The “New Legalism” Gets Some Things Right

The “New Legalism” Gets Some Things Right May 2, 2013

On the Acton Blog, Anthony Bradley argues that “radical” or “missional” Christianity, of the kind proposed by David Platt, is the new form of legalism. By telling people that an ordinary, normal life of loving God in the everyday isn’t enough, the new “radicals” are causing people to burn out and leave the church. He writes:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not being 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. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Read the whole thing; this is a helpful counterpoint to some themes that we editors hold dear. The conclusion of his piece about recovering vocation suggests that we should acknowledge that we are addressing a creative elite when we’re urging some forms of cultural resistance. Perhaps not everyone is called to the avant garde.

Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).

Bradley links a lot of the new legalism back to a form of narcissism. There’s no doubt that there’s a large narcissistic appeal of being special and unique, a radical Christian doing radical things. Narcissism on the part of “missional Christianity” should be resisted as much as the ever-present danger of narcissism in ordinary life should be. But that doesn’t change the fact that the radicals are reacting against some very real ways in which American Christians have assimilated unhealthily into American culture.  There’s ordinary, and then there’s total capitulation to contemporary American norms. The two need to be distinguishing, and distinguishing them is an important work for the church in coming years.

[Image of San Jose suburbs from Wikipedia]

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  • Petro

    “But that doesn’t change the fact that the radicals are reacting against some very real ways in which American Christians have assimilated unhealthily into American culture.”

    American Christians built the American culture they are being unhealthily assimilated into. They also helped set the contemporary American norms.

    I believe that it is true that mission work is a vocation for some, not all. Nevertheless, we should not pretend that it is so easy to avoid this assimilation or capitulation to anti-Christian norms in the “normal life.” Many of these norms were established by Christians and are still perpetuated by them. It is beneficial for us to have Christian voices pointing out such inconsistencies in a “radical” manner.

  • sarah ngu

    Great response to Bradley. Skye Jethani’s book, With, also provides a helpful framework. He sets up four postures that he finds common in how people relate to God. The most common one he finds among young evangelicals is the posture of finding “life for God” in which we are all about doing things “for God.” God is functionally treated a means for finding significance and purpose (usually tied up in social justice or activism). He sees this as a reaction to the “life from God” posture which is about deriving (mostly material) benefits from God. Both postures “for/from” are idolatrous in a way, because it is “life with God” that matters, where God and a relationship with Him is our first and foremost concern.

  • We should, in general, be creating a church culture that recognizes the importance & value of suffering & sacrifice. But what this sacrifice means is very different for a lot of people. Some may have to sweat it out in liberal academic environments, some may literally sell all they have and move to Afghanistan or inner-city Detroit, some may stay in the suburbs and adopt foster kids, some may have to simply deal with the disabled child or abusive parent in their life. All of us must learn the quiet disciplines of pursuing God, loving our neighbors (especially the unlovely ones.) But if we tell people to expect that following Jesus is hard but good, I think it might help us not get too overburdened with shame and guilt.

    That being said, I think our cultures and families tend to guide us towards a life that is comfortable, and the vanguard of radical rhetoric helps people to constantly reconsider if they might not be called to sacrifice more for Jesus’ sake.

  • I think we DO need a renewed and vigorous sense of “vocation” that encompasses both spiritual and “working” life, whether they are directly tied or not in a given person’s life.

    The best way to be “extraordinary” involves a few things which Christians and non-Christians can and should share: 1) knowing oneself and one’s talents (given), skills (acquired), and personality; 2) whenever possible, finding work that brings satisfaction; 3) a commitment to personal development in all areas from work to spiritual life to relationships; 4) a commitment to responsible “citizenship” of a spiritual (and/or social) community and a city, region, nation, world.

    If one can live out these things, one has gone beyond the ordinary, and contributed a lot to others in the process, whatever the specific work vocation, living environment, etc. We could call this “Christ-like”, but it really transcends any religion, including Christianity.

  • rvs

    Thanks for writing on this provocative topic. Even when the new legalists are right, they are wrong, because of disposition. My hunch is that a lot of Christians are called to live suburban lives, and some Christians–who are getting shot at, etc., long for the suburban life, which seems appropriate. Perhaps the right question is this: how might the peace and tranquility of the suburbs inform the new urbanism, a movement which has failed to deliver its utopian dream? Caveat: I love the movie American Beauty, and that vision of the suburbs, of course, is to be guarded against at every turn.

  • AustinFCline

    There is an unnatural, sin-like aspect to where we live now? Is this article serious?