It started with this tweet by Dr. Anthony Bradley:
“Being a ‘radical,’ ‘missional’ Christian is slowly becoming the ‘new legalism.’ We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).”
Needless to say, he had my attention. As I read the ensuing article the tweet inspired called “The ‘New Legalism’” (World Magazine), my curiosity quickly turned to confusion, then frustration and finally disappointment. Bradley so misses the mark with this piece that I felt it important to respond in some detail. Please read the original article first, as I don’t want you to rely entirely on my perspective.
Bradley starts by identifying a very real and prevalent problem:
“I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential.”
My reaction to this dynamic is somewhat conflicted. On one hand, I have seen the suffering he identifies and agree that not only do we need to address it compassionately, but also root out the underlying causes. On the other hand, in light of how most Christians around the world live, I have a hard time feeling too much sympathy for those who are almost entirely made up of the world’s most privileged few. It is in this sense of tension where I think the problem lies: there is certainly a problem that needs addressing, but the diagnoses of cause(s) and the remedies suggested are so off the mark that I fear they might very well cause more harm than they remedy.
Bradley identifies two significant factors that, in concert with each other, produce this “new legalism”: anti-suburban Christianity; and missional/radical narcissism. Let’s look at both, then address the proposed impact and solution the author posits.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.”
Here is where we hit the first major problem. In one paragraph, Bradley seeks to explain (or explain away) a massively complex set of movements that spans more than a century. As a result, he paints a caricature of the process, making unsubstantiated and unqualified claims we are expected to simply accept as true and accurate. While there are degrees of truth in his assessment, beyond a passing reference to “good intentions” he fails to address the very real and necessary critique of the suburban shift, as though all contexts are created equally. And though some might have put forward (directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally) the idea that they could not “live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs”, I see in that history a far greater emphasis on a call for Christians to good where there was great need.
In other words, just as Jonah could not be true to God’s calling in any context, neither can the church be faithful anywhere regardless of the call of God. There was (and is) a clear missiological need that the church was (and is) failing to meet. This is not to say that every Christian should move to the city, but it is saying that there is a clear demonstration that many should. Neither is it saying that you cannot be faithful in the suburbs, but rather that faithfulness in the suburbs requires as much intentionality to live the counter-cultural life of Christ in that context.
Bradley continues by expressing deep concern that when the missional movement emerged (and for which he chooses one, very narrow definition), it become infected by the cultural “narcissism epidemic”. It is hard to move forward in the article given how drastically he fails to fairly or accurately represent what it means to be “missional”. As widely read & engaged online as he is, it is hard to think that he unaware of the bigger, better picture or if he simply chooses (for whatever reason) to not represent them. Instead, he claims:
“As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching.”
First, Bradley paints a very broad and diverse movement with a wide brush, failing to cite anything beyond the single definition of “missional”. I am not suggesting he should (or could) have engaged with all examples of missional thinking and practice, but rather that he again makes claims without meaningfully engaging anything beyond a single definition of “missional”. Most missional thinkers/practitioners have clearly and repeatedly named these risks many times before, calling for caution and intentionality. So to claim they are endorsed characteristics of missionality (intentionally or otherwise) is disingenuous, or at least inaccurate, at best.
Second, while there is nothing inherently wrong with “getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen”, the author almost goes so far as to suggest that these emphases are the primary expression of Christian faithfulness. This interpretation is given credence when he says:
“I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.”
In what world- in what reading of Scripture- is such a choice not an acceptable and commendable commitment if and when it is a response to the leading of God? Again, we are left to simply accept that such a choice in inherently audacious. Yet time and again we see examples in Scripture and in history where believers have made self-sacrificial choices out of faithful service to God. One might even suggest that the inference that the couple would have been more faithful to “procreate” is just as guilty of perpetuating a form of legalism.
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).
Bradley goes on to address the emphasis on “radical Christianity”. Once again, he cites one example- David Platt’s “Radical”- and readers are to simply accept that it is typical of the wider movement. Having not read the book, I cannot comment directly on it. However, based on Bradley’s assessment, I do not think it even closely represents what “radical Christianity” is (having read and engaged widely in that area). As stated several times already, I wish the author has fairly engaged a fair sampling of “radical” thinkers/practitioners. Without question there are those in this “category”- as in all categories, including my own and Bradley’s- are prone to over-emphasis, blind-spots, even legalism at times. Yet the author fails to demonstrate how these dynamics are inherent to or specifically characteristic of the “category”.
The “New Legalism”:
Bradley goes on to say that, in combination, these two forces have produced unhealthy results in young Christians:
“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.””
Built on the preceding mistakes, the conclusions only become that much more misguided. The author has not only failed to demonstrate the fundamental failings he asserts, but also makes no clear connection between those dynamics and the sense of shame that he experiences from young Christians. Without question this shame is present and problematic, but I argue that there are far more and far different dynamics at it’s roots (more on that later).
