Is Missional Living the ‘New Legalism’?

A recent post by Anthony Bradley laments what he sees as the establishment of a fresh form of legalism: the push for Western Christians – especially in the suburbs – to live ‘radically’ and ‘missionally.’ He talks about encountering Christian brothers and sisters who struggle with feelings of inadequacy and futility as they work to measure up to the missional leaders’ calls to live extraordinary lives for God’s kingdom. Bradley then links this missional push to an epidemic of narcissism in America. He also makes a connection between the feelings of shame engendered by the missional emphasis and similar feelings produced under the moralistic legalism found in many traditional churches. He concludes by expressing his hope that the missional movement will wise up and find their contentment in ‘living well’ – flourishing and loving others and glorifying God in the context of a very normal sort of life.

This article leaves me feeling about equal parts confused and grieved. I think there is quite possibly a vein of truth running through his thoughts on this subject, my agreement with which I hope will become apparent below. But I fear that for all the good that might come from that bit of truth striking certain readers just at their point of need, much more harm will come from the impact on the audience as a whole. Let me try to outline some of my questions and concerns…

1. What’s bad: being missional or being legalistic?

The author might mean something like this: living on a God-given mission is good, but basing our approval before God in the performance of this mission is idolatrous. That might be what he’s trying to say, but what he seems to be saying is that living on a God-given mission is bad in itself! Is living missionally good for some people, as long as they don’t set it up as a standard that others must live by to be accepted by God? Or are those people simply misguided in their quest to serve God? Surely Bradley isn’t against Christians viewing themselves as missionaries in their own environment! Perhaps it’s nothing more than friendly fire, but it seems that his article gives just as bad a rap to being missional as to being legalistic.

And frankly, ‘legalism’ is something of a Swiss-army pejorative. It often means little more than ‘something that other people want me to do, but I don’t think I need to do.’ While it may be possible that some believers are guilty of seeking God’s righteousness by their missional performance, not all who perform (any command, not just the Great Commission) are necessarily doing so. It is possible – though the author doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility – that they are on a mission in joyful response to God’s free grace.

2. Who exactly are these ‘missional’ people?

Unfortunately, Bradley doesn’t really interact with the only definition he gives for a missional church (courtesy of Scott Thomas), but again it is difficult to imagine that he is really against the kind of church described therein. I think the opponent that the article is directed against – the well-intentioned but imprudent missional leader – is somewhat confused. For example, the author seems to think of missional people as pushing believers away from early marriage and child-rearing. But some of the most outspoken advocates of starting and growing a family that I can think of are men whose names are almost synonymous with the missional movement! Similarly, the author wishes that the missional generation would see the God-glorifying potential of vocation – a subject with deep ties to the missional movement! Perhaps Bradley is writing his article to help a group of young people who have deeply misunderstood what it means to be missional. But if these are the kinds of things that lead to his concern, I think he has selected the wrong objects for his criticisms.

3. Does Scripture commend ‘living well’?

While much more could be written on this subject, let me just give a few comments on this article’s reference to 1 Thessalonians. This is a serious case of reading the first century text with a twenty-first century lens. When modern people hear the phrase ‘work with their hands’ we think of people who don’t work a desk job, but are craftsmen of some kind, and then by association, a sort of ‘simple life.’ But such a distinction would not have been as clear in the first century. What is clear is that the Thessalonians had some kind of idleness problem – in which case ‘work with your hands’ means ‘don’t leech off the efforts of others.’ Similarly with the command to ‘live quietly’ – we think of Amish people, simple country folk, milking cows, etc. – but it’s clear from 2 Thessalonians 3 (where Paul repeats these commands in essence) that living quietly is not the opposite of doing extraordinary things, but the opposite of meddling with the affairs of others!

What’s really telling, though, is that Paul says in the verses above that the Thessalonians were busy showing love to the whole province of Macedonia! Their love had concerned them with people and situations beyond their own horizons – and Paul wants them to keep pushing in that direction (4:10)! There is just no way that Paul’s words here can be commending a kind of parochialism that relegates the Great Commission to the periphery. Further evidence for this is the fact that Paul sets himself up as the example for them to follow in their quiet, working-with-hands lifestyle. Yet Paul was a missionary! Which means that his words to the Thessalonians cannot be taken to describe a life that is not characterized by missionary activity – for Paul’s was just that!

