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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
144 pages
Feb 2005
Baker Books

Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, The: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?

by Ronald J. Sider

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



The Depth of the Scandal

Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.

Michael Horton

How bad are things? What is the depth of the scandal? Unless we face these questions with ruthless honesty, we can never hope to correct things.

Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.


In a 1999 national survey, George Barna found that the percentage of born-again Christians who had experienced divorce was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of non-Christians (22 percent).1 In Barna’s polls since the mid-1990s, that number has remained about the same.2 In August 2001, a new poll found that the divorce rate was about the same for born-again Christians and the population as a whole; 33 percent of all born-again Christians had been divorced compared with 34 percent of non-born-again Americans—a statistically insignificant difference. Barna also found in one study that 90 percent of all divorced born-again folk divorced after they accepted Christ.3

Barna makes a distinction between born-again Christians and evangelicals. Barna classifies as born-again all who say “they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicate that they “believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.”4 In Barna’s polls anywhere from 35 to 43 percent of the total U.S. population meet these criteria for being born-again.

Barna limits the term “evangelical” to a much smaller group—just 7 to 8 percent of the total U.S. population. In addition to meeting the criteria for being born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. Obviously this definition identifies a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians.

What is the divorce rate among evangelicals? According to a 1999 poll by Barna, exactly the same as the national average! According to that poll, 25 percent of evangelicals—just like 25 percent of the total population—have gone through a divorce.5 Does it make no difference to evangelicals that their Lord and Savior explicitly, clearly, repeatedly condemned divorce?

    “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

    Matthew 19:4–6 NRSV

Professor Brad Wilcox is a Princeton-trained, Christian sociologist who specializes in family issues. Wilcox has studied two sets of national data: The General Social Survey and The National Survey of Families and Households. The result? “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.” He also points out the divorce rates are higher in the southern United States, where conservative Protestants make up a higher percentage of the population than elsewhere in the country.6

A story in the New York Times in 2001 underlined Wilcox’s findings about the unusually high divorce rates in the South. In many parts of the Bible Belt, the divorce rate was discovered to be “roughly 50 percent above the national average” (italics mine).7 Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma pointed out the irony that these unusually high divorce rates exist in his state, where 70 percent of the people go to church once a week or more. “These divorce rates,” Gov. Keating concluded, “are a scalding indictment of what isn’t being said behind the pulpit.”

Materialism and the Poor

John and Sylvia Ronsvalle have been carefully analyzing the giving patterns of American Christians for well over three decades. Their annual The State of Christian Giving is the most accurate report for learning how much Christians in the richest nation in human history actually give. In their most recent edition, they provide detailed information about per-member giving patterns of U.S. church members from 1968 to 2001. Over those thirty-plus years, of course, the average income of U.S. Christians has increased enormously. But that did not carry over into their giving. The report showed that the richer we become, the less we give in proportion to our incomes.

In 1968, the average church member gave 3.1 percent of their income—less than a third of a tithe. That figure dropped every year through 1990 and then recovered slightly to 2.66 percent—about one quarter of a tithe.8

Even more interesting is what has happened to evangelical giving. The Ronsvalles compare the giving in seven typical mainline denominations (affiliated with the National Council of Churches) with the giving in eight evangelical denominations (with membership in the National Association of Evangelicals). In 1968 the eight evangelical denominations gave considerably more than the seven mainline denominations. While the mainline denominational members gave 3.3 percent of their income, evangelicals gave 6.15 percent. While this is significantly more, the evangelicals on average still gave less than two-thirds of a tithe. By 1985 mainline folk had dropped their giving to 2.85 percent of their income and evangelicals to 4.74 percent. By 2001, mainline members had recovered slightly to 3.17 percent, but evangelical giving kept dropping and was at a mere 4.27 percent.9

As we got richer and richer, evangelicals chose to spend more and more on themselves and give a smaller and smaller percentage to the church. Today, on average, evangelicals in the United States give about two-fifths of a tithe.

In 2002, Barna discovered that only 6 percent of born-again adults tithed—a 50-percent decline from 2000 when 12 percent did. And in 2002, just 9 percent of Barna’s narrow class of evangelicals tithed.10

One can see a related problem in another area. Examine the public agenda of prominent evangelical political movements and coalitions. Virtually never does justice for the poor appear as an area of significant concern and effort.

