefully crafted. His analysis is exceptionally effective. “Purity and holiness are at the core of these images of the church as virgin and bride” (96). Mutual accountability is central and essential. Individualism must go!
Perhaps most salient for our time is the treatment of holy community. The faithful church, as “the Israel of God” (98), must function as a united body. This means rejecting all racial and social discrimination and functioning as a true community, indeed, as a family. Sider’s statement may be too sweeping, but he makes a valid point when he asserts that “the modern, evangelical reduction of Christianity to some personal, privatized affair that only affects my relationship with God and perhaps my personal family life is blatant heresy” (102-3). Some evangelicals may question Sider’s assertion that “God’s grand strategy of redemption does not focus on redeeming individuals; it centers on the creation of a new people, a new community, a new social order” (97). But they should be cautious. Did Jesus himself not say, “I will build my church”? (Matt. 16:18).
The prophet’s notion of a contract between church and society merits serious thought. I particularly liked the assertion that the church should not only be different from society, but in moral matters it should be far ahead of society. Further, although the strong case for church discipline hardly fits the easy “inclusivism” taught and practiced in many congregations, it deserves careful study. Basing his challenge on biblical teaching, the prophet argues that “Recovery of the practice of church discipline in our congregations is absolutely essential if the church today is to end the scandal of cheap grace and gross disobedience” (107). I agree, although more than a few supposedly successful pastors would likely flinch at the author’s corollary suggestion that we should make it harder for people to join the church.
In sum, this hard-hitting critique is a powerful protest against moral dereliction in the church and much of what passes for successful evangelical growth and presence today. Ron Sider has identified and to a considerable extent documented an ethical embarrassment, but he does not lash out in anger. Rather, he argues his case reasonably, if forcefully, from a thoroughly biblical perspective. Moreover, his protest is validated by his love for the church and his own personal life of following Christ.
Although this chapter is a major addition to the literature, some aspects in this analysis raise questions. Prophets, of course, face the dual task of getting the attention of those who need to hear their message and of saying what needs to be said. Perhaps for that reason they may be granted some literary license. Even so, it may be useful to summarize some concerns which arose as I read this chapter.
A fundamental theme in this chapter, indeed in the entire book, is the highlighted subtitle: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? In chapter 1, “The Depth of the Scandal,” the author provides considerable evidence to support his assertion.
Over the years I have had difficulty with such claims. I acknowledge that surveys sometimes support depressing conclusions about ethics among Christians. But even then, I wonder whether the whole story is being revealed. Take, for example, the data on divorce. Ron Sider points out that at least one study shows that the divorce rate was basically the same for evangelical Christians as for the rest of society, and, even more importantly, that about ninety percent of these divorces among the evangelicals occurred when the people involved were already evangelical believers. Such data is, indeed, depressing.
One wonders, however, if, perchance, the divorce rate among non-Christians would be significantly higher were it not for the widespread incidence of common-law relationships in that group. Maybe the non-Christians have a much higher rate of actual spousal separation than do evangelical Christians, but many of these breakups no longer involve divorce and thus do not affect the data. In any event, my own observation leads me to be somewhat skeptical of some survey results.
More generally, after almost fifty years of working with secular and evangelical Christian groups, I have come to the definite conclusion that seriously committed Christians do, in fact, practice higher ethics than do others. For almost forty years I have taught thousands of students at both secular and Christian institutions, in Canada and in the United States. Without hesitation I can say that, on balance, I have found that Christian students practice a higher ethic in both academic and personal activities and have observed that, on balance, the Christian institutions actually do function according to a higher ethic. Naturally, exceptions exist but that does not change the general situation.
In my lectures and other activities in almost fifty other countries, I have also found that for people with whom I interacted, being Christian does make a difference. Wherever I have been, in countries ranging from Khazakstan to Brazil and from Indonesia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Christian ethic comes through.
