Solving Exactly the Wrong Problems in Evangelicalism (Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience)

Solving Exactly the Wrong Problems in Evangelicalism (Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience) May 22, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we explored a now-classic 2005 book by Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In it, Sider fell victim to the classic evangelical blunder. No, I don’t mean getting involved in a land war in Asia. I mean the classic evangelical blunder: he identified The Big Problem Here, but it’s not actually what’s wrong. Thus, his solutions will fix the wrong problems. Today, let me show you what Ronald J. Sider thought the problem with evangelicals was, and then what it actually is.

a braying donkey
(Ansgar Scheffold.) I think this is a donkey, not an ass, but you can probably imagine what happened when I searched by THAT keyword on my image site.

(In these posts, I abbreviate the book’s title to “Scandal.” Quotes come from the 2005 hardback edition of the book, or from other sources that I’ll cite as we go; I don’t use scare quotes without informing you that’s what they are.)

(Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the Book; Measuring Evangelical Hypocrisy; The Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the Book. For the most part, the stuff I’m describing here applies to Christians who believe any humans are going to Hell.)

The Utter Seriousness of the Problem.

In Chapter 1, after moving through measurements of evangelical hypocrisy, Ronald J. Sider offers these observations as bookends to his conclusion (p. 27):

To say there is a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today is to dangerously understate the problem. [. . .] Now our very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our lives.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, he laments (p. 31):

The contrast between contemporary Christian behavior [by which he means evangelicals] and New Testament teaching and practice is stark.

After running through most of the New Testament (NT), he then prays in his text (p. 53):

Hopefully that contrast [between what he claims is NT teachings vs. evangelicals’ current behavior] will drive us to our knees, first to repent and then to ask God to help us understand the causes of this scandalous failure and the steps we can take to correct it.

Well, that’s definitely convinced me. This problem sounds very serious: like a dealbreaker, even.

Gosh, whatever caused it?

And Now, Here’s What Ronald J. Sider Thought Was the Problem.

Thankfully, we don’t wait too long to hear what the author believes is The Big Problem Here. In Chapter 3, after some obligatory Dietrich Bonhoeffer worship, Sider tells us what it is (p. 57):

I am convinced that at the heart of our problem is a one-sided, unbiblical, reductionist understanding of the gospel and salvation.

Yep, you heard him correctly.

The Big Problem Here is that evangelicals don’t really understand what their own god told them to do to be safe from his wrath after death!

As a result, they don’t Jesus correctly at all!

Getting Jesus-ing Totally Wrong.

Naturally, Sider places most of the blame on his tribe’s few salespeople (p. 57):

Too many evangelicals in too many ways give the impression that the really important part of the gospel is forgiveness of sins.

To Christians, it 100% is exactly this. Terror of Hell keeps quite a few Christian butts in pews way past the time they’d ordinarily leave. In fact, it always has. That’s why it became such a wildly successful marketing strategy so quickly for Christian salespeople, and why it remains so today. Terrorizing people works to make sales. Salespeople knew that long before Christianity’s invention.

For just right now, we’ll ignore that truth. Instead, focus on this: to Sider, accepting evangelicals’ product to avoid Hell is bad.

If we just repeat the formula and say we want Jesus to forgive our sins, we are Christians. Notice, however, how this can so easily lead to cheap grace. If all there is to accepting the gospel is receiving the forgiveness of sins, one can accept the gospel, become a Christian, and then go on living the same adulterous, materialistic, racist life that one lived before. Salvation becomes, not a life-transforming experience that reorients every corner of life, but a one-way ticket to heaven, and one can live like hell until one gets there.

Ah, okay.

Hm.

Ya know, this sounds a lot more like an evangelical leader’s problem than an evangelical-layperson hypocrite’s problem.

Sidebar: Cheap Grace.

“Cheap grace,” by the way, is a Bonhoeffer thing. It means divine forgiveness and love too easily extended by Christian salespeople, which makes it mean less to the Christians receiving it. Here’s how Bonhoeffer described it (source):

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

He — and by extension the Christians embracing the idea today — thought that Christians who latch onto “cheap grace” won’t take following evangelicals’ rules as seriously as those who understand how totally momentous and precious that grace truly totally is.

I can see why evangelicals glommed onto the concept and now decry “cheap grace” at every opportunity these days. Even in my day, evangelicals would often talk about how nobody values anything given too freely. I don’t remember exactly how that stuff would come up, but it did often enough that I remember it happening.

(Now that I think of it, “cheap grace” probably also informed Preston Sprinkle’s self-important notion of “scandalous grace.” He strikes me very much as a Bonhoeffer groupie.)

