"Radical" Christianity: What's Right and Wrong with the "Radical" Ministry Philosophy

For at least the past thirty years, it seems as though every decade has unleashed Christian leaders who propose “new” and “biblical” ways to “do ministry” in the church and the world. The church growth and church marketing method became popular in the 1980s and gained traction in the 1990s. Then, the emerging church phenomenon erupted onto the scene in the early 2000s. During the last ten years, an emphasis on “radical” Christianity or “radical” ministry seems to have taken center stage among many evangelical Christians. As these various ministry fads have come and gone, it behooves believers today to consider whether or not they themselves are being swept up into a ministry model that sounds biblical but, in reality, falls short of what God desires of His people in every age.

In the past, the FEA has analyzed each of the previous ministry methods (“church growth” and “emerging”) and attempted to determine whether or not they stand up to the test of truth, God’s Word. This article will seek, very briefly and concisely, to consider whether or not the “radical” model of ministry is consistent with Scripture and thus with God’s will for the age in which we live.

The “Radical” Ministry Approach

Many evangelical leaders today correctly emphasize that salvation is obtained only through God’s grace and that man cannot save himself through any work of his own. While this is indeed good, many of these same leaders then turn around and declare that true believers will “abandon all” and “make Jesus Christ Lord of all,” and, if one does not make such a commitment, then that person is not truly a child of God in the first place. In other words, according to these leaders, true salvation is an “all or nothing” proposition by Jesus. This, in essence, is what the “radical” ministry philosophy entails—a true Christian will make Jesus Lord of everything, or He is not really one’s Lord at all. This thrust has been popularized in print by such books as Radical by David Platt and Crazy Love by Francis Chan and online through the extensive YouTube videos of Paul Washer.

Platt, Chan, Washer, and others frequently take excerpts from the four Gospels—and particularly Jesus’ parables—and create extensive “ministry philosophies” and even “litmus tests” of saving faith from these texts while ignoring or misrepresenting the entire thrust of New Testament teaching. Chan even admitted that he came to his conclusions after sitting down and reading through the Gospels “from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus.”1 He added, “I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time. In other words, I read the Bible as if I’d never read it before.”2 While this might seem to be a refreshing and novel idea, it is certainly not a wise or biblical way to gain a clear picture of the “whole counsel” of God and His will for the Christian. Rather, the believer is exhorted to grow and mature in his or her understanding of the person, Word, and will of God throughout his or her Christian life.

Consider a few quotes from proponents of the “radical” ministry model—quotes that provide a snapshot of the core principles of this approach:

“What does He (God) demand from us? Everything. …  This is what it will cost you: your life, your life. Jesus promises you two things: a cross to die on and eternal life. He’s everything, or He’s nothing.”3

“The evidence that you repented unto salvation one time ago—a long time ago—is that you are still repenting today and growing in repentance; the evidence that you truly believed unto salvation many years ago is that you’re still believing today and even more. And the evidence that He changed your life is that He’s still doing it. If He’s not still doing it He didn’t do it to start off with.”4

“As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”5

“Jesus’s call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.”6

“Plainly put, a relationship with Jesus Christ requires total, superior, and exclusive devotion.”7

“Jesus was simply and boldly making it clear [from Luke 9] from the start that if you follow Him, you abandon everything—your needs, your desires, even your family.”8

“We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that he will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.”9

“Consider the cost when Christians ignore Jesus’ commands (emphasis added) to sell their possessions and give to the poor….”10

Over and over again in his book Radical, Platt says this “radical abandonment” is the “biblical gospel” and a “God-centered gospel.”11 He notes, “This gospel evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that He is.”12 “We want Him so much that we abandon everything else to experience Him. This is the only proper response to the revelation of God in the Gospel.”13 “I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity.”14 In order to bolster his argument for radical Christianity, Platt sets up a straw man by saying, “We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision … but after that we need not worry about His commands, His standards or His glory. We have a ticket to heaven and we can live however we want on earth. Our sin will be tolerated along the way.”15 Of course, few if any pastors or Bible teachers would ever teach such an absurdity!

