The Real Scandal of ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’

The Real Scandal of ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience’ May 28, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about a 2005 book by Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. With its publication, its author hoped to spur evangelicals into pretending to care about their own rules. We’ve covered quite a few of its flaws so far, but there’s one I’ve been saving for the grand finale — and we’re now ready for it. Today, let me show you how Ronald J. Sider forgot all about his god’s omnimax nature in his rush to insert yet more authoritarianism into his already-creepily-authoritarian vision.

what scandal represents for christianity itself
(Chris Boese.)

(For the most part, the posts in this series apply to Christians who believe in Hell. In these posts, I abbreviate the book’s title to “Scandal.” Quotes come from the 2005 hardback edition of the book. Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the BookMeasuring Evangelical HypocrisyThe Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the BookSolving Exactly the Wrong Problems in EvangelicalismHow Hell-Belief Leads to HypocrisyBiff and the Mormons; Fixing Broken Authoritarianism (Requires More Authoritarianism); One Denomination to Rule Them All Won’t Happen.)

The Kingdom Vision of Scandal.

Throughout The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald J. Sider paints a vision of the perfect TRUE CHRISTIAN™ society. His ideal evangelical world is marked by communal living, charity, sharing, and endless compassion. Yes, it’s a veritable Jesus lifestyle. However, he accomplishes that goal by building such a tight network of shackles and chains on the flocks that they can’t even turn around, much less disobey the rules he wants them to follow.

This vision not only fails to recognize human rights (much less honor them), but actively despises them. If he had his way, every single church would be dotted with small groups that operate like families in the dystopian novel 1984:

The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately. [source]

To Sider, this horrific idea sounded perfect. What better way to ensure accountability than to have everyone spying on everyone else? Here’s his version of that idea (p. 113):

[John] Wesley insisted on tough love in small groups (he called them “class meetings”). Members asked each participant hard questions every week, including the question, Where did you sin this week? This kind of small group was at the core of Methodism during the decades that it experienced explosive growth in England and America.

So not only would this idea totally create TRUE CHRISTIAN™ communities living the Jesus lifestyle Sider wants, but he thinks this kind of pestering control-grab and judgmentalism represents “tough love.” And exerting this “tough love” on members guarantees “explosive growth.”

On Scandal’s Own Dubious Merits.

We’ll forget completely about creating a system that protects members from their leaders’ abuses. As far as Sider’s concerned, that problem fixes itself — somehow.

Seriously, all he suggests there is: all pastors should join a greater denomination that’ll keep them in line.  However, as we saw yesterday, that’s not actually what happens. Denominations just magnify problems rather than solving them, especially in authoritarian systems like Sider’s dream vision.

While we’re at it, we’ll also forget about building a group dynamic that most people would actually want to join and support. Evangelicals miss this part quite often — they forget constantly that people can choose to join or reject them, leave or stick around.

Sider seems to think that if evangelical leaders adopt the ideas he presents in Scandal, then evangelicals themselves will fall into line with these new demands. As it is, only authoritarian followers (or aspiring leaders) would ever stick around in groups like these.

Instead, I’m just considering his ideas according to the way Sider thinks people operate and as Sider thinks his god operates.

And he’s forgetting a couple of things.

Big things.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeg theeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeengs. And to me, those two things represent the real scandal of Scandal.

Two Big Things Scandal Forgets.

First, isn’t his god supposed to be, like, inside his followers’ minds or something?

Isn’t this god supposed to really truly want his people to live a Jesus lifestyle? And isn’t he supposed to invade his followers at the moment of their acceptance of the Christian sales pitch?

Then why is Sider trying to design a cage so tight that evangelicals can’t do anything except live the way he desires? Does living a Jesus lifestyle count if there aren’t any other options for anyone? If they’re only doing it under duress?

Second, why isn’t his god, like, doing something about all the hypocrites in evangelicals’ ranks?

I’m not talking about divinely smiting hypocrites for not living the Jesus lifestyle, like how he apparently murdered Ananias and Sapphira. Really, I’m nowhere near as bloodthirsty or vicious as the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD). That said, why isn’t he, I dunno, at least convicting them in their hearts or something so they want to live the Jesus lifestyle?

In short, why must evangelical leaders craft a social system that FORCES evangelicals to behave themselves?

They’ve got a real live god inhabiting their minds and live under a totally-for-realsies threat of eternal torture for noncompliance with that god’s wishes. But somehow, that’s just not enough to motivate them to follow their own rules.

