Are we, all of us, called to be disciples? I think so. if I am right we must continue to talk about disciples and discipleship, resisting all attempts to abandon the the term.
But, in the Church Times the notion of discipleship, or more precisely the idea that the Church’s primary responsibility, is to ‘make’ disciples has, for consecutive two weeks, been called into question.
Angela Tilby argues that the use of the ‘d’ word is a consequence of ‘the influence of American-derived Evangelicalism on the Church’s current leadership.’
Now, I would in no way, shape, or, form admit to being formed by American Evangelicalism.
If compelled to self-label I would say that I am a ‘liberalish’ (I was trained at Cuddesdon!) type of sacramental Christian, who doesn’t want the Church to enter into a futile (and false) liberal-conservative stand off around the concept of discipleship.
I don’t think it is accurate, biblically or historically, to say that discipleship is an evangelical invention, although evangelical churches, rightly, take discipleship very seriously. I can’t talk, with integrity, from an evangelical stance, so my thoughts are entirely derived from my own ‘liberalish-sacramental’ background.
Life in Christ, life in the Spirit is surely the essence of discipleship? if not, what else is it? In the churches where I minister we (me, and my Wescott trained liberally inclined incumbent) deliberately present confirmation as a rite sealing a commitment to a life of discipleship. We unapologetically consider discipleship to be of utmost importance. We expect transformation to take place through both word and sacrament (or in reality sacrament and word).
Now I understand the argument that discipleship is a strange sounding word to those outside, or making their first tentative steps, into the Church. But, many of our terms, phrases and practices must seem strange. I don’t know of many people who in ordinary day-to-day life use words like, ‘Saviour,’ ‘Eucharist,”Sermon” or ‘Intercession.’ Preaching in its ordinary use has negative connotations, ‘talk’ sounds demeaning and who on earth, outside the Church, knows what a homily is. Language is always problematic.
But, even if such terms sound strange, religious even, would it be right to throw away all the words that give Christianity it’s own distinct flavour?
That would be absurd.
Surely education is the key? Is learning Christian language really so different from learning a foreign or technical language? You can’t get to the heart of something without learning and using its distinctive language. I am absolutely confident that my daughters love and appreciation of music is, in part, a consequence of their being able to read music!
Angela Tilby suggests that ‘followers of the way,’ ‘Life in the Spirit,’ and ‘Life in Christ,’ are better, ‘normative’, phrases, describing the reality of Christian Life.
My point is that ‘life in the Spirit’ and ‘life in Christ’ are outcomes, describing a new way of being, rather than the processes (discipleship) through which we will, one day, arrive at the destination. However, even if Angela Tilby is correct, I can’t easily see how such phrases are somehow less challenging, or easier to get our heads round. They still sound ever so slightly odd, just a little bit zany and religious!
One further ‘linguistic’ thought: all disciplines and practices require some propitiatory language in order to convey their sense of uniqueness. If the words such as disciple and discipleship are removed from the lexicon of Christianity we might find ourselves left with a linguistic black hole. Or worse still, without a universal language of faith, we run the risk of domesticating faith and, how would this fit with a belief in ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?’
Christianity requires a set of common nouns and verbs which,in some ways,transcend ordinary every day use, in order to convey its unique and distinctive attributes.
So what of the notion that discipleship is not a major biblical motif?
As you may suspect I don’t buy it. In fact I would want to go back a stage and suggest that to be a disciple is a basic human instinct.
Let’s pause and consider what the word disciple actually means (one criticism of those seeking to dismiss the importance of the term disciple is that they never ‘state their terms,’ instead making the assumption that we all share a common understanding – this is equally true in other areas of contentious debate).
The O.E.D. defines a disciple as ‘a follower of a leader, teacher, philosophy etc.’
At the end of the day (and I know we all want to be leaders), to be a disciple is simply to be a follower, and we are all followers of someone or something.
The thesaurus offers the following alternatives: acolyte, adherent, admirer, follower, learner, proselyte, pupil, scholar, student, supporter. These all look like descriptions of what it means to be human, or at least to behave as a functioning human being.
St. Paul, I suggest, understood that discipleship and humanity are inextricably interwoven, with this being the rational behind 1 Corinthians Chapter 3.
The Corinthians are given a right royal (insert your own preference here) for acting as though they are disciples (followers) of Paul or Apollos:‘mere humans’. Paul, reminds both himself and readers that his basic role is to ensure that the Corinthians become followers of Christ, students of Christ,acolytes of Christ, supporters of Christ (and each other) and teachers of Christ.The correct technical term we, the Church, must continue to use to describe all of these functions is:
Disciples of Christ, because if we are not disciples of Christ as sure as eggs or eggs, we will become disciples / followers of another leader, teacher or philosophy – for discipleship is our human destiny – and that would be very bad news indeed.