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Fall 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 2 · pp. 261–65 

Reflections on the Essay Responses

Ronald J. Sider

First, I want to say thanks to each of the five authors for writing thoughtful, probing essays on the five chapters of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. With some frequency, I agree with their critiques or qualifications.

My prayer is that Christians will wrestle with today’s scandalous behavior so deeply and persistently that revival will break out and the church will truly live like Jesus.

RESPONSE TO DAVID FABER

David Faber writes a challenging essay on the data used in chapter 1. First, a couple of general comments and then some more specific ones.

I did not set out in chapter 1 to write a comprehensive, scholarly summary of all the available polling data on the moral behavior of “evangelical” (or “born-again”) Christians. Rather, my intention was to cite available data that most evangelicals would accept to show that there is colossal moral disobedience in our midst.

Second, I am quite aware that the polling data currently available is woefully incomplete. I know that the available polling data is diverse, sparse, inadequate, and full of differing definitions. In chapter 5 I allude to the need for much more work here with more refined definitions and more precise measures, especially ones that enable us to distinguish between nominal Christians and more deeply committed Christians.

Apropos Faber’s discussion of my “descriptive thesis,” I want to say first that it may be that the book’s dramatic subtitle (“Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?”) suggested something I never meant to argue. I had no intention of claiming that all Christians (or all evangelicals) live absolutely the same as non-Christians. The polling data we have is diverse. In some instances (e.g., divorce), it does suggest that evangelicals are no different than the general population. In others, they are somewhat better, but (I believe) not nearly different enough.

I do not find Faber’s “holiness thesis” very helpful. I don’t expect complete sanctification. I do not call evangelical behavior scandalous because their behavior “does not completely meet the standard of holiness that ought to characterize followers of Jesus.” But I do believe the New Testament (NT) expects radical, sweeping transformation of believers. When I cite data on how few evangelicals tithe or how their giving is dropping and approaching the broad Christian norm, I am not condemning them for not being perfect, but for falling pitifully, dramatically short of the economic generosity demonstrated by the early church.

I am quite aware that the decline of evangelical giving “does not necessarily show that the descriptive thesis is true.” I never said it did. I never supposed that the data cited on materialism and the poor was offered to support what Faber calls the “descriptive thesis.” There is, in fact, polling data (e.g., in Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving [University of Chicago Press, 1998]) that suggest evangelicals are better than the general population in giving to the poor. My argument is that they ought to be far more different than they are.

Faber is right that it is difficult to say how much better Christians should be. In fact, over the decades, I have steadfastly resisted offering a specific definition of how “simply” Christians should live. But I do think that when one contrasts the economic sharing in the NT with an American evangelical community (living in the richest nation in history) that gets substantially richer over the last forty years and in the same time period gives an increasingly smaller percentage to the church, one can rightly speak of scandal even without being able to define precisely what the ideal should be.

Two of Faber’s alternative explanations for the data on racism are possible. I would not put a lot of weight on the McCartney story. And I rather think evangelicalism’s individualism is a significant part of the explanation for their failure to understand structural racism.

RESPONSE TO JON ISAAK

Jon Isaak writes an intriguing essay on hermeneutics. But it is not one that I tried to address in my book. So I will not comment on it, except to say that I find it a somewhat puzzling response to a chapter where my central point is to show how the NT documents show that the early church expected Christians to live radically transformed lives.

RESPONSE TO HAROLD JANTZ

I agree with much of Harold Jantz’s essay. I do not expect perfection in the church. And certainly, as Mouw says, we should affirm Christians who desire to live like Jesus in spite of repeated failure. But Jantz, it seems to me, excuses too much disobedience. Of course, church history reveals huge failure. But that is the measure of the church’s sinful disobedience—its scandalous failure.

I am glad that the Ipsos-Reid data suggest that Canadian evangelicals are living morally better lives. I devoutly wish U.S. polls regularly showed similar results. Likewise, I know and rejoice in the (recent) good work of evangelicals in things like AIDS. And the good stories he tells near the end of the essay are encouraging. But as my friend John DiIulio likes to say, anecdotes do not equal data. A string of stories on Christians faithfully keeping their marriage vows does not change Barna’s devastating polling data.

