A Few Thoughts About Being Ordinary Christians

Tim Brister —  July 23, 2013 — 6 Comments

In case you did not know, there’s an ongoing debate regarding “radical” Christianity and “ordinary” (mundane/normal) Christianity.

Really. [Pardon the intensifier]

Best-selling books and viral blogposts have littered the evangelical landscape the last few years, and I’ve tried to keep up with the latest installments in this ongoing debate. I respect and appreciate the men on both sides of the debate, and while I may not be offering anything necessarily new, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

1. Definition of Ordinary

So much of the debate begins with the premise of being radical. What does radical Christianity look like? How can it be defined? Is the challenge confined to middle-class white suburbia in North America? But what about ordinary Christianity? How much agreement exists in defining normal Christianity?

As it has been stated, much of the recent literature calling for “radical Christianity” is a discontentment with what many consider to be a sub-standard nominal Christianity (i.e. “Christendom”) that in many ways has neutered the evangelical testimony of biblical truth and dulled our motivation as followers of Jesus to “observe all that he has commanded us”.

Though this may sound redundant, I do think the pushback to radical Christianity is to be ordinarily ordinary. I have a real problem with this perspective, because we still have not come to terms with what Jesus identifies as ordinary or normative for run-of-the-mill Christians. So we are not spectacular or world-changing or facing death as a martyr – what then?

2. An Old Kind of Ordinary

The message of John the Baptist, Jesus, His sent disciples, and the early church was the same, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In other words, the ordinary way of living is unacceptable under the reign of King Jesus. When His kingdom comes, everything changes. Everything.

Take, for example, eating and drinking. This is about as ordinary or mundane as it gets. Jesus’ earthly ministry was characterized by eating and drinking, but it was how and with whom he ate and drank that set Him apart from others. You see, eating and drinking comes with a philosophy and ordinary approach to life. When I’m living under self-rule, it is “eat, drink and be merry.” But when I’m living under the rule of Christ, it is eating and drinking (and everything else) to the glory of God. That’s radical. The most basic things we almost unconsciously do on a daily basis are to be singed with motivations and aspirations that God might be glorified. Is this what we are talking about when we are speaking of ordinary or normal Christian living?

What about the Great Commission? Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. That should be normative for every follower of Jesus. That means our lives should have an orientation and intentionality that pursues this missional objective. How does that work? Where do we find time to do that? In what ways and venues of everyday life are we making disciples of Jesus? Is that what we are talking about when we speak of ordinary Christianity? If so, then where are the ordinary Christians?

What about the teachings of Jesus? He told us if our right eye causes us to sin to pluck it out. Do ordinary people treat sin so seriously? He told us to count the cost to be His disciple and take up our cross. Do ordinary people prefer to die to self? Jesus told us to love our enemies, that the greatest will be the servant of all, that those who humble themselves will be exalted, and that those who put their hands to the plow looking back are not fit for the kingdom of God. Is this the ordinary teaching of normative Christianity?

Then there are phrases like doing all things for the sake of the gospel. Paul (and those he discipled) lived in certain ways to reach certain people because he sought to commend the gospel in word and deed and “save some.” Some people box like those beating the air. Paul disciplined His body. Some walked dependent on their senses. Paul said we Christians walk by faith. Some were civilians living a civilian lifestyle, “entangled with the affairs of everyday life.” Paul and his disciples suffered hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ because they wanted to please their commanding officer. Is that what we mean when we talk about ordinary Christianity?

Yes, this is the same Paul who exhorted Christians in Thessalonica to “aspire to live quietly and mind your own affairs.” I don’t think they are at odds at all. Paul was someone who redeemed ordinary life for kingdom purposes. I think that is why he constantly spoke of how he himself worked with his own hands for the purpose of helping the weak and remembering the poor. In the same context, Paul would say things like “I do not consider my life of any value to me or precious to myself“. The two realities are not opposite visions of the Christian life, are they?

While it is true that we don’t hear the refrain to sell everything and give it all to the poor, we do have instances where ordinary Christians “rejoiced at the plundering of their property” because they chose to partner with the “radicals” who were suffering hardship and affliction. In all actuality, both groups of people were ordinary if you cast them in light of the following chapter.

3.  Ambition for Ordinary People

One of the things I fear that may result of the counter-movement to the calls of “radical Christianity” is the disdain for exhortation. After all, who wants to feel guilty and inadequate all the time? Isn’t your exhortation simply a new legalism where I’m to feel guilty if I’m not up to your challenge to live extraordinarily for God?

