We love one-sided coins. What I mean by that is that we love to take one “side” of a Biblical teaching and amplify it to the exclusion of a coordinating truth. For example, faith and works. In recent history, “grace alone” preachers have come along and emphasized the undeserved kindness of God toward us in Christ (such as Tullian Tchividjian). Nothing we can do can ever put God in our debt or make us righteous before Him. Amen and amen. But often in such preaching the moral imperatives of the New Testament are excluded, or at least, seen only as things which we fail at and then they drive us back to Jesus.
A question arises, “Is there a place for effort or ‘work’ in sanctification?” In reaction to “grace alone” preachers, others have taken to the coordinating truth—that we must obey Christ—and have emphasized it so much that, in my opinion, they see sanctification as consisting largely of our own efforts. And back and forth we go.
The same dynamic is now at play, I think, between the “radical” Christians and the “ordinary” Christians. Certain guys have come along, such as David Platt, Kyle Idleman, and Francis Chan, and emphasized the need to make a “radical” commitment to Christ. To take risks for Christ. To not be lulled in suburban, middle-class, comfortable Christianity. Don’t live for the American Dream; live for Christ!
And, quite expectantly, there has been a response to the “radical” Christians by those who emphasis “ordinary” Christianity: living out the Christian life amidst ordinary life and the ordinary rhythms of local church participation. Seminary professor and theologian, Michael Horton has recently written a book called, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. In 2013, Matthew Lee Anderson (of MereOrthodoxy blog) wrote an article called, “Here Come the Radicals” in Christianity Today, critiquing the “radical Christianity” movement.
So who is right? The “radicals” or the “ordinaries”?
I am actually not going to do the whole “well, they’re both right!” thing. I will say that I definitely side more on the “ordinaries” view of the Christian life. So I do think that the “radical Christianity” movement has oversold or overemphasized one strand of biblical teaching to the expense of others. But also, the “radical” preachers have also brought out some important themes to grapple with. So let me point out what I appreciate about David Platt’s book, Radical. Then, I want to expose some deficiences in his approach. Finally, I want to try to propose a way forward for thinking through these issues, especially since I am a local church pastor and have to shepherd people through these things.
The crux issue, I think, is this: how are disciples best formed?
Are they formed by being challenged to take risks for God? Are they formed best by being exhorted not be comfortable in their Christianity. Or, are they best formed through the “ordinary” functions of a local church? Through worship forms and practices (baptism, the Lord’s supper, etc.)? Through the “means of grace”?
Points of Appreciation
- Platt’s emphasis on wholehearted love for Jesus
No pastor wants his people “going through the motions” on a Sunday morning. Especially since God despises outward (hypocritical) obedience without the inner heart love (Isaiah 1:10-15). So too, Jesus regularly lambasted the religious leaders of his day as being outwardly “righteous” but not inwardly pure (Matthew 23:27-28). They claimed to love God, but actually, they loved their traditions more and thus blunted God’s Word (Mark 7:1-13). Radical is Platt’s attempt to shake people out of outward, “going through the motions” Christianity. Platt’s point is this, “IF you really love Jesus, then your life will look markedly different than the surrounding culture.”
- Platt’s emphasis on discipleship
The book is really like a “I’ve just become a Christian, what do I do now?” type of book. He’s seeking to instruct believers in living an genuinely Christian life. And he understands the stakes: eternity. He writes, “The cost of non discipleship is profoundly greater for us than the cost of discipleship” (18). He constantly sets forth the eternal perspective that the Bible shares, see especially the eighth chapter, “Living When Dying is Gain.” Again, all pastors want disciples. So encouraging Christians to really think about the cost and nature of discipleship is a good thing.
- Platt’s emphasis on generosity
Is materialism (in the popular sense of “wanting a lot of stuff,” i.e. greed) a blind spot in American Christianity? Platt certainly seems to think so (111). Living with a “wartime mentality” (to use John Piper’s phrase) is a major theme of Platt’s. And rightly so, materialism is an major idol in our American culture, especially in the Northeast where I minister. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements about satisfying our desires—and according to these companies, many of the desires we don’t know we had yet! Christians have been given their wealth for a purpose: to be generous and to advance God’s kingdom. May we all heed the call to generosity.
Points of Critique
- You can’t escape the ordinary
It’s a little funny to me that Platt begins his “Radical Experiment” with Bible reading and prayer. You cannot escape the ordinary means of grace! Disciples are formed through God’s means, which He has clearly laid forth in the Scriptures. No matter how hard you want to be “radical” in your discipleship, if you miss out on the means of grace, then you’ll never be radical! And this, I think, is a big concern for me, because very few people who hear the call to be radical actually take the time to do what God clearly commands us to do: spend time in the Word and prayer. See, I think the formation of a disciple goes a little big differently than Platt seems to lay forth. Platt seems to think that what Christians need to hear is an exhortation to the radical life and then have it filled out with the Word and prayer. I think that’s backwards. I think people need to be committed to the Word and prayer first, and then, by being consistent in those things, Christians will begin to change and may even take a “radical” step. If you start with the “radical call,” however, I fear that you may leave people burnt-out and disillusioned and anxious. What if I’m a stay-at-home mom? What if I never go serve overseas? Am I still even a Christian? People actually think like that; I know, because I interact with them in my local church.