RESPONSE TO JOHN H. REDEKOP

My first comment on John H. Redekop’s essay is that I have never made any claim to be a prophet. My passion in life has been and remains to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, my crucified and risen Lord, and to follow the Scriptures wholeheartedly without picking and choosing what to obey based on personal preference or modern prejudice.

Earlier, I noted that I do not say or think that contemporary Christians or evangelicals are no different from non-Christians. I agree that being Christian does make a difference. In fact, it is precisely my understanding of the gospel as the good news of the messianic kingdom which has already broken visibly and tangibly into history that compels me to expect that Christians (transformed by personal faith in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the nurture of Christian community) will live dramatically differently from non-Christians.

Redekop is, of course, right that I overstated my point when I said “everywhere individualism has conquered.” Thank God there are exceptions—they are just not frequent enough! But I think Redekop misunderstands my comment that “sin has permeated every corner of culture.” That does not mean or say that sin has totally corrupted all of culture. I rejoice in the many examples Redekop cites of goodness and beauty in contemporary secular culture. But there is sin mixed in with the goodness and beauty—everywhere.

Redekop says we should be “selectively countercultural, not essentially countercultural.” I thought I said the first part of that clearly: “Jesus’ people, precisely because we love and embrace the gorgeous creation the Creator gave us and therefore want to shape new splendid cultural creations to the glory of God, must say no to all that is sinful and distorted in surrounding culture. Precisely because we love culture, we must be countercultural” (104).

I do not know what Redekop means by “essentially countercultural.” If he means to reject the idea that contemporary culture is all bad, I heartily agree. But if he means there are areas of culture that are free from the inroads of sin, I disagree. And I do want to say that, precisely because of the pervasive character of sin, it is an essential part of the church’s role to be counter to all that is sinful in surrounding culture.

RESPONSE TO PAUL DOERKSEN

Finally, Doerksen’s essay on chapter five. I agree that it is a difficult, complicated task to offer a clear, helpful definition of the word evangelical. I am quite aware of the discussion on the topic, but did not think dealing with that issue was necessary to accomplish the purpose of this book.

Doerksen is also right that a complete list of major areas of evangelical unfaithfulness would certainly include the issue of violence. My views that Jesus taught his followers never to kill are well-known. I consciously chose not to include that topic here because the vast majority of all Christians (including evangelicals) stand—wrongly, I believe—in the just war tradition. Elsewhere, I will continue to argue that all Christians should abandon killing as a way to justice and peace. But in this book, I wanted to use topics that virtually all evangelicals accept in order to show that we are not living what we say we believe.

I am finally puzzled by Doerksen’s discussion of hope and eschatology. To suggest that my hope rests on some promising polling data is absurd. I make it perfectly clear in chapter 5 that my hope is in the “promise of the gospel,” the power of the risen Lord, and the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. Nor do I expect perfection until Christ returns. Nothing I say about the “rays of hope” offered by some more promising polling data suggests otherwise.

But if the gospel is the good news of the kingdom and that kingdom has broken visibly into history, then we have every right to expect that Christians will live less selfish, morally better lives than non-Christians. If the gospel were just the forgiveness of sins, then the gospel could be true even if Christians lived just as immorally as non-Christians. But if the gospel is the good news of the kingdom, then the gospel is false unless in fact—in real life that is visible—genuine Christians live differently. And if the polls are done accurately, then this visible evidence of the work of grace should become evident in the polling data. That does not mean I place my hope in the polls. It means I expect accurate polls to find tangible evidence that divine grace is truly at work in the church, not just forgiving sinners, but daily transforming them more and more into the very image of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).

Again, many thanks to each of the thoughtful authors. My prayer is that Christians will wrestle with today’s scandalous behavior so deeply and persistently that revival will break out and the church will truly live like Jesus.

Ronald J. Sider is Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly Eastern Baptist), Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. He is also Director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy and President of Evangelicals for Social Action. He lives in Philadelphia.

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