So Much For Divine Infilling.

Christians all across the religion keep wanting to have things both ways.

They want a real live god who lives inside them and does real stuff in the real world.

But they also want to avoid any way to measure his activity or test their claims about him — and to deny that he even can be measured and tested in meaningful ways. When a test fails to measure any tangible sign of this god’s existence, they want that test not to matter and for their god to be tangible anyway.

That’s not how real things work.

If Jesus really and truly exists, and he really and truly acts on believers the way that evangelicals typically envision, then it really shouldn’t matter exactly what a new convert (or long-existing one, really) thinks just happened when they finally purchase the soulwinner’s overpriced, over-hyped product. If Jesus is real and their psychic apology to him is sincere, then something tangible should happen. A heart without Jesus and a heart containing Jesus should not look identical.

However, many Christians repent and show no tangible signs of Jesus-possession. In fact, that seems to be exactly what happens for the vast majority of them — after a short period of euphoria.

How is that even possible, given an omnimax god who desperately wants to fill his followers to bursting with his essence (and yes, that’s lurid-sounding)?

Everything Shouldn’t Depend on the Terms of Sale.

Instead, as Sider puts it anyway, a lot depends on exactly how salespeople present their sales pitch. For example, if they present once saved always saved, customers won’t care about living the Jesus lifestyle.

And I don’t see how that can even happen if one has become possessed by a real live god who does real live stuff in the real live world.

If a drug dealer sells someone a Vitamin C tablet claiming that it’s really fentanyl, then the purchaser might exhibit some behaviors based on that assumption, yes. The placebo effect can be powerful sometimes. But Narcan won’t help that person.

Now, let’s go in reverse. Our purchaser buys a fentanyl pill mislabeled as Vitamin C. Even if that person completely believes the pill is Vitamin C, it’s going to have an absolutely unmistakable effect!

Apply that reasoning to Christianity.

Let’s say a Jesus salesperson sold someone the completely wrong product. If there’s a real live god behind that product, then something should happen as a result of this life-changing new experience.

But nothing really does.

Instead, what we see in Christianity generally is exactly what we’d expect to see if the whole religion was a man-made construct operating along natural psychological lines that we’re understanding better every day.

The Biggest Dealbreaker of Christianity.

As always, the best argument against the validity and usefulness of Christianity as an ideology remains the behavior of its adherents. Their hypocrites are just too numerous, too plentiful, and too egregious to ignore. The very people who should know best how wonderful the Jesus lifestyle is seem to be the ones who reject it the hardest. Worse still, for all the resources Christians expend in pursuing their devotions, their lives do not differ in a single positive way from those of non-Christians.

And the more interested Christians get in making sales, it seems, the worse all of those dealbreakers get!

When I was Christian myself, the hypocrisy of my peers represented a big problem for me (a stumbling block, to use the Christianese). Today’s evangelicals recognize that problem, perhaps to a greater degree than they did in my day. But their response to it tells us quite a bit that they really shouldn’t want us to know. Indeed, in those years they’ve developed mountains of hand-waving to try to negate it as a problem (for example, see this post from Focus on the Sexism Family).

After all, evangelicals know quite well they can’t fix something that’s been baked into their broken system from the very beginning.

With Scandal, Sider’s gone a slightly different — and way more pragmatic — direction in addressing the hypocrisy in his tribe than evangelical leaders usually do. He doesn’t ignore it or seek to negate it.

Instead, he tackles it head-on — and he does so using natural, earthly, non-divine methods.

A Refreshing Change of Pace for a Truly Scandalous Problem.

And I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s really nice to see a Christian leader admitting in his out-loud voice for 130+ pages that his god doesn’t do anything and might as well not be present in his followers’ lives at all for all the difference worshiping him makes.

In a weird kinda way, it’s even nice to see that leader admit that his big fix involves persuading Christian sheep to grant even more power to their shepherds, then for those leaders to draw upon that increased power to pen those sheep in more tightly and punish them more harshly for noncompliance.

Without coercion, Christianity falls apart. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it’ll always be. All Sider’s done here is highlight that truth.

Indeed, Christian salespeople have nothing whatsoever to offer most folks:

The hours are impossibly long, you pay to work there, the conditions are downright brutal when they’re not humiliating, your future co-workers are total dillweeds, you can’t trust anyone in the whole business not to hurt you or your loved ones, and fairness will never be a part of your world again.

Gosh, y’all! Who could resist?

NEXT UP: The legacy of Scandal. See you tomorrow!


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About
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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