Discerning the Scandal and Its Depth
Chapter 1 of Ron Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience is entitled “The Depth of the Scandal.” It is an exercise in consciousness-raising. Sider cites a number of statistics—regarding divorce, materialism, sexual disobedience, racism, and disobedience in marriage—that are intended to make the reader aware that American evangelical Christians are not living in ways that are significantly different from their nonevangelical American neighbors. The underlying, but unstated, assumption of this chapter, and of Sider’s whole project, is that the way of life of a follower of Jesus ought to be significantly different from the way of life of one who does not follow Jesus. 1
One of the great contributions that Sider makes is that, at least indirectly, he provides his readers with a plausible way of recognizing that evangelical behavior is indeed scandalous.
Sider regards this situation as scandalous. It is a scandal because it undermines a fundamental tenet of the evangelical movement, namely, the claim that “God not only . . . performed miraculous deeds in the past but still miraculously transforms all who believe” (11). Similarly, Sider says that evangelicals believe that “miraculous moral transformation of character frequently [happens] when broken people [embrace]” evangelical Christianity (12).
Sider includes in his introduction a poignant story about an incident in apartheid-era South Africa in which an evangelical Christian tells a group of Communist anti-apartheid activists about the transforming power of faith in Jesus. One of the activists asks the Christian for an example of a place in which one can see that a transformation of lives has taken place. The Christian sadly responds that “he could not think of anywhere South African Christians were truly living out the message of the gospel” (14). The activist responded, “Then the whole thing is a piece of sh—” (14). Sider’s understanding of “scandal” with respect to evangelical Christians is that evangelical Christians proclaim that the way of Jesus is transforming but that evangelical Christian behavior is not transformed.
ATKINSVILLE AND PORTLEYVILLE
How do we tell if a person’s behavior is transformed? How do we know whether or not there is a scandal? One of the great contributions that Sider makes is that, at least indirectly, he provides his readers with a plausible way of recognizing that evangelical behavior is indeed scandalous. In order to clarify Sider’s method, consider this analogy. Suppose that there are two small towns of similar population. The majority of each population is significantly overweight. The residents of one town, let’s call it Atkinsville, have come to recognize that their condition is unhealthy. They have committed themselves to what they believe to be a proven weight loss method that involves a particular regimen of diet and exercise. The residents of the other town, Portleyville, are dissatisfied with their lives, but they have not connected their problems with being overweight. So, the Portleyvilleans are not following any particular regimen of diet and exercise. How do we assess the behavior of the people of Atkinsville?
One type of assessment would be a “success assessment.” This assessment would involve seeing how many of the residents of Atkinsville successfully reach their ideal weight. Suppose that after one year none of the residents of Atkinsville have reached their ideal weight. Does this situation constitute a failure on the part of the people of Atkinsville? Well, in some sense it is a failure. The people are still overweight. But the failure need not be considered scandalous. Having every citizen of Atkinsville at his or her ideal weight is the maximally good result of following the proven weight loss method. Failing to meet the maximally good result, however, would not be a scandal. There could be transformation without reaching the ideal.
A second type of assessment would be a “progress assessment.” This assessment would involve whether or not residents of Atkinsville were making progress toward their ideal weight. A transformation in their weight could be taking place even if no residents had achieved his or her ideal weight. There are two ways a progress assessment could be made. The first type of progress assessment is to compare the weight of individual Atkinsvilleans before they started the regimen of diet and exercise with their weight after following the regimen of diet and exercise. This method would seem to be the ideal way of evaluating the behavior of the people of Atkinsville, but it would, of course, require having good records of individuals both before and after committing to the lifestyle change. If no such records exist, then the next best thing is to follow an alternative method of progress assessment.
The alternative method of progress assessment is to compare the average weight of the people of Atkinsville with the average weight of the people of Portleyville. Suppose that at the end of one year the average weight of the people of Atkinsville is the same as the average weight of the people of Portleyville. If the people of Atkinsville maintain that they are following the regimen of diet and exercise of the proven weight loss method, then either they are lying, they are deceiving themselves, or the weight loss method does not work. Any of these three situations could appropriately be regarded as scandalous. Having the average weight of the citizens of Atkinsville decline is the minimally good result of following the proven weight loss method. Failing to meet the minimally good result is scandalous.
