Missional and Radical Christianity: Necessary or Legalism?

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.

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12 responses to “Missional and Radical Christianity: Necessary or Legalism?

  1. Rex,

    It would be unfair to say missional is legalistic just like it would be unfair to say Churches of Christ are legalists. There are some legalists in the Churches of Christ and there are some legalists in the missional movement. People are people and that tendency is going to happen in any movement. It would be unfair, though, to characterize an entire group as legalists.

    • Agree 100%. There are legalists in every movement but generally speaking, it is very unfair to charge an entire movement because of the beliefs/actions of a smaller portion.

      Of course, when I speak of the Churches of Christ in this article, I speak with an insider’s perspective. I think I can safely say that the CoC by in large became legalistic in the 20th century. Although there were certainly exceptions to this (i.e., K.C. Moser). I think I can also safely say that one can no longer characterize the CoC with the term “legalism”. While there still are legalists among our tribe, they seem to be in the minority now.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  2. Good point Matt. I wonder if the God we know, who looks into the heart of His created, is so inclined as we are, to stamp labels. I pray not, as I am as inclined as anyone to fall in and out of any such movements only to know something is lacking.

  3. Thank you for your well balanced article. Words are simply vehicles to instruct, describe and motivate (among other things). Words can also challenge as, I’m convinced, is what the word “radical” does. So does the term “legalist.” Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commands” (John 14:15). Individuals who take this statement serious can also be called “legalist” while Jesus would call them “lover’s of God.”

  4. How about instead of constantly harping on the topic of legalism while fearing that even the mention of grace will result rampant disobedience, we all get out and help our neighbors and try to do what is right and ethical. We are all human. We are going to make mistakes. Just take responsibility, say mea culpa (if the mistake the serious) or just learn from it (if it is minor) and keep going. There is forgiveness. If one never does anything, one can’t make a mistake.

    • Fortunately, I believe everyone concerned about these matters are interested in helping our neighbors, doing “what is right and ethical.” Thanks for your comment.

  5. Once more, this is not to say that one cannot be faithful (or missional) in the context named above. I don’t know any credible missional thinker/practitioner that would say such life choices disqualify people from being missional or “radical”. It is a matter of doing so carefully, intentionally, in discernment with God’s Spirit in the context of the church, the community of the faithful. As a pastor in an inner city neighbourhood who constantly advocates for more Christians to engage in urban contexts, I have also repeatedly and publicly stated that missional faithfulness in the suburbs is not only incredibly difficult, but (almost as a result of said difficult) unquestionably necessary. I am humbled and inspired by suburban Christian who live faithfully to Jesus in such contexts (though they might look differently than what Bradley describes).

  6. 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 (Matt 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 youth adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

    • Yolanda,

      Thanks for your comment. I would simply say that it is too bad for the seven churches in Revelation for the shame they must have felt because Jesus was challenging them to be more than “ordinary” Christians, as I understand that term to mean. While it is certainly plausible that some “missional” and “radical” voices may be pushing American Christianity towards legalism, let’s not throw the entire movement under the bus because of some extremes. And before we baptize “ordinary” Christianity here in America, we ought to ask whether or not being “ordinary” is being faithful to Jesus since this ordinaries is seemingly contributing to the decline of Christianity in America as well as the continued assimilation of a secular/humanistic American culture among Christians in America. Further more, while loving God and neighbor is the way we fulfill the law of God, let’s not forget that to follow Jesus as his disciples we are called to carry our cross with him (Mark 8:34).

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  7. Once more, this is not to say that one cannot be faithful (or missional) in the context named above. I don’t know any credible missional thinker/practitioner that would say such life choices disqualify people from being missional or “radical”. It is a matter of doing so carefully, intentionally, in discernment with God’s Spirit in the context of the church, the community of the faithful. As a pastor in an inner city neighbourhood who constantly advocates for more Christians to engage in urban contexts, I have also repeatedly and publicly stated that missional faithfulness in the suburbs is not only incredibly difficult, but (almost as a result of said difficult) unquestionably necessary. I am humbled and inspired by suburban Christian who live faithfully to Jesus in such contexts (though they might look differently than what Bradley describes).

  8. It is time for us to recognize the false dichotomy between “radical/missional” and “ordinary Christian,” time for us to repent of the conceit of individual calling. Let us restore to the church its Holy Spirit-bestowed honor and responsibility to discern the proper deployment of the resources God has entrusted to it to steward. And let us restore to ourselves the humility of recognizing that Christ speaks through his whole body about what to do with us, not just to us individually.

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