The Scandal of the Evangelical Worldview

by Tom Sine

My friend Ron Sider made some pretty harsh critiques about materialism in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.  He tried to persuade his readers that a Christian worldview doesn't begin with the materialistic values that are so popular in modern culture. And rightly so.

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In 2009 the Barna Group reported that only 9 percent of American adults possess a biblical worldview.  I will explain why I believe that many sincere believers have allowed the economic values of modern society to define the foundation of their worldview instead of anything that came from scripture.

The single question I would like you to explore with me is "What seems to be the purpose at the very center of our world that, if we embrace it, will create a better future for all people?"  There are two very different responses to this question among American evangelicals.  One answer comes from modern culture, the other from ancient faith.

The first response claims that the way the world will be made better is for everyone to pursue self-interest in a free and open marketplace. First, we need to ask whether this claim is empirically true.  If we each pursue our own self-interest in a free market, will it automatically and universally raise all boats and achieve the public good?  Second, we need to ask if God wired our world in such a way that the best path to making it a better place for all our neighbors is to pursue our own economic self-interest.

This belief about how the world works and how the common good is achieved is the foundation stone of the worldview held by a surprising number of US evangelicals we've worked with.  They don't seem to recognize that this fundamental assumption is born of an Enlightenment worldview and is deeply invested in a very optimistic view of history.

Essentially this worldview contends that, if we cooperate with the laws on which this universe is based, society can expect to progress not only economically and technologically but also politically and socially.  In other words, we can expect the world to improve if we play by the rules.  Stop and think.  Can you remember anything in the biblical narrative that would support this optimistic view of how the world works?

In other days, those on the political and economic left also had an optimistic view of history, convinced that if they played by the rules it would result in the achievement of their own political vision of the common good.  Those on the right correctly critiqued this worldview as social engineering by the left to achieve an unrealistic political utopia.  Christians pointed out that their reading of Scripture found no basis for this kind of optimism regarding our human destiny.  Is it possible that those Christians who have bought into the conservative economic worldview have succumbed to an economic utopianism just as our friends on the left did?

I freely admit that free market economics works better than any other system I know of, but I am persuaded the reason it works so well is that we live in a fallen world in which the pursuit of self-interest, greed, and covetousness are alive and well and keep the economy cooking.

My greatest concern about the view that the world is made better by the pursuit of self-interest is that it seems to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus.  One of the central paradoxes that he presents is that only as we lose our lives in service to God and others do we have any possibility of discovering the true meaning of life.  Jesus teaches that only as the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies will it ever bear fruit.

Listen to our Teacher: "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you shall eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.…For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well" (Matt. 6:25, 33).

The entire New Testament narrative persuasively argues that we are called as followers of Jesus to set aside our self-interested lives and to join with others in devoting our lives to the pursuit of the purposes of God's kingdom.  Those purposes are always focused outwardly on the needs of others, particularly the poor and most vulnerable in our society.  As David Bosch says in his book Transforming Mission, "To become a disciple means a decisive and irrevocable turning to both God and neighbor."

We have to ask whether our worldview is defined by the assumption that the common good is achieved by the individual pursuit of more or by Jesus' call to lose our lives in service to God and others.

As followers of Jesus, we have to ask whether our worldview is defined by the assumption that the common good is achieved by the individual pursuit of more or by Jesus' call to lose our lives in service to God and others.  I find that those who choose the first option are largely unaware of the extent to which the direction and character of their lives are being shaped by the aspirations and values powering our global free market economy.  Typically their lives are consumed by their careers and the upscale expectations of the communities in which they live. They are usually sincere believers who find that they have very little time for things of the Spirit and even less time to invest in service to others.  I find these people seldom even wonder aloud whether their enthusiastic consumerism is serving the common good or not.

Those who choose the second option, of seeking first the kingdom, don't find their lives easy in this very demanding world.  But they typically attempt to focus their lives both inwardly and outwardly, taking time both to nourish their relationship to God and to explore how they can use their mustard seeds to make a difference in the world.  Instead of being preoccupied with the symbols of status, prestige, and wealth creation, they are constantly seeking to imagine new ways to steward their time and resources so that they can free up more of both to invest in the work of God's kingdom.  They are convinced that their small efforts make a difference in working for the common good of their neighbors near and far.

The question on the cover of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience is "Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?"  The answer is this: While many American evangelicals have committed their lives to Christ, they have not allowed the call to give their lives in service to God and others to be the foundation of their Christian worldview.  This is a critical failing, and I predict that it will seriously undermine the vitality and commitment of the American church in the coming decade.

Tom Sine is a futurist, author, and the "Research & Hospitality Guy" at Mustard Seed Associates in Seattle, WA.


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2 Responses

  1. As an economist in a Christian college, I spent my career working on the connections between Christian values and the operation of the economy. The idea that market economies work best when everyone pursues pure self-interest is wrong. In fact, they have worked best when people take account of others' interests along with their own: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." Our economy is performing poorly now because we have lost this idea. Many of my papers are collected in my book, Stories Economists Tell (Wipf and Stock, 2012). Check out my more recent publications on my Linkedin page.

  2. Doug & Jan Parker says:

    This is a very thoughtful piece framing the conversation with two diametrically opposed views of the Christian life. Recently we were reading from the collected sermons of Dr. Peter Marshall. In one he speaks to this same topic and challenges all Christians to reach out and embrace the less fortunate while setting aside the materialism that was sweeping America after World War II. Sadly it didn't happen.

    We would offer a further thought: How has the materialistic worldview of evangelicals contributed to the fractious and toxic atmosphere of today's social discourse? Have the conjunction of politics and materialism among Christians shaped current attitudes whereby each person stakes their own claim to what is right, regardless of the pain this may cause for others? It may well be impossible to subscribe to this modern view of social progress and yet embrace the poor, the marginalized and those whose beliefs differ from Christians'. Even so, that is Jesus' command to us all.

    Thank you.

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