John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
What Scandal? Whose Conscience?
Ronald Sider's sermon to American evangelicals, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, is entirely "seasonable," as all good jeremiads are. The Church is always entangled in worldliness of one form or another, and prophetic voices wisely rouse us to recognize our peril and our dereliction of duty. Yet Sider's book is also encumbered by confusion that blurs the sharp point he wants to make. And this confusion shows up constantly in evangelical publishing and preaching, so it is worthwhile attending to what keeps us from sounding clear, sustained, and accurate notes on our prophetic trumpets.
Sider's central thesis is clear enough: American evangelicals fail so badly to live according to the gospel that we are, in many respects, indistinguishable from the world around us. But his apparently shocking statistics of evangelical worldliness, culled from George Barna, George Gallup, and a variety of others, do not all stand up to closer scrutiny. Furthermore, Sider's contention about evangelical declension founders on a variety of other shoals: basic matters of terminology, sociology, history, theology, and pastoral practice.
The first, and arguably most damaging, difficulty appears right away—indeed, in the title itself. What does Sider mean by "evangelical"? He doesn't actually say. And yet he says too many things. He implicitly provides two sorts of definitions. The first, with which he opens the book, is a brief historical sketch of the movement. This is a perfectly good way to define evangelicalism. Indeed, some of the best definitions ever formulated have emerged from historical studies—notably those of David Bebbington in Britain and George Marsden in the United States.1 But Sider doesn't avail himself of their method: careful delineation of the various stages of the emergence of trans-Atlantic evangelicalism in the 18th century and its subsequent metamorphoses—resulting, in part, in contemporary American evangelicalism. Instead, his account of the ...