Why the “Radical” Ministry Model Is Appealing

The genesis of every ministry fad or model stems from a reaction to a real or perceived problem in the church. To their credit, those who embrace and espouse the “radical” approach to ministry recognize some serious problems that exist in the church today and seek to offer a corrective. Our argument is not with their recognition of the problem but with their solutions. Discerning Christians recognize some of the same problems and issues that the “radical” proponents seek to correct and sometimes find themselves either sympathetic to the “radical” model and its proponents or even outright supportive of such. The “radical” model is appealing to many thoughtful Christians because it recognizes and offers a corrective to the following problems in the church:

1.    Worldly Christians—One of the greatest problems that exists in the church today is the proliferation of “worldly Christians,” that is, those who profess to know Jesus Christ but are indistinguishable from unbelievers in the world. Discerning believers look for answers as to why so many people profess to be Christians and yet care little about the things of the Lord. Of course, in many cases, those who profess to be Christians have never truly trusted in the person and work of Jesus Christ for their eternal well-being in the first place. Yet in other cases, it is possible that those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for their salvation have wandered from proper fellowship with Him. The “radical” approach to ministry strives to offer a corrective to this problem by providing a visible “litmus test” in an effort to externally determine who is truly saved and who is not. “Radical” Christianity gives us a theology that says people are actually not true believers unless they “radically abandon” all and are fully committed Christians.

2.    The prominence of the feel-happy, prosperity gospel—Clearly, the self-centered prosperity “gospel” has led many professing Christians to believe that God wants them to be rich and happy. This brand of religion has become increasingly popular although it is so clearly unbiblical. The “radical” theology or philosophy of ministry is the antithesis of this; therefore, many people find it appealing. The “radical” ministry model seems to swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction by equating true Christianity with a life of scarcity at best and poverty at worst—in other words, true Christians reveal their Christianity by “radical abandonment” of material possessions.

3.    The vast amount of biblical illiteracy—Professing Christians today seem to know less of God’s Word than ever before, and many who follow a “radical” theology of ministry place a great amount of emphasis on knowing the words of Jesus and following Him. Jesus’ words are clear and simple, and it would seem that to embrace this philosophy of ministry is to truly know and obey God’s voice. It makes the Christian life seem simple and “cut-and-dry.” The problem lies in the fact that Jesus’ words are often taken out of context, and the whole of the New Testament is often ignored. Rather than clinging to one aspect of New Testament Scripture, Christians should grasp the “big picture” of God’s Word and live life according to not just the Gospels and the parables of Jesus but particularly to the words of the Holy Spirit through Paul, Peter, James, John, and the other apostles given to the New Testament church.

4.    A misunderstanding of the purpose of the local church—Many local churches today have become social clubs or entertainment venues where people gather to get motivated or fulfill a perceived need. Those who espouse a “radical” philosophy of ministry are rightly critical of this trend and understand that, according to Scripture, the local church is designed by God to train and equip believers. Therefore, they focus on the exposition of Scripture. For discerning believers, this is a refreshing option in a world where it seems as though few people actually want to gather to hear the preaching and teaching of the “whole counsel” of God’s Word.

5.    The self-focus and self-centered goals of many American Christians—Those who espouse the “radical” philosophy of ministry often possess an aversion to the selfish goals of many American Christians (i.e., the “American Dream”). Without question, Americans today are extremely self-centered, self-focused, and materialistically-minded people. Americans waste and consume like no other culture and no other generation. We spend more than we earn, and we fail to even consider what it is like to live in poverty like the majority of others in the world. Many who embrace and espouse the radical philosophy of ministry see the dangers of materialism and rampant consumerism. They understand that many professing Christians today have misplaced priorities and are no different from the world in this regard.

How Does the “Radical” Ministry Method Fall Short?

As mentioned earlier, our argument with those who propagate a “radical” philosophy of Christian life and ministry is not with their recognition of the many problems that exist within the church today but with their solutions to the aforementioned problems. And while not every proponent of this philosophy is guilty of each of the following errors, the “radical” approach as a whole is marked by the following characteristics. Consider six problems with this particular philosophy of Christian life and ministry.