Besides these considerations, Bradley’s use of these Scriptures seems awfully subjective and more than a little reductionistic. Whatever these verses may or may not mean, they must be reconciled with Christ’s call to the cross. They must be reconciled with the Great Commission. And they must be reconciled with the great arch of redemption history in general and with the purposes of God in our thrilling age in particular. ‘Living well’ sounds very nice; it also sounds quite foreign to the overall message of the New Testament.

4. What is the mission of the church?

The article seems to make clear that Bradley would understand the mission of the church to be far broader than the proclamation of the Gospel. He is far from alone in this respect, even in missional company! Many missional leaders go on to include social justice (or ministries of mercy) as falling within the borders of the church’s mission on earth. But Bradley seems to find this yet too stifling! A further broadening (I would say degradation) of the concept of mission is yet required. Not the preaching of the Gospel, and not social justice, but simply living is now put forward as the substance of the Christian mission!

Bradley complains in his post that the advocates of ‘radical Christianity’ fail to provide a ‘positive construction’ for the Christian life. This is, I think, a failure to genuinely listen to what these advocates are saying. Why do they call themselves ‘missional’? Because they believe that Christ’s call to be his disciple and to make disciples is their positive mission in this life. Right or wrong, their sense of purpose is just as positive and just as substantial as Bradley’s vision of human flourishing.

5. Are the suburbs in any real danger of being vacated by believers?

I wonder (with some dread, I confess) if Bradley’s post is but one of the first notes to sound in what will soon become a great symphonic defense of suburban lifestyle. The concern seems to be that Christians who love God and people feel pressure to abandon the suburbs for more needy or more challenging contexts. An outsider who happened to read Bradley’s article would most likely be led to believe that a great migration of this sort is already occurring. But is it? Are suburban churches bleeding their best members? Are urban churches hogging all the resources in evangelistic efforts? Are international missions projects draining the life out of domestic church building projects? As a missionary in China, these fears are always rather bewildering to me. If the world’s population is moving towards the cities, if there are many millions who have never heard the Gospel in other nations, and if there are far too few Christian workers in these contexts, then what could be more wise or more natural than to show this need to suburban churches and ask them to respond?

6. Is there any such thing as a normal person in the suburbs?

Finally (I hope someone’s still reading!), Bradley’s main exhortation seems to be: ‘be joyful in your normal, unremarkable life in the suburbs.’ Such a life, he contends, is a perfectly acceptable setting for glorifying God and loving others. There is, I think, one glaring problem with this advice. And that is, there is nothing ordinary about a suburbanite! He is part of the wealthiest, most comfortable sliver of humanity that has ever lived! The resources at his disposal are nothing short of staggering! And thus, the responsibility to steward all of these advantages has been thrust upon him by God. If you want to be an ordinary person that doesn’t do anything special, give away your extraordinary wealth and go be a subsistence farmer in Kenya! That’s normal! The alternative is burying your talent, vainly attempting to deny any unique responsibility to forward God’s kingdom!

And this is the point that undergirds the anti-suburb rhetoric that so troubles Bradley. Christians may certainly live in the suburbs, but they may not live suburban lives. Because, like any other social context, the suburban lifestyle is driven by a mad pantheon of subtle idols. Any suburbanite whose life has been shaped by the Gospel will seem… well… radical! His flourishing does not look like the flourishing of his neighbors. He’s not striving to keep up with the Jones’, but to follow the One who gave all for him. He doesn’t buck suburban ease because he is trying to earn God’s favor, but because God’s unmerited favor has set him free from the idol of ease. While Bradley exhibits a great deal of concern over missional legalism – the idea that Christians are struggling to measure up to a standard of radical living – he seems to ignore the far more evident realities of suburban legalism – the idea that Christians are struggling to measure up to a standard set by the Jones’. Both are wrong; one is endemic.

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One Comment on “Is Missional Living the ‘New Legalism’?”

  1. philmartin4 June 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Recent article by Mr. Platt himself addressing the same issues. I think he agrees with you.

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