don’t know much about the Middle Ages

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 4 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 4 of 20

I definitely don’t know much about the Middle Ages. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading up about monasticism—especially because the contemporary discipleship conversation often harks back (implicitly or explicitly) to monastic spirituality.

I’m acutely aware that a few weeks of reading far from qualifies me as a world expert or anything remotely like an ‘insider’ — notwithstanding the near-monastic rigour of waking at 4.30am all week with my congested three year-old son.

But I’ve found some interesting tensions in the way Ernst Troeltsch handles the phenomenon of monasticism in his landmark study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.

If you don’t know anything about Troeltsch, fear not — neither did I. Until I Googled him.

Apparently, he was a very influential late nineteenth century/early twentieth century philosopher, historian and theologian. Barth regarded Troeltsch as the ultimate nineteenth-century liberal theologian, possibly a little like Jesus regarded John the Baptist as the ultimate Old Testament prophet — for each brought their respective tradition to its (dead) end.

But some of his ideas exercise ongoing influence. Like the important distinction he makes between church and sect — which is the assumed framework for Miroslav Volf’s famous article, ‘Soft Difference’.

And monasticism plays a particularly fascinating role here.

On the one hand, Troeltsch sees monasticism as incorporated — if not fully integrated — within the richer whole of the medieval Corpus Christianum. Indeed, he discerns what Michael Banner calls an ‘otherworldly worldliness’ in its ascetic withdrawal from the world that enables monastic spirituality to contribute positively to the unity and stability of the medieval synthesis (pages 243-5).

According to Troeltsch, monasticism founds a home on the church side of the church/sect divide during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, when he comes to systematise his distinction between church and sect, monasticism appears on the other side of the divide — as an agent of disruption and radicalisation rather than of social cohesion.

Although Troeltsch’s description of sectarian radicalism reads like a blow by blow account of sixteenth century Anabaptism, he admits that in the Early Church it was embodied “above all in monasticism” (page 329).

But he quickly moves to contain this admission.

He labours to maintain that (as he had previously argued) the sectarian energies of monasticism had been pressed into service of the church by the Middle Ages. Except that now, far from a mutualism benefiting both church and monastery, Troeltsch says monasticism was merely “tolerated” (page 330).

All of which yields a much more negative assessment of monasticism, which overturns his best insights into the ‘worldliness’ characteristic of monastic spirituality (pages 332-3):

“The ascetic ideal of the sects is fundamentally different from that of monasticism, in so far as the latter implies emphasis on the mortification of the senses, and upon works of supererogation in poverty and obedience for their own sake. In all things the ideal of the sect is essentially not one which aims at the destruction of the sense life and of natural self-feeling, but a union in love which is not affected by the social inequalities and struggles of the world.”

The ambivalent and liminal status of monasticism as Troeltsch handles it here, crops up repeatedly whenever the contemporary discipleship conversation looks back to or attempts to retrieve the ‘otherworldly worldiness’ of monastic spirituality.

the contemporary discipleship conversation

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 3 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 3 of 20

I find it hard to avoid the contemporary discipleship conversion.

And I don’t think it’s just because I’m doing a PhD on discipleship. As soon as I edge towards any discussion on Christian living, mission or evangelism, I’m either taking part in it or eavesdropping on it.

It’s certainly bubbling away in the missional church movement.

Take Mike Breen’s famous article, ‘Why the missional movement will fail’, for example. (At the time I wrote this, the article had been shared 9500 times on Facebook. So it’s pretty influential.)

Breen begins by contending that discipleship is the engine of the church — and mission: “If you make disciples you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.”

As a sidebar: I am 100% on board with the sentiment here. But I’m more hesitant about the precise formulation.

I totally get that ‘building the church’ particularly through pragmatic church growth techniques doesn’t always/often yield mature, proactive Christians. But I wonder if it would be different if we followed the biblical game plan for building the church — speaking the truth in love, using our gifts in love to serve and build each other up, stoking the fires of faith in Christ and joy in him, etc.

And I’d also question whether making disciples does in fact always yield the church. I’ve seen too many ‘sold out disciples’ who struggle with and ultimately give up on belonging to an actual flesh-and-blood church because it’s not radical/missional/whatever enough…

But according to Breen, the priority of discipleship is both true and pragmatic.

On the one hand, it’s true as a matter of simple, biblical definition. In the New Testament, disciples do mission. But mission is only “one of many things Jesus taught his disciples to do well”.

