You can find debates on the resurrection here and there, and Christians are excited about their skill in presenting the evidence for a risen Christ; yet this culture asks us to present not only the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus but the evidence of a resurrected Christian life, community, and ethics.
There will always be Christians who will rightly and necessarily point out that we must present Christ and not ourselves. They will say that we are in danger of entwining law and gospel. They will warn that we will confuse our hearers if we talk about the call and substance of discipleship and not the gospel, the gospel, and only the gospel. I concur completely with the danger these watchmen see and find of great concern, but I would counter with a similar set of warnings.
We must not separate one Christ into several. The Christ who called and trained disciples is the Christ on the cross, is the mediator and Lord in the Epistles, and is the one, exalted, reigning King of the Kingdom that will triumph.
We must not think ourselves wiser than God. Discipleship is the ongoing process of sanctification, growth, and maturity, all biblical admonitions. It is God who puts these components of the Christian experience into one life of faith. We cannot call legalism what God has called the power of the gospel in real time.
We must not think that we defend the gospel when we make discipleship less than what Jesus did with the months and years he invested in his disciples. He did not just preach to them or teach them. He trained them for ministry. He released them to serve. He created community. He confronted and corrected their characters. He sent them among the hurting. He taught them the reality of the kingdom of God.
But that was not all. He took them to the cross and to the empty tomb, gave them the Sacraments, and called them to build the church. His investment in discipleship was deep and ongoing. It was his constant and ongoing invitation to them to live their "yes!" to the good news. As they learned all that the good news comprehended, their definition of discipleship expanded.
We must remember that discipleship includes the dynamic processes of Christian experience: knowing, growing, building, serving, forgiving, loving, and risking. It is the transforming knowledge of God in the Spirit that experiences the transforming power of the Word.
Yes, discipleship will always be imperfect. We would be greatly mistaken to think that anything we do as Christians will shed anything other than an imperfect light on the gospel, but Jesus said we are light and salt nonetheless. We are a community on a hill. We are exemplars of a kind of kingdom that this world will only know in Jesus. As disciples, we are the first outposts of that kingdom. As our pioneer has staked out the ground and given it to us by his blood, we come to build a city that glorifies our King and live out the fullness of the Savior's gospel. Imperfect as we are, Jesus says, "Follow me."
It will be flawed, but so will be our theology, our debates, our worship, our preaching, and our teaching. In all these things, we depend upon Jesus to be what we can never be. We are properly warned not to obscure the gospel by a wrong emphasis on discipleship. I suggest we not hollow out the gospel by disconnecting it from discipleship. What can evangelicals do?
- We can include the economic and lifestyle questions in our discipleship, and we can actively look for examples and mentors to show us how to answer those questions with integrity.
- We can actively critique our consumer culture and particularly seek to find ways to see how our involvement in that culture dilutes and pollutes discipleship.
- We can listen to the church of the poor and the voices of the church in developing countries, churches that have much to teach us about living with suffering and simplicity.
- We can listen to church history and see where Christians have integrated discipleship and lifestyle constructively and where we went astray.
- We can learn from communities in various traditions that have found ways to forge a church community that embodies lifestyle values that reflect a serious engagement with Jesus' view of money and possessions.
In the 1940s, Clarence Jordan was a recent graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a doctorate in Greek. Instead of teaching Greek, Jordan went back to his native Georgia and founded an interracial community farm called Koinonia. For the next twenty-plus years, Jordan and his fellow Christians were disciples of Jesus as they studied, preached, taught, worked, lived together, sold pecans, and gave a witness to racial reconciliation.
It was the church, Jordan's own Southern Baptists, who gave him the strongest opposition. Eventually, the Klan and local racists began to inflict intimidation tactics and violence on the little community, but they stood firm. It would be three decades and more before the application of the gospel of Jesus that was read in those segregationist churches made it into the hearts of the white believers in the surrounding county.
Jordan loved the Bible, loved the gospel, loved academic study, and loved the church. He also knew what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. There was no choice about living the life. Racism was not an academic challenge. It was a challenge to the life Christians claimed to be living.
It is this discipleship, a discipleship that illuminates the fullness of the gospel, that we desperately need in our churches. Without demoting our response to the intellectual and rhetorical challenge, we are now called out of the classrooms, conferences, and church auditoriums to demonstrate the life that adorns the doctrine.
Adapted from Michael Spencer, “Lifestyle and Discipleship" Modern Reformation, Sept/Oct 2009. Used by permission.