However, “cheap grace” isn’t the problem at all.

Selling Salvation.

In Sider’s opinion, then, evangelical sales tactics focus mostly on avoiding Hell. However, when people purchase evangelicals’ product to avoid Hell, the salespeople don’t adequately convey the point that this purchase comes along with a requirement to spend the rest of one’s life following evangelical rules. So the purchasers simply don’t.

To hear Sider tell it, by mis-selling their product his tribe’s soulwinners fill their churches’ pews with people who only buy it to avoid Hell. (Part of his overall error involves being flat wrong about what that product is, too, but we’ll return in a minute to that error, I promise.)

In Chapter 1, Sider already told us that to arrive at an evangelicalism full of true-blue, rules-following evangelicals, he’d have to super-tightly-gatekeep and restrict just who can wear that title at all, so I’m guessing that he thinks that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals fall into this definition of “cheap grace.”

The funny part of it is, I don’t think he’s wrong at all about that part. Obviously, most evangelicals are Grade-A jerkweeds who don’t even care about what Jesus told his followers to do. I am hardly the first person who’s ever noticed that or called attention to it. Heckies, Christians themselves have been doing it for decades. Gatekeeping the title of “Christian” has been a venerated sport in that tribe ever since their religion’s invention.

However, the overwhelming presence of these Christian hypocrites in his tribe speaks to a whole other problem than the one he imagines. He’s completely unable to perceive that other problem because of the other errors he’s already made.

(Also, Sider pisses on his own shoes with this observation. We’ll get into why tomorrow. For now, just put this assertion in your hat.)

What Ronald J. Sider Thinks His Product Is.

Sider thinks his product consists of “the wonderful doctrine of forgiveness of sins.”

Wait, wait, I hear you saying. How’s that different from avoiding Hell? 

Oh, it’s hugely different! Indeed, here’s how he describes it (p. 58-59):

We cannot accept Christ as Savior without embracing him as Lord. [. . .] Justification and sanctification are both central parts of the biblical teaching on the gospel and salvation. To overstate the importance of the one is to run the danger of neglecting the other. And that is certainly what popular evangelicalism has done.

Here, again, perhaps we can draw upon a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to summarize Sider’s position. Since he speaks against “cheap grace,” I’ve no doubt he fully approves of its opposite, “costly grace:”

costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So Christians need salvation plus following Jesus, which necessarily involves doing what Jesus said to do. As Sider summarizes (p. 59):

Notions of cheap grace are at the core of today’s scandalous evangelical disobedience.

And here I thought we’d never encounter an evangelical speaking plainly!

So the product should be both avoiding Hell and embracing the lifestyle Jesus demanded, as interpreted by evangelical leaders like, well, Ronald J. Sider himself.

Why His Salespeople Don’t Sell That Product.

Salespeople for evangelicalism face an impossible dilemma, then. Most ex-evangelicals know well why, too, without my even needing to spell it out. For the sake of completeness, however, I’ll do exactly that.

Ronald J. Sider wants soulwinners to sell salvation plus Jesus-lifestyle.

But that product simply doesn’t sell. It never did.

And it especially never will in a tribe whose members are marked so indelibly with control-lust, authoritarianism, and utter relationship dysfunction. Even if an evangelical salesperson even wanted to sell a Jesus-lifestyle to anyone, their tribemates would be the first people to stomp on them for suggesting it. It’s beyond antithetical to evangelicals’ ultimate goal of gaining utter control over everyone possible.

I’m thinking hard here, and I’m just not remembering a single time I’ve run into any evangelical salesperson who even tried to sell that kind of product.

Instead, evangelical salespeople go for broke on trying to terrorize their marks with threats of Hell. Their product isn’t even so much avoiding Hell, though, as it is joining that evangelical’s flavor of Christianity. They present their flavor of Christianity as the route to avoiding Hell.

Buy this product, and be safe.

Example: Self-Preservation, Not Service.

This is the very first link that came up when I googled “why should I convert to Christianity.”

It’s a short video, but if you’ve ever tangled with evangelicals then you already know exactly where this is going, as did I when I clicked the play button.


Let poor widdle Boyfriend!Jesus into your heart… or you’ll fall victim to what he’ll do to you if you don’t.

This video presents the same general sales pitch we find everywhere in evangelicalism. At no point whatsoever does Kyle mention anything about conversion necessitating the following of a whole series of bizarre, repressive, regressive rules. He offers threats of Hell and safety from Jesus’ bloodlust, and that’s really it.