Beyond personal observation and anecdotal evidence, one can point to more substantive realities. When calamities and major tragedies strike anywhere in the world, which private sector organizations provide aid first and most generously? By and large, it is the organizations rooted in a Christian ethic. It is also the case, of course, that concerning governmental responses to such events, it is not the rich Muslim countries nor Marxist, Hindu, or other governments outside of Christendom which have developed a well-earned reputation for international generosity. Rather, it is governments which, while not authentically Christian, nevertheless practice an ethic rooted in Christendom.
IS THE REALITY OVERSTATED?
Sadly, the data presented by Sider do paint a very sobering picture of ethically challenged evangelicals. Given that reality, sobering as it is, it seems to me to be imprudent to overstate the case. It is neither necessary nor justifiable to say that Christians are “living just like the rest of the world.” In fact, our prophet actually provides differing evidence in Chapter 5 when he states that “The picture we reviewed from the data in chapter 1 is bleak and devastating. Fortunately, when pollsters make more careful distinctions between nominal Christians and devout believers, there is evidence that deeply committed Christians do live differently” (125-26). That’s precisely my point. But if that is the valid point, then how can the author say, on the one hand, that Christians “live just like the rest of the world” while also acknowledging that they don’t?
Various assertions struck me as being exaggerations. Let me cite some examples. In comparing contemporary evangelicals with those of earlier generations, the author asserts that “The gospel of individual self-fulfillment now reigns” (85). Does it really reign throughout the evangelical world? Myriad exceptions rush to mind.
In an otherwise excellent section on accountability, our prophet asserts that “Everywhere, individualism has conquered evangelical traditions of accountability in the church” (91). Really? “Everywhere” allows for no exceptions. I can point to many exceptions. We also read that “our lifestyles contradict our confession” (96). The statement contains truth but is, in my view, weakened by being overstated. It is too sweeping. I can point to huge numbers of Christians, including prophet Sider himself, whose lifestyles do not contradict their confession. They invite emulation.
We read that “Sin has permeated every corner of culture” (104). Is that a valid indictment? I recently enjoyed an excellent concert of classical music by our city’s symphony orchestra and detected no presence of sin. At the art gallery I enjoyed the paintings by the masters and experienced a deep sense of awe and worship of God. I have watched and continue to enjoy some excellent nature programs on television and marvel at what God has created. I thank God for such culture. Watching movies such as The March of the Penguins and Schindler’s List portrayed the terrible qualities of sin but were hardly themselves sinful. I recently attended a choral festival and even in the secular renditions detected absolutely nothing that might be considered sinful.
Such examples can be multiplied. In sum, I find much in the culture of our day, including the secular elements, which is edifying, uplifting, and even inspiring. Of course there is much that is despicable and revolting. But let us not generalize unduly. Perhaps we are all well-advised to follow the typical British notion of strengthening the argument by understating the case, especially when the reality is obvious. Interestingly, at one point Professor Sider does acknowledge the diversity in modern culture when he states that it is wrong to say that “culture itself is bad. Culture is part of God’s creation” (104). But such wise and cautious differentiation is contradicted by the assertion that sin has permeated every corner of culture.
CONCERNING EXAGGERATION AND CRITICISM
Concerning the whole matter of perceived exaggeration one needs to make several points. First, hyperbole and exaggeration are, in fact, valid tools in speech and writing. As figures of speech they can help make the point. Our Lord himself employed exaggeration as a figure of speech when he said that his followers should hate their immediate families. But in that instance, as should always be the case, the hyperbole was clearly understood. In at least parts of this chapter, I did not perceive the exaggeration to be employed as a literary tool but as a presumed fact presented to support a conclusion.
Second, if one uses exaggeration and hyperbole in expressing major criticisms even when they are largely accurate judgments, attention may shift from the criticism itself to the figure of speech and thus the thrust of the criticism is weakened. Hearers and readers, whose shortcomings are being exposed, tend to find reasons for invalidating the criticisms directed at them. Critics defeat their own purposes if they unnecessarily provide such reasons.