Perhaps my biggest contention here is that the author does not directly define what “being an ordinary Christian” looks like. There are insinuations, such as (apparently) to get married, get jobs, and “procreate”. Beyond that he defines it as people who “love God and love their neighbour”. While I agree with this latter definition, the author and I clearly seem to differ on what that looks like. After all, the first place we see Jesus talk about love- a setting of the bar, in a way- is His command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Yes, He teaches us to love our neighbour as ourselves- in other words to act towards them with the exact same impulses we reserve for our own well-being, but transforms our easy definition of neighbour and what it means to love them into something much bigger (Luke 10:25-37). Example after example of what Jesus taught (and modeled) about love demonstrates something that, to most honest readers, can quite accurately be described as “radical”. And in case we think that such an example is not ours to follow, we cannot forget the clincher:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34, 35
What Bradley seems to describe as Christian faithfulness leaves me somewhat baffled. While I share his refusal to accept shaming or guilt as a means to motivate faithfulness, he seems to leave little room for correction and rebuke that produces genuine contrition and conviction and fruitful repentance. Scripture is full of examples of God calling His people into consistent and costly faithfulness. Most confusing is this paragraph:
“Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders? Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe. An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others’, becomes important because it is characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.”
As stated above, Bradley seems to miss or ignore the radical and costly nature of Christ’s command to love God and others. I affirm his emphasis on holistic concern, but wonder how such restoration can be achieved- or even meaningfully pursued- apart from an alternative way of shared life that contrasts (often sharply) with the way he seems to suggest “living quietly” looks- a way of life that, again, can most naturally described as radical because it is the life of Christ in and through us.
In his closing paragraph, Bradley says:
“It is unclear how millennials will respond to the “new legalism” but it may explain the current trend of young Christians leaving the church after age 15 at a rate of 60 percent.”
Having failed to compelling support the breadth and scope of his claims on either anti-suburbanism and missional/radical narcissism, Bradley now speculates that these unsubstantiated dynamics are responsible for the increasingly drop out of young Christians. The large and complex issue of young Christians leaving the church deserves better reflection than this. Even if he had said that these dynamics might explain some of the current it would have been more appropriate. Instead, he follows up this unsupported suggestion with, perhaps, his most dismissive and wide sweeping generalization in the whole article:
“Being a Christian in a shame-driven “missional,” “radical” church does not sound like rest for the weary.”
As already stated, Bradley fails at any point to accurately represent what it means to be missional or radical, drawing only from two sources that fail to represent the wider genres they have been placed in. Neither does he say anything affirming about these movements beyond acknowledging their good intentions, instead characterizing them as narcissistic, shame-based, guilt-driven and, most damningly, unloving. He makes not attempt in the above quote to differentiate unhealthy exceptions from the wider norms. As a published author and a Ph.D., we cannot fairly assume this is an example of misunderstanding or ignorance (for any scholar of Dr. Bradley’s level knows what is necessary in research & supported claims). Therefore, such an approach is uncharitable at best.
Interestingly, Bradley closes the piece with a call for a return to a more mature understanding of vocation, something a fully agreed with. He also asserts that we “can make important contributions to human flourishing in any sphere of life because there are no little people or insignificant callings in the Kingdom”. This affirmation is at the very heart of missional Christian emphasis. Core to the missional impulse is that we all participate in the work of God in any and all of the spheres we find ourselves called into, be that as a plumber or a preacher. So here, at the end of the article, we begin to see the real problem: a culture of shame and/or guilt driven spiritual ambition.
Yet this problem is an old and very familiar one- a problem that is no more present in missional/radical circles than elsewhere. As Alan Hirsch reminds us:
“All forms of activism can become legalistic in their efforts to to motivate God’s people from being mere consumers of religious goods and services to being active disciples, and so we always need to be watchful.”
The impulse to do great things, be they for God or nation or self, is as old as sin. We seek to establish for ourselves meaning and identity that will survive us, motivated by the fear of death to which we are all enslaved. It is this very bondage from which Jesus liberates us (Heb. 2:9-18). Motivated in this way, even our missional vocation can become tainted, twisted and misdirected. Instead, we are called to follow Christ in His kenostic- His self-emptying humility and service (Philippians 2)- becoming radically obedient, even unto death.
This post is already too long to get into all the other factors that contribute to the suffering that Bradley accurately identifies- reasons like the all too common attempt to live our shared vocation as individuals, not in genuine community. It is a problem worth addressing. However, by doing so in the way this article has is irresponsible and could arguably contribute to the very problem it seeks to solve.
As some of the most privileged people in the history of humanity, I worry about any attempt to ease our “burden”, especially when our privilege was and is all too often bought on the suffering of others elsewhere. We cannot address African poverty without addressing North American affluence. We cannot think that we can do small acts of justice for the suffering out of wealth and power that contributes to the very injustices we are seeking to alleviate. Living as Christ calls us requires radical- not ambitious- faithfulness. The love that Jesus calls us to is recklessly radical. But in it we will find fullness of life. I cannot help but think again of the simple, yet profound wisdom of G.K. Chesteron:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”