Interview by Dave Baker
Ron Sider is the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and the author of over 30 books. His groundbreaking Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, now in its sixth edition, changed the way the Christian community thinks about social justice issues. His next book, co-authored with Ben Lowe, is The Future of Our Faith: An Intergenerational Conversation on Critical Issues Facing the Church and is scheduled to come out in early 2016.
In this interview guest contributor Dave Baker gets Sider to reflect on his life and career.
If you could start your teaching career all over again, what would you do differently?
I spent years of my life studying history, and my PhD is in Reformation history. In retrospect I should have taken more economics, ethics, and sociology classes. I only ever taught one course on history. I have not been just a teacher or a researcher. I also tried to be a scholar and a popularizer. That means you have to make hard choices. When I spent a lot of time as an activist, it cut into my teaching time. I’m glad I did all those things, but I could have been a better teacher if I had focused only on teaching.
What did you accomplish as the leader of ESA?
I have seen and been a part of at least three major changes in the evangelical world in the last 40 years.
First, there has been a huge change from an almost exclusive focus on evangelism to an embrace of holistic mission that includes both evangelism and social action. Forty years ago there was a great need for evangelicals to be more concerned with social justice, and my passion was to help them do that. But I felt from the beginning that it was biblically and theologically essential to keep a balance of evangelism and social concern. I wrote a number of books on issues of social justice (Completely Pro-Life, Just Generosity, for example), and ESA developed a whole bunch of programs nurturing greater evangelical engagement on issues of economic justice, overcoming racism, caring for creation, etc. But ESA also developed its program to help local congregations combine evangelism and social action, and I wrote books like Good News and Good Works, Cup of Water/Bread of Life, and coauthored, with ESA staff, Churches That Make a Difference. Forty years ago, most evangelical leaders said the primary mission of the church was “saving souls.” Today almost all leaders agree that biblical Christians must do both evangelism and social action. That is a huge change. ESA was only one part of promoting that change, but we did make a significant contribution.
The second change is that over these four decades, a growing concern for the poor has emerged in evangelical circles. That was not a major concern 40 years ago. ESA in its programs (for example, Discipleship Workshops in the early years and lots of initiatives over several decades) and I in my books constantly talked about God’s special concern for the poor. At the beginning of ESA, one of the prominent elder statesmen of the evangelical world told me that he had been going to evangelical Bible conferences his whole life and had never heard a sermon on justice. In the last decade, the most prominent evangelical, Rick Warren, has been talking a great deal about what the Bible says about the poor and has been working with the poor in significant ways.
The third change can be seen if you compare the narrow political agenda of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and the Religious Right generally with the present focus of the National Association of Evangelicals (the largest evangelical network in the US). ESA agreed substantially with the Religious Right’s opposition to abortion and their concern to preserve the historic Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage. But ESA argued that if you are going to bring Christ into politics you have to ask: What does God care about? And we argued that the Bible shows that God cares about the sanctity of human life and economic justice, the family and racial justice and creation care. Therefore, faithful Christian civic engagement must have a broad, biblically balanced agenda.
In 2002 I was appointed co-chair of a committee to develop a new policy statement for the NAE. In 2004 the National Association of Evangelicals’ board unanimously endorsed the document For the Health of the Nation, which the committee produced. (Money for the project was never obtained, so ESA provided the administrative work for the project.) This NAE document says that faithful evangelical political engagement must have a biblically balanced agenda and has seven major sections, including the sanctity of human life, family, economic justice, religious freedom, peacemaking and creation care. For just over a decade now, the NAE has been working on that much broader agenda. And not just the NAE but a large number of evangelical groups (in the evangelical center) now increasingly embrace this “balanced biblical agenda” that ESA has worked on for decades. Again, ESA was only one player in that change, but we did play a significant part.
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