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Everyday Christianity: A Faith Free From The Accidental Pharisaism of Missional, Radical, Crazy and Other Superlatives

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Every day matters. This is the very simple message of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God and to live one’s life to the glory of God. You don’t need to be “missional.” You don’t even need to be “radical” (especially since radical commonly means “very different from the norm”).

In fact, the Bible does not encourage superlative adjectives to describe following Christ at all. Adjectival superlatives tend to create new forms of legalism whereby the work and person of Christ is no longer sufficient to be in right relationship with God. The norm is not enough. Although those promoting various adjectives have no intention of doing harm, hearers often embrace the adjective as the basis of genuine faith instead of the language of Scripture.

Young Christian adults are torn in a sea of modern adjectives that tend to become shame-filled and often debilitating burdens. Larry Osborne warns about five tribal communities that may be accidentally doing harm: (1) “Radical” Christians, (2) “Crazy” Christians, (3) “Missional” Christians, (4) “Gospel-Centered” Christians and (5) Revolutionary and Organic Christians. According to Osborne, each of these tribes has inadvertently created accidental pharisaism because if one does not live out one’s Christian life according to the norms and codes of their respective tribe one will be looked down upon. Moreover, for those within each tribe, it leaves them vulnerable to the arrogant narcissism that believes “our” tribe gets Christianity “right” while the others are substandard.

To be fair, the impulse that formed these tribes comes from a good place. They are all seeking to be faithful to what the Scriptures teach and are reacting to real problems that exist in the life of God’s people. The problem is that tribalism can cultivate a debilitating sense of shame and feelings of unworthiness that discourages God’s people from enjoying simple norms expressed in the dynamism of the ordinary.

As we look at the Bible and the Christian tradition there are at least seven good norms that give Christians freedom to embrace the Bible’s teaching of what it means to be bear God’s image and to walk away from the vulnerabilities of superlative Christianity.

(1) Christians are a people of love who live to glorify God. David Jones rightly summarizes that glorifying God is the controlling purpose of the Christian life (1 Cor. 10:31) that is motivated by loving God and loving neighbor (Matt 22:26-40) as Jesus teaches. The Christian life is consumed by love and, in love, his people glorify Him.

(2) Christians are a people of the Gospel. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos reminds us that the gospel is “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin and death are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the eschatological glorification of the whole cosmos.” Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race, (Rom 8:19-24) redemption must involve the entire creation, as Michael Williams righty argues. As such, everything matters in God’s redemptive plan. For example, every person matters to God because they bear his image, and the Holy Spirit uses the evangelicalism of God’s people to unite men and women to Christ. The rest of creation and culture also matter to God because, in the mystery of God’s redemptive plan, we play a role in seeing that the cosmos brings glory to God (1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:23).

(3) Every community matters. One of the beautiful pictures that we get from reading the entire Biblical narrative is that God seeks out his people wherever they are, whether it be rural areas, small towns, big cities, urban, suburban, exurban neighborhoods, and everything in between. Every community, then, matters to God. Every race and class matter to God. God cares about whatever neighborhood has been affected by the Fall and he wants his people there as agents of grace.

(4) Every relationship matters. Herman Bavinck observes that we were created for community. God did not want Adam to be alone so he created Eve but God also did not want Adam and Eve to be alone so he commissioned them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:26-28) and establish family and community. So all of our relationships matter in everyday Christianity. Our families matter. Our parents and children matter. Our friends and coworkers matter. Every person we come in contact with everyday matters because with every human encounter is an opportunity to glorify God by loving everyone properly as He intends since they bear his image.

(5) Every vocation matters. Gene Edward Veith reminds us that “vocation” is another word for “calling.” The doctrine of vocation means that God assigns us to a certain life—with its particular talents, tasks, responsibilities, and relationships—and then calls us to that assignment (1 Corinthians 7:17). Veith argues that “God himself works through human vocations in providential care as he governs the world. The purpose of every vocation, in all of the different spheres in which our multiple vocations occur—the family, the workplace, the culture, and the church—is to love and serve our neighbors.” This means that there are no little people in the Kingdom and no one has an insignificant career, job, or life. Being a bus driver is no less important than being a lawyer or a church planter in God’s economy. What matters is that God’s people are a love-driven people glorifying God wherever he places them.

