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.

plagiarism and sin redux

A guest post by Natalie Swann.

I freaked out a bit after my more-provocative-than-I-had-intended post on plagiarism and sin. More people than I expected read the post and some people I respect have had some contrary things to say.

So, while I freaked out, I Googled “plagiarism is not sin”. Mostly, I got articles about plagiarism being sin. Oops. But on page 2 of the results I came across this NYT article by Stanley Fish, ‘Plagiarism is not a big moral deal’.

It’s a really good article and you should go and read it. I did. 3 years ago.

It shaped my consciousness for tutoring students about the rules of the citation and referencing game. And then life happened and I forgot the article, but remembered its lesson.

And I didn’t acknowledge it in my previous post.

So I’m on the fine edge of what my own university would call plagiarism — although I’m not sure Prof Fish would mind.

In light of the conversations I’ve had on- and off-line (I’m looking at you Hugh, Simon, Jo, Heather, Marty, Toby, and Rob), I need to make a concession: theft is always socially constructed.

In some places it is OK to help yourself to veggies on a public plot, or a deer from crown land. In other times or places it is not.

And so, because of contemporary understandings of Intellectual Property, plagiarism constitutes theft and it is probably rightly called a sin.

Prof Fish puts it like this:

“Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.”

But I want to stick to my guns for two reasons.

First, what does (and does not) count as plagiarism isn’t self-evident.

All this talk of plagiarism as a sin makes it seem like the ‘rules’ are obvious when really they are actually quite complicated:

“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you … that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”

My own University, the University of Melbourne, provides guidelines for students here. According to these guidelines, plagiarism included “copying ideas, concepts” (like I perhaps have done by not citing Prof Fish earlier) and “presenting as independent, work done in collaboration with other people (eg, another student, a tutor)” which seem to me about as clear as mud.

For example, I have never cited — and I have never seen anyone else cite — a tutorial conversation in an essay. And yet the purpose of a tutorial (at least, in the social sciences) is to collaborate and help students learn to think in disciplinarily acceptable ways. So shouldn’t our students be citing their tutorials?

Ultimately, if the church writ large is going to cry ‘Plagiarism!’, I think we need to be more explicit about what is and isn’t considered OK.

Is it OK to use someone else’s ideas uncredited in your sermons? It would certainly break the flow. Are preachers more like politicians or academics in Prof Fish’s example above?

Is it OK for a pastor’s partner — let alone research assistants and ghost writers (who at least get paid!) — to make significant uncredited input to sermons or written work?

Second, Intellectual Property (as we know it) is a relatively new invention and not necessarily the way things must be.

Calling plagiarism a sin threatens to blind us to this — and stop us imagining other ways of doing it.

Maybe IP is a really great idea. But maybe there are alternatives that the church should be championing.

There is certainly movement in some academic circles to make research open access. Surely it’s even more important that good theology gets out there?

Beyond that, maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Christians really think knowledge belongs to individuals?

I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect example of the interdependence of the church as a body.

And I would be excited if, in light of Pastor Driscoll’s transgression, we could have a conversation about the theological imperative for something like Creative Commons licencing and Open Access.

Admittedly, both Creative Commons and Open Access still value appropriate attribution. But both movements point us towards more collaborative and interdependent models for sharing knowledge. And I find that attractive.

plagiarism is not a sin

Guest post by Natalie Swann.


In case you missed it, there’s a wee bit of controversy going on at the moment about the evangelical celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, engaging in plagiarism (see this or this, for example).

As someone training in academia, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Acknowledging your sources is important. I train my students (when I have them) to reference their work.

But I also educate them that plagiarism is not a sin. Rather, referencing is a discipline; it is a unique product of modern Western academic practice.

While many students knowingly engage in plagiarism, there are also many students who live in terror of becoming culpable of it. The terror they feel is a moral one; the fear of a “scarlet P” on a student record has curiously religious overtones.

But nowhere in Scripture is there condemnation for what we understand as plagiarism. The writers of Genesis did not footnote Babylonian creation myths.

Plagiarism is a professional misdemeanour, not a sin.

Perhaps Pastor Driscoll is at fault in not submitting to the rulers and authorities of our age. Perhaps there are real sins at work, like pride or hypocrisy.

