May 29, 2020

On The Side of the Rebel Jesus: Ron Sider’s Quixotic Quest for An Ethical Evangelicalism

sider.jpgAll the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
They’ll be gathering around the hearths and tales
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by the Prince of Peace
And they call him by the Savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature they have worshiped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgment
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.
-Jackson Browne, “The Rebel Jesus,” from “The Bells of Dublin” by The Chieftains

“The Rebel Jesus” is about the only Jackson Browne song I can stand, and that’s mostly because of the Chieftains. But I do love the song. I love the idea of the a pagan who sees something about Jesus that those who claim to know him well have missed, or swept under the rug. Jackson Browne’s song suggests that the prophetic Jesus- the “rebel” who was crucified by the powerful- is not well represented by the modern church, where seeking to help the poor at Christmas is acceptable, but seeking to understand and change poverty itself is a violation of an agreeable status quo.

Evangelical prophet, gadfly and activist Ron Sider wants evangelicals to examine their conscience and see if they are living like the world or like followers of Jesus. In his upcoming book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (excerpted in Christianity Today), Sider examines the contradictions in evangelicalism’s numerical success and cultural influence compared with their actual ethical behavior with marriage, money, race and power. Once again, as in his classic “Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger,” Sider has the statistics to back up his case.

  • Christians divorce at identical rates with non-Christians, and usually after professing Christ. In the south, they divorce more often.
  • The wealthier Christians become, the less of their income is given away. Evangelicals give less than others. Tithing has almost vanished.
  • Cohabitation and premarital sex are- despite all that yammering by youth speakers- practically identical when evangelicals are compared with the culture as a whole.
  • Extramarital affairs? Viewing of pornography? No significant difference between evangelicals and the culture is the norm.
  • According to Sider, racism and abuse of women are probably worse among evangelicals than among the culture at large.
  • Evangelicals spend seven times more time in passive entertainment than in any form of Christian devotion.
  • Sider has plenty of this:

    American Christians live in the richest nation on earth and enjoy an average household income of $42,409.17 The World Bank reports that 1.2 billion of the world’s poorest people try to survive on just one dollar a day. At least one billion people have never heard the gospel. The Ronsvalles point out that if American Christians just tithed, they would have another $143 billion available to empower the poor and spread the gospel.18 Studies by the United Nations suggest that just an additional $70-$80 billion a year would be enough to provide access to essential services like basic health care and education for all the poor of the earth.19 If they did no more than tithe, American Christians would have the private dollars to foot this entire bill and still have $60-$70 billion more to do evangelism around the world.

    If you were annoyed at Sider’s closet Marxism in the past, likely you will continue to be annoyed at the current version of Sider’s quest for an evangelicalism that lives like Jesus….or at least seems interested in moving that direction.

    Sider has plenty to say about things evangelicals are talking about these days. He is suspicious of all that political success. He quotes Alan Wolfe on the megachurch movement:

    Today’s evangelicalism, Wolfe says, exhibits “so strong a desire to copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had.” Wolfe argues, “The truth is there is increasingly little difference between an essentially secular activity like the popular entertainment industry and the bring-’em-in-at-any-cost efforts of evangelical megachurches.”

    He cites another professor who says, “the cultural captivity of Christianity in the West is nearly complete, and with the religion tamed, it is open season on the West’s Christian heritage. I worry about a West without a moral center facing a politically resurgent Islam.” Sider joins up with the burgeoning Christian worldview movement when he cites Barna’s numbers on how those evangelicals with a “Christian worldview” have significantly different numbers in some of the areas of ethical behavior.

    These statistics offer some substantial hope. People with a biblical worldview, and this category largely overlaps with that of evangelical, do exhibit better moral behavior at several points. We cannot be satisfied with studies that show that only 29 percent of all evangelicals gave a lot to help the poor and needy. But that is at least a lot better than the statistics for the non-religious, where only 9 percent do a lot to help the poor. When we can distinguish nominal Christians from deeply committed, theologically orthodox Christians, it is clear that genuine Christianity does lead to better behavior, at least in some areas.