(6) Virtues and values matter. David Jones reminds us that Christian love is embodied in certain virtues and values that glorify God. Therefore, our characters matter. We are to be a people of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:32). These are the weightier matters of the law and, taken together, comprise the essence of all that God is calling us to do. Justice requires that we treat every human being according to what it means to be made in the image of God. The full revelation of God’s mercy brings with it the full responsibility to glorify God by living lives that reflect his mercy (Matt 5:7). Because God’s people are loved by a faithful God and depend entirely on his faithfulness they are disposed to practice the same in their own relationships and responsibilities. We see faithfulness worked out in exercising the virtues of prudence (James 1:5), courage (1 Cor 16:13-14), self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7), and humility (1 Peter 5:5).

(7) God’s plan matters. The Bible’s grand narrative can be summed up as this: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. In this story, the Creator God has a plan, focused on the work and person of Christ, to redeem a world corrupted by the fall that will be finally consummated when Christ returns. In the mystery of God’s mission the saints of God are a privileged part of this redemptive story. So, as Gerard Van Groningen writes, our creational and renewed worldview (Rom 12:2) and all of the kingdom activities of God’s people–from raising families to evangelism to worship to recreation–are mutually interrelated and correlated in God’s redemptive plan focused on the Son. The wonder of life is not in the spectacular, but in the ordinary and the everyday (Matt 6:25-34). Therefore, the social, political, moral, spiritual, and economic contexts that contribute to human flourishing matter both to God and his people.

In the end, Christians don’t need adjectives, trending tribes, or superlatives that make them vulnerable to narcissism and shame to know what it “truly” means to follow Christ. The Bible’s language is sufficient. Instead, God’s people are invited to live lives free (Gal 5) from any from of direct or accidental legalism everyday. The good life, then, the one that God has always used in his redemptive mission, is the one that brings glory to God by loving him and loving neighbor.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Anthony Bradley

    Thanks for the comment John but I am a little confused. (1) Where did I say that caring about the unreached is “legalistic” or “narcissistic.” Could you please quote where I say that? (2) Is that all you think the book “Radical” is promoting? Did you read my analysis of the book from 3 years ago?

    • Hey Anthony, thanks for responding. I really appreciate it. I have been reading your stuff the past few weeks. You really seem like a great guy.

      Upon reading your response, I know you never said that directly. I apologize for making too broad of an inference here and putting words into your month.

      Here is some of what I have read of yours:
      “In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of Baby Boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good” but what their Millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shame-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the Baby Boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

      Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders? Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe.”

      I honestly agree with what you are saying in most areas. However, you will never hear David say anything along the lines of doing good works will somehow earn your justification. If I am not mistaken, this is ultimately the definition of “legalism”. I think to attach these this word to his teachings is unfair.

      What he does seek to do is make people aware that Christ calls us to care for peoples and places which are under-served and under-represented by the Gospel of Christ.

      While I (and David) completely agree with you that God calls us to live “quite faithful lives” no matter where we are, I also believe that the teachings of Christ mandates we care about the lack of the salvific love and message of the Gospel in parts of the world well-beyond our neighborhoods.

      So, I am not disagreeing with you and I assume you agree with me (and David) about the necessity of the Gospel in salvation to those whom have not heard. However, I think you do David and other like pastors an unfair disservice when you try to saddle such damming phrases as “legalism” around their necks.

      Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to comment. I’m certain you are extremely busy and I honestly want to just understand where you are coming from with this issue.


      • RogerMcKinney

        Forgive me for butting in. I wanted to comment on this: “…doing good works will somehow earn your justification…this is ultimately the definition of “legalism”.

        That is one form of legalism and the Pharisees were guilty of it, but Paul speaks of a different kind of legalism taught in the Church by Jewish converts in which gentile converts had to follow the Torah law in order to please God, though not for salvation. In other words, they taught that we are saved by grace but prove our salvation by keeping the law.

        Of course, Paul and other NT writers point out with Jesus that our salvation will produce good works. The question is which good works and whose idea of the good? Other than refraining from obvious evil, the Bible is vague about good works. It mentions helping the poor and sick, evangelizing, and taking care of our families. But it never says how much of each we are supposed to do.

        My problem with the “radicals” is that where the Bible is vague on the amount time and money we are to spend on those activities, the “radicals” claim to know exactly how much and ridicule Christians who don’t live up to their standards.

        • Not to be overly simplistic, but I think this is part of the issue I have with this entire line of thinking. We are FIRST asking how people receive the message and SECOND asking what was actually said by the New Testament writers.

          I completely agree with you and Dr. Bradley. Guilt has no place in the proclamation of the the word. However, the imperatives of the likes of Acts 4 (“there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved”) still stand true.

          People are still lost without Christ. The majority of the people in the world are still living and dying without knowledge of the Gospel. This should bother us and cause us to want to act. We act not because we HAVE to, but rather because we WANT to as liberated children of God.

