Dear Disciples of Jesus,
Through these years you have become distinctly aware of my unwavering commitment to discipleship. However, I must also offer some words of caution regarding the dangers of discipleship.
I have listened to people define discipleship as “a way to perfect my faith, improve my character, get closer to Jesus, make our congregation stronger, help us to grow again, form leaders, change the culture of our congregation.” Certainly, that doesn’t seem dangerous.
In order to pursue discipleship, we enhance our devotional life, memorize Scripture, pursue spiritual disciplines, engage in Bible study, worship weekly, receive the Sacraments, pray the daily offices, confess our sins, seek forgiveness, meet regularly with a coach, mentor, spiritual director, shepherd or confessor, gather with others in dyads or triads for support and mutual accountability. These behaviors seem far more helpful than dangerous.
The danger is that discipleship can become all about me and my progress and my performance or about us and our congregation’s progress and performance. We can become so caught up in ourselves that we are no longer following Jesus, but our own image of what it means to be his disciple. We try to make ourselves better, thinking that if we simply engage in a growing list of positive behaviors we will become Christ-like, worthy to be called a disciple and fully equipped to disciple others.
As a congregation, we assume that if everybody did the same thing in the same way pursuing discipleship, our congregation would grow closer to Jesus and to one another, transforming our culture and the lives of countless others.
When we focus just on ourselves or our congregation, discipleship can become a form of legalism that forces us to keep trying harder and harder to get it right, or to realize that attaining some sort of advanced spiritual standing through our own efforts is never going to happen and so we give up.
There is also a danger of forming an inner group of “true disciples” while the rest of the congregation is on the outside. One group is doing it and the others aren’t even trying. When one group claims to be spiritually superior, faithful and growing closer to Jesus, they can become divisive and undermine the unity of the Church.
It is just as dangerous to assume that discipleship is a formula for equipping a congregation to climb “a spiritual ladder of corporate success.” The danger is that when discipleship is pursued in this way it becomes a trap or a prison of a completely inward focus. Focusing on ourselves or the survival of our congregation in ways that satisfy our fragile egos will also undermine our spiritual growth and development.
If we are honest, instead of being motivated and driven by faith in the grace of Jesus Christ, our commitment to gaining the attention of God and others by our own good works is never far behind.
While I may not acknowledge it theologically, there is a dichotomy between my mind and my heart regarding my faith. I know what I say I believe and then I also know what drives my action. Dallas Willard reminded me that there is the truth we ascribe to and the truth we actually hold to. When I am focused on me or us and our failures, my view of God can easily be twisted into what Dallas describes as “the western exterminator” or the “divine curmudgeon.” God is viewed as cold, distant, impersonal, judgmental, condemning, always setting unrealistic expectations that no person can meet. We want God, but we still want to control our life and destiny.
However, the grace of Jesus Christ is beyond our ability to control and is more difficult to receive than we often admit. This takes many forms. We seek control in the precision of our theology, the passion for doctrinal purity or the commitment to a singular liturgical form. So, in the name of “discipleship,” we’ve tried to get people to do better or try harder or simply agree with our own feeble attempts to control our own lives.
In the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus came to proclaim, there is no room for the personal or corporate focus on me or us. Jesus both teaches and demonstrates that real freedom is the loss of self-focus, giving up self-centeredness, engaging in self-denial, taking up the cross. There is greater life when we are not focused on me or us. Focusing on ourselves at the expense of others is the polar opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus proclaimed. If we are only focused on ourselves, we reflect more of our surrounding culture than the values of the culture Jesus proclaimed in his kingdom. By constantly checking in on how well we’re doing at being “good Christians” we actually never become good Christians.
