A lot of chatter has been flying around the world of social media about whether the emerging movements towards a Missional and Radical Christianity is becoming the new legalism. This concern was raised by Anthony Bradley and judging from the number of times I’ve seen this article tweeted (and from one Christian who emailed it to me), I assume others share this concern.
Of course, Bradley is not the first to raise this concern with neo church movements. A few years earlier, Jim Belcher raised a similar concern about the Emergent Church movement. Observing the strong deconstructive critiques of the emergent church on traditional evangelicalism, Belcher wrote:
…this iconoclasm is not fair, and if not tempered it will handicap this reform movement, potentially leading it into a new kind of sectarianism, mimicking some of the same mistakes of the past—anti-intellectualism, anti-tradition, and tribalism (Deep Church, 48).
I blogged here about Belcher’s observation in relation to my own church tribe because this is the path that the Churches of Christ took. The history of the Churches of Christ began as a non-sectarian unity movement that had mission stamped all over it but eventually the values of the movement resulted in an unwritten creed that turned us into sectarian legalists. With little exception, we came to believe that we were the only Christians (fortunately that view is fading fast among us). So I understand the concern that people have with new movements letting their critique morph into legalism tends to produce sectarianism and vise versa.
However, before we point fingers and issue warnings, I think we need to ask what we mean by “missional” and “radical” Christianity. I’ve not read David Platt’s book Radical but I have read a fair amount of books on missional church, living, etc… (and I’m beginning a Doctor of Ministry cohort in missional leadership this June at Northern Seminary). So I’m more familiar with the reforming call for Missional Christianity. In his article, Bradley contrasts the missional and radical movements with “ordinary God and people lovers” to which I assume he means Ordinary Christianity. That raises another question then: what do we mean by ordinary Christianity?
I don’t want to waste time by trying to define what is meant by Ordinary or Missional and Radical Christianity. There are two things we must recognize though. First, the term Christian is a very broad ranging term that can be used today to describe people with a very minimal faith/commitment to Christ. So that almost always forces Christian leaders to find some adjective, such as Ordinary, Missional, or Radical (or Evangelical, Orthodox, etc…) to define what they mean by Christianity. Second, like Jesus, none of the apostles ever called people to be Christians, rather they called them to become faithful believers who lived their lives as disciples of Jesus. That is to say that they were not calling people to just a different religious identity but to a new way of believing and living that demanded uncompromising commitment. So while I share the concern about the calls for Missional and Radical Christianity morphing into a new legalism, forgive me if I’m a little concerned about the idea of Ordinary Christianity among a post-Christian North American culture that has become very secularized.
The problem is that even though the Christian church is shaped and guided by scripture and tradition through the power of the Spirit, it is still comprised of people. That is, the church is one big jar of clay and made that way in order to show the “all-surpassing power” of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:7). But that also means that in weakness, the church will always make mistakes, get off track, etc… and need leaders calling it back to Jesus and the kingdom way of life. Jürgen Moltmann writes:
A Christianity that departs from its beginnings in order to adapt itself to the present-day state is bound to evoke the Christianity of reform. A Christianity that surrenders its messianic hope is bound to evoke the Christianity of prophesy (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 321).
Thus as the church rests upon grace to the neglect of obedience, it will need leaders to call for more obedience. Yet as the call for more obedience begins obscuring the grace upon which the church lives, it will need leaders who speak up for grace.
Let me say that whatever is meant by Ordinary or Missional and Radical Christianity, I am glad that there are reforming and prophetic leaders among Christianity calling American Christians back to the gospel. Yet, as one of these voices—though certainly lesser known than others —I do agree Matthew Lee Anderson who said, “if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we may need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility with their lives.”
While obedience apart from grace is legalism and often leads to sectarianism, from where I sit the grace without obedience that Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined as “cheap grace” seems to be the problem that must be contended with. So whether we like or dislike adjectives such as Missional and Radical, let’s remember that we are called to be faithful believers who live as disciple of Jesus.