The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed

Anthony Bradley, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at The King’s College in New York City, has an excellent article today over at the Acton Institute’s Power blog. He starts with an observation he made recently on Facebook and Twitter:

Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).

He goes on to explain his comment:

I continue to amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regularly 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.

Dr. Bradley goes on to explain two major factors in how this happened:

Anti-Suburban Christianity:

This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told thatGod loves cities and they should too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

and Missional Narcissim:

As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching.

Dr. Bradley goes on to say that all of this has led to a new legalism and a great deal of shame for young people in the church today:

The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like “missional” and “radical” has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matt 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.”

As someone who has experienced this “missional,” “anti-suburban,” and shaming “new legalism,” I am so pleased to read someone finally addressing this very important issue. I highly recommend reading the whole of Dr. Bradley’s article.

If you are in a church that is preaching this and you are feeling the weight of never being able to live up to this legalistic standard, remember that, as a Christian, you are free from slavery to the law. Then, find a church that preaches the gospel and practices the ordinary means of faith. Let the gospel refresh you like water on parched ground.