I recently read an article by Anthony Bradley entitled “The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed.” (If you haven’t already, please read the article here before proceeding.) His article began with his earlier online post “Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40),” sparked a ton of feedback, and eventually the article (which garnered numerous responses itself). In it, Bradley states that current movements to be “radical” or “missional” are merely motivated by the narcissism of the culture, and thus becoming a new form of “legalism”, or extra-biblical rules for Christians that lead to shame for those who want to lead ordinary lives. While I don’t want to necessarily get into all of the particulars of this article, there are a couple, or perhaps one main issue within it that begs discussion.
To start, I want to say that there is much right in this article. There is a form of narcissism in our culture that is becoming all pervasive. When Christian mission and service are motivated or tainted by an underlying urge to serve our own desires and dreams, we need to be corrected. And there is definitely a strain of hip, arts-focused church expression that may often be so to a fault, causing those outside of it to feel shame. But Bradley attacks “missional” churches, not on the basis of their good intent, but that sometimes it makes people outside it feel bad. It is an affront to a way of life. Essentially, he is defending “suburbanism”, its ideals and way of life. Granted “getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like…” are not evil things. But the pagans have had gods for all of these, and it is all too easy to serve them just the same. And it’s dangerous to be in the business of defending these against brothers and sisters who are seeking to more fully follow the Christ’s kingdom, in need of some correction though they may be.
It is easy to take the side of things often seen as “virtuous”, or generally seen as conducive to Christianity. Bradley is offended that some have taken the Gospel of Jesus to be antithetical to the suburban, affluent way of life, and he sees it as needing defending, in the very name of Christ. What he doesn’t do is ask the same question as those he’s criticizing. He over-simply levels the question, “Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders?” The very question at hand for many “missional” or even “anti-suburban” Christians is in fact, ‘how do we truly love God and love our neighbors as ourselves?’
It is not enough to merely say “love God and neighbor” without looking to see what the Bible says it means to do so. These are commands pregnant with meaning and content much deeper than having warm feelings and being nice and helpful. Many are seeing that a life directed by the gospel of Jesus Christ is not exactly compatible with a life directed by concern for our own “safety, comfort, and material ease,” the very way of life Bradley is defending. In fact, several times “love” is used as an opposing point, but never is it given content. Until we begin reassessing what these words mean, we will never really enact them. Surely there can be a long argument as to what the Bible means by love, but briefly, we can see that “he who loves me, obeys me” and that “greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friend.” We can’t brush off the former as irony or having merely “spiritual” meaning. Nor can we think the latter is simply being willing to take a bullet for someone should, God forbid, the occasion arise (though most of us sit safely distant from that possibility). It should be apparent that “love God and neighbor” is far deeper a rabbit hole than most of us would like to believe, and we need to start seeing how deep it goes. The Word is waiting, agape, to be taken seriously. Jesus brought his kingdom to change every aspect of our lives, defining what it means to love him and our neighbors. We must question what that means according to him, not our own, often vapid definitions. Let’s ask the author of love what “love” means, rather than use it as a criticism, never questioning the content.
I would encourage Mr. Bradley, and all of us, to begin asking the same sorts of questions that some others are asking. He is very astute in some of his assessments, but they should not be reasons to dismiss, but rather to admonish. Let us spend less time comforting ourselves about our own tiny kingdoms, and begin hearing those who may call out our own sin, mutually spurring one another on toward the goal, joining and building the Kingdom of God.