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Steeped in Legalism

Anthony Bradley's The New Legalism
Steeped in Legalism

By Sam Heath

All of us are recovering legalists. Well, unfortunately, most of us are still legalists in countless and often unrecognizable ways. We love rules. Even more, we love rules that make us feel awesome. Quiet time in the morning? Check. Greeting a new face at church? Check. Having someone over for dinner this week? Check. Whew, I’m a Christian.

I exaggerate, but not really. From Constitution to Code of Hammurabi, humans are historically expert rule-followers. We do obey not from a desire to see society thrive as often as we do to gain a subjective sense of personal accomplishment. But what if we truly wanted to see culture thrive, yet our method was misguided?

Professor Anthony Bradley of The King’s College in New York recently published an article titled “The New Legalism.” His main argument is as follows: “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.”

He outlines recent evangelical thought and how Christians are told to move from the country and suburbs to the cities, where “real” culture is. This mentality coupled with the new notions of being “radical” and “missional” brews an oppressive sense of shame for individuals who are happy paying taxes, raising families, and arriving on time for work. Christian writers and pastors are pushing congregants to sell their belongings, travel, suffer, fight, engage, and live wildly for Jesus because suburb equals settling.

We’ve had a historical shift from the Navy SEAL Christians being overseas missionaries to a new conception of the radical ones who move into low-income neighborhoods. (The “new monasticism” movement comes to mind here.)

I know. I’ve done it. I lived in a low-income neighborhood for 18 months where my skin color matched no one around me. I don’t regret the time I spent there, but I regret my lack of awareness. One lesson was that change takes time, much more than I’d anticipated. Also, I had a not-too-far-below-the-surface goal to do something different…just to be different. Looking back on my early-twenties self, I accept my actions but question my motive.

The same can be said of the “new legalism.” According to Bradley, new legalism holds that Christians must refuse the simplicity of the American Dream—its quaintness, its safety, its settled-ness.

I affirm the core of Bradley’s argument but would make the following qualifications:

First, Bradley’s language about living an “ordinary” life is too narrow. Bradley writes of a student who comes to his office shamed and burdened by the fact that his life is not radical enough. The professor tells the student to stop worrying and just to live an ordinary life. I personally want people to be radical, not ordinary. Now, radical looks different in every generation, meaning to a degree it is culturally relative. We need to remember that if we follow the commands of Jesus, if we truly live a life in line with what Jesus demonstrated and urged his followers to do, then it is impossible not to be radical, regardless of the time and place. In Roman culture, for a person following Jesus’ command to live “quietly” (1 Thess. 4:11) was to be radical. But I don’t think anyone would say that Paul, Peter, or Jesus lived their lives “quietly” in the way Bradley interprets the word.

Second, the language of “legalism” might be a misnomer. There is a difference between straight legalism such as requiring Christians joining a church to sign a covenant that they will not drink alcohol or see R-rated movies and Evangelicals asking their people to deny some Western perks such as cars, suburban houses, and stable jobs. We all should rethink our rhythms and check to see if we are distinguishable from our unbelieving neighbors, not because we should be different just to be different, but because the gospel’s call actually changes our lives so that we are incapable of living at the behest of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism.

The issue is not so much legalism as ignorance—ignorance of how to do this well. Presently, revivals and tracts are of questionable effectiveness as much as selling your possessions on Craigslist and moving to Papua New Guinea on your own. Something like the cultural change in James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World is more holistic.

I recently attended a graduation ceremony where the speaker looked at the graduating class and told them they needed to come back and report to the faculty the “great things” they accomplished. Cringing in my seat, I too felt the weight of glory the speaker was asking the students to achieve. Lives cannot be measured by an American checklist of accomplishments and neither can our walks of faith be evaluated by the number of daily devotions or eloquent prayers. A life can, should, and will look “radically” different from another. The hope to live quietly and well is fine, but if we feel that this is the only way to be a Christian, then we are missing just how transformative the gospel really is. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, not the suburbs.


Anthony Bradley’s article can be found here.


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