- Weak on the church
I don’t think Platt gives enough attention to the full scope of what the church is. Yes, I know that Platt spends a whole chapter on the church, “The Multiply Community” (chapter 5). And yes, I know that the church definitely has a mission. I am uneasy, however, with making the church almost solely about the mission. I think it’s Ed Stetzer who has said that God doesn’t have a church with a mission, He first had the mission and then the church. That’s true to an extent. But Peter Leithart also makes the point that this effectively pragmatizes the church. Yes, the church is on God’s mission. But the church is also the body of Christ. The church is also a refuge for weary saints to be refreshed by the gospel. I think that Platt may not realize just how beat up and beat down Christians can be, especially if they have sojourned in their Christian life for a long time.
- No doctrine of vocation
Anthony Bradley makes some good points that such an emphasis on the Great Commission is a recent phenomenon (in terms of church history). In addition, Platt does not really give any attention to people in various life-stages or how we all play our unique part in God’s mission. As Matthew Lee Anderson points out, the great stories featured in these “radical” books are of missionaries and martyrs. But even for missionaries, life is about 90% mundane. Even missionaries need to cook food, clean up dishes, change diapers, wash clothes, sweep the house, and go to sleep. I feel like the book could lead to a spiritual letdown. Let’s say that you want to heed Platt’s call and you want to be a missionary. You find an agency, but alas, you have to pay off all your college debt first before they’ll let you on the field. So that takes 5 years working at Best Buy while also being in seminary. Ok, so now you’re approved. But then you have to go to language school for another good while. Because it’s really hard to preach the gospel to people without speaking the same language. Now unless the Lord drops another Pentecost on you, that’s probably not going to happen without years of hard work.
So we need a doctrine of vocation. A doctrine of how to honor God wherever we are at, doing whatever He has put on our plate. It’s amazing to see the apostle Paul speak to various groups of people in 1 Corinthians 7. And the essence of what Paul says is this: “God has put you where you are for a reason.” Paul tells slaves that if they can, they could try to become free. But if they can’t, don’t worry about it (7:21)! But what if that slave wants to be “radical”? Yea, he’s probably not going to do anything “great” for God unless greatness is defined as living for God’s glory wherever he is.
- A flat view of money
Yes, people need to be generous. But I think that God has given each of us our resources to invest in His kingdom. I am thankful for rich Christians in our congregations. I am thankful for them because they have invested in me and given me opportunities I probably would not have been able to have without their help. The call to generosity is good. So is the call to use one’s wealth for good. Andy Crouch has pointed out that Christians often speak against power. But as Crouch points out in his book Playing God, God also has given His people power to use it for good. Think about Joseph and Daniel and Esther. All three had tremendous power (and wealth), but also, all three used it for God’s purpose. So yes, let’s call people to give generously. But let’s also present a vision for people to use their wealth for good. Maybe some people in the church need to make as much money as possible so that they can even use more of it for good.
A Way Forward?
I don’t think that the discussion between radicals and the ordinaries needs to go “round and round.” Hopefully, as preachers, teachers, and book writers, and bloggers reflect on Scripture deeply, we can move past these debates (and probably onto another debate!). Here’s my proposal to move forward.
- Teach and preach the gospel
First, we must faithfully teach and preach the gospel. Unremarkable, I know. But what I’ve noticed in doing college ministry for 5 years and now pastoral ministry for over a year now, is that those who do “big things” for God need to be tethered to the local church. The church is foundational for anything people do with their lives, whether it’s big and “radical” or faithful and small. People need the gospel regularly, otherwise they burn out and lose heart—whether the aspiring missionary or the stay-at-home mom.
- Teach a doctrine of vocation
Discipleship is not a “one-size” fits all package. It looks different for each person. Of course, there are a few non-negotiables, black and white, but after that, it’s a lot of gray. Even Paul recognized that there are “disputable” matters (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-11). We must not be quick to set up a certain criteria that this is an authentic disciple (someone who goes overseas, sells all they have, etc.) and everyone else is just “going through the motions” and greedy. We must not be quick to judge others as not authentic disciples. Because then we fall into the very same self-righteousness that the Pharisees had!
- Read the Bible a lot
Only copious amounts of Bible reading helps us have a “two-sided” view of things. Faith and works. Word and deed. Not just reading a “verse of the day” but reading God’s great story as a story and seeing the overall scope of the story. Regular reading of the Bible solves many theological problems!
- Have the local church present a multitude of opportunities for mission
A practical way for the church to explore the multi-viewed way of discipleship is to present a multitude of opportunities for mission. Maybe some people will get energized by short-term missions. Maybe some people will get excited about helping out at the local pregnancy center. Either way, I think it’s helpful for churches to present many ways to be engaged in mission.
- We do not battle flash with flash
Finally, being “radical” is a hot, new thing. In many ways it’s a reaction to the megachurch movement. But we shouldn’t get swept up into the latest craze. Stay the course. Love Jesus. Preach the Gospel. And the rest usually has a way of falling into place.