I had almost forgotten about the provocative articles written by Anthony Bradley and Matthew Lee Anderson about legalism, “radical” rhetoric, and the pitfalls of telling Christians that our Kingdom work just isn’t “edgy” enough. Matt and I tussled over what he wrote then, after many comments I just let it be. At the end of the year, though, they got re-upped as some of the most read and linked posts for their respective sites in 2013. So my “totally committed” friends and I revisited them and found them just as frustratingly incomplete as before. After all (we said to ourselves), aren’t David Platt and Francis Chan simply exegeting Scripture and calling people to obedience? Clearly, however, these posts struck a nerve with many Christians. I now think that Matt and Anthony are more right than I thought at the time—but also more wrong.
I don’t want to lump Matt and Anthony together too quickly; Anthony’s article looks more personally at the “burdensome” aspect of calling Christians to an inordinately sacrificial lifestyle while Matt’s tries to take on the institutional and cultural consequences of using words as facile emotional amplifiers. These concerns are valid, for any overemphasis on obedience runs the risk of crushing others with a legalistic burden, and any over-reliance on the emphatic discourse of modern advertising is likely to crush a movement beneath its own hubris. Christians have wrestled with these questions over the centuries, reflecting the balance of faith, grace, and obedience into the contours of thought elided by Augustine, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and others. Paul captures this tension when he urges us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.“ What’s more, these kinds of appeals to self-sacrifice for God’s glory have been around for decades; one of the most potent examples I have encountered is Dr. Helen Roseveare’s discussion of “The Cost of Declaring His Glory”, set in her own context of being raped while serving as a missionary in the Congo.
Image from Christianity today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/here-come-radicals.html
Thus, I hesitate to affirm that there’s much new about the new legalism and their radical ilk besides the fact that this movement ties a broader spectrum of concerns to the “fear and trembling” that radical rhetoric seeks to induce. There are clearly times and places for these messages; this is part of why there are powerful institutions (most of which have strong ties to various mission agencies) that have not burned out despite decades of using them. However, a message that’s good only for one particular part of the church will divide the church if we expect it to drive everyone else in the same way. The emotional bombardment is only one facet of the movement, but it is the facet gaining the most attention and driving some of its most persistent critics.
However, where Matt and Anthony land is still unsatisfactory. Anthony asks, “What if youth and young adults were simply encouraged to live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship […] ?” Plenty of young Christians would probably still struggle with legalistically judging one another or themselves for their failure to pursue wonder and wisdom. Matt’s final point is similar, emphasizing the importance of slowly building institutions that “form belief in deeper and more permanent ways.” I would point out that multigenerational, multidisciplinary institutions such as the Christian Community Development Association, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, and many more like them are already forming belief in very deep ways.
The purveyors of “radical” rhetoric should consider these criticisms carefully and emphasize the slow, boring, and quiet work that is required when we lay siege against the gates of hell. We should work to create contexts where the horrors of poverty, spiritual darkness, or violence can be processed appropriately in community with other believers, as Christians ought to learn about these things— but not exclusively in conference messages or YouTube videos. We must also be careful, even as we critique the default worldly mindset that uses the comfort of the suburbs to magnify our idolatry, to continually affirm the goodness of loving God and loving our neighbors in boring places. From my own experience, various “radical” institutions do focus on the process of discipleship beyond the flashy plenary messages. This primarily happens when veteran “radicals” talk about the journeys they have been on in the inner city, the Third World, or their own homes full of adopted children. They also cherish the work and support of many who are living rather unexciting lives, calling them their closest friends, supporters, and co-laborers. Lastly, they are desperately dependent on the continual, supernatural presence of God’s grace to enable what they do.
Scripture can be difficult to discern here, for the most prominent personalities in the Old and New Testaments are the leaders and apostles who are frequently portrayed in their more exciting adventures. There are very few nuclear families described in the Scripture in any detail, and the only one with generally positive outcomes is Joseph and Mary’s. We are simultaneously called to live quietly and boldly proclaim—all the while taking up our crosses. Yet we can assume from the stories of Scripture that for every Paul or Silas in prison for casting out a demon, there were hundreds of Christians patiently waiting and praying in their homes as they ate their meatloaf before rushing the kids off to soccer practice.
