Weekly Edgework #69 - October 25, 2005

Optional Discipleship

Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard, p. 259)

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple…So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke: 14:27,33)

It is somewhat disconcerting to notice that in many Christian circles today the concept of discipleship, or following Jesus, is almost entirely divorced from the idea of being a Christian. This is especially true in parts of North America. Being a Christian is understood to give mental assent to certain fundamental facts about Christ and the Bible, which then assures you a place in heaven when you die. One can be “saved and know it” without having given a thought to the Lordship of Christ and his call to follow in his way as a life-long student.

This watered down version of Christianity has emerged within evangelical circles, at least partially, because of a faulty reading of the Great Commission, as found in Matthew 28:18-20. When Christ says to his disciples that they are to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… it is read to mean Go therefore and get as many people “saved” as possible everywhere in the world. The assumption, as I have picked it up, is that getting people “saved” is more important than making them disciples. Following Jesus would be nice, but optional - at least with respect to one’s eternal destiny. It never ceases to amaze me how self-proclaimed literalists can so readily distort a biblical text to suit their fancy.

Another passage distorted similarly to make discipleship optional is Romans 10:9-10 - …if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. The way I have often heard this passage “translated” goes something like this: If you believe that Jesus died for your sins and was raised from the dead and say so, you are “saved”. This version not only leaves out the concept of submitting to the Lordship of Christ, but misses the point entirely that doing so is part of a package deal – that you submit to and believe in Jesus as the risen Lord. Confessing with your lips that Jesus is Lord – the first part of the formula – is nothing short of committing to arrange all of your affairs to correspond to the way of Jesus.

It is small wonder that when the notion of following Jesus as a disciple is not presented as an integral part of coming to Christ that people resist the idea when they discover it in the fine print. Have you ever signed a contract without reading the fine print, and then reacted in bewilderment when you discovered that the fine print asks more of you than you expected? The same holds true for many Christians today. They have come to Christ on the basis of the large print – BELIEVE AND BE SAVED. So it is natural for them to react with dismay to the small print which says – “Come follow me”. I have even seen them become hostile when the notion of discipleship is brought up as somehow being central to being a Christian.

The fact of the matter is that discipleship was never relegated to the fine print within scriptures. It has been done by many well-meaning evangelists who wanted to remove as many stumbling blocks as possible to coming to faith in Christ. And perhaps one should not blame them, especially in light of the fact that often those who claimed to be true disciples of Jesus had become legalistic and lifeless specimens of humanity – always groaning under the weight of their self-imposed restrictions. And more than that, these would-be disciples had often wounded many around them by their stern and condemning attitudes. It is difficult, indeed, for persons so wounded to submit to an even higher authority than condescending Christians. All they see down that path is further restrictions, failures and condemnation.

And so, as a corrective perhaps, the church has come to de-emphasize discipleship as integral to Christian faith. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, we have gotten ourselves to the place where, as Dallas Willard says, most church members have not yet considered discipleship seriously. So where do we go from here? How can we bring the central biblical strands of discipleship back into focus without losing the many church members who failed to read the fine print in the process of coming to faith? And how can we invite others to become followers of Jesus without having them think that they will lose too much in the process?

Perhaps the only way is for an increasing number of Christians to demonstrate to the church and the world that discipleship in the way of Christ, while costly in one sense, is at the same time the way of freedom, joy and rest. That the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater – even when this life alone is considered – than the price to walk with Jesus. (Willard, p. 263) That we actually experience the truth of Jesus words, For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

But his can only happen when, as disciples of Christ, we do not consider it burdensome to be out of sync with popular opinion. As a matter of fact we should consider it cause for dismay and anguish when we discover that our life-styles correspond quite nicely to that of society in general. Living freely and openly as disciples of Christ will always put us in tension with one aspect of our prevailing culture or another. But that is not cause for discouragement, rather a source of affirmation that we are taking our life-cues joyfully from the one who was despised and rejected, yet represented the purest vision of abundant life ever seen on this earth.