Third, if one wants to expose and reject some evil elements in human behavior it is generally better to use the technique employed by our Lord in his rather severe indictment of the seven churches as recorded in chapters two and three of the book of Revelation. Time and again Jesus acknowledges the positive traits in the various congregations before he criticizes their shortcomings. By conveying a sense of fairness, such an approach enhances credibility. Critics, I suggest, can be more effective if they follow our Lord’s example and live by the axiom which says: Praise when you can so that you can with credibility criticize when you must. This approach has served me well in marking thousands of student essays and verbal presentations throughout my academic career.
Let me turn now to some observations and suggestions which are of secondary importance. Prophet Sider correctly indicts Hollywood for the lamentable ethics which the movie industry disseminates. He identifies as villainous the “outrageous sexual values and crazy consumerism . . . rooted in pervasive, long-standing individualism and materialism that have taken root in our culture” (85). So far, so good. But Sider, in my view, does not cast the net far enough.
The increasingly despicable ethics perpetrated by many agencies and institutions which have nothing to do with Hollywood may, in fact, be more important than Hollywood. Wall Street plays its part. The huge video game industry plays a major role. Television fare is crucial in shaping minds and values. The incredibly evil lyrics of much of heavy metal and hard rock music impact millions of young minds. Moreover, I would say that hedonism plays at least as large a role as do individualism and materialism in undermining sound values.
While it is obviously true that in many respects the ethics of evangelical Christianity have deteriorated in recent decades, if not generations, one should also acknowledge some key opposite trends. In more than a few areas the ethics of Christians have improved markedly. Attitudes and actions pertaining to racism, slavery, treatment of women, and tolerance of people of other faiths are some of the areas which come to mind.
Professor Sider correctly notes that anti-Americanism still persists as a significant reality in parts of the world, but I question his explanation of the reason for that fact. He states that “what American media exports all around the world makes one realize why many people in other countries despise America” (86). In my view his analysis does apply to Muslim lands but not generally elsewhere. In fact, across Europe, Asia, Latin America, and much of Africa, American media exports are strong because the population clamors for such fare, not because they dislike it or resist it.
The real reasons for anti-Americanism in most lands, I suggest, has much more to do with United States government policies, with behavior of some American tourists, with perhaps unwarranted perceptions of arrogance, with economic exploitation by some American companies, with envy, and simply with the fact that dominant powers are rarely popular. One should also note that in at least several European countries the “popular” ethical values appear to be even lower than those being exported as U.S. pop culture.
Our prophet’s discussion of the church as a countercultural community deserves a wide audience. In general it is done very well. I do, however, question part of his argument. Since, as we know, not all culture is sinful, we should be clear and careful in describing the church as countercultural. The faithful church, the Christian covenant community, should be selectively countercultural, not essentially countercultural.
One of the strengths in the fourth chapter is its fine treatment of accountability. Professor Sider makes a convincing case for the argument that individual congregations, instead of opting for independence, should choose to be part of “the larger body of Christ” (111). “There is simply no biblical justification for any local congregation to fail or refuse to join a wider network of churches (e.g., a denomination) that provides guidance, supervision, direction, and accountability” (111). Again, so far, so good. But what about the increasingly common reality of entire denominations opting for unchristian ethical stances concerning homosexual practices, same-sex marriages, gambling, and rejection of the Bible as the inspired Word of God? Large associations do not always represent and uphold higher moral values. The point deserves serious discussion, something which is not given here.
Concluding my critique of this fine chapter, four overarching thoughts fill my mind. First, professor Sider has forcefully made the point that the antidote for the widespread ethical malaise in even the evangelical sector of the Christian church is for the church to become a truly Christian church. Second, the evangelical church needs to focus much more on the life of discipleship after conversion and not only on the conversion experience itself. Third, while the author has addressed the North American scene, his provocative analysis deserves a global readership because the ethical failures of much of the evangelical church are transnational. And fourth, the entire Christian community, and thoughtful non-Christians as well, is deeply indebted to this modern prophet for publishing his case.
Thanks, Amos. May it be a long while before you retreat to Tekoa.