What is the Reform the Church Needs?

In advancing this series (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) on David Platt’s Radical Together, I want to address these questions: What exactly is the reform that the American church requires?  How exactly should that reform be framed?  What are the right terms and categories to explain it?

I’ve explained in detail what I find so worthy of celebration in Platt’s work, and in the response to Platt’s work amongst theological conservatives.  The truth is, theological conservatives should be – and sometimes are – the ones most committed to caring for those who cannot care for themselves.  We believe Jesus really said the things recorded in the gospels, and really meant the things he said, and that it is the calling of our devotion to Christ to live in obedience to his teachings.  When theological conservatism overlaps with political conservatism, then theological conservatives may have different ideas than political liberals on the best ways to serve the needy.  But respect and care for the widow and the orphan is a profound, non-negotiable, and beautiful part of the life of faith.

I’ve also explained why I don’t think that being more “radical” in our faith can be the goal.  Should we be more radical in our faith?  Yes.  Should that be our goal?  No.

In Radical Together, Platt sets forth six principles for living a radical faith within the communities of the church.  They’re fine principles, and I don’t disagree with them.  Too many churches have become “caretaker” churches, where the congregants want to be lavished with cheap grace, want to live unchallenged lives, want someone to sprinkle a little holy water over essentially worldly and comfortable lives.  If the pastors press for lives wholly abandoned to God, then the graybeards in the congregations warn them that they’re growing legalistic and extreme.  The congregants basically want a little religious mood music to usher them into old age and beyond.  I know this because I’ve seen it happen.  I’ve seen pastors thrown out of their congregations because they believed that when Jesus said “deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me,” he did not mean to lead ordinary suburban American lives with the addition of church attendance and the occasional tithe.  Those of us who attend excellent churches that fully preach the gospel and the call of discipleship should not underestimate how much complacent Christendom is out there.

So what is the solution?  Is it to try to be radical?  Can we grit our teeth and ball our fists and will ourselves into more radical lives of faith?  I don’t think so.  This is not a battle that will-power can win.  The more we trust in our own will power, the more we entrench ourselves in the illusion of self-sufficiency.  Grace is the key not only to our justification, but also to our sanctification.  It is God’s grace that counts us as righteous (“God demonstrated his own love for us…while we were still sinners” – Romans 5:8) and God’s grace that makes us righteous (God will be faithful to complete the work he began in us – Philippians 1:6).  No, the solution is not ourselves.  The solution is Christ.  We do not need a better us.  We need more of Christ in us.

I am convinced, what is desperately needed in the church today is a recovery of the ideal of the imitation of Christ.  We do not seek to be radical; we seek to be like Christ.  We do not seek to live a radical life; we seek to live a life like Christ’s.  Trusting in Christ, we are empowered to live the life Christ lived.  Living like Christ, we become like Christ, and we come to know Christ and rest in him ever more deeply.  From salvation comes imitation, from imitation comes transformation into the likeness of Christ, and from transformation comes understanding and union.

Next, in the final part of this series, I’ll try to sketch out what this means.

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  • Nice! I like the distinction you draw here, and now that you put it that way, I agree. Setting out to “be radical” is trusting in our own will power. Not much different from setting out to “be holy”. Whereas if you seek first the Kingdom of God, all other things will be given you besides.

  • Nicholas Benton

    I agree. One question that offends many of my conservative friends. Was the work of Christ ever done through the “law”…or is this the anti-thesis of Christ’s work?

    I think political minimalism would be the kind of “reform” I would like to see. Do the work with your hands…leave the debate, backbiting, malignity, whispering, boasting to others, as we are not called to do so.

    • I’m conservative, and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Christians certainly don’t want to be on the wrong side of history on cut and dry issues (e.g. racial discrimination), but most Christians are well beyond that point.

      People tend to be passionate about politics. That’s great. I certainly am so. But for Christians who are also passionate about what they believe about religion, it can easy to conflate the two.

      The result is that Christian leaders effectively rubber-stamp the actions of preferred leaders. I am told there are counterexamples. I haven’t seen them.

  • J.L. Schafer

    I agree that those of us who (at least in our own perception) attend good Bible-believing churches where discipleship is taken seriously mustn’t underestimate the amount of “complacent Christendom” out there. But in my experience, we don’t underestimate it at all. Rather, we are quick to look down on those whom we see as nominal Christians, cultural Christians, Sunday Christians, or whatever the term is. We are quick to put people in boxes with labels based on what we see. If we see people who apparently live conventional lives, attending church on Sunday and supporting it financially but not getting deeply involved in other church-sponsored activities, we may assume that they are complacent and uncommitted. But that may be very inaccurate. They may be living out their faith in the workplace, community, etc. in very real and powerful ways that are unseen by those of us who envision our mission in terms of churchy things. I’m growing a bit tired of church leaders and authors who constantly rail against the apparent ordinariness of those ordinary Christians who can’t seem to get off their you-who-whats to do things that, in their eyes, constitute “real” discipleship. Reading a few books by Eugene Peterson (The Pastor, Practice Resurrection) helped me to realize that many of those ordinary Christians with seemingly low levels of commitment are not so ordinary after all, but vital parts of the Body of Christ.