SIDER’S METHOD OF ASSESSMENT
Sider’s main approach to showing the scandalous behavior of evangelical Christians is the second type of progress assessment. This is a wise choice on Sider’s part. Success assessment, assessing whether or not Christians meet the maximally good standard, is too demanding if one wants to establish the scandalous character of evangelical behavior. It would not be difficult (nor would it be surprising) to show that Christians are, to some extent, unfaithful followers of Jesus. We do not always do what we say we will. Complete holiness is the maximally good result of following Jesus. Of course, Christians should strive to live holy lives. However, it does not qualify as a scandal to acknowledge that Christians do not live entirely holy lives.
The second option would, perhaps, be the ideal way of supporting Sider’s argument that evangelical Christian behavior is scandalous. If one could compare the behavior of people prior to their commitment to Christ to their behavior after their commitment to Christ, then one could assess whether or not following Christ was affecting their behavior. Presumably, however, this kind of detailed information about individuals is not available on a large scale.
Sider’s plan in the first chapter, for the most part, follows the third option, namely to show that evangelical Christians do not even reach the minimally good result of showing some evidence of transformed lives. He opens the chapter with an epigraph from evangelical theologian Michael Horton which reads, “Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general” (17). Moreover, the subtitle of the book asks the question, “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?” Sider wants to show that the behavior of evangelical Christians is not significantly different from the behavior of non-Christians. Sider’s choice of the third option is wise because it makes use of available information, and it sets only a minimally good standard for evangelical Christian behavior; failure to meet the minimally good standard is regarded, appropriately, as scandalous.
The project in the first chapter can be summarized, I believe, in two general theses. The first I will call the “countercultural thesis”:
The behavior of faithful Christians in many important areas of life (such as divorce, materialism, premarital and extramarital sex, racism, and physical abuse) should be different from the behavior of non-Christians in those areas.
The second thesis I will call the “descriptive thesis”:
The behavior of evangelical Christians in many important areas of life (such as divorce, materialism, premarital and extramarital sex, racism, and physical abuse) is not different from the behavior of non-Christians in those areas.
Together, the two theses imply the conclusion that evangelical Christians are not being faithful Christians.
Most of chapter 1 involves defending the descriptive thesis. The countercultural thesis is a presupposition that is never explicitly defended. In this essay, I will begin by assessing how well the descriptive thesis is defended. Then I will raise some questions about the countercultural thesis that are relevant to Sider’s project.
THE DESCRIPTIVE THESIS: INCONSISTENT METHOD
There are two problems that arise with Sider’s defense of the descriptive thesis. First, there is an inconsistency in the method of defending the thesis. This inconsistency reveals, I believe, a lack of clarity about what Sider is trying to show. Secondly, some of Sider’s arguments are rather weak.
We can see the inconsistency in Sider’s defense of the descriptive thesis by comparing the first two sections of this chapter: the section on divorce and the section on materialism and the poor. Sider begins the section on divorce by noting some statistics. Following George Barna, he makes a distinction between born-again Christians and evangelical Christians. Sider writes,
Barna classifies as born-again all who say ‘they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today’ and who also indicate that they ‘believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.’ (18)
Regarding evangelical Christians, Sider writes,
In addition to meeting the criteria for being born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. (18)
Sider then cites polling data that reports that in 1999 “the percentage of born-again Christians who had experienced divorce was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of non-Christians (22 percent)” (18). Also, he notes that a 1999 poll shows that among evangelical Christians the percentage of people experiencing divorce is the same as the percentage of the total population that have experienced divorce—25 percent (19).
Sider also considers a potential objection to his observations. Someone might object that perhaps the percentage of evangelicals and born-again Christians experiencing divorce is similar to that of the total population because the born-again Christians and the evangelical Christians experienced divorce prior to becoming Christians. If that were the case, Sider’s statistics would be irrelevant to his thesis. However, Sider also cites a Barna study that reports that 90 percent of all born-again Christians who experienced divorce did so after they had been born-again (18).
It should be noted, however, that Sider does not consider all of the plausible questions that might arise. For instance, many non-Christians live together without being married and then split up. Those situations may not show up in divorce statistics. Would this situation undermine the descriptive thesis? Or would it not cause a problem for the point that Sider is making?
