Are We In A Muddle Over Our Discipleship?
Have we become so protective of personal autonomy in following Christ that we no longer submit to external discipline?
A recurring theme among churches is the question of how to stimulate lively discipleship. Nothing could be more important given its primacy in the Great Commission of Jesus before he ascended to heaven: ‘go and make disciples…’ and yet there is a pervasive sense of failure surrounding it which is painful to accept. In some cases, instead of church attendance being seen as a means to an end – active and collaborative discipleship in the world Christ has come to redeem – it has become an end in itself, as if to express faith it is only necessary to turn up on Sunday.
This description may be a caricature of the position, but it is sufficiently near the mark to unsettle us. Thankfully, most Christians are eager to be built up in faith and especially keen to express it in their daily lives and employment. It bears repeating that our generation is experiencing some of the most rapid societal changes in history. These are happening right here, right now and some of them pose serious questions for Christians which we have been poor at talking through. While the boundary lines between the secular and the sacred may feel spiritually meaningless for those who believe the whole world belongs to God, in practice Christians need maturity and understanding in how to express their faith assuredly, wisely and humbly in an environment which is trying to draw those lines sharply and evermore in favour of the secular. A more refined focus on these fresh challenges in our fellowship and teaching would help.
There are other reasons for the disquiet around discipleship. It has been said that political authority in a nation reflects the make-up of the indigenous family; loosely speaking, that autocratic polities emerge from hierarchical families and democratic governments from egalitarian ones. Christian culture is affected the same way, which means our churches take a more informal and non-directive approach to character formation where people are encouraged to find their own way within certain parameters. There is authority for this in the injunction to ‘work out your own salvation’ (Philippians 2:12) but it is not allied in the modern family with a particularly strict view of discipline, which goes to the heart of discipleship in more than just an etymological way.
The prevailing culture is deeply respectful of personal autonomy. Self-expression is uninhibited and any perception of interference in the way someone chooses to live is frowned upon. In our voyage of self-discovery, we may decide to bring in people who will direct us, like personal trainers and coaches, but their authority stems from us rather than an external source.
Each of these trends may inhibit Christian formation by resisting the influence of others. Some are acutely aware of the historic danger of so-called ‘heavy shepherding’, where church leaders have exerted an intrusive and controlling influence over individual members which defies the spirit of personal freedom implicit in the calling of Christ. However, this concern should not impinge on a fresh sense of mutual accountability, which reflects something of the culture we live in, while expressing fidelity to the Christian virtue of discipline.
In Hebrews 12 it re-asserts the words of Proverbs:
Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord…for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves’ (verses 5-6).
This vocabulary has lapsed somewhat in recent years and led to confusion over the purposes of God. Without a faithful interpretation of this, some are assailed by a sense that God is punishing them over things he is not while others seem blithely unaware that God might take a corrective view of their life and choices.
It is not as difficult as we might think to alter the culture in which we operate in any one setting. Human behaviour is profoundly and shamelessly imitative. A wise, affirming and honest conversation about God’s discipline in today’s laissez-faire culture is an imperative if we are to renew our commitment to the Great Commission.
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