(Of course, we will need to contend at some point with whether ‘disciple’ should be our go to way of characterising those who belong to Jesus. And even if it is, we’ll need to be aware of where it has limits and needs supplementing with the other possible contenders for this crown: ‘Christian’, ‘child of God’, ‘believer’, etc)

On the other hand, as Breen shares from his own experience of the messy, challenging, protracted, spiritual war zone of mission and missional community, it doesn’t work without discipleship: “Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable”.

So when he concludes with this stirring cry, I can’t help but nod in agreement:

The missional movement will fail because, by-and-large, we are having a discussion about mission devoid of discipleship. Unless we start having more discussion about discipleship and how we make missionaries out of disciples, this movement will stall and fade. Any discussion about mission must begin with discipleship.

Maybe the discipleship conversation I can’t avoid is something I shouldn’t try to!

a storm in an Anglican teacup

Photo: 'pieds' 2 of 20, Devan Foster

Photo: ‘pieds’ 2 of 20, Devan Foster

During the week, some friends drew my attention to a debate about discipleship that’s currently troubling teacups in the Church of England.

Here’s the article I was alerted to — ‘Is “discipleship” Anglican?’ by Ian Paul.

Let me try to break down the debate as I understand it:

  • A bunch of reports on the future of the Church have recently appeared. Apparently, they and their recommendations are laced with the language of ‘discipleship’ and ‘disciple-making’. (I know. Anglicans who are on-trend! Astonishing. Although, not unprecedented.)
  • Two high profile Anglicans — Linda Woodhead and Angela Tilby — then publicly questioned this. Specifically, they questioned all the discipleship talk.
  • Since then there has been at least one round of responses — like Paul’s — all pushing discipleship front and centre in various ways.

I don’t want to jump the gun on this. And I definitely can’t claim to fully grasp the context of this debate.

But I’m fascinated by the following features:

One. There’s an obvious political dimension to address.

Woodhead’s worry that “the reason that the theologically peripheral concept of “discipleship” is made to do so much work in these reports is that “following Jesus” is being used as an analogue for leadership (Jesus and clergy), and followership (laity)” is yet to receive an adequate response.

While Ian Paul has plenty to say about the claim that discipleship is a ‘theologically peripheral concept’, he doesn’t appear to adequately tackle the suggestion that it is being used to smuggle in a particular model of church — and church leadership.

To me this is a particularly important question.

It’s important formally because my experience has been that evangelicals aren’t very good at addressing the power dimensions in any particular discourse. So while we may be all over the meaning and truth of discipleship discourse, we struggle to do justice to more political question of how it’s being used and abused (and who’s benefiting).

It’s also important substantively because one of the hunches driving my own research is that emphasising discipleship affects our doctrine of church — tending to eclipse the (solidly biblical) metaphor of the body, for example.

Two. There’s also a hermeneutical question to tackle.

Tilby raises this question when she proposes an alternative master image for the Christian life:

There’s little about disciples in the rest of the New Testament [outside the Gospels and early chapters of Acts]; certainly not in Paul’s letters, in spite of his missionary passion. Scripture might therefore suggest that discipleship is not the best description of normative Christian life. Life in the Spirit or life in Christ are obvious alternatives, bridging the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline letters, both of which are concerned with the Church’s life in present time rather than with the earthly history of Jesus (where the language of discipleship really belongs).

The final half sentence is the key. We must grapple with the relation between what the Evangelists describe in the Gospels (and Acts) and what is proscribed for us as Christians on this side of the resurrection.

As I’ve begun gently probing Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life, I’ve been struck by how develops an account of the disciples as types of Christians. Disciples display deep continuities with post-resurrection members of the Church, to be sure. But they’re still ‘on the way’ and not quite there yet.

Three. Those advocating discipleship have a point we can’t evade.

Discipleship talk does a good job of fostering a concrete and serious concern with holistic holiness of life (which includes the call to mission). The more ‘societal’ approach to church/faith favoured by Woodhead and Tilby struggles to sustain this.

If we don’t want to go with discipleship as a key image for the Christian life then we’re going to have to find something else that does the job at least as well.

In other words, when it comes to our thinking about the Christian life we may have to get beyond discipleship — but we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we can’t go around it; we’ve got to go through it!

Four. In fleshing out what discipleship means we inevitably go beyond what the Gospels present.

In fact, as Ian Paul fleshes out discipleship in terms of “decision, learning and community”, he is forced to develop his doctrine of the Christian life beyond the bounds of merely being a disciple as it was known and practiced prior to Jesus (the Rabbis had disciples) and even in the Gospels.

