Ronald Sider: Radical Activist or Humble Leader?

Ronald J. Sider has lived an openly modest life: he raised his family in an old duplex in a rundown Philadelphia neighborhood, most of his clothes are from thrift stores, his house is heated by an aging wood stove, and he scavenges for the wood himself around his neighborhood.

From the outset, you would never guess that Sider launched Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) almost 30 years ago, or that he helped kick-start a movement to get the church involved in global poverty, or that he wrote a book several decades ago on social action that still riles up people from both ends of the political spectrum. Not to mention, he’s published more than 30 books and 100 articles, many of which examine the importance of caring for others as part of biblical discipleship.

As an evangelical pastor and author whose outspoken views on the church and social justice have been making waves in the Christian community for decades, Sider is considered both controversial and revolutionary, radical and inspirational.

Social justice pioneer

Sider was born in 1935 and grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada. After graduating from the University of Waterloo and Yale University with his theological degree and PhD in history, Sider accepted a position to help launch an inner-city branch of Messiah College in Philadelphia. Submerging himself in urban life put social issues at the forefront of both his career and lifestyle: he witnessed poverty, racism, and economic injustice on a regular basis.

In 1973, Sider played a major role in the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern—a highly-publicized, nonpartisan statement advocating political and social involvement from evangelical Christians. Sider later wrote an article in which he said that the more money people make, the more they should donate. The heart of his message addressed world poverty by asking people to spend less on themselves in order to give more to the poor.

Sider published Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger in 1977, selling more than 400,000 copies—a feat for any book on social justice. Since releasing this book, reactions to Sider have run the gamut from inspired to enraged: his book was hailed by Christianity Today as one of the 100 most influential books on religion in the twentieth century, while Christian Reconstructionist David Chilton wrote Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators as a critique.

A divisive voice

Politically speaking, Sider is both praised and vilified by both parties, yet he aligns himself with neither. On most issues he sways toward the left, but when it comes to homosexuality and abortion, he’s a clear advocate for conservative thought. Regardless of his political affiliations, his stance on one issue holds strong: poverty is a moral issue that society must seek to end. His ministry is based on the idea that Jesus wants the church to enthusiastically devote itself to both evangelism and social work.

“It is time for evangelical preachers to label today’s gross inequality what it is: SIN. If we believe what the Bible says about God’s concern for the poor; if we believe what the Bible says about justice; then we must denounce the gross inequality of opportunity and income in our country today as blatantly sinful.” —Ronald J. Sider

Whether you agree or disagree with Sider’s beliefs, he has—inarguably—had a massive effect on the way Christians view social justice. If you’re interested in learning more about Sider and his theology, here are some of his most influential works:

How do you feel Ron Sider has affected modern Christian thought? Let us know in the comments.

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