          This is the message of David Platt and others like him. Not trying to place the harness of guilt, but rather to simply call us as a body to the realities of this life and the one to follow.

          While I care tremendously about legalism and it’s toxic effects (I was raised in a very legalistic environment of which I have had to heal from), I am not willing to brand Platt and others as legalists simply because they are pointing out truths which Scripture speaks of and the realities of the needs of the world today.

          Enjoying seeing all of these discussions, though, as I do believe this issues are very worthy of our time and energy.

          • RogerMcKinney

            Do you know any Christians who don’t care about those lost without Christ? I certainly don’t. Of course, as Jesus said in the parable of the tares, there will be some false Christians in our midst and I would guess those who don’t care about the lost are probably lost themselves.

            The issue is not “caring” vs “not caring”. As I said, all real Christians care about the lost and I have never known any in my long life who did not care. So if people like Platt claim that Christians in the US don’t care, he is simply dishonest.

            The question is what should Christians do about the lost? How much time and money should we spend? The Bible doesn’t say. So if someone claims that they know Christians don’t care because they don’t spend enough time or money trying to reach the lost, then he is dishonest because he doesn’t know how much time or money we should spend.

            The issue is important because it affects how Christians live. Do we let people like Platt destroy our natural joy and force us into a life of guilt because we can’t measure up to his standards? How effective as witnesses are beaten down, guilt ridden Christians?

          • Hey Roger, I don’t know how, but I am just seeing this. Sorry for my lack of response. . . I don’t even know if you will get this now, as the delay is so long.

            Anyway, I understand what you are saying. At least I think I do. However, it still goes back to the raw fact of the matter at hand. David Platt and others like him have had the opportunity to actually see and experience the absolute need of the world at large (as have I).

            There are massive numbers of peoples in the world with little to no exposure to the Gospel. Meanwhile, those same peoples have access to Nike shoes and Coke. While I do understand this is not a completely even playing field (products verse meaningful human contact), I do think this is something that should bother us as the church in America and around the world.

            I will stand bye my concern that people in America are now branding legitimate Biblical teaching as “legalism”. This is greatly concerning to me.

            Ok. . . don’t know if anyone will actually see this, so I’ll stop.

            Blessings. . .

    • Dr. Bradley, I also JUST read your article you referenced here. I don’t have time right now to comment on it. We all have our presuppositions in life. I certainly have mine, as I’m sure David also has his. However, you also might been evaluating “Radical” through some of your presuppositions here.

      When looking for that article, I came upon the site of your university. Seems like a great place.

      In the statement of faith, you guys state “The Lord Jesus Christ commanded all believers to proclaim the gospel throughout the world and to disciple men of every nation. The fulfillment of that Great Commission requires that all worldly and personal ambitions be subordinated to a total commitment to “Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.”

      I honeslty believe that this is all David is trying to communicate. Legalism is an awful thing. I have been burned by it myself. However, legalism and simply calling people to live out Biblical callings are two different things. I’m sure you agree with this, but just wanted to state the obvious.

      Anyway, again, I really appreciate your ministry of writing and academics. It is clear that many, many people are being blessed by you.

      Your Brother in Christ,

  • I thought this was very good Anthony. When we adjective-ize Christianity we not only exclude some people we shouldn’t, people living the normal Christian life, but we can also accidentally include some we shouldn’t as well, leading to false assurance for those people. If “Christian” doesn’t just mean “Christian” as the Bible describes it then we’re also left with things like “nominal” Christians, or “no Lordship” Christians also categories foreign to scripture.

    • Anthony Bradley

      Thanks Larry!! You raise some challenging points as well.

  • dmelleby

    Would you say the same thing about the adjective “born again” Christian?

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  • Curt Day

    Radical is a relative measurement whose value to the Christian depends on what the norm is. When the norm is narcissistic which is how Christopher Lasch saw it in 1979, or when the norm is materialistic, or when the norm becomes less personal, or when the norm is hedonistic, then being radical is not necessarily a bad thing to be. And we should also remember Romans 12:2 where we are not “conform to the pattern of this world.

    But what bothers is the accusation of pharisaism on those who propose that we should be significantly different from what the culture that surrounds us would have us be. There is no attempt to distinguish those who are truly pharisaical from missional Christianity and those who are not.

    Correct me if I am wrong but it seems that it would be all to easy for a new Christian to read what you wrote above and say that becoming a Chistian is all about me feeling comfortable which is an odd message when our Savior also commanded each of us to carry our cross.

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  • Stuart

    The problem with Phariseeism is its fluidity. One can be legalistic about their “non-radical” Christianity as much as the radical kind. Legalism isn’t about adjectives. It’s what dwells in our hearts.