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May 16, 2013Culture, Missiology

Radical Christianity: A Call to Legalism or a Cause to Live?

A recent Christianity Today cover story by Matthew Lee Anderson has sparked a discussion around the growing "Radical Christianity" movement in evangelicalism (and beyond). It's a conversation that has been brewing for years, but appears to have finally come to a head, at least in Christianity Today (CT).

Much of the discussion stems from David Platt's best-seller Radical. Other books and authors are mentioned (Shane Claiborne, Francis Chan, and Kyle Idleman, among them), but when it comes to being a "Radical Christian," David Platt is the guy most people immediately identify with that phrase.

Now, let me say that I know David, Francis, and Kyle (my inteview with Kyle is here), so I have some personal bias. Regardless, let me weigh into the conversation because I am passionate about both missional and radical ideas and how they are lived out.

In his article, Anderson notes what spurred the movement. Radical "incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many Americans' comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it." I believe this to be a fair and accurate statement. In and of itself, I would think that Platt would also agree. And this dissatisfaction is not even a bad thing. However, the question is how do we deal with the issues? And that is where the criticism enters.

Anderson concludes his article saying:

For us in the pews, testing ourselves must include deliberating about our vocations and whether we are called to missions, or to a life of dedicated service to the poor, or to creating reminders with art and culture of the gospel's transcendent, everlasting hope. Discovering a radical faith may mean revisiting the ways in which faith can take shape in the mundane, sans intensifiers. It almost certainly means embracing the providence of God in our witness to the world. The Good Samaritan wasn't a good neighbor because he moved to a poor part of town or put a pile of trash in his living room. He came across the helpless victim "as he traveled." We begin to fulfill the command not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we're really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World--and yes, even short-term mission trips--we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.

Another notable detractor of this "Radical Christianity" is Dr. Anthony Bradley.

In a recent article in World magazine, Dr. Bradley writes:

...Some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called "radical Christianity" in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission.

This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around "an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward." Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs, but because it is primarily reactionary and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God's perspective, it misses "radical" ideas in Jesus' own teachings like "love."

The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like "missional" and "radical" has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called the "new legalism."

A few decades ago, an entire generation of baby boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of "being good," but what their millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shamed-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the baby boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

I understand Bradley's concern, and we go back and share common concerns on many issues. He's been both a participant in, but also a critic of, some of the missional conversation-- particularly calling out those who do not engage real issues in the inner cities, etc.

This specific article was rooted in a conversation he had with a student and a separate phenomenon he observes: "For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about."

I too have seen this. As a professor and speaker, I encounter almost weekly a pastor or student "wanting to do great things for God" and thinking that the only way that will be accomplished is through selling everything and moving into a disadvantaged neighborhood for the sake of the gospel.

And while I wholeheartedly agree with Bradley that some are reducing a missional lifestyle to nothing more than legalism, there is nothing inherently wrong with living out a missional, radical faith. In fact, it's what we're called to. Shaming others who aren't following suit is the issue. Not the lifestyle itself.

Ray Ortlund posted his thoughts on the charges of the legalism of missional Christianity this week on his blog. He wrote:

Whenever we put a qualifier in front of the noun "Christian," we might be inserting legalism.

But we might not be. It depends on whether we perceive that qualifier as meritorious. Does it elevate us above other blood-bought Christians who don't wave the banner of that same qualifier?

It is possible to be a "missional" Christian or a "radical" Christian or whatever, and that language is being used merely as a way of communicating something biblical that you want to call people to, something truly in Christ. But it is also possible -- it all depends on internal factors, difficult to discern even in ourselves, much less in others -- to use such qualifiers in a way that is truly legalistic.

I even had a chance to ask Francis Chan about this recently as part of an episode of The Exchange, broadcast live from (and in partnership with) The Exponential Conference. He was mentioned in the original CT article, and we talked about the counterbalance of radical Christianity and what Eugene Peterson called "long obedience." Francis provides some helpful perspective on the issue and the sustainability of a radical, missional lifestyle.

It also reminded me of a conversation I had on another episode of The Exchange with Larry Osborne about his book, Accidental Pharisee.

Now, let me lay my cards on the table.

I think we need more missional and more radical role models and resources for the church. I think we need it because the bigger problem is complacency, not an overemphasis on radical missional living. At this time and in most Western cultural contexts, a consumer church is a greater danger than a radical Christianity.

However, that does not mean that all of us need to be David Platt. God has a calling for David and he is, I believe, provoking the church to "love and good deeds" (Hebrews 11:24). If David said, "Do what I am doing," I'd object. But, if David is saying, "Get uncomfortable and sacrifice something for the gospel," that's the kind of radical I want my people to hear and consider.

Many have expressed concern about David's approach to poverty and sanctification, and I think he's working to make that clearer, but in a society driven by consumerism, the church could use someone pulling the other way.

I firmly believe we need a sustainable Christian lifestyle, and I get that some see that is at odds with being radical and missional. I don't think it is. I call my church to "long obedience in the same direction" (as I mention in the video with Francis Chan), and think that's pretty radical and missional where we live.

No, it does not look how David, Francis, Kyle, or Shane do it, but they are not my role models anyway-- I just want to live a missional life, radically sold out to Jesus, and not just make it by as another religious churchgoer.

I don't think that's a wrong idea, but I get how it can be wrongly understood.

We should see radical, missional Christianity as a cause to live, not as a call to legalism.

In other words, let's be missional and radical. Let's be careful about making it legalistic. But let's not be afraid to tell a consumer-driven church that has commodified the gospel that the Christian life is rooted in much more than personal comfort.

Full disclosure, I am a contributing editor for CT and LifeWay works with David Platt on multiple projects. I know and have worked with the others mentioned. And, I think Anthony Bradley and Ray Ortland are good guys, too. ;-) The only one I don't know is Shane Clairborne.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

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Radical Christianity: A Call to Legalism or a Cause to Live?