Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: a Biblical Study

Written by Ronald Sider Reviewed By Ronald Russell

Ronald Sider, Professor-elect of Theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, demonstrates in both writings the current evangelical reawakening in social justice. The relationship of evangelism to social justice gained new attention for evangelicals with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (1973) and the Covenant of the Lausanne Congress (1974).

In the first book Sider points out the tragic reality of one billion starving and malnourished persons existing today in third and fourth world countries, while an affluent minority lives in comparative luxury in the northern hemisphere. In his study of the biblical approach to poverty, wealth, and possessions, he finds God at crucial periods in salvation history revealing his nature in liberating the oppressed. God’s concern for the poor resulted in Israel’s liberation from Egyptian oppression in the exodus, yet their subsequent economic exploitation of the poor within both Israel and Judah brought national destruction and captivity. In the incarnation God revealed himself most completely in Jesus of Nazareth; the only group specifically singled out as recipients of Jesus’ gospel were the poor. God’s people should likewise be concerned today to liberate the oppressed. To accomplish this Sider suggests that God requires radically transformed economic relationships among his people. The jubilee, the sabbatical year, and laws on tithing and gleaning are Old Testament models whose principles are expressed in the new community of Jesus, where the values of the promised kingdom were lived in a new social order of faithful followers who were completely available to each other voluntarily in socioeconomic matters (Acts 2:43–47; 4:32–37; 5:1–11; 6:1–7). The apostle Paul extended this intra-church assistance into an inter-church koinonia with his collection for the poor of the Jerusalem church. This concept of koinonia extended beyond casual social contacts to a genuine participation in the social, spiritual, and economic needs of the body. This presents the modern church with a model for sharing. Indeed, since God is Lord over all, limitations are placed on how his people acquire and use property. The rights of the poor to earn a just living must take precedence over the economic self-interests of profits alone. Sider urges evangelicals to oppose not only personal sin but evil social structures as well. Change is required in personal life-styles via the models of the graduated tithe and communal living. The church should be transformed into communities of ‘loving defiance’ rather than ‘clubs of conformity’, where there is unconditional availability to others emotionally, economically, and spiritually. Finally structures of secular society, both in the northern hemisphere and elsewhere, must change through Christian involvement.

In evaluating Sider’s work, the sub-title ‘A Biblical Study’ is inexact since only some eighty of 250 pages are devoted to any direct biblical investigation and that at a popular level. Sider frequently overstates the biblical evidence in the passion of his convictions. He concludes, for example, that the ‘exploitation of the poor’ alone sent Israel and Judah into captivity; this was only one of many expressions of their disobedience. Their disobedience brought their punishment. Sider suggests that those who do not feed the hungry etc. (Mt. 25:31–46) will experience eternal damnation. But to use Matthean language, ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them’ (broader than Sider’s specific reference) will be excluded from the kingdom. Sider also suggests that Paul’s passionate commitment to economic sharing led to his final arrest and martyrdom. The actual reason was the charge brought by the diaspora Jews that Paul had violated the customs of Moses regarding the temple (Acts 21:27–36). Yet despite occasional blemishes, this volume is to be recommended as a needed challenge to evangelicals to consider involvement in social justice as well as personal evangelism.

In the second book, which originally appeared in The International Review of Mission (July, 1975), Sider describes four conflicting viewpoints as to how social involvement in the church has been approached: (1) personal evangelism as the primary mission of the church (Billy Graham, Lausanne Covenant), (2) the primary mission of the church is the corporate body of believers in which social and spiritual relationships are being transformed (anabaptist view of Yoder), (3) the conversion of individuals and the political restructuring of society are equally important parts of salvation (WCC, Richard Mouw, Orlando Costas), (4) evangelism is politics because salvation is social justice (Harvey Cox). Sider investigates New Testament terminology (gospel, salvation, redemption) concluding that all four viewpoints are inadequate, with a fifth option as biblical, namely that evangelism and social action are equally important yet distinct aspects of the total mission of the church.

While Sider suggests that the dominant salvation language in the New Testament is related to redemption occurring within the church, he concludes, with some lack of clarity, that evangelism and social action are interrelated; previously he termed them as distinct aspects of the mission of the church. This interrelatedness occurs primarily within the church context of conversion from personal and social evil. I find Sider’s evidence suggesting more strongly the interrelatedness of evangelism and social action than their being distinct. Sider is influenced by the Pauline definition of gospel and salvation which normally involves the forgiveness of sin through the work of Christ. Paul’s language is contained in ‘pastoral epistles’ which respond to the situational spiritual needs within the church-house setting, the exception being the collection for the poor of the Jerusalem church and his cosmic language (Ephesians, Colossians). The language of Jesus as applied in the Gospels suggests interrelatedness in a stronger way. Sider defines Jesus’ teaching, preaching the gospel, and healing sick people (Mt. 4:23; 9:35) as distinct types of tasks. These Matthean summaries in reporting three statements do not necessarily make each distinct from the other. Matthew throughout the first Gospel is adapting the tradition so that Jesus and his teaching become more and more the content of the ‘good news’ (Jack Kingsbury). However, when Sider, using the normal Pauline concept of ‘gospel’, says that Jesus does not equate ‘preaching the gospel’ with ‘helping the oppressed’ (Mt. 11:5), he is incorrect. Matthew in reporting the common material in Matthew 11:2–6 has euangelizontai (to proclaim good tidings) refer to the presence of the kingdom in Jesus’ ministry to those in need (9:12–13, 36–38) who are ‘the poor’. While Matthew collects the teaching of Jesus (Mt. 5–7, 10, 18, 24–25), there is an interrelatedness in the ‘preaching’ and ‘healing’ (Mt. 13:14–17; 9:1–8; cf. 25:34–40 where those ministering to the social needs of others are proclaimed ‘righteous’). The euangelion of Jesus is not just the Pauline concept of spiritual deliverance, but the ‘good tidings’ of the kingdom’s presence (cf. Is. 61:1–4) which includes ministry to both social and spiritual needs. Matthew 8 and 9 contains illustrations of Jesus’ euangelion to ‘the poor’ (11:5). In his Response, Stott emphasizes the priority of evangelism in the mission of the church and unjustly criticizes Sider’s interpretation of ‘principalities and powers’. Sider’s booklet is valuable as an aid in the continuing quest for defining the relationship between evangelism and social justice.

Ronald Russell

Department of Biblical Studies, Los Angeles Baptist College