New Legalism?

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Dr. Bradley’s recent article warning of a “new legalism” has made the rounds online being posted and reposted, causing innumerous online debates. But, while I’d agree that many of Dr. Bradley’s concerns are valid, some of his thinking demand a careful response. Its my hope to approach such a response, but not to respond to every objection. I’ll let wiser men systematically respond.

To begin, it might be helpful to ask, is this an intramural debate?(i.e. is this a discussion among people of the same faith?) Many people might assume it is, and Dr. Bradley might have written from such a perspective, but when he suggests that specific leaders are guilty of a new type of legalism he comes dangerously close to moving beyond an intramural debate. Legalism is the H-bomb of Evangelical debate. After all didn’t Jesus love everyone except those Pharisees sought to prove their worth based on their actions. If someone is a legalist we can say that you are the enemy not just of my thinking but potentially an enemy of the Gospel. In the most general of terms it says you are outside the camp, or in danger of being so.

This kind of rhetoric is troublesome because it has the habit of being contagious (even when this wasn’t the intention of the author). Christians are worried about some new strain of spiritual sickness that attacks the Gospel and they warn their friends to avoid it at all costs, but the problem is that sometimes we cry “fire” before we see any smoke. Often there is very little rationale behind the warning, and little interaction with those accused of spreading this new disease. This social network early warning system is somewhat akin to a religious version of the Immunization-leads-to-Autism scare. The sentiment being, “whether this ends up being true or not, this group is suspect.”

Now to be fair, can there be legalism (and by that I mean the tendency to connect kingdom value with kingdom efforts) in missional churches? Sure, but not any more than any other church. Warning that there are new legalist seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because, once we position ourselves against a group that we’ve essentially isolate, we begin defining the solution in reaction to that group (don’t be radical be simple!). But the problem is that often we become more concerned about a corrective trajectory, and so we end up landing in the opposite ditch. And overtime we become the group against which others begin defining themselves. 1

Is Missional Shame-Based?

Towards the end of his article, Dr. Bradley suggests that there is a correlation between the loss of young Christians and this new missional/radical movement. As he puts it, ” Being a Christian in a shame-driven “missional,” “radical” church does not sound like rest for the weary.” His rationale is that the missional church is in general a shame-based church, but is this fair to tie being missional and radical to the idea of being shame-based?

Of course anyone will be able to find examples of pastors driving their flocks in some direction or the other, and there is always a danger to use the cheap ammunition of shame rather than costly tool of conviction, but is shame really the driving motivation for the missional church movement? In my experience the answer is no. Again, Im sure there are exceptions, but I’ve not seen shame to be the driving motivation in the missional church.

When we talk of a radical faith we aren’t talking of a glamourous faith. We use the word missional, not because it sounds cool but because we are seeking to encapsulate important ideas in understandable ways. To call the Church to be missional is to remind the Church that we do not exist for ourselves, but that we have been sent as servants just as Christ was sent as a servant. I don’t care if a church uses the word missional, but I do care if a church is missional.
Would you chose different language in your local church? Fine, but please don’t assume that everyone who employs alternate vocabulary is your adversary.

What is simple?

Speaking of vocabulary choices–Dr. Bradley asks: “What if youth and young adults were simply encouraged live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship in a world marred by sin” Truthfully, it is very far from a simple thing to live in pursuit of such goals. One can start out on the road seeking to honor God and his creation, and yet can time and time again fall into the traps of sin. If the Apostle Paul confesses his difficulty in consistently following Christ (Romans 7:152) then why should we assume that it will be simple for us? Living for Christ is a slow and arduous task. One which necessitates the special presence of God and much accountability.

This is especially true in a culture where comfort and convince sit high in the pantheon.
The ordinary life as seen by most Americans is to live for self, detached from deep relationships, (or at the very least able to eject from such relationships). In our culture it is ordinary to base every decision on the answer to the question: what does this do for me? Work, friendships, sex, family, marriage, child-birth, and even faith end up being evaluated by this same question.

The thrust of the missional movement is calling people to genuine biblical obedience in all of life. If there hasn’t been enough talk of vocation (a debatable claim), it has much more to do with the fact that this is a young movement. Its one thing to cut down a tree which year after year bears no fruit, it is another thing to curse the sapling.

To call people to humbly live for Christ rather than self, to suffer as Christ has suffered is not ordinary, it is radical, and so it is fitting to use such language. To tell people it is easy or simple is to decisive them. To present a Gospel void of the calling to take up ones cross and follow him is to present something less than the Gospel. To calling people to do anything but “die to self” is to call them to something other than the faith once for all delivered.

Is Dr. Bradley fair in warning that there are excesses that could potential flourish in the missional church movement? Absolutely, but these things don’t define the movement. Just like no Christian is willing to let Fred Phelps act as the spokesperson for Evangelicalism we shouldn’t judge a potentially life-giving movement of the Spirit, based on the actions of a manipulative minority.

Photo Credit: Colourless Rainbow via Compfight cc


  1. for more on this cycle of action and reaction spawning new movements in the church I’d recommend readers pick up Finke Stark’s “the Churching of America“. 

  2. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/david.snoke David Snoke

    Good thoughts, Sam. I agree we should not toss around the word “legalist” lightly– either to the left or to the right. Perhaps “rigidness” is a better word. Or “elitist”. Or simply “superficial standards for righteousness”? We all are guilty of those tendencies.
    What I mostly saw of value in Bradley’s column was how place has become a shorthand for being missional. I.e., simply moving to the city makes you missional, and staying in the suburbs makes you automatically not missional. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard Christians speak words of disdain about the suburbs, even sometimes pastors saying they would not want to take a call in the suburbs. Have the suburbs become the new Samaritans?
    Shall we take some time to celebrate good aspects of the suburbs? Here are some I see: 1) Strong emphasis on integration of living with nature. Lots of care given to parks, gardens and lawns, and places for kids to run. 2) Connected with that, strong emphasis on loving children. Lots of dads playing baseball with their kids, etc. 3) Generally less corruption in government. Lots of cities have longtime cronyism that is a large part of why some cities struggle. Many people who move to the suburbs are basically “voting with their feet”– they see a lot of corruption in the city and say they don’t want their taxes to go to that, and want to create something good instead of fighting something very far gone.
    There are of course many ills of the suburbs too, but let’s not fall into the trap of feeling there is no good there, that everyone there is materialistic, etc.