The word radical as applied to human behavior can be either positive or negative, depending upon one’s viewpoint. For the purposes of this article, we will define radical as “one expressing strict adherence to a worldview that is at extreme odds with the cultural norm.”
If “normal” is in the middle, then a “radical” would be a person at either end of the spectrum. Mother Theresa could be considered a radical in her extreme self-denial and ministry to the poorest of the poor. But Saddam Hussein was also a radical in his violent enforcement of his religious and political agenda. Both were at extreme ends of what most societies consider “normal.”
Whether or not Christians should be radicals depends on how the word is defined. Many people in history have used the name of Christ to inflict terror, persecution, and genocide upon those with religious differences. That form of radicalism was never condoned by Jesus—who was Himself a radical. His message of love, forgiveness, and mercy was at direct odds with the accepted views of the day. He refused to fight back when attacked (1 Peter 2:23), to allow Peter to defend Him with violence (Matthew 26:51–52), or to condemn the woman caught in adultery (John 8:4–11). Those were all radical acts for that time and culture. One reason some people turned away from Christ was that His requirement of giving up everything for His sake was simply too radical (Luke 18:22–23).
The decision to follow Christ is itself a call to radical living. Jesus said that “anyone who wants to follow Me must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). That command is at extreme odds with our flesh’s desire to please itself (Romans 7:21–23). It challenges worldly wisdom, which preaches self-fulfillment as our highest aim (1 John 2:15–17). The cross is a radical thing, and declaring Jesus as Lord of our lives involves a dethroning of Self and a complete abandonment to His will. We must be willing to go where He leads, do what He says, and love Him more than life itself (Matthew 10:37–38). The lifestyle changes that follow such a commitment are considered radical by those who fall within the world’s definition of “normal.” Those who claim to know Christ yet refuse this radical lifestyle are called “carnal” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Jesus calls such professing Christians “lukewarm” and says He will spit them out of His mouth (Revelation 3:16).
The antisocial atrocities that are often synonymous with radicalism are in direct opposition to radical Christianity. Jesus calls His followers to seek the best for others, to love our neighbors, and to be peacemakers, even at great personal cost (Galatians 5:14; Matthew 5:9; Luke 10:30–37). Jesus’ teaching known as The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12) is His call to radical living. He requires His followers to take the high road, to “turn the other cheek” (verse 39), and to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (verse 44).
Those who incite violence and persecution in the name of Christ are not radicals at all. They are “enemies of the cross” (Philippians 3:18–19), doing what comes naturally to their fleshly minds. Biblical Christianity is in polar opposition to the natural way of living, which means that those who choose Jesus will be considered radical to most. Living a Spirit-filled life is radical because it goes against everything our selfish nature wants and it stands in stark contrast to the world’s way of the flesh.
Radical Christians understand Paul’s desire to “know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10). A radical Christian is one who has “died to the flesh” (Romans 8:13). The apostles were radical Christians—they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ESV)—but they did so through self-sacrifice and love (John 13:35). Paul learned to “boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Because following Jesus is in direct conflict with the “norm,” then “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) could be considered a radical way of life.