But, please, can we stop acting like plagiarism is a sin?

maybe I’m not so crazy after all…

I’d given up hope of getting a blog post in this week. But inspiration has struck — at 4.30 on Friday afternoon! (Better late than never I guess).

Although, rather than ‘inspiration’ I should say ‘Oliver O’Donovan’…

You see, O’Donovan affirms my recent flip-flopping between conservatism and liberalism when he draws together some observations about the gospel and the created order at the conclusion of a densely-packed few pages of argument in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order (pages 53-58):

Christian ethics … looks both backwards and forwards, to the origin and to the end of the created order. It respects the natural structures of life in the world, while looking forward to their transformation. This can be seen, for example, in the First Epistle of Peter, which starts with a general characterization of the Christian life in terms of ‘hope’, which is set ‘fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’, and then elaborates a special ethics in terms of respectful submission ‘for the Lord’s sake’ to every institution of human life, especially the institutions of government, labour and marriage (1 Pet. 1:13; 2:13ff). There is no conflict here between what might be thought of as the ‘radical’ character of the general outlook and the ‘conservatism’ of the specific counsel. A hope which envisions the transformation of existing natural structures cannot consistently attack or repudiate those structures. Yet the ‘conservatism’ (if it is proper to use the word) includes a sense of distance, which springs from a sharp awareness of how much the institutions need redemption and how transitory is their present form.

I find this heartening. And packed with explosive implications.

Heartening — not only because O’Donovan agrees with me(!) but because I’m due to preach on 1 Peter next semester and this suggests I’m not barking up entirely the wrong tree.

And packed with implications because taking 1 Peter seriously has the potential to lay dynamite at the foot of many cherished ideas about politics, work and relationships on both the right and the left.

don’t be a stranger

Last week, Natalie brought home a book of academic geography (her background discipline) — Land of Strangers by Ash Amin.

I’ve only had the chance to glance at it so far. But it looks absolutely fascinating!

As far as I can work out, Amin’s case is that modern Western societies are deeply divided over the stranger.

On the one hand, we feel threatened by strangers.

Strangers evoke emotions from low-level anxiety all the way through to outright terror. In the globalised West, every stranger could be a serial killer or an identity thief — even a terrorist.

On the other hand, we desperately long to stay strangers.

We relish our anonymity. And are fiercely protective of our privacy. Note the public outcry every time Facebook changes its privacy settings — or is rumoured to be changing its settings.

(I still remember how offended I was when I went into the bank to perform some routine transaction only to have the teller wish me Happy Birthday. That is not the kind of relationship I want to have with my bank!)

And when we take steps to reclaim that sense of community we’re so nostalgic for (even if we’ve never actually experienced it), we simultaneously insulate ourselves from it.

So we leave the anonymity of the inner city for the imagined intimacy of a suburban neighbourhood. But then we ‘cocoon’ ourselves — gliding from our air-conditioned houses to our air-conditioned cars to our air- conditioned offices and back again without pausing to be neighbours to anyone.

But I’m not excited to read Land of Strangers primarily because of the light it promises to shed on many aspects of our society.

I’m excited to read it because I’m keen to know why I find it so hard to embrace what the Bible says about strangers.

Whether it’s the biblical insistence that God’s people are to welcome and care for the strangers in their midst — because we too have been/are strangers in a foreign land.

Or if it’s the summons to be true neighbours — not walking past someone in need as the priest and Levite did on the Jericho road but crossing boundaries of social acceptability at great personal cost (just as our Lord graciously did)…

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…

spare the rod, spoil the child?


Our son Benjamin recently passed the nine month mark. And Natalie and I find ourselves thrashing about in the murky waters of discipline.

Thankfully the profoundly divisive — and potentially explosive — topic of smacking isn’t on the agenda quite yet. But we’ve been bowled over by how frequent the word ‘No’ is becoming in our little household. (About the only thing that prevents us feeling like absolute tyrants is the assurance all the parenting books, e.g., What To Expect The First Year, give us that this is thoroughly normal.)

What I find most fascinating about the challenge of disciplining my son is the way I find it so easy to see the perfectly understandable dynamics playing out ‘behind the scenes’ of his bad behaviour (I suspect I would find this more difficult if we weren’t talking about my own child).