    Sider’s quest for an ethically renewed Christianity raises questions. BHT fellow Jim Nicholson takes aim at Sider’s “statistical sanctification.”

    Ron Sider, famous for his holier-than-thou advocacy of thievery masquerading as social policy, looks at the church and discovers that – horror of horrors, it’s full of sinners! Not at all the kind of respectable people someone like Jesus would hang out with…Sider takes a selective reading of the polls, and then decides that the post-millennial theonomistic agenda that’s going to usher in world-wide socialism , uh, I mean, “the kingdom of God,” is somehow off-track. Get with the program, you so-called believers. Stop all this fornicating. It’s damaging our image!…At a fundamental level, Sider believes that we can usher in an era of peace, success and prosperity if only we will stop sinning. Humanity has been down that road so many times, and it’s always a dead end. We always want to pin our misfortune on our bad behavior, because it makes the world – and God – so much more tame and rational.

    Man, some people should read Job. [Stuff][ happens, Ron. Marriages break up. Christians sin. Believers betray their beliefs. It’s always been that way, and it’s always going to be that way. Let’s preach against divorce, that’s sure to inspire the +50% of the congregation who’ve been through that trauma to be faithful. Let’s load down our members with guilt over their prosperity, that will encourage them to give more. Let’s rail about promiscuity and sexual sin, because it’s a lot easier to do that, say, preach against the sort of hubris that lets someone stand up and throw statistics at us while wagging a finger about our tarnished “witness” to the culture…Read my lips: nobody misses the kingdom because some Christian blows it.

    BHT fellow Alex Arnold answers with a question of his own:

    What did the prophets of Israel and Judah do? They railed against injustice and called the people back to a faithful expression of their covenant relationship with YHWH…Is there any room for prophetic witness anymore?

    Is Sider’s call for an ethical evangelicalism another version of the legalism and moralism that has driven American protestantism so far from the reformation that Joel Osteen is the most popular pastor in the country? Sider says that we need the Gospel, and that the Gospel must be central.

    Things are not quite as hopeless as they first appeared. Biblical faith makes a substantial (though not enough) difference in the lives of deeply committed Christians. Most nominal Christians seem open to spiritual growth…More importantly, the gospel is true! The carpenter from Nazareth burst from the tomb and now reigns as the Lord of the universe. His promise to transform into his very own likeness all who truly believe in him still stands. The Holy Spirit is still alive and powerful today, radically remaking broken people who unconditionally open their hearts and lives to his mighty presence…At any time in history, no matter how bad the current mess, no matter how unfaithful the contemporary church, God stands ready to keep his promises. God is eager to do the same mighty deeds today that he has done in the past. All we must do is trust and obey…The Lord we claim to love and worship stands at the door and knocks. He longs to be truly invited in. We cannot invite only half of him. But if today we dare to embrace and surrender to the full biblical Christ, he will perform mighty deeds that transcend what we dare ask or imagine. He will turn our weeping into joy. He will end the scandal of blatant disobedience in the people who call on his name.

    It is interesting that this exchange happened on a day when the BHT was in the throes of a brawl over Anglican theologian N.T. Wright. It is Wright who has been extremely helpful to me in balancing out the message of grace and justice, and not being pushed to the extreme of saying that in order for the good news of grace to have its proper place, we must stop talking about ethics, morals or even cultural influence.

    How? Wright insists that the Gospel isn’t justification by faith, but the announcement that “Jesus is Lord.” One of the by-products of the Reformation’s emphasis on grace is the constant danger of all commands toward moral, ethical behavior becoming some form of legalism. Therefore, we will hear that Paul emphasizes grace for the chief of sinners, but it becomes difficult to properly handle passages that tell us not to sin, but to do good, like Hebrews 13:1-5 1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

    In the Lutheran division of law and Gospel, it can easily start to seem that the ethical dimension of the Christian life is “law,” and since that law can only bring you to the place of condemnation, calls to actually obey the ethical admonitions of scripture sound anti-Gospel. The message of the Old Testament prophets can start to sound like a flock of legalists and moralists telling us to shape up and fly right. Where is the cross? Where is justification by grace through faith? How can you honestly talk about ethical commands to be holy with money, sex and behavior when we are all, manifestly, totally sinful?