1.    Many—if not most—proponents of “radical” Christianity are actually propagating a false gospel that requires works in order to “truly” be saved. In effect, they teach that people are not genuinely saved unless they have surrendered all to Christ or are living lives of “radical abandonment.” This “radical abandonment” usually entails outward works of feeding the hungry, giving money to the poor and needy, adopting orphans, etc. In effect, one can measure whether or not he or she is truly saved, not by trusting in Jesus Christ and His perfect work alone for one’s eternal well being, but by giving up all for Christ and others. It closely resembles the “social gospel” popularized by the religious liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some insightful Christians have referred to this approach as “back-loading the gospel” with works because, while the “radical” proponents will claim that salvation is not by works (only by grace through faith), in reality, they teach that salvation is only genuine if a person is demonstrating radical abandonment of self and making Jesus Christ “Lord” of all.

2.    Beyond the propagation of what is essentially a false gospel, proponents of “radical” Christianity have actually formulated what some have termed a “works righteousness.” Phillip Cary summarized it this way in his review of Michael Horton’s book Ordinary: “If we are justified by faith in Christ alone, then we need not be anxious to show how Spirit-filled we are by living extraordinary, radical lives.”16 Cary noted that because of our salvation and the indwelling Holy Spirit, “we are free to serve our neighbors with ordinary good works. We are freed from establishing our credentials before God or our own consciences.”17 He continues, “The underlying theology behind oft-heard calls to be wild and crazy radical believers—as if Christianity were an extreme sport—is works righteousness in a new, consumerist mode” (emphasis added).18 Cary is right! Our righteousness stems from our justification which we obtained through faith alone. When God sees a Christian, He sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Our justification came not through “radical abandonment” demonstrated through radical living and good works; our justification came by grace through faith alone. Good works are simply the outflowing of a Spirit-filled life of faith. Sadly, though, it is possible for a Christian to “quench” or “grieve” the Holy Spirit through carnal, self-centered beliefs and behavior.

3.    Jesus did not teach that salvation is only a reality in the life of a “radical” Christian. He does ask that believers surrender all—that is, we make Him our priority in life once we have become His child—but He does not demand this as a condition for salvation or even a proof of salvation. This is not the gospel. Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels—especially pertaining to the kingdom parables or through His conversations with individuals such as the rich young ruler or those who were called to “forsake” or “hate” father and mother to follow Him—were not the call of the gospel. Jesus said nothing to these individuals of their need to believe or trust in His person and work alone for salvation. Jesus knew the hearts of those to whom He was speaking, and He was making a point about discipleship. Jesus knew that while it is simple to believe, it is not easy, and pride has a tendency to keep many from trusting in Him alone for the eternal well-being of their soul. The good news is clear—all are sinners, and salvation from sin comes only through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The result is immediate justification and regeneration, but what follows is a lifetime of learning to conform to the image of Christ as one grows and matures spiritually. Throughout the whole of the New Testament, the Bible describes the Christian walk as a process of growth, and the radical “all or nothing” view of being a Christian contradicts this biblical model.

4.    “Radical” Christianity was not consistently modeled even by the early church, including the disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ. Yes, many of the men and women in the first century were martyred for their faith—they gave their very lives for the cause of Jesus Christ. And yes, at times, some of these individuals did demonstrate a wholehearted devotion to God and commitment to Jesus Christ. Yet through the Scriptures, we see that many of these same Christians struggled with their faith and how to live a godly Christian life in their own cultural contexts. While complete yieldedness to Christ is our goal, the Christian life is a war, and sometimes we lose some battles to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Consider some examples: 