At any rate, this section on divorce provides a clear method for defending the descriptive thesis. The method includes three elements. First, Sider cites relatively well-defined statistics that are relevantly similar. Secondly, these statistics show no significant distinction in behavior between self-identified born-again or evangelical Christians and their non-Christian neighbors. Third, he anticipates a potential objection—that is, an alternate explanation of the significance of the statistical observation—and responds to it. If each section of the chapter had these features, the defense of the descriptive thesis would indeed be very compelling.
Poverty and Materialism
Unfortunately, however, the other sections are not as well constructed as the section on divorce. Contrast the section on divorce with the section on materialism and the poor that immediately follows it. We shall see that this section does not, for the most part, support the descriptive thesis. Rather, it supports an alternative thesis that I shall call the holiness thesis. The holiness thesis is part of a success assessment rather than a progress assessment. The holiness thesis says that evangelical Christian behavior does not completely meet the standard of holiness that ought to characterize followers of Jesus.
This section can be divided into three subsections. In the first subsection, Sider cites research done by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle regarding giving patterns of American Christians. Their research shows that evangelical Christians do not come close to tithing and also that over the past thirty years incomes rose while the percentage of income given by American Christians declined.
Further, Sider cites comparisons in giving between members of mainline denominations and members of evangelical denominations. In 1968, members of evangelical denominations gave a significantly higher percentage of their income than did members of mainline denominations. However, by 2001 the percentage of income given had dropped for both groups and the gap between evangelical giving and mainline giving had narrowed. Sider notes, “The report showed that the richer we become, the less we give in proportion to our income” (20). Later, he summarized the findings of the Ronsvalles saying, “As we got richer and richer, evangelicals chose to spend more and more on themselves and give a smaller and smaller percentage to the church” (21).
With its emphasis on the failure of evangelical Christians to tithe, this subsection supports the holiness thesis rather than the descriptive thesis. The tithe can be understood as the minimum level of holiness with respect to charitable giving. Sider is concerned that Christians do not meet that level.
With its emphasis on the declining levels of giving, Sider supports something like the descriptive thesis. Sider is, with this evidence, giving a progress assessment; the giving of evangelical Christians is moving away from the ideal rather than toward it. However, it is a different progress assessment than the descriptive thesis. Furthermore, it may or may not support the descriptive thesis. Suppose that in 1968, evangelicals gave 6.1 percent of their income and nonbelievers also gave 6.1 percent of their income to charitable causes. Then in 1968 evangelical Christianity did not seem to have any transforming effect. Further, suppose that in 2001, evangelical Christians gave 4.27 percent of their income to charitable causes, while nonbelievers gave 1.5 percent of their income to charitable causes. In this case, evangelical Christianity does seem to have a transforming effect. So, it is possible for evangelical behavior to move away from the ideal but still to have a transforming effect. So, Sider’s citing the decline of evangelical giving over time does not necessarily show that the descriptive thesis is true.
In the second subsection on materialism, Sider asks the reader to “[e]xamine the public agenda of prominent evangelical political movements and coalitions. Virtually never does justice for the poor appear as an area of significant concern and effort” (21).
In the third subsection, Sider makes the case that if American evangelicals would all tithe, there would be enough money to provide basic services such as health care and education for the poor of the world and there would still be an enormous amount of money left over for worldwide evangelism.
Both the second and third subsections support the holiness thesis rather than the descriptive thesis. Both of these sections, compare evangelical behavior to a biblical standard. Evangelical leaders ought to emphasize justice for the poor; evangelical believers ought to at least tithe.
There is nothing wrong per se with the information that Sider presents in this section. In the section on materialism and the poor, evangelical Christians are not compared to non-Christians. In one case they are compared with mainline Christians. In another case the behavior of evangelical Christians is compared to a biblical standard.
This comparison of Sider’s use of statistics is not meant to be picky. It is intended to point out that Sider shifts between two different projects. Note the difference from the section on divorce. In the section on divorce, Sider clearly shows that the descriptive thesis is true. In the section on materialism and the poor, Sider’s evidence does not support the descriptive thesis. While it may show that evangelical behavior is declining, it primarily shows that evangelical Christians do not meet the maximally good standard for followers of Jesus, namely, holiness.
As noted earlier, the lack of holiness thesis is neither particularly surprising, nor is it the one that Sider has indicated that he is going to establish. If one has a robust sense of sin, he or she will recognize that Christians are going to remain sinful and hence, to some degree, be unfaithful to God. And it is a very difficult project to try to say how much is too much in terms of unfaithfulness. Unfortunately, Sider does not stay as focused on the project of establishing the descriptive thesis as he could have.