    Wright suggests that the announcement of Jesus’ Lordship is the message that should stand central in our faith. And this Jesus is in continuity with the law of God, and God’s grace towards those who are part of the covenant community is never in question. Even when they break the laws of the covenant, they still stand in right relationship to God because of what God has done in Jesus, not moralism. But the Lordship of Jesus Christ puts everyone- saint and sinner alike- under the command of Jesus. His kingdom includes the righteous demands of the law just as it includes a God who forgives his people. The grace of Jesus doesn’t come at the expense of the kingly reign of Jesus.

    But what is the right approach to these issues? Should preachers put more guilt and “wretched urgency” trips on congregations? Should Christians emphasize the “statistical sanctification” that Sider is measuring with all that research?

    I believe we must talk about money, sex, missions, marriage, the poor, pornography, adultery and abuse if we are Christians being honest about the grace of God. We can’t say that ethical admonition and instruction always amounts to legalism. We can’t say that God’s law equals legalism. Is that what Psalm 119 is teaching? These are places where we need Jesus three ways:

    1. We need to see that Jesus creates us in the image of God, and our creation and fall are why we are both attracted to and ineffective in all these ethical areas.
    2 We need Jesus to forgive us, because we are just like the world in these ways. We are sinners. We are not only like the world, our knowledge of the cross and the grace of God makes our sin, in many ways, much worse than the world’s sin.
    3. We need Jesus to provide a focus for Gospel obedience; the kind of sanctification that comes from joyful confidence in “future grace” and the goodness of a covenant God. He is our King, and we should GLADLY serve him. We should gladly give money, be faithful, and obey his royal commands. Listen to John Piper’s explanation of sanctification.

    How, Then, does Faith Do this Great Work of Sanctification? Preliminary Answer: faith severs the root of sin. Sin has power by promising a better tomorrow (or at least a better this evening) and by promising superior satisfactions. But true faith is of such a nature that it severs the root of sin by embracing a better future and providing a deeper satisfaction. The future grace of God is the deeper satisfaction and the better future. When you live by faith in future grace, the power of sin is broken by the power of a superior satisfaction and a better future.

    Is Sider promoting Gospel based obedience? Does he understand the root of gospel transformation is spiritual transformation? Does he think that liberal social policies are adequate? Or does he understand that it is the grace that forgives all those “statistical sinners” that can also transform the way they live?

    Weeping and repentance are the only faithful responses to the sweeping, scandalous disobedience in the evangelical world today. We have defied the Lord we claim to worship. We have disgraced his holy name by our unholy lives. Yes, we believe he is the Savior. We are Christians, not pagans. But our beliefs are not strong enough to produce righteous lifestyles. We want Jesus and mammon. Unless we repent, our Lord intends to spit us out…Biblical repentance is more than a brief liturgical phrase or a hasty superficial tear. It is a deep, heartfelt sorrow for offending the Holy Sovereign of the universe and a strong inner resolve to embrace the conversion, the complete reversal of direction, that our forgiving Savior longs to bestow. We cannot manufacture this radical change using our own strength. But we can beg our Holy God not only to forgive but also to change us. Daily, we can pray to the Lord to transform us more and more into the very likeness of Jesus.

    Decide for yourself. I think it entirely possible that Sider has glimpsed what Dallas Willard and others have been saying for some time: discipleship isn’t about building churches, but about Christians having a transforming experience with the very same grace that unconditionally accepts them.

    Ethical, moral and cultural transformation are not automatically the legalistic abandonment of the Gospel some might suspect Sider is tending toward. It could simply mean that the same faith that embraces all that God is for us in Jesus is a faith that renounces idols, lives compassionately, seeks repentance, shares with the poor, seeks to improve communities and experiences transformation. Not moral improvement by statistical measurement. Not the bragging hype of church promotional materials showing shiny happy people., but grace for real sinners, that creates real compassion, that births a growing love for Jesus Christ above all. Isn’t the freedom from idolatry and shallowness that Sider seeks really just a discovery of the treasure that is Jesus Christ, and the emptiness of any and all other “gods?”