But I’m struggling to recognise the point I’ve heard many preachers make about people being obviously evil, corrupt, sinful, and selfish because you don’t have to teach children to misbehave or act selfishly.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I’m just going soft. But none of Ben’s bad behaviour seems malignant to me.

I may not always know why he is doing the wrong thing in the moment (often I have no idea). But, upon reflection, Ben typically seems to behave badly for one of three reasons:

  1. He’s tired, sick, and/or hungry. Because he’s hurting, he pendulum swings between desperately demanding comfort and affection and lashing out.
  2. He’s investigating his world — poking a prodding at its limits, seeing what happens when he does this (or when he does it again). Whether it’s hitting Dad in the face or messing around with the powerpoint.
  3. He’s (over-)excited. And so he pushes things to extremes that he normally wouldn’t — biting Mum in his enthusiasm to see her first thing in the morning, for example. Sometimes this is combined with reason 1. Although it seems less deliberate than reason 2.

With this sympathetic reading of the springs and motives of my son’s behaviour, you might think the whole Augustinian ‘original sin’ thing would go out the window. I mean how can I think of my child as totally depraved, corrupt, and sinful from birth when he’s simply hurting, exploring, or just getting carried away?

And yet…

I guess I’m not quite ready to surrender St Augustine’s intuition (or cash in my Reformed evangelical credentials and go deal myself into another theological game). Because the question that presents itself is:

Why does my son’s hurting, exploring, or getting carried away trip up so easily (and consistently) into hurtful, selfish behaviour?

That to me is an interesting question. And one that surely draws us in the direction Augustine takes us…

a word of grace for the same-sex marriage debate

We all feel the problem, don’t we?

However you ended up here, you’re talking about same-sex marriage. And you’re feeling pinned.

You really want to say something about God’s grace in Jesus. But you’re struggling to be heard as anything but a moralistic, judgemental bigot.

Maybe — keeping Romans 1.18ff in mind — you’re trying to explain that not just homosexual sin but all sin can be traced back to idolatry.

Perhaps you’ve mentioned something about not expecting people who don’t trust Jesus to buy into Christian morality (a little uncomfortably given your convictions about Jesus being Lord of all and hence of his vision for life applying to all).

But nothing seems to be getting through.

So how can we speak a word of grace into the same-sex marriage debate?

In his brilliant little paper on ‘Preaching In A Secular Culture’ (available at Redeemer City to City), Tim Keller isolates four keys for speaking the good news of Jesus in a secular culture — and having it actually heard as good news:

  1. <strongSpeak to Christians and non-Christians at the same time. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds — the good news about Jesus is the key not only to becoming a Christian but also to growing as one.
  2. Proclaim grace not moralism. Sounds obvious, right? But incredibly hard to do in practice.
  3. Show that it’s always about Christ. Again – Duh. And, again, very difficult to do without forcing the connection (e.g., by allegory).
  4. Aim for the heart (or the imagination) not simply the emotions or the mind.

I’d love to unpack this in detail. But I’ll limit myself to picking out one point of particular relevance for Christian interventions the same-sex marriage debate. Namely, how do we pull off Point 2 — speaking a word of grace rather than moralistic condemnation?

The key, Keller suggests, is to work hard to “show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject” so people can hear us proclaiming good news not simply (what we consider to be) good advice.

Surely, Christian talk about sin — all sin not just homosexual sin — must take its cue from the way Jesus extended unconditional acceptance to sinners (“Neither do I condemn you” was his word to the woman caught in adultery in John 8) before making demands or calling for transformation (“Go and leave your life of sin”).

It’s worth asking ourselves the question: Do our interventions in the same-sex marriage debate have the savour of Jesus to them?

I suspect we won’t get very far until we start owning up to our sin and failures in this regard. Showing how the way Christ deals with sinners is good news — which, nevertheless, demands change and transformation — for all of us.

let’s do a little thought experiment

OK. I’ve been avoiding the whole same-sex marriage issue. But I’d like to open it up. So I want you to do a little thought experiment with me…

Let’s image — as seems increasingly likely — the marriage arrangements in Australia are altered at some point in the near future so as make same-sex marriage equivalent under law with marriage as we know it.

