Ron Sider

Scandalous Behavior

 

Since the publication of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, complacent Christians have grown uneasy when Ron Sider’s name is mentioned. But his latest book takes aim not only at our social failures but issues of personal morality. Ron Sider is director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy and lectures at places like Yale, Princeton and Oxford. A transplanted farm boy from Ontario, Canada, Ron spoke with Phil from his home in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife Arbutus, a family therapist. They have three grown children.

 

You say “scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity.” Please tell me this is a sensational exaggeration.

I wish it weren’t true. But all the polls by Gallup and Barna show that evangelicals live just like the rest of the world. Think of the farce of so many American evangelicals in public life leading a struggle to preserve and strengthen the family, while our own divorce rate is little better than the general public. There is a scandalous failure to live what we preach. The stats break my heart.

 

You also mention materialism and sexual behavior.

When you’ve only got 9 percent of the evangelical world tithing you’ve got a really sad situation. As we become richer and richer, evangelicals choose to spend more and more on themselves and give a smaller percentage to the church. I was encouraged some years ago by the wonderful program, “True Love Waits.” Since 1993, 2.4 million young people have taken a pledge to be virgins until marriage. But a study last March of twelve thousand of them showed that 88% had broken their vows. Then there’s racism. When asked if they objected if a black neighbor moved in next door, evangelicals were the worst. Revelation 3 is addressed to the Laodicean church. It was rich, self-confident, and lukewarm. The same could just as easily be written to us. We have disgraced God’s holy name by our unholy lives. We want Jesus and mammon. Unless we repent, our Lord intends to spit us out. The contrast between contemporary behavior and New Testament teaching and practice is stark. Jesus called for costly obedience and radical discipleship. The astonishing quality of the early believers’ lives attracted people to Christ. Today our hypocrisy drives unbelievers away. This contrast should drive us to our knees, first to repent, then to ask God to help us take steps to correct this scandalous behavior.

 

What is at the root of this failure to live what we say we believe?

Only God knows. The culture is exceedingly powerful. But two primary factors are the pervasive concept of cheap grace in the church and failure to understand the church as a community of accountability where we really nurture each other and refuse to be conformed to the world. There is widespread individualism and relativism and a flagrant disobedience that undermines what we’re called to do as Christians.

 

What do you mean by cheap grace?

Jesus did not define the gospel as the forgiveness of sins. There are approximately one hundred instances of the phrase “the kingdom of God” in the gospels, mostly from the lips of Jesus. A right relationship with God certainly includes the forgiveness of sins. But there is more. Cheap grace results when we limit salvation to personal fire insurance against hell. Yes, the only way you get into this kingdom is by sheer grace; you can’t work your way into it. But salvation is more than a right relationship with God. It’s a new, transformed lifestyle that the world can see. The early church was living differently, they were sharing economically, they were crossing racial and gender lines that were astonishing in the first century world. We must understand that the biblical gospel is the good news of the kingdom. Cheap grace says it doesn’t matter how you live, all you have to do is repeat some simple formula and you’re on the way to heaven and nothing else really matters. I think that’s right at the core of the problem.

 

Do you see this worsening?

The evangelical population in the U.S. continues to grow and have enormous public visibility and influence. But we will decline dramatically unless we become more like Christ. The next few decades could be fabulous if we do that.

 

Where do you find rays of hope?

The biggest one is that the gospel is true. The gospel simply promises that when God’s people turn to Him without condition, repent of their sin, pray and beg Him to work, He does. So I have no doubt that it is entirely possible for major revival to spread in our time. In the worst of times, God has done precisely that. Anguished, persistent prayer for revival must become more central in evangelical life. The small-group movement is a hopeful sign. We need the strong support of brothers and sisters. George Barna did a study recently and identified people with a biblical worldview as those who believe, among other things, that the Bible is the moral standard, that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator, that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, that every Christian has a responsibility to evangelize, that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches. These people demonstrate genuinely different behavior. When we distinguish nominal Christians from deeply committed, theologically orthodox Christians, it’s clear that genuine Christianity leads to better behavior.

 

What will people see when they look at a truly obedient church?

When people come to the church they won’t think they’re just joining a social club and finding something that feels good to them; they’ll join a new community that follows Jesus’ standards and holds itself accountable. We are saying to each other, “I want you to help me live like Jesus. When it looks like I’m wavering, I want you to call it to my attention long before I get into blatant sin. I want you to say, ‘I’m praying for you, can we talk?’” If we did that, people around us would see what the early church demonstrated: a new community so different from the culture that they would say, “Wow, what’s going on?” In spite of our struggles they would see Christians full of joy and contagious wholeness and love. They would see us sharing in dramatic ways with the poor and the needy, taking the lead in overcoming HIV-AIDS. They would see Christians expressing love for people who are sinners, not hate. They would see us overcoming racism, they would see our youth genuinely waiting until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. And all of that would be so sharply different from the rest of society that people would just be amazed. If we do it in the power of the Spirit it would be incredibly attractive because it’s perfectly obvious to our young people that the sexual craze really isn’t a very good deal, that divorce and broken homes are awful and they’re longing for something different.

 

What practical steps can we take?

If I were a pastor, I would say I’m going to preach the whole gospel as Jesus preached it. I’m going to help my church in the next few years to understand what it really means to be the church as Jesus’ new community. Out of that I would begin to develop accountability structures, small groups with great leadership, so that everybody in the congregation feels they’re being genuinely nurtured and held accountable in a loving way. I don’t mean to be legalistic, but we must recover a much deeper sense of what John Wesley called “watching over one another in love.” Economic sharing should be part of that structure. Development agencies have continued to grow and are now very large in evangelical circles. There’s a lot of indication that the next ten years could be a very important, wonderful time in the evangelical world with regard to holistic ministries with special focus on overcoming poverty.

 

What characterizes people who make a difference in this area?

Wayne Gordon heads a multi-million dollar holistic ministry in Chicago among very poor where people are coming to Christ as they’re helped with job training and housing. When Wayne found Christ as a teenager, he looked into the face of God and said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do with my life.” I think that’s what it takes. If we had a few thousand Christian leaders who really meant it when they said, “Jesus, I’ll do anything you want me to do with my life,” that kind of radical, unconditional commitment would change the world.

 

Is this hypocrisy the biggest issue facing the church?

I’m always hesitant on that question. But this book is about following Jesus and living like Jesus and I certainly think that God does not continue to use long-term people who simply disobey Him. So I don’t think anything is more important today than for the church to repent of its unfaithfulness and resolve at a whole new level to do anything Jesus wants us to do.

 

What do you hope this book accomplishes?

I hope it provokes widespread reflection and out of that comes prayer for revival and out of that a very, very genuine deep revival. Tom Skinner, the black evangelist, put it very well when he said the church is supposed to be a little picture of what heaven is going to be like. Out of that kind of revival we could have tens of thousands of congregations that would inspire people to say, “Wow. That’s what Jesus talked about. I’d like to be part of that.” As a result I believe millions of people who are now cynical and disgusted with Christianity would turn to Christ.

 

When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered?

That I sought to live like Jesus and that in whatever modest ways the Lord wills, He enabled me to help others do the same.

 

Read more Interviews.

Like to see Phil's article syndicated in your magazine or newspaper? Email us for info. © 2012 Phil Callaway. Read more of Phil's articles.