Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Discipleship Reconsidered

Discipleship has always been central to my practical theology. It is based in the Great Commission: Go … make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:19-20 But as I have reconsidered the paradigm of my youth, I have been asking myself, “What does discipleship look like now?” I have a friend in Scotland who is leading an “emergent” ministry, which requires rethinking the old paradigm. Currently I am being encouraged to bring this to the forefront of my thinking as I am involved in a strategic planning committee at my church, looking to the future, and how to get there in a way that honors and serves Christ. My old paradigm saw discipleship more or less as focused on obedience to a set of rules (don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do, etc.) that were assumed to be what Christ commanded us to do, by inference of the Great Commission. These rules were heavily weighted in two areas; 1) personal piety, which included a regular commitment to Bible reading, “devotions”, prayer, church attendance, tithing, successful resistance of various temptations, etc., and 2) evangelism, variously termed as “witnessing”, “soul winning”, etc. If someone fervently participated in these two areas (having been baptized was a given), they were considered good and faithful disciples. But, I have to ask, “Is this really what Jesus taught?” From my discussions and meditations, I have several questions with which I wrestle. The first centers on baptism. I am not referring to the mode or infant vs. adult baptism. But what if a new follower of Jesus decides he or she wants to be baptized? Do we just do it, or do we have a list of requirements, which may include a minimal educational experience, that must be accomplished first? What teachings of Jesus are the criteria of a disciple? The Sermon on the Mount? Is that all there is? Is there more? What about all that Paul wrote? Do we need to include those things into our formula? Let’s look at a hypothetical new follower of Jesus. This person, let us say, practices willfully, and maybe ignorantly, sin X. To avoid a tangential discussion and distraction, we will avoid specifics of what sin X is. It could also be sin Y, with which you struggle, or sin Z with which I struggle. It may be clear to you and me that sin X is definitely a “no” in Scripture, and something that would not generally be an accepted practice for someone who is a “committed Christian.” But our new Christ follower doesn’t quite grasp the significance of sin X, at least not yet, nor does he (we will use the masculine for convenience) show much of an interest in even considering it as an issue. Maybe it would require more of a drastic life change than he is able to manage or even conceive of for the moment. But yet he does indeed show an interest in following Jesus, and has demonstrated a desire to change in other areas of his life, in accordance with “accepted Christian practices”. Our hypothetical Christ follower asks to be baptized. He understands from what he has read and been taught, that this is the next step to take in his path of becoming a disciple. Do we offer him baptism (and implicit in that, church membership) while he is still willfully, unconcernedly practicing sin X? Do we first make him confront this and forsake it? Do we refuse him baptism if he fails to agree with us on this issue? Let’s say we do agree to baptize him. Now he wants to serve, maybe collect the offering and help count the money, maybe play or sing on the worship team, maybe work in Vacation Bible School, or host or even lead a small group or Sunday School Class. He is still blissfully practicing sin X! What do we do now? Are there standards that he must meet to do certain things? If so, what are they? Who decides? How do we tell him without harming his zeal? Are there different standards for different levels of service? James implies that teachers are held to a higher standard. What is that standard? Paul gives qualifications for deacons and pastors. Is that what we are all to aim at? Are their multiple spiritual discipleship tracks; one for the average lay person, another for leaders (deacons) and yet a more stringent one for pastors (/teachers, if we combine these as Paul seems to do in Ephesians 4). What is the minimum required to be considered a disciple of Jesus? I ask this not that we should aim for the least we can do or be, but so that we don’t overburden a new follower of Jesus beyond that which he is ready to bear. How long can we expect someone to stay at this minimal level? Are there higher expectations with time? If so, what are they? How do we achieve them? Are they the same for everyone? Do we need to individualize this? If so, how do we learn how to do this, to grant grace and freedom to our fellow sojourners as we each deal with the various life issues that we each wrestle with at different points along the journey? I am convinced that I am a disciple of Jesus. Maybe you are not so convinced about me. Maybe I am not so convinced about you! How much do we need to resemble each other in this process? Can we be opposed in politics, in church structure, in personal piety, in social involvement, in practices and definitions of “evangelism”, … ? Can we still tolerate each other, or better yet, serve one another and Christ in true brotherly love and cooperation? Can we together be a body, a church? God grant us wisdom and understanding, and most of all, love!