What would happen? How should conservative, Bible-believing Christians respond? (Apart, of course, from wailing and gnashing of teeth — which may well be entirely appropriate, especially if churches who refused to solemnise such relationships would face legal sanctions.)

Should we opt out of the institution of marriage altogether — regarding it as corrupt and beyond redemption — perhaps setting up a parallel ‘Christian’ arrangement as an alternative?

Or should we mobilise, go on the war path, and seek to reclaim and ‘re-Christianise’ it?

I guess it’s clear from the way I’ve set up the alternatives that I’m not keen on either option.

Why not?

It’s because neither of these are the responses the Apostle Paul recommends Christians make to the corrupt and degenerate institution of marriage as it existed in first century Corinth.

I think we can glean from 1 Corinthians 7) that marriage in Corinth had been reduced to a formal shell of itself. An arrangement of purely economic convenience. So far out of touch with God’s original, creation-purposes that married people were in the habit of seeking sexual satisfaction anywhere except within the bounds of marriage!

But Paul doesn’t call for truly spiritual Christians to ditch the institution altogether. Nor does he say, “Let’s reclaim it”. Instead, he gives practical advice for engaging with this cracked and broken institution in a way that is good, God-honouring, and gives people a taste of God’s goodness in creation and salvation.

Briefly, he says:

  • If you’re married, your body isn’t your own — you owe it to your partner. So don’t deprive each other of sex or intimacy (except under very particular circumstances you both agree to).
  • If you don’t need or get the opportunity to get married, don’t feel you have to. You are not less human or ‘complete’ if you don’t get married (in fact you’ll probably find life less complicated).
  • If you’re married, hang in there and try to make sure it lasts — as much as this depends on you. This includes if your partner isn’t Christian (I think the situation Paul’s speaking into is mostly likely that of marriages in which one partner has become a Christian after getting married).
  • If you have a choice about who to marry (as widows/widowers did in the ancient world), then marry a believer — and stick to God’s script for how you go about it.

So I’m interested. Based on this, what advice do you think Paul might give to Christians in a context in which same-sex marriage was a reality?

ethics vs morality

I keep hearing people making a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it too?

Andrew has recently observed how much edgier ‘ethics’ seems relative to ‘morality’:

It’s not very cool these days to say you’re interested in “morality”. You can say you’re interested in “ethics”, yes. That’s because “ethics” has a kind of cutting-edge, out-there-in-the-complex-modern-world feel to it, as if you’re engaging in highly specialised and hair-splitting decisions that the advance of technology has thrown up at us, like “if some rogue scientist has cloned a goat crossed with a seagull, is it ok to harvest its bone-marrow to use in weapons technology?” That kind of thing.

The relative sexiness of ethics was on display on Triple J towards the end of their recent ‘Sex Week’.

A group of guests were chatting about why people seem to find it so hard to talk about sex — especially with their partners. One suggested that the problem was that our thinking and talking about sex was too bound up with morality, which he said meant “questions about right and wrong” (questions he hinted were not only guilt-producing but also impossible to arbitrate or settle)

He went on to suggest that we need to disentangle ourselves from this and start operating out of an ‘ethics’ framework instead, which he said had more to do with “respecting each other and reducing harm”.

Now, this says more about the sexiness of ethics than the ethics of sex. Scratch the surface of both ‘respect’ and ‘harm’ and you’re suddenly back in the much-maligned realm of morality — and its irreconcilable absolutes. For once you start fleshing out what it looks like to respect someone, you’re drawing upon your moral vision. And once you start talking about how to calculate (and mitigate) harm, you’re doing moral calculus.

But we’ve got to get past scoring cheap debating points — one way or the other (e.g., “Morality’s dated and repressive, get with the times and do ethics instead” or “Your ethics is shot through with morality – ner, ner!”). Because what’s going on even further below the surface is where things could get really interesting.

I’m wondering if the flight from potentially intractable moral debate towards an ethics that is at once thinner (more minimal and readily accessible) and deeper (because it supposedly transcends the awkward particulars of morality) testifies to our longing for a universally valid and ready-to-hand perspective on how to live. Our longing, in other words, for God to speak an authoritative word of judgement and grace.