American Christians live in the richest nation on earth and enjoy an average household income of $42,409.11 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.12 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.13 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.

As evangelicals we claim to embrace the Bible as our final authority. One of the most common themes in the Scriptures is that God and his faithful people have a special concern for the poor. Why this blatant contradiction between belief and practice?

In the late 1970s, I attended a national conference of evangelical leaders. My small group, as I recall, included prominent persons like Carl Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today; Hudson Armerding, the president of Wheaton College; and Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth with a Mission. Several times in our small group, different persons referred to the issue of a simple lifestyle, urging its importance. Finally, Loren Cunningham said something like the following: “Yes, I think the evangelical community is ready to live more simply—if we evangelical leaders will model it.” That ended the discussion. There were no further recommendations to live more simply!

Sexual Disobedience

A story in the New York Times reported that, according to census data, in the 1990s the number of unmarried couples living together jumped a lot more in the Bible Belt (where a higher percentage of the total population are evangelicals) than in the nation as a whole. Nationwide, the increase was 72 percent. But in Oklahoma it was 97 percent, in Arkansas 125 percent, and in Tennessee 123 percent.14

Popular evangelical speaker Josh McDowell has been observing and speaking to evangelical youth for several decades. I remember him saying years ago that evangelical youth are only about 10 percent less likely to engage in premarital sex than nonevangelicals.

True Love Waits, a program sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, is one of the most famous evangelical efforts to reduce premarital sexual activity among our youth. Since 1993, about 2.4 million young people have signed a pledge to wait until marriage to engage in sexual intercourse. Are these young evangelicals keeping their pledges? In March 2004, researchers from Columbia University and Yale University reported on their findings. For seven years they studied twelve thousand teenagers who took the pledge. Sadly, they found that 88 percent of these pledgers reported having sexual intercourse before marriage; just 12 percent kept their promise. The researchers also found that the rates for having sexually transmitted diseases “were almost identical for the teenagers who took pledges and those who did not.”15

Barna found from a 2001 poll that the rate of cohabitation—living with a member of the opposite sex without marriage—is only a little lower among born-again adults than the general public. Nationally, 33 percent of all adults have lived with a member of the opposite sex without being married. The rate is 25 percent for born-again folk.16

Professor John C. Green is an evangelical political scientist and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Green is one of the best statisticians in his field and has studied how Americans feel about morals and ethics using several national surveys. He divides those he labels evangelicals into two categories: traditional evangelicals (who have higher church attendance, a higher view of biblical authority, etc.) and nontraditional evangelicals.17 What are their attitudes on premarital and extramarital sex? Fully 26 percent of traditional evangelicals do not think premarital sex is wrong, and 46 percent of nontraditional evangelicals say it is morally okay.18

And extramarital sex? Of traditional evangelicals, 13 percent say it is okay for married persons to have sex with someone other than one’s spouse. And 19 percent of nontraditional evangelicals say adultery is morally acceptable.19 Fortunately, Green finds that evangelicals fare better than mainline Protestant and Catholic Christians on these issues, but the number of evangelicals that blatantly reject biblical sexual norms is astonishing.

What about pornography? Citing a recent survey in Leadership magazine, Steve Gallagher says, “Tragically, the percentage of Christian men involved [in pornography] is not much different that that of the unsaved.”20


In 1989 George Gallup Jr. and James Castelli published the results of a survey to determine which groups in the United States were least and most likely to object to having black neighbors—surely a good measure of racism. Catholics and nonevangelical Christians ranked least likely to object to black neighbors; 11 percent objected. Mainline Protestants came next at 16 percent. At 17 percent, Baptists and evangelicals were among the most likely groups to object to black neighbors, and 20 percent of Southern Baptists objected to black neighbors.21

It is common knowledge that during the civil rights movement, when mainline Protestants and Jews joined African Americans in their historic struggle for freedom and equality, evangelical leaders were almost entirely absent. Some opposed the movement; others said nothing. When Frank Gaebelein, then a coeditor of Christianity Today, not only covered Martin Luther King’s march on Selma but also endorsed and joined the movement, he experienced opposition and hostility from other evangelical leaders.22 My own school, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was founded in 1925 as an evangelical alternative to theological liberalism in American Baptist circles. But racism was part of our early history. We always accepted African Americans as students but refused to allow African American men to sleep overnight on campus. One African American student, who much later was elected to the seminary’s board of trustees, had to sleep five miles away at Thirtieth Street Train Station. Thank God for Cuthbert Rutenber who helped the seminary abandon its racist policies in about 1950.