    Perhaps Ron Sider will never get the attention of conservative evangelicals who will always associate him with “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” But is Sider presenting to us SOME of what the “rebel Jesus” would say to an evangelicalism both obsessed with being like the world materially, and living identically to the world morally? Does he understand the the LORD Jesus lays claim to all these areas that we easily yield to the gods of cultural normality?

    Will real, risk-taking, culture-changing Christian communities ever spring up from the evangelical ghetto if Jesus amounts to nothing more than the local god of suburbia? Is Sider’s calling to help us hear all the Bible’s ethical message legalism, or is it the authentic word of the prophets that Jesus came to incarnate? Is Sider- an American teaching at a university- just another hypocritical opportunist for even raising the subject, rather than letting the Spirit do the convicting and stirring up?

    Or does the recent response to the tsunami indicate that American Christians are beginning to understand their place in the world? A privileged place of wealth and opportunity in a world of poverty; a nation of churches in a world needing missions. While American Christians are shocked at 50,000 drowned children, are they ready to be shocked at the many more thousands who die of AIDS, starvation and preventable disease?

    Will disillusionment with conservative carping about morals in society lead to a concern to be honest about the condition of our own houses of worship and families? Will the emergent movement, and other renewal movements, birth a more socially active, personally transformed evangelical reality? Or is it going to be more of the same from an evangelical community that doesn’t really want transformation if forgiveness is cheaper and entertainment is available?

    Perhaps Sider’s book will show whether evangelicals are more conservative and American than Christian when it comes to examining their own tame versions of the “rebel” Jesus who is also, the LORD Jesus, King of Kings, Ruler, Judge and Savior.


    1. Yes, conservative churches need to speak more about economic justice, just as liberal churches like mine (Episcopal)need to speak more about personal morality. But nearly all the sermons I hear about poverty are sentimental and simplistic, based on the dubious assumption that we can save the world by sending money to countries where political corruption, not a lack of natural resources, is the main cause of inequality. (Our time would be better spent urging our own govt not to make that corruption worse!) It’s heresy in liberal Christian circles to look objectively at what kinds of intervention actually work.

    2. One way of looking at the stats is as a comparison of the greater culture and of the church culture. Given that the church doesn’t have the power to enforce rules concerning marriage and divorce and abortion (and so on) that the state does, it comes down to what kind of culture it has.

      So, _can_ the church foster a counter-culture so that its “sin stats” are different? Because Sider implies that the current church culture _is_ a counter-culture: some “sin stats” are worse than the world’s! (I do happen to think some of his sin stats are simplistic–is the guy a statistician?)

      So if the church can’t affect the “sin stats” by creating a counter-culture _without_ the power of the state, then let’s pack up and go home, and people might even sin less…fewer broken homes can only be a good thing. I think the church _can_ indeed (and should) create a counter-culture that can help people live differently. But the problem is: it _doesn’t want to!_ The evangelical church _likes_ it the way it is! And maybe in the end Sider is trying to get us to see that.

    3. i’d rather read “Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators”

    4. Sider has no meaningful stats because he compares members of local congregations (not Christians) to people who are not members of local congregations. (Also, why would anyone believe what the World Bank says?) If a Christian (who also happens to be a member of local congregation) is divorced, against his desire, by a spouse who is admittedly not a Christian, is that divorce statistically counted as a Christian or a non-Christian divorce? The simple fact is that within the local congregation it is not easy to distinguish the wheat from the tares. Of course, it is to be hoped that within the local cogregation discipline of unrepentant, habitual sinners would occur.

      Sider remains what he he has always been, “a lost ball in high weeds.”