Obviously, I expect that Kyle cares enormously about following the Jesus rules. Evangelicals always pay a lot of lip service to those rules. But he doesn’t present them now. None of them do. They know what’ll happen if they do!

Indeed, evangelicals don’t join their groups to serve their new overlords and live by regressive, oppressive, nonsensical rules. They join to get something from these groups. Almost always, safety from Hell tops their list of goals.

Way back when, at least by the time of the publication of The Gathering Storm in the Churches by Jeffrey K. Hadden in 1969, someone had already recognized this devastating truth. In that book, Hadden blamed evangelicals’ misconception of exactly what Christianity is for their resistance to integration, acceptance of segregation, and unwillingness to work for social justice. Instead, they join to be served by ministers in various capacities, and to gain the benefits of church membership.

But if the flocks suffer from any misconceptions, then Christian leaders themselves gave them that misconception!

Kissing Hank’s Ass.

So evangelical leaders and salespeople alike understand that selling salvation plus Jesus-lifestyle doesn’t work. Nobody buys that. It’s ridiculous even on the face of it, as “Kissing Hank’s Ass” reveals so well.

In fact, let’s rephrase that site’s arguments just a bit to capture what’s going on with Ronald J. Sider’s erroneous ideas:

Sooo… what do you think of kissing Hank’s ass? Before you answer, please understand: if you agree, you’re signing up for years and years of hard work for no return at all until you leave town. When you finally leave town, Hank will give you a nice house and a million dollars. But until then, you’ll take on a much bigger workload than anybody else, all for no extra benefit to yourself.

Oh yeah. All that extra unpaid work doesn’t even translate into better presents when you leave town. See, anybody who leaves town after kissing Hank’s ass gets the house and the million dollars. The extra work isn’t actually required. Hank just really likes seeing you do it, is all. If you like kissing Hank’s ass then he expects you to want to do what he likes while you’re here in town. But either way, you get the house and the money just for kissing his ass.

If you don’t kiss Hank’s ass, of course, then he still kicks your ass forever after you leave town. The extra work doesn’t get you the money and house. The ass-kissing does.

Unfortunately, the marks buying the safety-first package don’t tend to accept a bait-and-switch after purchase. Their follow-through will always be haphazard if their Dear Leaders try it on them.

Sider’s Imagined Problem vs. the Actual Problem.

So Ronald J. Sider thinks the problem is that evangelicals do not get a nuanced presentation of what they’re actually purchasing when they convert to (or confirm membership in) Christianity. He thinks if they got such a presentation, then obviously they’d start following-through by complying with Jesus’ demands. Here’s how he ends his third chapter (p. 82-83):

A full-orbed biblical understanding of the gospel, salvation, persons, and sin would help us live more faithfully. This is not to suggest that theological changes by themselves would solve our problems. But greater biblical fidelity would help end the scandal.

Indeed, he doesn’t think that shoving more Bible verses at evangelicals would lead, in and of itself, to greater levels of obedience and decreased amounts of hypocrisy. That’s true. In fact, he’s got some truly monstrous ideas about some practical applications of Bible verses that we’ll explore later on.

But he’s flat-out wrong about exactly what The Big Problem Here is.

The Actual Problem.

Here’s the actual problem he’s having:

It doesn’t matter how often evangelical leaders hammer at these concepts.

Nor does it matter how many Bible verses they shove up the rumps of their flocks.

Evangelicals will read along with this book, nod firmly to themselves or roll their eyes, and then either way nothing whatsoever will change. Even the evangelicals who completely agree with Sider won’t change as a result of learning his ideas (as, indeed, they didn’t). The ones who disagree, of course, will continue to disagree and be complete hypocrites, and often they can fully support their hypocrisy with oodles of Bible verses anyway.

As for the ones who get really fired up about this “scandal of the evangelical conscience,” they won’t be able to do a single thing about the ones who don’t see it as a big problem.

That’s why I think the actual problem Sider’s having is that nobody wants to buy the product that he wants to sell. If evangelical leaders want to make sales at all, they have to push hard on the threat of Hell. And sure, yeah, that sells to a certain segment of the human species, but it creates a major problem later with follow-through on evangelicals’ weird rules.

However, Sider can’t even imagine that one of his most treasured doctrines might be causing most of evangelicals’ problems with follow-through. In every single page of this book, his belief in Hell colors everything he asserts and suggests.

And that’s really where the hypocrisy problem might arise in the first place.

NEXT UP: Why Hell-based marketing leads inevitably to hypocrisy, as the night the day. Also, we might have time in that post for me to show you this one time Biff short-circuited some Mormon missionaries. See you tomorrow!


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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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