The Myth of Original Christianity in ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’

The Myth of Original Christianity in ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’ May 17, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Recently, I showed you an overview of a classic evangelical book from 2005: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, by Ronald J. Sider. Its author tried his darndest to get evangelicals to straighten up and fly right — and yet he failed miserably. Today, I’ll show you a small part of why he failed. See, Ronald J. Sider really truly believes in a myth that has destroyed evangelicals’ chances of success: the myth of Original Christianity. As long as that vision clouds his mind, he won’t be able to perceive the real problem — much less suggest a workable solution for it. 

hierapolis in turkey
(Özcan ADIYAMAN.)

(Posts about early Christianity: Historical Jesus; How the Great Pan Died; Original Christianity; The Myth of Christian Persecution; From Tolerated to Dominant.)

Mistake #1: Assumptions.

Having demonstrated to his own satisfaction that hypocrisy completely infests evangelicalism, Ronald J. Sider now begins his next case. It’s a doozy, too:

Once upon a time, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ totes followed Jesus’ rules. Then, they stopped. Why, oh I ask why, did they stop?!?

Sider titled this chapter “The Biblical Vision.” In it, he embarks on a lengthy Bible study of most of the New Testament. I’m not kidding. He begins with the Gospels and then whisks through Acts and the Epistles. (He’ll get to Revelation at some other point.) In fact, he even brings in some mangled pseudo-history about those wondrous Original Christians that evangelicals so admire.

The creative wisdom that went into Sider’s decision to place this Bible study as the second chapter eludes me, but okay. I guess he wants to contrast the current state of evangelicalism with what the New Testament presents as the totally-for-realsies earliest Christians (p. 31):

The extent of our scandalous failure today becomes clear only when we recall what Jesus expected and the early Christians experienced.

But does it? I’d argue not.

Then again, I try to live in Reality-Land. Here in Reality-Land, evangelicals’ “scandalous failure” can be measured against simple human-decency standards. Nobody needs to reach for Christianity’s sales brochures to see what an absolute mess evangelicals are as a group.

But okay, sure, Sider reaches for the sales brochures.

Mistake #2: The Bible is the Claim, Not Also the Evidence for the Claim.

While Sider laboriously works his way through the New Testament book by agonizing book, pulling out the stops to demonstrate what wholesome, loving, generous people Jesus wanted his followers to be (and that those earliest followers were, according to Sider), I couldn’t help but wish for evangelical leaders who are actually literate in real history.

They all seem to make this mistake: they think the Bible offers us trustworthy historical accounts that show the truth about what was going on in those critical early years of their homebrew religion. And they all whitewash Jesus’ control-lust, misogyny, racism, self-contradictory nature, pettiness, and mind-blowing cruelty to come up with an infinitely loving, forgiving, and kindhearted Savior who doesn’t even resemble what the Gospels actually offer.

Indeed, Sider makes all of these mistakes and more in his Bible study chapter.

Jesus denying his mother? Oh no, really, see, really Jesus “displayed his own loving concern for his mother as he hung dying on the cross.”

Jesus telling his disciples they needed to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–[or] such a person cannot be my disciple”? Oh no, you see, what Jesus really was doing was “Hebraic hyperbole. [. . .] He did not want his disciples literally to hate or neglect their families.”

It is just wild to see someone massage the Bible so completely and then still come out claiming to be a literalist. But here we are.

Mistake #3: Trusting Christian Marketing.

I also noticed, numerous times in the book, that Sider completely missed New Testament hints that the earliest Christians were utter hypocrites. In addition, the little extra-biblical information he provides about the earliest Christians almost all comes from Christian leaders themselves.

Sider quotes a glowing recommendation from Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 CE) concerning those early Christians. Another quoted source is an early apologist called Aristides, writing around 125 CE. Both praise Christians to the very skies for their sexual abstinence, communal living (!), brotherly love for each other, and their support of the poor and vulnerable among them. Why, poor old Tertullian (c. 155-240 CE) even shows up in Sider’s book to dutifully declare that even those ickie heathens were super-impressed with Christians’ kindness and care for the poor. And I’m 100% sure that these Christian leaders are being absolutely truthful about their religion’s early history. (/s)

Sider also borrows from a Victorian history book about early Christianity to twist the meaning of a quote attributed to Julian the Apostate (the last pagan Roman emperor before Christians seized absolute power for the next umpteen centuries). The quote in the book makes clear that Julian saw Christians offering “charity” as a way to score sales, not out of love alone:

“These impious Galileans,” he says bitterly, “not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them to their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”

Somehow, and I’m sure this was just a space decision (/s), Sider leaves out everything after “also” in the above quote, undermining its entire meaning.