    5. People may say what they like about Ron Sider, but this confusing of the ethical dimension of Christianity with “legalism” is the reason for Sider’s statistics, and for the accompanying weakness of the Christian witness in our time. A Christianity that does nothing to transform the lives of its adherents or impact the culture in which it exists is clearly effete. I don’t believe that the answer is more and better condemnation in sermons however, but rather Christians should just start living as if Christ is really Lord, and pastors and teachers should stop irresponsible teaching that emphasizes “grace” over all obedience, and defines “faith” as some sort of mystical concept rather than as faithfulness, which implies doing as well as believing. These are not new ideas.

    6. Mike, I always appreciate your insight, but those statistics have bothered me for a long time. Andrew Sullivan likes to cite those divorce stats, but I think they’re off. Are these “Christians” defined as such because they say they’re Christians or because they’re on the roles of a church? I know the Church should do a much better job of discipling folks, but you and I both know that most Southerners will say “Sure, I’m a Christian.” That says nothing about actual beliefs or dedication. I don’t think we should discount your points at all – indeed it would be foolish to do so – but I think those stats need further scrutiny.

    7. I can’t help but think of my own congregation. I’ve grown up in terrible churches, and hated the sight of them, until I found the church I’m in now.
      The thing is, my priest manages to preach morality, and yet is so warm and open that no-one is condemned. People are inspired to change, because they know they’ve found a safe place to do it in. Everyone’s going to encourage them in their desire to change, but they’re not going to pounce on them if/when they fail in. It’s the first community I’ve been in that didn’t regularly shoot its wounded.
      My priest always likes to say that the idea is to have, “No compromise of Truth, no lack of Love.” And it works. People’s lives have been changed, deeply and profoundly.
      So, simplistic as it sounds, maybe the key to real personal change within the Christian community is, simply, love.

    8. tom smedley says

      The elephant inthe living room is the fact that 90% of confessing evangelical believers have also embraced the official state church of our nation, and supported this generic statist unitarianism with offerings far more precious than money. They have sent their children into the bowels of moloch, to be indoctrinated in the statist view of reality for 30 hours a week. we’be been doing this for 140 years now, and the vision of Christ-hater horace mann is being fulfilled. the culture is being dechristianized one child at a time, as we cooperate in our own corruption, with a view towards our eventuall extinction.

    9. Shannon Richey says

      when I read this I thought it was more about Sider calling some Evangelicals on their hypocrisy-their over-willingness to point the finger at other people (or cartoon characters, in the case of James Dobson lately) but not see the other three fingers pointed back at them. This does not make evangelicals look good to ‘the outside’ and since the ones who are the most vocal in this country at the moment are evangelicals, many non-Christians think we are all exactly like this.

      I just think it is important to practice what we preach to the best of our ability. I am not really concerned with hearing people rail on and on about how evil our society is, I am more interested in hearing what these people are willing to do to help the people who are going through the hurtful situations and have the problems they are railing against. Many times there are a lot more to the stories than we see from the outside, and if a lot of the ‘railers’ would be willing to get closer to the people the way Jesus did, they would be able to see these things and be more able to provide some real healing.

    10. Hi Michael,
      Excellent article (as always). N.T. Wright’s view seems to uncover the deeper underlying issue of Lordship. In my view of the Boomer Churches, I have noted how Jesus has been marginalized, perhaps made even “commemorative”. The sense of His immediate presence, which is transformative, has been lost annd/or replaced by a dominant “Us-ism” that is quite boring and will never present a counter-culture.

      There has also been a significant loss in the area of theology and biblical work. 25 years ago a local book store would have major theological works and study aids for more in-depth research into the Texts. It is the Texts themselves (as Brueggemann so aptly points out) that are inherently sub-versive (literally). An openness and faith in the “Rebel Jesus” Who is alone Lord, informaed by a subversive text (and aided by the Spirit) seems a big step away from consumer religion and legalism (as well as the Church’s penchant for forms of gnosticism). Your thoghts?
      Also, I’d be interested in running part of this article at the Doghouse Ministries Blog site and website, then linking to yours to finish. That okay with you? Grace, Mac (Christopher C. MacDonald).

    11. I did some followup research on a Sider/Barna key stat that has now circled the world several times over… the divorce rate among evangelicals… and it turns out to be quite different than most people now think. I’ve documented it an article, “Transforming the Evangelical Meme” at