The term, “radical Christianity,” has been a popular phrase in some North American church circles for the past decade. The phrase has gained credibility from a movement called the New Monasticism (NM). Led by social activist Shane Claiborne, NM looks to deconstruct the program-drenched suburban church (ah, ya, much needed) with a love-your-neighbor life of simplicity and community outreach to the poor and vulnerable (sounds like a Jesus thing).
Looking to rebirth the radical monasticism of old (like the Franciscan and Dominican movements of the medieval era), NM calls Christians living the ordinary life a chance to do more for God — to be a radical Christian. It sounds great. I mean, who wants ordinary anyways, am I right?
The truth is, the majority of us are living ordinary lives. Many of us are stay-at-home moms and dads, we hold 9-5 jobs, we eat bacon and kale salads (I do both), donate our hard earned middle-class income to mission organizations, go on short-term missions trips, volunteer at our local shelters and food banks, sponsor a child, attend a small group, and worship God every Sunday morning at our church of choice. Let’s face it, very few of us are monastic radicals; very few of us have given our entire life to Jesus like the medieval and new monastics.
Does this make us less spiritual?
I often talk to Christians who have ordinary lives (and jobs)—like stay-at-home moms, market analysts, accountants, photographers, waitresses, house cleaners, etc—who feel they are not doing God’s work in the world. They tell me that they feel not much of what they do is making an impact in the world for God’s kingdom. The feel less spiritual than others who are doing work in traditional ministry settings—like pastors, missionaries, theology professors, and so on.
Should our ordinary lives make us feel less “spiritual” (or worthy) than people like Shane Claiborne or Mother Teresa? Does our “ordinariness” mean we are the “goats” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25, those who did not pursue a radical, “all-in” lifestyle of sacrificial discipleship?
I would say not. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against NM, and I believe that people like Shane Claiborne and others are doing kingdom work and following the will of God in their context. But what I can not agree with is the position which declares NM—radical Christianity as it is called—the normative standard for Christian discipleship. In other words, I do not agree that radical should be the new ordinary.
(Elaine Heath, a proponent of the New Monasticism, argues that radical Christianity—as defined by NM—should be the normative standard for Christian discipleship. See The Mystic Way of Evangelism, page 127).
To adopt the “radical-as-the-new-ordinary” position turns discipleship into ethical idealism, rather than an obedience to God’s specific (and general moral) will for our lives within the context that God calls us into. It sends the message that a failure to adopt radical monasticism means a failure of discipleship. It invalidates the ordinary and strips the everyday person of their spiritual impact in the world. That is dangerous and goes against everything the Reformation sought to correct—the separation of “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” work, and the elevation of the former over the latter.
God’s Will in Context vs. Ethical Idealism
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther acted to correct this false dichotomy of spiritual vs. non-spiritual work. The Roman Catholic Church had developed a monopoly over “God’s work” in a society where only priests, nuns, monastics, missionaries, and the like were deemed to be doing spiritual work compared to the non-spiritual work of the laity.
Many say Luther brought the monastery into the home, establishing all work—even the most menial everyday tasks—as holy in God’s eyes. Context you see, is everything in discipleship. If God has placed you in this or that context, you are called to faithfully do His general moral will, but also His specific will in that place.
If we buy into the idealistic notion of discipleship that NM puts forth, this can lead many to believing that anything they are doing outside of the “radical-as-the-new-ordinary” definition of discipleship is not spiritual or worthy in God’s eyes. And this can often lead people to question whether they are called by God at all.
But Luther saves us from this despair. He asks: “How is it possible that you are not called?”
He writes on: “You have always been in some state or station; you have always been a husband or wife, or boy, or girl or servant….Are you a husband, and you think you have not enough to do in that sphere to govern you wife, children, domestics and property so that all may be obedient to God….“(Luther 1983, Sermons of Martin Luther, 24).
The point is clear. If you are a confessing Christian seeking God’s will in your context, the work you’re are doing is valuable in God’s eyes. Not only is it valuable, but it is valuable to others and to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Yes, keep giving to the poor and needy. But don’t abandon your day job to pursue ideal notions of discipleship (unless you are called to by God).
God needs you to be where you are, serving and sacrificing in the station He has placed you in. I often tell people that if you want to know what it means to “die to self,” than have some kids—you will soon find out what discipleship is all about.
Ask God how He can use you in your specific context, and then be faithful to Him in that context.
Mother Teresa—one of the greatest monastics who ever lived—was asked once how to best promote world peace? She said: “Go home and love your family.”
So for all you stay-at-home-moms out there (like my beautiful and brilliant wife), all you bankers, lawyers, bakers, servers, dentists, construction workers; anyone and everyone living the 9-5, Monday morning to tithe kind of lives, remember that God values your work and calls you to be faithful in your context. You don’t need to pursue idealistic notions of discipleship to be doing God’s kingdom work in the world.
“We can only keep on going, after all, by the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work.”
–2 Timothy 1:9, The Message
Luther, Martin. Sermons of Martin Luther. Edited and translated by J.N. Lenker. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.