By the way, you know why they call that emperor “the Apostate”? It’s because he deconverted from Christianity in young adulthood. You know, like pretty much everyone did before Christians gained the power to force everyone to stick around.

Mistake #4: A Series of Crackling-Strange Omissions.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira is completely, totally absent.

Seriously. Dude doesn’t even mention the story. He spends about one page of text on the entire book of Acts, and he skips from Chapter 4 to Chapter 6 entirely as he discusses the amazing communal sharing evinced in early Christian groups.

Ananias and Sapphira show up in Chapter 5. In Chapter 4, a Christian called Barnabas sold some land and gave the proceeds to the leaders of the new sect. So in Chapter 5, Ananias does the same thing but withholds some of the money for himself. When Peter confronts him, his god strikes Ananias dead on the spot for lying and withholding money. When Sapphira comes in, she resorts to the same lies as her husband, and faces the same fate.

But Sider skips this story entirely to focus on some procedural stuff in the next chapter that he thinks demonstrates “integrity and obedience.”

Why’d he miss the opportunity to talk about his god striking dead — murdering — a Christian? It’s a question that crackles in my mind. Did this murder mess up his narrative of Christians following the rules just cuz they were topped up with Jesus Power? Did the story screw up his sales pitch?

The Case of the Missing Antichrists.

Strangely, Sider also completely forgets to mention 1 John’s author’s deep concern with apostasy. Historians think the book was written around 100 CE, which makes it hardly contemporaneous with Jesus or the very earliest Christians, but whatevs, right? It’s close. And already, its author has noticed that a lot of Christians tend to drift away from the faith:

18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. This is how we know it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But their departure made it clear that none of them belonged to us.

“Many antichrists,” indeed. But Sider skips 1 John 2:18-19. He does dabble in Chapter 2 here and there, but he never mentions those two verses. It’s another of those weird omissions, but by now I expect it.

Admitting that early Christianity had a serious problem with retention would mess up his narrative that EVERYTHING WAS GREAT TILL SOMEONE SCREWED UP.

The Sources He Didn’t Wanna Include.

Now, allow me to briefly bring up some sources that Sider forgot about.

Celsus (c. 2nd century). His book On the True Doctrine, written around 175 CE, is the earliest known criticism of Christianity. It survives now only in quoted fragments in the next century by Origen of Alexandria’s Contra Celsum. His observations devastated Christian salespeople’s case, and he wasn’t impressed by Christians themselves.

(Could early TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have destroyed his books in fits of rage?)

Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234 – 305 CE). He wrote Against the Christians, which consisted of fifteen full books arguing against all kinds of Christian claims. Mostly he argued against Christians’ mangling of Old Testament stories, but it sounds like what really rattled contemporary Christians was his assertion that the Book of Daniel had made some dealbreaking mistakes — and that its author wasn’t really the Prophet Daniel at all.

(Emperor Theodosius II issued not one but two commands to have all the copies of these books located and burned in the mid-400s CE. How loving, compassionate, and forgiving those early Christians were! /s)

Some More Names Sider Missed.

Lucian of Samosata (c. 115 – 200 CE) (p. 26 of link). This ancient satirist poked a lot of fun at contemporary Christians. He considered them gullible, easy marks for fraudsters and conjobs. Lucian’s famous for writing about “Alexander the False Prophet,” who created the false god Glycon. The godmaking of Glycon went along very similar lines to the godmaking of Jesus.

Lucius Apuleius of Madaura (c. 123 – ? CE) (p. 29 of link). Writer of The Golden Ass (more properly called Metamorphoses).


Winds of Change, a 70s movie based on Metamorphoses. I saw this as a little kid.

Lucius wasn’t super-impressed with Christians either. He considered them immoral and promiscuous as well as foolish and prone to drunkenness.

Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100 – 166 CE) (p. 30 of link). This one’s a Roman intellectual — a great rhetorician, in the words of that link, and a tutor to Marcus Aurelius. He wasn’t just some playwright or jokester. And hooboy, he had some words about Christians. In that link writer’s translation, here’s Fronto’s opinion of contemporary Christians:

“dregs of society” [. . .] a religion of fools, blasphemous conspirators, and gullible women. They meet in nocturnal assemblies, participate in clandestine feasts, and overturn the lights so that they can engage in acts of unspeakable promiscuity and incest. In terms of veneration, they worship the head of an ass, the genitals of their father, and an executed criminal and his cross.

Oddly, Sider mentions none of these guys or their observations. I wonder why? (/s)

A Counterpoint to Sider’s Narrative.

Granted, some of these very pointed criticisms could themselves be motivated to persuade as dishonestly as Christians do. But they form an invaluable counterpoint to Ronald J. Sider’s gauzy notions of the wonderful love, generosity, care, and kindness of those early TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

The world might have had a lot more of these counterpoints if those early TRUE CHRISTIANS™ hadn’t gone on a rampage to destroy books that contradicted their sales pitch. Still, these few sources offer a tantalizing hint about what must have been a great wealth of criticism that existed once.

It’s far easier to believe, having reviewed contemporary evidence on both sides, that Christians in the 2nd century were about the same as Christians today. In fact, Christians in the religion’s earliest years might be more like today’s Christians than literally any other century’s Christians ever have been.

Until the fourth century or so, you see, people could decide to join or reject the religion, stick around or leave. All Christian leaders could do was persuade or manipulate people into joining and sticking around. They lacked any real coercive power.

Maybe that’s why Christian leaders leaped on that power as soon as they could get it, and didn’t let go of it until more powerful forces pried it away. Where they still wield that power, they clutch it to their blackened, shriveled hearts with claws of steel. They know that without coercion, Christianity falls apart.

The depraved cruelty of so many early Christian leaders and the unlimited power they gleefully wielded over people’s lives does more to destroy Sider’s premise than anything else.

The Myth of the Perfect Original Christians.

Sider’s going somewhere with all of this blahblah, of course.

He wants his readers to come away thinking that Jesus himself was loving, forgiving, charitable, and kind (even if the Gospels don’t really support that interpretation when read without the Jesus goggles Sider prefers to wear). More than that, he also wants his readers to think that the earliest Christians did a much better job of meeting Jesus’ exacting requirements than today’s Christians do.

Here’s how his thinking seems to go in this book:

  1. Way back when, Christians obeyed Jesus’ commands.
  2. Then they stopped, for some reason.
  3. Now they barely obey at all.
  4. BUT!
  5. If Christians obeyed once, they can start obeying again!
  6. So here are Jesus’ commands.
  7. I expect y’all to care about this.
  8. Why aren’t you obedient yet?

Yes, Sider seriously thinks that if he just makes the case that the “Biblical” thing to do is to obey evangelicalism’s rules, then obviously evangelicals — who care enormously about following the Bible, of course, which we know because their official party line says they do and they keep telling everyone that — will become convicted in their hearts and start following the rules again.

Preston Sprinkle made the exact same mistake, and I’m betting it’s a common one in the Christian self-help/burr-in-the-saddle genre.

Reckoning Without His Hosts.

Even if Ronald J. Sider’s mangled misunderstanding of history were correct, his line of thinking is still laughably, hilariously off-base.

Evangelicals don’t care about the Bible. They don’t care about following evangelical leaders’ rules. They never did, and nobody’s gonna make them care now. The only thing that sorta-kinda made them care was coercion wielded by their leaders.

But don’t worry. Sider does understand that part, at least. He’s got a backup plan in case the magical-conviction part doesn’t happen.

When we come back to this book, we’ll see some solutions he has in mind for bringing evangelicals back to this blissfully-obedient state he falsely imagines existed once in Christianity, and can thus be recaptured to exist again.

NEXT UP: Something dumb Al Mohler said years ago has bitten him in the rump — again. And this time, the discovery sparked the subsequent discovery of the secret society Mohler served as president when he was just a wee lil sexist, racist fundagelical college student. Join me next time for a peek at what happened!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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