The other sections of the chapter reveal this same lack of focus. In the section on sexual disobedience, Sider notes that the percentage of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers who signed a True Love Waits pledge to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage was the same as the percentage of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers who did not take the pledge. It is plausible to assume that teenagers who take the True Love Waits pledge think of themselves as evangelical or born again Christians (23). Similarly, Sider notes that the percentage of born again Christians who live with a member of the opposite sex without being married is only a little bit lower than the percentage of the general public who live together before marriage (23). Both of these claims support the descriptive thesis.
On the other hand, in the same section, Sider notes that 26 percent of “traditional” evangelicals and 46 percent of “nontraditional” evangelicals do not believe that premarital sex is wrong, while 13 percent of “traditional” evangelicals and 19 percent of “nontraditional” evangelicals believe that extramarital sex is not wrong (24).
Two things should be noted about this. First, Sider shifts from a concern with evangelical behavior to evangelical beliefs. Second, no comparison is made to the beliefs of the general public. So, this evidence is not used to support the descriptive thesis. Rather, this evidence would support the “lack of holiness thesis.” This case is especially interesting, however, because comparison to the general public might not support the descriptive thesis. It may be that a significantly higher proportion of the general public believes that premarital sex is morally permissible.
Racism and Abuse in Marriage
The section on racism does not support the descriptive thesis. It compares evangelical attitudes with the attitudes of others in the Christian community. 2 The section on physical abuse in marriage, on the other hand, does address the descriptive thesis concluding that “[t]heologically conservative Christians, according to these studies, commit domestic abuse at least as often as the general public” (27).
THE DESCRIPTIVE THESIS: WEAK ARGUMENTS
A second problem with Sider’s defense of the descriptive thesis is that some of the arguments are weak arguments. The most glaring example is found in the section on physical abuse in marriage. Sider writes,
More than one study has found that women are more likely to experience physical abuse in traditional marriages (where the husband is dominant) than in egalitarian marriages. Evangelicals disagree over whether the Bible supports a traditional or an egalitarian marriage. But it is almost certainly the case that a higher percentage of evangelicals than the general public live in traditional marriages. So where are wives more likely to be beaten? (27)
The structure of this argument seems to be this:
- Women are more likely to experience physical abuse in traditional marriages than in egalitarian marriages.
- Evangelicals are more likely to have traditional marriages than egalitarian marriages.
- Therefore, evangelical women are more likely to experience physical abuse in their marriage than are nonevangelical women.
This argument only makes sense if one assumes that the behavior of evangelicals is not different from the behavior of nonevangelicals. That is, for this argument to work, one must assume that the descriptive thesis is true. But, Sider is claiming to provide evidence for the descriptive thesis.
The section on racism is also marred by two arguments with significant weaknesses. There are four subsections to the section on racism. I will briefly describe the first two subsections and then state and critique the third and fourth subsections. The first subsection compares attitudes among different Christian groups. This part was addressed briefly earlier in this essay. The second subsection is an historical anecdote about the failure of evangelical leaders to participate in the civil rights movement.
The third subsection is an anecdote about the experience of Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers. Sider writes,
McCartney went on a national speaking tour, regularly calling evangelicals to racial reconciliation. In his book Sold Out, McCartney recalls what happened. When he finished speaking, he reports, “There was no response—nothing. . . . In city after city, in church after church, it was the same story(wild enthusiasm while I was being introduced, followed by a morgue-like chill as I stepped away from the microphone. (25-26)
Sider clearly interprets the experience of Bill McCartney as evidence of ongoing racism among white evangelicals. However, he does not explore any other possible interpretations. And there are a couple of interpretations that seem plausible. One is that perhaps one should expect a “morgue-like chill” from people who have been convicted of sin and called to repentance. So, perhaps the silence at the end of McCartney’s speeches was evidence of their effectiveness. Another interpretation of the response to McCartney is that McCartney’s message was not one they expected to hear. The Promise Keeper’s movement led people to expect a certain kind of message. The response may not reveal disagreement with McCartney’s message so much as disappointment at not getting what they expected.
The fourth subsection cites contrasts between how white evangelicals explain lack of equality between blacks and whites and how other whites explain that inequality. White evangelicals are more likely to account for the inequality on lack of black motivation, as opposed to discrimination or unequal access to education, than are nonevangelical whites.