More recently, evangelicals have taken several important steps to confess past racism and call for change. Coach Bill McCartney, the founder of the national evangelical men’s movement called Promise Keepers, was one of the outstanding evangelical leaders in this change. McCartney went on a national speaking tour, regularly calling evangelicals to racial reconciliation. In his book Sold Out, McCartney recalls what happened. When he finished speaking, he reports, “There was no response—nothing. . . . In city after city, in church after church, it was the same story—wild enthusiasm while I was being introduced, followed by a morgue-like chill as I stepped away from the microphone.”23 McCartney thinks a major reason attendance dropped dramatically in Promise Keepers’ stadium events was their stand on racial reconciliation.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith have written a crucial book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, exploring ongoing racial attitudes in the evangelical world. Their conclusion? “White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it.”24 White conservative Protestants are more than twice as likely as other whites to blame lack of equality (e.g., income) between blacks and whites on a lack of black motivation rather than discrimination. Conservative Protestants are six times more likely to cite lack of motivation than unequal access to education!25

Evangelicals may have some good biblical theology about the body of Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white. But if they do not work out this theology in practice, such that white evangelicals welcome black neighbors and work to end racist structures, then, as was made clear by the young South African Communist, the whole thing stinks.

Physical Abuse in Marriage

More than one study has found that women are more likely to experience physical abuse in traditional marriages (where the husband is dominant) than in egalitarian marriages. Evangelicals disagree over whether the Bible supports a traditional or an egalitarian marriage.26 But it is almost certainly the case that a higher percentage of evangelicals than the general public live in traditional marriages. So where are wives more likely to be beaten?

One important study found that less than “3 percent of wives in egalitarian marriages had been beaten by their husbands in the previous year. In traditional marriages where the husband was dominant, 10.7 percent of wives had been beaten—a rate of violence more than 300 percent higher than for egalitarian marriages.”27 Another study that included over twenty thousand married couples found similar results. In this study, spousal abuse was 400 percent higher in traditional marriages.28

A different study found that husbands who attended conservative Protestant churches or held conservative theological views were no more or less likely to engage in domestic abuse than others.29 And a large study of the Christian Reformed Church (a member of the National Association of Evangelicals) discovered that the frequency of physical and sexual abuse in this evangelical denomination was about the same as in the general population.30 Theologically conservative Christians, according to these studies, commit domestic abuse at least as often as the general public.


To say there is a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today is to dangerously understate the problem. Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. Only 6 percent of born-again Christians tithe. Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seem to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives.

In light of the foregoing statistics, it is not surprising that born-again Christians spend seven times more hours each week in front of their televisions than they spend in Bible reading, prayer, and worship.31 Only 9 percent of born-again adults and 2 percent of born-again teenagers have a biblical worldview.32

Perhaps it is not surprising either that non-Christians have a very negative view of evangelicals. In a recent poll, Barna asked non-Christians about their attitudes toward different groups of Christians. Only 44 percent have a positive view of Christian clergy. Just 32 percent have a positive view of born-again Christians. And a mere 22 percent have a positive view of evangelicals.33

Lest everything seem hopeless, I want to end this sad chapter with one hopeful finding. As we shall see in chapter 5, when we can use more precise measures of faith and distinguish more carefully between deeply committed Christians and others, the statistics on behavior improve significantly. But this hopeful item does not reverse the tragedy of widespread, scandalous disobedience among those who call themselves evangelicals.

Evangelicals rightly rejected theological liberalism because it denied the miraculous. In response, we insisted miracles were central to biblical faith at numerous points including the supernatural moral transformation of broken sinners. Now our very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our lives. Satan must laugh in sneerful derision. God’s people can only weep.