One of the more troubling aspects of the radical narrative is the sense in which the average “truly committed disciple” risking death in the Himalayas to proclaim the Gospel as he gives vaccines is presented as more faithful and obedient to God’s revealed will than the dad in the suburbs driving his sporty minivan to the lake for the weekend while his children amuse themselves to death with their electronic devices. Part of this is that we do not celebrate the faithfulness of our old and boring saints nearly enough, nor do we emphasize their value to the church.
The recent excitement over the word “missional” suggests that some formation has been lacking in many churches, and in this sense churches in the suburbs do have a lot to learn from brothers and sisters elsewhere. The institutions that are sending Christians to the Himalayas spend a lot of time on finding hidden sins in these folks, forcing them to learn as much as possible about being faithful servants and equipping them to engage in spiritual siege warfare for years. The best way of erasing the false dichotomy between full-time missionaries and Christian laypeople is to broadly apply the vigorous sense of accountability, study, and spiritual discipline that are utilized to keep these ministers spiritually alive in their demanding work.
However, once we have affirmed that one does not need to do anything “radical” in order to live obediently to God’s call, nor do the “radicals” have a spiritual vocation much different than anyone else, we are left with a persistent problem: population density. The number of Christians living their boring lives of patient discipleship is not distributed in a manner that is conducive to creating institutions forming faithful obedience in places like Afghanistan or Mauritania. There are plenty of stable, nuclear families discipling their children as they schlep from soccer practice to VBS in the suburbs and not enough in the inner city or rural Appalachia. There are too many foster children whose special needs are addressed by people who don’t have a deep appreciation for their Imago Dei. How we spend our money or our political will is another question; the callings and budgets of every Christian will look different but hopefully carry the tension Jesus leaves us with in the Sermon on the Mount. That said, we could still go on vacation every now and then (like every missionary family I know) while giving more to God-honoring causes. We could raise a few more hackles about Saeed Abedini than Phil Robertson.
Indeed, both Anthony and Matt’s concerns about the conference-and-bestseller-driven messaging expose the fact that we have been quietly seduced by our individualistic culture, which places an unusually high premium on narcissistic self-actualization (especially in regards to helping other people.) If people are getting lost, going solo, feeling discouraged, or tuning out somewhere between the sensational message and the formational institution, that probably indicates that we don’t value the power of these institutions. The world of TED leaves the discipleship and application up to the listener of the message; within the church we have to draw clear lines to connect the compelling hook and the long obedience. All of us—no matter where we are called to minister—are part of the larger body of Christ and it is spiritually toxic for us to look down upon another’s calling as unimportant when every believer will have to take up our crosses to follow Jesus and count the cost carefully. Stay-at-home moms and missionary doctors alike must find their place in the universal reign of God being proclaimed throughout His world; bringing the Gospel to the nations can only be proclaimed through the slow, steady work of many people spreading out where it is not already.
It is important for those of us who have grown up in cultures with strong churches & Christian institutions to recognize the concept of church-planting movements in foreign missions, particularly in regard to three self and unreached people groups principles when discussing foreign missions. For not only is there a larger percentage of faithful, boring Christians in Missouri than in Somalia, but the Christians in Missouri have developed the cultural, theological, and ecclesiological resources necessary to create new churches in their culture and language. This is not true for thousands of people groups that do not know Jesus and have no human means to learn about Him. People in North America certainly need evangelism, discipleship, and theological formation just as much as people in Central Asia. The difference is that the institutions and churches carrying out those works in North America are not merely present, but have the ability to self-sustain, self-fund, and self-reproduce in their own cultural milieu. Such institutions aren’t just virtually absent elsewhere, but often lack the resources and personnel to propagate and persist. If we are serious about the value of these institutions, we should work slowly yet tenaciously to establish them everywhere and send enough Christians to places without them so they might be strengthened.
There are needs everywhere, of course. Not only are the suburbs of America full of lost people, they are full of Christians who need one another to stay and build one another up through fellowship, prayer, service, and worship. Raising families in an increasingly hostile and materialistic culture is hard work requiring great spiritual resources, and we ought not minimize its importance. However, if we look at the needs of the world and the concentration of wealth, power, education, health, and Biblical knowledge that we’ve been blessed with, it looks a little disproportionate—especially when it comes to the institutions that drive the growth of the church and help to keep her witness faithful. We need to be quiet and patient in a few more places. We need to use the dividends of our thrift a little more intentionally. And we need to eat our unexciting meatloaf in our boring, single-family homes with a few more outcasts around our table.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org