The fourth subsection is also problematic. Sider attributes the common evangelical explanation to racist attitudes. But, in the case in question, there again appears to be a plausible alternative explanation that ought to be explored. Evangelicalism is notoriously individualistic. So individualistic, rather than structural, explanations may be more attractive to evangelicals. The white evangelical explanations of inequality are all individualistic rather than structural. Thus, Sider should at least consider the possibility that the white evangelical proclivity to account for inequality in terms of black motivation may be the result of an individualistic theology rather than racist attitudes.
The descriptive thesis is a provocative thesis. Intuitively, it feels like it is true. If it is true, it is evidence, when combined with a suitable version of the countercultural thesis, of a profound scandal among evangelical Christians. However, Sider does not establish the descriptive thesis as clearly as he could because he does not clearly distinguish it from the lack-of-holiness thesis.
THE COUNTERCULTURAL THESIS
Recall that the countercultural thesis says,
The behavior of faithful Christians in many important areas of life (such as divorce, materialism, premarital and extramarital sex, racism, and physical abuse) should be different from the behavior of non-Christians in those areas.
This thesis is neither explicitly stated, nor is it explicitly defended. Perhaps it is so obvious that it needs no defense. However, it does need some qualification. In particular, Sider should note that there are some areas of cultural life that have been heavily influenced by values that evangelical Christians would endorse. For instance, racism is widely understood as being morally wrong. Similarly, domestic abuse is nearly universally regarded as morally wrong.
So, perhaps one should not expect that the attitudes or behavior of evangelical Christians would differ greatly from the attitudes or behavior of the general public in those areas. Perhaps the countercultural thesis should be revised to say something like the following:
The behavior of faithful Christians in those areas of life in which Christians espouse values that are inconsistent with the values espoused by the general culture should be different from the behavior of the general public.
If one holds the revised countercultural thesis, then the first step in a project like Sider’s would be to identify those areas in which a Christian view is inconsistent with the general cultural view. Divorce, sexual ethics, and materialism would surely fit this category, but it is not so clear that racism and domestic abuse would fit.
The opening chapter of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience is meant to persuade evangelical believers that their behavior is inconsistent with their profession of faith. In some ways, this is a description of the symptoms of a disease that the evangelical community suffers. Sider seems to believe that if evangelical Christians are aware of these symptoms, they will be more likely to seek both a diagnosis of their condition and a prescription for alleviating the disease. That is, Sider seems to hope that by describing the scandalous behavior of evangelical Christians, the evangelical community will be inclined to search its theology to identify the conditions that permit and, perhaps, encourage that behavior. After identifying those theological conditions, the evangelical community can make changes that will bring about greater faithfulness to its Lord, Jesus Christ.
The later chapters of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience address the diagnosis and prescription for the evangelical community. So, chapter 1 sets the stage for the following chapters. It succeeds in raising the reader’s consciousness about the scandalous nature of the behavior of evangelical Christians. However, it could have been even more persuasive had Sider more carefully distinguished the descriptive thesis from the lack-of-holiness thesis, avoided some weak arguments, and provided a more nuanced account of the countercultural thesis.
- One might think that it would be appropriate to attribute a stronger claim to Sider at this point. One might think that rather than attributing to Sider the claim that “the way of life of a follower of Jesus ought to be significantly different from the way of life of one who does not follow Jesus” (as I have done) one ought to attribute to Sider the claim that “the way of life of a follower of Jesus ought to be morally superior to the way of life of one who does not follow Jesus.” It is clear that Sider thinks that the way of Jesus is morally superior to a secular ethic. I have chosen to state Sider’s thesis more cautiously because I believe that doing so makes his argument stronger. If there is no difference between the behavior of evangelical Christians and nonbelievers, then the behavior of evangelical Christians is not superior to the behavior of nonbelievers. One thereby avoids disputes about what constitutes morally superior behavior. I am grateful to Douglas Miller for prodding me to consider this alternative way of stating Sider’s claims.
- Toward the end of the section on racism, Sider does compare evangelical attitudes toward racial issues with nonevangelical attitudes (26). This comes closer to supporting the descriptive thesis than the rest of the section. However, note that it addresses beliefs rather than behavior. This part of the chapter is addressed in more detail in the section entitled “The Descriptive Thesis: Weak Arguments.”