Several days ago, I wrote an article on The Idol of American Identity, and I used the phrase “Ordinary Christianity.” Through the feedback of several thoughtful people, I realize that my description of this concept was vague and confusing. The purpose of this article is to describe what I mean by Ordinary Christianity and how it is such an essential and frequently neglected concept in our church culture.
To say that something is ordinary is to say it is common to its nature. For example, there isn’t anything significantly special about a singing robin compared to other robins because singing is common to a robin’s nature. The robin only becomes unordinary when it does something outside its common nature, like burrowing tunnels or breathing fire.
To me, who can hear the robin and enjoy its music, the sound is quite remarkable. I could never make a melody sound so beautiful. But if I could, those around me would listen in amazement at notes only a bird should be able to create. I would be an anomaly. In this specific way, I would be unordinary. Similarly, if a robin began talking in human, I believe his bird friends would think him to be terribly strange and might even be quite frightened.
An ordinary Christian, then, is a Christian who does what is common to the nature of Christianity. No less, no more.
A lot in the Bible could be said about what a Christian should or shouldn’t do. And to muddy the waters of God’s Word, man often adds his own rules as to what a Christian should or shouldn’t be. But at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I would describe the nature of Christianity in two words:
In Matthew 4, The brothers, Peter and Andrew, were fishing in the Sea of Galilee. They were doing what was ordinary for them as fishermen. But Jesus had a different plan. Jesus called out, “Follow me….”
In Mark 2, Levi, also known as Matthew, was sitting in his booth collecting taxes. He was on the bottom rung of Jewish society, hated for his traitorous occupation alongside prostitutes and sinners. But again, Jesus had a different plan. He gave a simple command, “Follow me.”
The whole of the Christian life can be summarized in these two words, “Follow me.” This is Ordinary Christianity.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” –Matthew 16:24–26*
Christians follow Christ’s example. It is that simple. It is that ordinary. The word “Christian” simply means “follower of Christ.” Adrian Rogers said it well, “The word Christian means ‘somebody who is like the Lord Jesus.’”
By no means is this ordinary to the unbeliever. True Christians are radical to the world. In the brightest points of our history, we have been outcasts, slaves, and martyrs. Christians have shown love to their abusers in those moments, treating their crosses with joy and singing while flames ate their bodies. This is radical. The KJV in Titus 2 calls it “peculiar.” In Greek, the simple definition of this word means “special.”
All Christians should be radical people, but ordinary Christians. A Christian that is ordinary by the world’s standards is unnatural, like a man who can sing like a robin or a robin who can talk like a man. A Christian that is ordinary by Christ’s standards is willing to take up his cross and follow Christ. How can someone claim the name of Christ yet never follow His words? How can someone claim to believe in Christ yet never grow in His love?
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” –Luke 17:7–10
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” –Romans 12:1 KJV
Ordinary Christianity rejects the distinction between “believers” and “disciples.”
This hurts to write. I firmly believe that there is a broad population of churchgoers who are not truly Christians—and I think in many ways, our church leaders are somewhat responsible.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” –Matthew 7:21–23
“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” –James 2:19
In good intentions, some in modern Christianity have made two different categories for Christians in order to make living the Christian life more accessible. Those who just “believe” in God and those who follow Him. The “believers” and the “disciples.” Unfortunately, there is no such division in Scripture. All those who come after Christ must bear their cross and follow Him.
Though some of his teachings and actions are debated by many today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a good word to say on this issue. He speaks of the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”
“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.
It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son—“you were bought with a price”—and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God. Above all, it is grace because the life of God’s Son was not too costly for God to give in order to make us live. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
Ordinary Christianity requires discipleship. A lifetime of growth. A lifetime of struggle. A lifetime of dying to one’s own desires and placing God’s will first. The choice of the disciple is pictured quite clearly in the act of baptism. In baptism, the disciple is identifying with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. A public declaration that shouts, “I will follow Christ.” It is a statement begging to be held accountable by every witness, believer or nonbeliever.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” – Romans 6:3–6
Ordinary Christianity recognizes only the disciple and the unbeliever, no middle ground. Does that mean disciples cannot fall or make mistakes? Absolutely not. Sinless perfection is a myth. Even the most devout disciples will stumble. Peter, in his discipleship, denied Christ thrice. Thomas doubted Christ’s resurrection. John Mark abandoned the missionary work appointed unto him by the early church. But the whole of their lives, their entire purpose, was in pursuing their Master, even if their paths were full of faltering.
In one of my favorite books, Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis describes the trajectory of Christian life beautifully and picturesquely. The book is a collection of letters from a demon-in-training, Wormwood, who is working to destroy a soul. These letters are written to his experienced devil of an uncle, Screwtape, who regularly gives his nephew advice and aid in his quest to tempt the soul assigned to him. In one particular letter, Wormwood is gloating over a recent victory. Due to life’s hardships, his human has lost his zeal for all things spiritual. An apparent success for Wormwood turns as Screwtape sharply rebukes him, “Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?”
As Screwtape describes it, the law of Undulation is a naturally occurring side effect in the lives of those who Christ has saved. Discipleship is a lifetime of “peaks and troughs” of which Christ makes use to bring His servants nearer to Him. The central point is that even though there are dips and valleys in the spiritual lives of disciples, the trajectory over time is one of growth.