The discipleship Jesus both modeled and taught his disciples is outward focused and highly relational. It is founded and focused on God’s love. In the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
In the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, God is not distant. There is no climbing to reach him. He has come down to us. Jesus is Immanuel — God with us. His presence is no more powerfully experienced than in the Eucharist. In his death on the cross he offered himself for your forgiveness and mine, for our redemption and salvation. He died the death we deserved so that we might be forgiven, reconciled to the Father through the Son’s selfless love and unfathomable grace. In his glorious resurrection we receive hope and new life now, and eternal life with him forever. We enter his kingdom through faith in him, in his love and in all of his promises. In your baptism he declared, “you are mine, you’ve been adopted, you are my child and an heir of my kingdom.”
We come not by our own strength or merit, but in our weakness and complete dependence on Jesus. Transformation begins to happen when we realize that our own efforts are never going to get us there and we surrender to what Jesus has already done for us. The discipleship Jesus taught was not a matter of arriving but abiding in his love for you individually and in his body, the Church. Jesus invited his first followers, and invites us, to abide in the full awareness of who he is, the nature of his Father and his kingdom.
Dallas Willard defined discipleship this way: “I am learning from Jesus how to live my life the way he would live it if he were I.” If Jesus could come to earth in the life of an ordinary person, born of humble parents, and live in a community that had such a reputation people would say, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, he can certainly enter into the life of a person like you or me! Being a disciple of Jesus is living a life immersed in his amazing and wondrous love for us. It is not a matter of simply possessing knowledge about Jesus but knowing him as you would know an intimate friend. This loving, personal, intimate Savior longs to be involved in every aspect of our lives. This is the nature of Immanuel — God with us. The closeness Jesus had with his Father, he bestowed on others. Discipleship is discovering how close, available and accessible Jesus is, how willing he is to accompany you in every step of your journey in this life, how he longs for you to experience the abundant life only truly possible in following him, guided by his Holy Spirit. Being a disciple of Jesus cannot happen without such divine intervention.
Let me offer these 12 suggestions for avoiding an inward-focused discipleship:
- Incorporate the language of love in all of our teaching about discipleship.
- Encourage spiritual disciplines that don’t turn us in on ourselves but push us outward into loving others.
- Stop talking about growing closer to Jesus as an end of discipleship. Realizing how close he already is changes everything.
- Encourage Bible study out of learning more about the nature of God who loved us beyond what we could ever imagine or deserve. We read not to earn a gift but because of a gift we have already received.
- The transformation in discipleship is to love others the same way Christ has loved us.
- Focus those we disciple on loving others, turning our understanding into action, putting the best interest of the other ahead of self.
- Accountability cannot be just about quiet time, prayer time, memorization or study without also including how we are implementing what we have learned in how we are loving others (the nature of Christian living).
- Create this community and accountability in every congregation, beginning with every relationship we have now.
- Be open to being interrupted by the Holy Spirit to attend to the needs of those closest to you.
- Be prepared to tell God’s story of his amazing grace in Jesus Christ.
- Make discipleship as concrete and practical as Jesus did. “Give them something to eat.”
- Be sure to intentionally make the connection between how Christ is speaking to you through his Word and how you are responding obediently in loving others.
I have mentioned a number of the dangers of discipleship, but the greatest danger of all is to do nothing about discipleship. To make that choice is to live in direct disobedience to Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28). The greatest danger for the entire Body of Christ is to know what Jesus taught and modeled and then refuse to act. This is to live self-centered lives, relying on our own wisdom and attempts at self-justification but not his grace no matter how many times we utter the word.
Having served the Church as a pastor for the past 40 years, I am well aware that every congregation has been accused and convicted of having an inner group that causes others to feel like outsiders. Who is closest to the pastor or the council? That is the inner group because people believe they are the ones who possess power and authority. It could be the choir, worship and music committee, executive council, small group, or any number of other groups depending on the nature of the congregation’s history. Trying to prevent division by avoiding discipleship is a flimsy excuse. Jesus teaches about this very issue when the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her request that her sons would sit on the right and left side of his throne in Heaven. Jesus refocused their lives on serving and loving others for the sake of his kingdom and so must we, for that is the true nature of discipleship.
The greatest danger of all is doing nothing about discipleship.
With you following him,
Bishop John Bradosky