Tag Archives: Discipleship

Theology as Discipleship 1

Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.

Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).

This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).

Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).

Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.

Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

Relevance or Resilience?

Mark SayersMark Sayers from Red Church in Melbourne wrote an interesting article for Christianity Today (July/August 2016) entitled, “Creating a Culture of Resilience.” The article argues that the Christian strategy of being culturally relevant in order to win converts, that is, of reducing the cultural distance between the believer and unbeliever, is unlikely to prove effective in today’s “progressive” culture. It is not that relevance is not a strategy that can be applied in some contexts, but the progressive culture sweeping the West is fundamentally post-Christian.

The emerging progressivism has tapped into a long-repressed desire, particularly in the young, for a radically different and better future. In the new progressive cultural mood, Catholic writer Jody Bottum sees a facsimile of Christianity, in which the categories of sin, shame, guilt, salvation, and the elect return, shaped around not theology but the goals of progressive politics. Every missionary tries to build cultural bridges in order to communicate the gospel. But the new progressivism subverts and frustrates this search. It is precisely the church, after all, that progressivism judges as immoral and sinful. The new progressivism is ultimately a form of post-Christianity. It is a new faith that attempts to achieve some of the social goals of Christianity—especially the elimination of oppression, violence, and discrimination—while moving decisively beyond it. For many young adults, leaving the church is less a leap into apostasy than a step toward social aspirations the church imperfectly realized, while subtracting dubious religious restrictions and the submission of the individual will (59-60).

He warns that when the church seeks to evangelise the progressive culture by means of a strategy of cultural relevance, it is likely that the church itself will be colonised by that culture. Instead, he counsels a strategy of resilience, which he defines in terms of faithful and courageous commitment to what the early Christians termed “The Way”:

An overriding commitment to church and Christian community, seeking to follow Jesus with the entirety of one’s heart, soul, and mind in the face of endless choices and options. The commitment to surrender one’s will to God, sacrificially following him as a servant. The decision to live fully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in a world of anxiety, fragility, and emotionalism run wild. … True relevance to this culture will not come by accommodating its demands, but by developing the kinds of people who can resist them. … Resilience amid the third culture will require the patient and unyielding demonstration of human flourishing, the kind that comes only from embedding our personal freedoms in Christian commitments (60).

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 1:21

To Die is GainFor to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

I could never have written such words; I hardly dare to write them now. Their claim is too bald, too bold. From the pen of the apostle, however, they have the ring of truth. Paul was not just saying these words; he lived them. That, perhaps, is the reason he could say them and I cannot. Paul is imprisoned awaiting trial and very possibly death. Yet his letter to the Philippians is known as an epistle of joy. He rejoices despite his circumstances and he calls the Philippians likewise to rejoice despite theirs.

For to me, to live is Christ. This is an outrageous claim, that one could be so consumed with the vision of Jesus Christ, with such devotion to his mission, such conformity to his life, and such delight in his will. It was also Paul who could say elsewhere: It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). In chapter three he will go on to say:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul’s entire life was devoted to the presence, mission and message of Christ. Christ was his centre, Christ his motive and goal, Christ his source and power.

Nor was this merely an idealistic, romantic or other-worldly spirituality. For to me, to live is Christ: Not as mysticism but as concrete witness and proclamation that Jesus Christ might be magnified: this is what it meant for Paul to say these words. It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of seeking an “intimate” relationship with God, to seek mystical union or experiences of grace. Such desires are not illegitimate, for truly we need a touch of the mystic, a touch of the Spirit’s presence and power, experiences of grace. Yes, indeed, but not as a goal.

A great danger with some forms of contemporary spirituality is the temptation to separate the grace of Christ from the mission of Christ. Paul did not seek some kind of personalised, individualised and interior experience that had no living connection with the mission of Christ, the work of the gospel or the need of the world. He sought concrete union with Christ “in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10). Even though confronted with trial and possible death, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering, he still cried:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20-21). 

“That Christ will be magnified in my body…” that is, in the public sphere of his existence, in the concrete witness of his very life and death, in his proclamation and ministry, his service and suffering. For it is only as Christ is preached (1:18) that Christ is magnified.

And so we pray with Paul:

That our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. Lord, you have begun a good work in us; carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:9-11, 6).

And also with St Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 4:10-19

Wine__grape__bread_by_donnobruProverbs 4:14-19
Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not proceed in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they do evil; and they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence. But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn that shines brighter and brighter until the full day. The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble
.

These few verses are taken from the slightly larger section of verses 10-19, which in turn are the central section of the fourth chapter of Proverbs. The chapter as a whole concerns the instruction given by a father to his children, the same instruction he received from parents who loved him (vv. 1-4, 10, 20). This is parenting, child-training, wisdom, guidance and instruction for life. And of course, its relevance is not limited to children. Or, alternatively, we might hear in these verses the exhortation of a heavenly Father, “My son, my daughter…”

Verses 10-19 contrast the two ways or the two paths, in a manner similar to Psalm 1. On the one hand is the way of wisdom, the path of the righteous. This is a broad and clear path, shining with light, and one in which a person may walk and even run without stumbling. On the other hand is the path of the wicked, a way filled with darkness and unseen hazards over which one will invariably stumble. The exhortation of the father is urgent; with respect to wisdom he says, “Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.” With respect to the path of the wicked he is equally as vigorous: “Do not enter…Avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away from it and pass on.” There are two paths and two ways, but only one leads to life.

In our text today, the wicked eat, drink and sleep wickedness. They cannot sleep unless they do evil. They look for opportunities to make others stumble. Wickedness is their bread and butter, their livelihood and means of profit (cf. Proverbs 1:10-19). They drink the wine of violence. There is, at least for some, something intoxicating about violence. It dulls our sense of right and wrong, while at the same time giving us a sense of power, perhaps even invincibility. Wickedness and violence dominate and subjugate their victims, robbing them of their dignity, stripping them of their rights, and exploiting them for benefit, pleasure or profit. There is no righteousness along this path, nor truth, goodness or beauty. There is, however, a kind of wisdom along this path, but it is not the wisdom which is from above, but that which is earthly, sensual and demonic (James 3:13-18).

Part of the difficulty Christians face is that our imaginations have been fed and shaped by violence. The stories we tell and the movies we watch often rely on violence for the resolution of difficulties, much of it entirely unwarranted. The violence of internet pornography tears at the fabric of our most intimate relations. Video games allow us to become virtual participants in worlds of violence. Our cultural narratives demand that we insist on our rights even at the expense of others, that we use whatever power we have to get our own way. State-sanctioned violence is justified by reasoning attuned to the cultural narrative, and slowly, steadily, incidents of violence increase even in our own communities.

For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.

In the midst of a world of greed and violence, oppression, manipulation and abuse, Christians are called to envision and enact a different world. One of the primary tasks of discipleship involves the conversion of the imagination, and it for this that we gather week after week in worship, community, and instruction in the gospel. And central to this gathering is bread and wine of a different kind.

In his wonderful book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson argues that in a world of death, death and more death, God has given his people the practice of Eucharist. The way of God in the broken world of history is the way of broken bread and shared wine, the culture of the table where all are welcomed and find a place, where hospitality is practiced, where the community lives and laughs and works and serves, a place where love may be practised, where peace may be found, where a community of grace might arise, and where the path of the righteous may be like the light of dawn that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.

Lord God, we beseech you, so work in our midst
that we may become such a community
in our time and in our place.
Feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and so replicate his life within and among us.
Transform our vision,
renew our imaginations,
fill us with your Holy Spirit
so that we may become servants of your kingdom
for the glory and honour of your name.
Amen.