Yesterday I posted the introduction to my MTh disstertation (written in 2009) entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship. Here today is the first part of Chapter One – Defining the problem: On why Christianity and discipleship are no longer synonymous terms
1.1 Articulating the gap
That the question of the nature of Christian discipleship in the 21st century is being asked emphasizes the implicit reality that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is quite possibly radically different than the popular notions of what it means to be a Christian. While it is important to avoid sweeping generalizations, it can be argued that within the context of the modern, Western church, there is a sense that Christians misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus, all too often mirroring the world around them as opposed to embodying the kingdom of God among them.
There exists an underlying misconception that to be a Christian requires belief in Jesus with little to no change in terms of socially, culturally and politically accepted ways of living. Therefore, on a general level and in the context of the Western world, there seems to be a gap between what it means to believe in Jesus and what it means to answer the call to discipleship.
This gap is, in part, related to the terminology used to distinguish those who profess to believe in and follow Jesus. As Eugene Peterson notes, “it is significant that the primary term for identifying the followers of Jesus in the early church was ‘the Way.’”1 This designation is used six times by Luke in the book of Acts, a prime example of this being when Paul makes the following remark: “this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors …” (Acts 24:14, New Revised Standard Version). Here, Paul is clearly referring to ‘the Way’ as a group of devoted individuals belonging to a specific and visible community intent on worshipping God.
The term ‘Christian’, on the other hand, is used only once in the New Testament, in Acts 11, and is invoked, according to Dallas Willard, “to apply to disciples when they could no longer be called Jews, because many kinds of gentiles were now part of them.”2 Today, ‘Christian’ has become the dominant term, providing a particular way of interpreting what it means to follow Jesus in the present with no particular reference to the beginnings of this sect known as ‘the Way’, and therefore leading to misguided understandings of the nature of discipleship.
While subtle nuances of language may seem unimportant, the gap that exists between the ways of 21st century Christianity and ‘the Way’ of true discipleship must be acknowledged. Dallas Willard frames this problematic gap in this way:
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heart-breaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – student, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ.3
According to Willard, this gap is characterized by the fact that “one is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any sign of progress toward or in discipleship.”4 Stating the issue even stronger, Willard, while again referencing the reality that a new distinctive term was implemented to describe both Jew and Gentile who answered the call to follow Jesus in New Testament times, makes the assertion that “it is almost universally conceded today that you can be a Christian without being a disciple.”5 In other words, Christianity does not entail discipleship – the latter is currently an optional as opposed to essential characteristic of what it means to follow Jesus.
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, argues that this gap is rooted in the fact that the call to follow Jesus is no longer a disruptive call:
Plenty of people in the church and outside it have made up a ‘Jesus’ for themselves, and have found that this invented character makes few real demands on them. He makes them feel happy from time to time, doesn’t suggest that they get up and do something about the plight of this world. Which is, of course, what the real Jesus had an uncomfortable habit of doing.6
Wright seems to be suggesting that the call to discipleship involves transformation not only in the lives of those who profess to follow Jesus, but also in the world at large as those same people act in ways that embody God’s redemptive love. However, the reality is that today, one can be called a Christian without any visible evidence of personal transformation, progress down ‘the Way’ of discipleship, or interest in setting the world to rights according to the teachings and actions of Jesus. Following Jesus, this is not.
If, as Willard maintains, discipleship revolves around becoming students, apprentices and practitioners of the Way of Jesus Christ, the result is meant to be both personal and social transformation – the old must become new, and the followers of Jesus must be engaged in the work of his Kingdom come. But, the reality is that many who profess to believe in and follow Jesus fail to take seriously the nature of that call, and, as will be argued, this is a reality that is rooted in the following factors: the absorption of early Christianity into the social, political and cultural powers of the Roman Empire; the modern tendency to individualize the Christian faith, more specifically by focusing on ‘going to heaven after we die’ as opposed to engaging in the present realities of the world; and ultimately in the idea that the people of God have failed to engage in the reading and retelling of a scriptural story of discipleship.
1 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation in Following Jesus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009), 23.
2 Dallas Willard, “How to be a disciple,” in The Christian Century 115, no.13 (1998):430
3 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), xv.
4 Ibid., 4.
5 Dallas Willard, “How to be a disciple,” 430.
6 N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1994), ix.