Disciples, true believers in God, grow in Christ. Yes, it takes a lifetime full of valleys and struggles, but there is indeed growth! Ordinary Christianity denies you the right to sit in a pew, call yourself a Christian, and rot on the vine. There are only two categories, the disciple and the unbeliever. Have you grown?
Ordinary Christianity rejects emphasizing great acts of obedience over everyday obedience
In line with the first point, Ordinary Christianity rejects emphasizing great acts of obedience. Instead, it stresses our everyday walk and relationship with God.
In the early centuries of the church, an unfortunate movement that valued the spiritually elite over the everyday disciple seeped into the church and its doctrine. Monasticism began to spread. Anthony, one of the first monks, secluded himself to Egypt’s wilderness, often fasting for days straight. He would only break his fast with bread and water, denying any foods deemed pleasurable. Simeon Stylites, another ascetic, lived on top of a pillar for thirty-seven years. These weren’t isolated cases, and the more people heard of these “Spiritual Athletes” (as they were called), the more popular they became. Pilgrims visited these men of “great” obedience. Over time, incredible acts of physical, mental, and emotional courage overshadowed ordinary Christian living.
Most of us today reading of these men can admire their passion but recognize their misplaced fervor. However, we often act similarly in our own contexts. We laud missionaries and pastors for their outstanding service and sacrifice. We forget that every Christian is to live a life of service and sacrifice. When we read of martyrs and historical ministers we view our own acts of obedience as mundane and just…well, ordinary.
What we forget is that daily obedience is the life God calls every disciple to live. Not great acts of ministerial valor or eloquent words full of theological life, but simple everyday obedience. If that isn’t good enough for you, if simple everyday obedience sounds too uninteresting, maybe you aren’t fit to be a disciple of Christ.
I recently read an article by Dr. Paul Chappell titled Its Time to Get Back to Normal, that makes this point so well and succinctly. When are Christians going to get back to normal? So many Christians think that they could never be like “so-and-so.” Many believe they could never do what that one famous missionary did in a biography they read as a child. They forget to live an everyday Christian life because they feel dwarfed by the hallowed “heroes of the faith.” Don’t be the servant that buries his one talent because you were jealous of the servant who had five!
Do we love Christ? Do we hurt for souls? If we love Christ, picking up our Bibles won’t be an afterthought, praying won’t be an afterthought—we are conversing with the one who died for us! If we hurt for souls, witnessing won’t be an afterthought—it will be a burden. Discipleship is for every Christian, not just the “elite.”
For those who are possibly making “bigger” acts of obedience, I would ask you to continuously reflect upon your motives. You may have moved your family across the world to obey Christ’s calling on your life. You may have suffered for His name physically or emotionally. But remember not to take spiritual shelter in your acts of obedience. The servant who begins working for the King in the last hour of the day is paid the same as the servant who has toiled breathlessly throughout the hottest part of the day. Our refuge is ultimately in Christ’s obedience, not in our own. God doesn’t love you more because of your obedience, nor does your obedience gain you special privileges with God. Christ already loves you ultimately, and we serve Him because it is the only reasonable reaction to His love.
Ordinary Christianity rejects the mixing of Christianity with vain philosophies
Ordinary Christianity is restrictive to the doctrines of the Bible. It is Sola Scriptura. It is orthodoxy. Because Ordinary Christianity is restrictive to Scriptural teachings, it is also free of syncretistic ideas or faddish theologies. There is no need to input our own ideas into the doctrines of Christianity. It is a complete and steady bulwark of Theology. Biblical Christianity has withstood millennia of conflicting opinions and has remained firm against those who have sought to misuse its words. It has stood the test of time while the fog of history has forgotten her opponents.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” –Galatians 1:6–9
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” –Colossians 2:8
The mixing of Christianity’s tenets with any other religion or vain philosophy is destined to create monstrosities. Mixing Christianity with materialism has created the prosperity church. Mixing Christianity with consumerism has created the attractional church. Mixing Christianity with Americanism has created the politically driven church. Mixing Christianity with postmodernism has created the godless church. When will we learn to stop watering down the Word of God so that the church can simply be Christ’s church?
Ordinary Christianity calls for a pure faith, unadulterated from worldly philosophies. No doubt there is room in Christianity for liberty on many topics. However, I am afraid some have allowed more freedom than what Christianity provides, sometimes going so far as to enable culture or practice to dictate theology that the Bible is already sufficiently clear about.
This is a problem for both the liberal and the legalist. The liberal combines God’s Word and modern philosophy, filing down the teeth of the Bible and making it more palatable to our current culture—how our listeners feel about our message becomes more important than the message itself. Forgotten is the Gospel, which becomes meaningless as our sin is dismissed by man’s words rather than washed by Christ’s blood. In response, the legalist combines God’s Word with past church culture, making Christianity more exclusive than it ought to be. Keeping man-made rules becomes the measure of growth, rather than ordinary Christian living—how modestly I dress, what styles of music I listen to, and how often I attend church determines whether God is pleased with me. Forgotten is the truth that the Father is already perfectly satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the grave.
Above all, Ordinary Christianity is Biblical Christianity. It is taking up our crosses and following Christ.
“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” –Matthew 10:38–39.
*All Biblical references are in ESV unless otherwise stated.