The history of the Church has been shaped by radicals. Furthermore, the future of the Church until our Lord returns will continue to be shaped by radicals.
Now, before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me explain what I mean. I am not talking about people who went to the root of Christianity (which is what “radical” means) and diverged from it in some novel or “prophetic” direction. The history of the Church is littered with people who did that: Gnostics, Arians, Nestorians, Donatists, Sabellians, Albigenses, Catharii, Jansenists, Quietists, etc.—and people are still adding to the list today with movements that have not yet earned the names by which they will be remembered in the history books. None of these movements defined Christianity or changed its essential teachings, except perhaps by reaction, as the Church clarified its theology in response to challenges of divergent movements.
No, it is not those who departed from Christianity in radical ways that have shaped the Church. It is those who have embraced Christianity in radical ways that have influenced it most profoundly. When the Church became overwhelmed by nominalism and decadence, the men and women monastics of the Egyptian desert, Benedict and his followers in Italy, and the Celtic monastics in Ireland and Britain gave the Church a spiritual tradition that still inspires Christians today.
When the Church flirted with—or was seduced by—heresies, it was those who were radically committed to the truth of the Gospel who shaped the faith we believe today: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus—and other saints too numerous to mention—known not for what they rejected about Christianity but for what they believed and how radically committed they were to it. And the opportunity to be radical Christians extends on down to you and me.
God calls all Christians to be holy. To be holy or sanctified literally means to be “set apart.” All of us who know Christ have been called out from the world and set apart by God to belong exclusively to him. And our God is jealous over his people: Christians are called to be different from non-Christians.
Talk of being different from non-Christians may sound strange, particularly to Anglicans and Episcopalians who are used to being engaged in their world and even leaders in it. But God is not calling us to disengage from the world; he is calling us to engage the world with our faith and our values in a way that demonstrates that our lives have been transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
In what ways are contemporary Christians called to be set apart? Briefly, here are a few:
“They'll know we are Christians by our love,” was the refrain to a popular song among Christian youth in the late sixties. Non-Christians often tend to look at Christians as being negative, narrow, judgmental, and angry—because all too often we are!
Whether extravert or introvert, every Christian should have the reputation for being someone who cares for and loves people. Do you stand out in the radical ways you treat others? Whether those who know you agree or disagree with your theology, would they find it impossible to deny that you always reflected the love of Christ in your relationships?
Radical Approaches to Money
Jesus said more about money than he did about any other single topic. Money can easily become an idol if we place our security and trust in it instead of God. Being radical here means recognizing that all we have comes from God. Rather than ask “how much of our money is it right to give?” we should be asking “how much of God’s money is it right to keep?”
C. S. Lewis said that we should give until it hurts—not because we're sadists but because all false allegiances need to be broken of their power. As much as I hate to disagree with C. S. Lewis, I believe Scripture teaches something more: We are not to give until it hurts; we are to give until it feels good. II Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” When we give in such a way that we realize that God is using us as his instrument to provide his resources to be a blessing to others, it positively feels great! And when we are free of the world’s call to materialism, consumerism, and debt, it feels even better.
Radical Work and Rest
Work can become an idol or a mere means for getting money. Again, Christians should be radically different. We must aim for quality work without succumbing to workaholic idolatry.
We must also be different in the way we value rest. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:9-10). Let's take the idea of Sabbath seriously. Let's be ruthless about insisting that one day a week will be different, set aside in a unique way for worship, “re-creation” and rest.
Radically Different In Our Sexual Ethics
The Christian teaching on sex is quite simple and to the point: sexual relations are appropriate only between a man and a woman who have been united in Holy Matrimony. We don’t believe this because we are prudes, and God didn’t command this because he is a cosmic killjoy. God’s way of holiness is the way of wholeness—protecting us from destructive behaviors and relationships.
We also should be radical in noting and eschewing the rising emphasis upon androgyny in our culture today. Our differences as males and females should be joyfully appreciated. In a world that has lost the wonder of sexuality, the Church needs to value the beautiful, God-created diversity of men and women as equal in worth and yet different.
Radical Followers and Radical Leaders
The reason so many saints down through the ages could be so bold in their proclamation and in their leadership is that they were radical in following their Lord. Many who think they are being radical today are simply following the culture. The Christian who will count for Christ in shaping the future is the man or woman who is radically committed to following Christ and radically committed to leading, not following, the world.
The Very Rev’d Canon Robert S. Munday, Ph.D., is Dean and President of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Quincy.
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