The church in Corinth was, shall we say, not living the kind of ordinary lifestyle that we would want to emulate. They were called to be saints, but they were not living like saints. In this letter, you find Paul calling them back to the gospel, to live in light of the gospel. It was here in these letters you hear him telling all members of the church that they are in a race and should run in such a way so as to win the race. They are to glorify God in their body. They are to be imitators of Timothy who imitated Paul who imitated Jesus. It was a lineage of apostolic ambition that was to establish a gospel tradition which defined ordinary Christianity.

I like how Steve Timmis and Tim Chester put it in their book, Total Church. Most ministry is done by ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality. It’s the with part that makes it anything less than ordinary. It is filled with ambition composed of a definite aim, concerted energy, and singular determination. Without this, ordinary can wrongly be characterized by laziness, coasting, and marginal/minimal investment in the ways and work of God.

Which gets me back to the whole issue of radical Christianity . . .

If I’m not mistaken, the whole point of starting the discussion in the first place was to raise the level or ordinariness in contemporary evangelicalism to what we see in Scripture as normative for everyday Christians. Should ordinary Christians, in a biblical sense, not appreciate such efforts?

Loving God supremely and loving your neighbor sacrificially are what ordinary Christians do. We don’t do it perfectly, but we do pursue it intentionally. We make disciples where we are with all that we are. We may not turn the world upside down, but Jesus has turned us inside out–and that makes a difference in how we live by faith, step by step, for the glory of God. We pray for His kingdom come, for those dead in sin to be made alive by the power of His Spirit–prayers that are filled with expectant faith in the One who said we would “do greater things than these” because He ascended to the Father.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be ordinarily ordinary, but ordinary in every sense that Jesus defines ordinary. It just seems that such a notion is, well, a radical thing to do.

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  • Tom Hicks

    Tim, thanks for this post! I agree with every word you’ve written here. Ordinary Christian living is always and necessarily radical in our fallen world. What do you think of the following word of caution to believers who want to think of themselves as radical?

    Americans often have deeply individualistic impulses. We want to be noticed by others. We often want our individual efforts to make an impact on the whole world. We like a lot of followers on Twitter. We wouldn’t mind being rock stars who are loved by all and influential. We hope that our individual efforts will have tangible, demonstrable practical results that do something great in the world.

    People can even be motivated by this longing for individual fame and glory to do Christian things that produce external kingdom good. So, we might adopt children, go on mission trips, build a large ministry, and all of these things are great in themselves. But Americans especially may be in danger of doing these things to be noticed as radically devoted Christians, for their own kingdom’s sake, rather than out of humble love for their Savior, whether they are ever noticed or not.

    Radical Christianity often looks like discharging our callings in this world, plodding along without ever being noticed by very many people. It’s the housewife who faithfully does the dishes, does the ironing, cleans up the house over and over, rears her children in the Lord, and loves and respects her husband, looking for opportunities to tell others of the hope that is within her. It’s the factory worker who goes to work day in and day out and punches the clock, lives in light of the gospel with the Ten Commandments as his guide, speaking and living the truth in love to his coworkers, humbly serving and leading his wife and children at home.

    Many times, radical Christianity looks less like a fireball of apparently glorious kingdom success and more like a humble, self-disciplined, faithful, loving plodder who is content with where God has him and to live and speak Christ before those around him.

    Thoughts?

    • chris

      so adopting kids and feeding the hungry is something we’re doing too much of as believers? because we’re trying to be “radical”? and it’s becoming a problem worth thousands of typed words on a bunch of blogs? really?

      sure, there is potential legalism in the movement and we don’t have a lot of hip new books calling for us to “plod” but i thought we were called to spur our brothers and sisters into being the awesome we want to see in the world out of gratitude for the grace we’ve been shown. can’t we all just lay off the missional movement bashing just a tad?

      • Tom Hicks

        Hey Chris, I would never say that believers are adopting too many kids or feeding too many of the hungry. I do, however, think that we a problem with (radical) individualism and pride in American Christianity. I’m not suggesting we tone down the missional message at all (I certainly don’t want to bash it), only that we continue to acknowledge the value of obedient plodding in the spheres God has placed us and that such plodding honors God, even if it doesn’t look “big” or “great” to anyone else. I don’t think these two messages conflict with one another. In fact, like Tim, I think we need to hear both. Be radical and plod humbly, whether anyone notices or not. Peace!

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