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.