  • The apostle Peter—consider his life during Christ’s earthly ministry and even after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Peter, like many of us, did not consistently submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. His cowardice was revealed not only through his denial of Jesus Christ but also in his attitude and behavior toward the Gentile Christians. The apostle Paul rebuked him sternly.
  • The believers in Corinth and the churches of Galatia and Asia minor—Paul referred to these Christians as “saints.” The apostle John wrote to the churches in Asia Minor and gave no evidence that he was writing to unregenerate pagans. Yet, these believers who attended these local churches were frequently caught up in false teaching and carnal behavior. Although they were justified and regenerated, they still succumbed to the flesh at times.
  • The apostle Paul—the Holy Spirit led Paul to write about the struggle that existed in his sinful body between the desire to do right and the desire to fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Rom. 7). Although Paul was a godly and devoted Christian, he was still a sinful human being who did not always submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

5.    The very foundation of the “radical” model rests upon an imbalanced approach to the New Testament Scriptures. Those who cite “proof texts” for “radical” Christianity find what they are looking for in the synoptic Gospels—and particularly in the parables and kingdom teachings of Jesus—at the expense of the rest of the New Testament Scriptures. Yet the entire New Testament is God’s instruction concerning how to address the complexity of living as a believer who still possesses a sin nature. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended, the church began, and believers were permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit—something that could not be said for believers living prior to the Day of Pentecost. Thus, in the rest of the New Testament (Romans-Revelation), the Spirit-led authors of Scripture unfold God’s will and describe the resources necessary for living a Christian life that honors God. Sadly, we will never be totally and completely “radically abandoned” to Christ while in this sinful flesh. In this age, God simply calls us to abide in Christ, to move forward in spiritual maturity, to be faithful wherever He places us, and to use our spiritual gifts for the glory of God and the edification of the body of Christ.

6.    Proponents of the “radical” philosophy actually add to the Great Commission. To many authors, pastors, and leaders of this stripe, the mission of the church goes far beyond the biblical Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20)—evangelize, baptize, teach. The proponents of the “radical” ministry model believe that working for social justice, relieving poverty, feeding the poor and needy, etc. are actually essential requirements of Jesus’ Great Commission. “True” Christians will lead radical lives of abandoning self for others by engaging in social action or programs of physical relief or betterment.

The Answer

As stated earlier, yes, God does want all His children to make Him their priority in life. Yes, God does call some Christians to give up all material possessions for their good and His glory. Yes, God even calls some to die for Him. Yet one’s relationship to God is not dependent upon how “radical” one is or how much a person has surrendered to God. One’s eternal well-being rests upon whether or not that person has trusted in Jesus Christ alone for his or her eternal well-being. Platt, Chan, Washer, and others have many biblical views and helpful ideas, but the very core of their “radical” philosophy is dangerous because it muddles the true gospel message and confuses law and grace.

Today, Christians need to possess and proclaim a clear, biblical gospel—the gospel of God’s grace and man’s need to recognize his sinful, lost condition and then trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for his eternal well-being. Subsequently, the church must encourage and equip the saints to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ and continue to move forward in the Christian life. Just because someone is not “radically abandoning” all for Jesus Christ does not mean he or she is lost or has succumbed to a false gospel. It may simply mean that such a believer—like many recorded in the New Testament—needs to mature and “grow up.” To confuse law and grace or to shift the focus to what man does rather than to what Christ has already done is not only unhelpful but also unbiblical. 

— By Pastor Matt Costella. Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Volume 38, Issue 2 (2017).

 

 

End Notes

1.    Chan, Francis. Crazy Love. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013. Print. p. 85.

2.    Ibid., p. 85

3.    Washer, Paul. “Religion That Sends You To Hell.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 7 July 2008. Web. 12 June 2017.

4.    Ibid.

5.    Chan, pp. 83-84.

6.    Chan, p. 85.

7.    Platt, David. Radical. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010. Print. p. 8.

8.    Ibid., p. 10

9.    Ibid., pp. 12-13

10.    Ibid., p. 15

11.    Ibid., p. 21

12.    Ibid., p. 37

13.    Ibid. p. 39

14.    Ibid. p. 64

15.    Ibid. p. 38

16.    Cary, Phillip. “The Case Against ‘Radical’ Christianity.” Christianity Today. Oct. 2014: 67. Print.

17.    Ibid.

18.    Ibid.