At one point, he even admits this, describing discipleship as the ‘root’ from which the more widely observable language of decision, learning and community spring up.

And this is where things really start to get interesting.

Because thinking of discipleship as the root of full Christian character and living actually invites us towards the theological maturity and balance Woodhead and Tilby crave — the tree is so much more than the root (even if it’s all latent in the root).

But, as it does so, it calls us to guard against sacrificing the sharp edges of our evangelical preference for discipleship language.

does Christianity = discipleship?

Photo: 'pieds' 1 of 20, Devan Foster

Photo: ‘pieds’ 1 of 20, Devan Foster

My research on the theological significance of discipleship in the Reformed tradition has begun!

One of the big questions I’m faced with right off the bat is how to understand ‘discipleship’.

Is it coextensive with being Christian? Is it real Christianity — the genuine article (as opposed to, say, nominalism or ‘carnal’ Christianity)? Or something else?

Some are outspoken about this. Famously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (The Cost of Discipleship):

Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more nor less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.

In saying this, Bonhoeffer is making common cause with what has been described as the ‘Anabaptist vision’. That is, the vision of faith and life expressed by the equation: Christianity = discipleship.

And there is something clearly right about this. Again and again, Jesus summoned people to discipleship — to follow him rather than merely associating themselves with him from a distance, to embrace him on his terms rather than their own (after burying their dead or saying good-bye to their families, for example), to publicly ‘own’ him rather than secretly nursing some private conviction or experience.

More, there is something deeply appealing. I love Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism. For him (as for Barth), Jesus has to define and shape our allegiance to him — not some system, principle or idea … even an idea about Jesus.

But things are just a little more complicated… (Obviously, right? Or I’d hardly think I could get a PhD out of it!)

For one thing, Jesus seems to not just call people to follow him — as many had done before and many would do after him — but also to rework, expand and give new content to what such following means.

I’m also not 100% sure that the simple equation of Christianity with discipleship can be made without some important remainder.

In the end, what I’m seeking is a more thoroughly Jesus-shaped vision of the Christian life.

And I’m happy to look almost anywhere for it. Whether to the Anabaptists and their heirs or the Magisterial Reformers (like Calvin) and their heirs — even if it means displacing discipleship as the central organising image for being Christian.

the next chapter of the discipleship story


Last year I attended a seminar at the annual national conference for the Christian student movement I’m part of. It’s topic was discipleship — what it looks like to follow and imitate Jesus.

A key moment in the seminar came early on, where our speaker framed the question of discipleship like this:

“We can’t walk on water. We can’t cure lepers. So what does it mean to say we want to be like Jesus?”

When he said this, we all chortled along. I did too. (I even tweeted it.) Haw. Haw. Yes. Of course!

And he had a point. When Jesus talks about what it means to follow him, he always emphasises being conformed to him in his self-emptying for the sake of others.

Christian discipleship is about following the path he walked. Service. Self-denial. Suffering.

But I’ve realised that there’s another chapter in the story of discipleship. In many ways it’s the chapter of discipleship’s future — the glory following the suffering, the resurrection following the crucifixion.

The New Testament gives us a preview of this when one disciple does in fact walk on water.

In Matthew 14, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. Most of them freak out — not sure what they’re seeing. But Peter has faith, and asks if he can go out to be where Jesus is. And Jesus agrees.

It’s a dramatic moment. And if it’s meant to be a picture of the Christian life, then surely it’s primarily about where that life is heading — towards the glory of sharing in Christ’s perfect rule over creation.

And yet there’s also much about Peter’s faltering combination of courage and doubt (overwhelmed and distracted by his circumstances) that speaks to us of the Christian now.

Indeed, the themes that swell in this story — trust, loyalty and the need to develop a Christ-centred gaze — simply are the main themes of the Christian life. They’re as true and urgent now in our conformity with Christ’s sufferings as they will be when we join him in his unveiled glory.

For the invitation contained in Christ’s call to follow him is the invitation to take up our fullest and truest humanity. Humanity in fellowship with God. Renewed in his image. And renovated by his Spirit.

And to do so not simply after we’ve emptied ourselves but also in emptying ourselves.

That is the next chapter of the discipleship story. The chapter in which discipleship is the glorious road to our best humanity. Trusting and looking to Jesus above all. And becoming like him — even when that means falteringly setting out across the waters…