Discipleship in America

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 20, 2006

How do we live as disciples in this nation? One might be tempted to think that this is a relatively easy question. But this is the most difficult question that I’ve ever pondered. Bear with me as I explain why.

A lot of folks assume that discipleship is pretty straightforward. You just read the bible, pray, and fellowship with folks (usually in that order), and you’ll become a fine disciple of Jesus. Some folks disagree with that sort of logic. I am one of them. I agree with Hauerwas, who says “crazy” things like you need to be a disciple BEFORE you should be entrusted with the Bible (I’ll get to that later). In a recent interview, Hauerwas said this in regards to our “personal relationship with Jesus:”

I really don’t like the word ‘personal.’ It makes it sound like I have a relationship with Jesus that is unmediated by the church. They have the idea that “I have a personal relationship with Jesus that I go to church to have expressed.” But the heart of the gospel is that you don’t know Jesus without the witness of the church. It’s always mediated.

I’d imagine that many of my readers would cringe at such statements. But I agree with Hauerwas. This isn’t to say I reject the priesthood of all believers. Quite the contrary. To be a priest is to be a mediator. Our “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ comes through the church, as we mediate Christ’s presence to one another. Our relationship with Christ is a communal one. Our individual relationship with Christ flows out of our communal one. If you disagree, just skim through the epistles for a while with this distinction fresh in you mind. It is amazing, simply amazing, how much our individualism taints our understanding of Scripture.

Just as our relationship with Jesus is mediated through the Church, so is our reading of Scripture. In his book Unleashing the Scripture, Hauerwas makes the case that one cannot properly read Scripture apart from the context of a discipling community. Many within the emerging church resonate with such sentiments (much to the dismay of many protestants and evangelicals).

Which leads me back to my initial question: How do we live as disciples in America? If one must be a disciple BEFORE one can properly read Scripture the way it is to be read, how do we BECOME disciples? In other words, the answer to this question can’t simply be read your Bible, since one can’t really really read one’s Bible until one is a disciple. We must learn how to read the Bible before we can read it.

How we answer this question is fundamentally an ecclesiological question. The church is the proper context for understanding Scripture, since it is the church that mediates Christ’s presence to one another and to the world. But who decides what the church looks like? In America, we have a sort of ecclesiological crisis. Many evangelicals assume that the Gospel is unchanging and that the shape of the church is up for grabs. Unfortunately, as Marshall McLuen pointed out years ago: “The Medium is the Message.” If the medium (the church) shifts with the culture, then the very context in which we are to read Scripture shifts with culture. In other words, we find ourselves unable to read Scripture the way we ought. And even more disturbing (if we believe Hauerwas), our relationship with Jesus is ripe for misinterpretation, since we will see Jesus through American eyes, instead of Christian eyes.

Which leads me to something Scot McKnight (a Bible prof at North Park University) recently pointed out on his blog:

…everyone wants Jesus so much on his or her side that they make him fit. Jesus is a Republican, a Democrat, and a Marxist. And I could go on…

Professor McKnight has students take a test of sorts, comparing themselves with Jesus, both when they start out in his course, as well as when they leave. The results always point to this same conclusion: we tend to shape Jesus into our image.

And so, when a group of Democrats get together to read the Bible, they read it as Democrats. And when a group of Republicans get together to read the Bible, they read it as Republicans. How can we be a church–live as disciples–in such a way that we are able to be shaped by Scripture rather than reading ourselves into Scripture? How can we become more like Jesus instead of making him more like us?

I’ll continue working through this question in my next post. But for now, I invite you to share your thoughts.

for further reading . . .

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4 Responses to “Discipleship in America”

  1. on January 21st, 2006 6:26 pm

    Discipleship in America

    Join Mark Van Steenwyk on his quest to unravel Discipleship in America. Apparently this is Marks first post in a series that will try to answer the question: How do we live as disciples in this nation? I like the fac…

  2. Rich on January 22nd, 2006 5:12 pm

    your quote “Our individual relationship with Christ flows out of our communal one”. is very scriptural and is totally opposed to American Evangelicalism.
    In the Lutheran tradition, theres the belief in the Real Presence. Jesus bodily presence is in the community of believers centered around the Word and the Sacraments.
    I would also agree with you that it is “the church that mediates Christ’s presence to one another and to the world.”
    I’ve learned much from the Anabaptist tradition but the Lutheran tradition an its focus on Grace and community centered around Word and Sacrament is something we can all benefit from.
    I know the Evangelical Covenant Church traditon values this as well.
    Great Blog!

  3. Call Me Ishmael on February 2nd, 2006 5:58 pm

    Someone should tell Wolfhart Pannenberg about this. He needs to overhaul his ecclesiology, by gum!

  4. The Red Herring on February 14th, 2006 11:53 pm

    Hey Mark -

    I just started reading your thoughts on discipleship. I was immensely encouraged to see that you later tackle economic issues, as well.

    I would like to interact some more around that with you. Do you know of anyone else within the emerging movement that deals with the connection between perceptions of Christianity and the economic base from which these notions emerge?

    By the way, if we are serious about critiquing “modern” concepts, what about “nation,” which both emerges right from the middle of the modern period, and is strongly linked with the colonial project of accumulation?

    How would your question about discipleship differ if you subverted those initial assumptions about “nation” and “America”?

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