Discipleship in “The Transition Zone”

The single most important contribution that Anabaptist ecclesiology can make in a post-modern world is to proclaim that Jesus Christ did not intend for his church to be viewed simply as another human institution.  Anabaptists of the sixteenth century were unimpressed by the vast institution the church had become, insisting that this was a corruption of what Jesus originally intended.[i]  The task of the church is much broader than simply developing building programs, meeting budgets, and working for the political stability of the status quo.  On the contrary, they believed that the church was supposed to be a place where people voluntarily associated together under the authority of Christ Jesus as citizens of the kingdom he came to establish. They understood the church not as an institution, but rather as a covenant community of people who know themselves to be recipients of God’s grace, and have responded to that grace with by vowing to be one of Jesus’ followers – disciples.

For their covenant with Christ to be valid, the Anabaptists held that those who voluntarily pledged themselves to Christ must allow themselves to be held accountable for their vows.  The decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord was an expression of a person’s willingness to submit to Christ’s leadership and authority within the community of discipleship.  Such submission invites people to allow themselves to be held accountable to his or her commitments.  Without such accountability, discipleship becomes a matter of personal preference rather than loyalty to Christ. Rather than focused on Christ, the elements of discipleship are determined by individuals living under the myth that they have choices about such matters. Discipleship becomes Gnosticized to the point that it is of utmost secrecy and privacy—it is myopic, self-centered and self-indulgent.

The central problem in the contemporary church is that Christ has been removed as the center of discipleship, replaced by the whims of the individual believer.  David Lowes Watson writes that our contemporary views of discipleship suffer a serious self-defeating limitation:

. . . they depend on our notion of discipleship, not that of Jesus Christ; on our ideas about the coming reign of God, not those of Jesus Christ; on our concepts of faith and commitments, not those of Jesus Christ; and on giving people options for Christian living which are not options and all—because we have determined the options, not Jesus Christ. [ii]

The unfortunate result of this self-centered and myopic view of discipleship is that Christ is removed as the center of the church.  With Christ removed from the center of both personal discipleship and congregational life, the church ceases to point toward the kingdom. With Christ no longer at its center, the church suffers from an identity crisis.  The most damaging effect of this identity crisis is enculturationEnculturation takes places whenever the church adopts rather than opposes the values and influences of our sinful world. Enculturation occurs whenever the church adjusts or modifies the gospel to the values and principles of the world.  No longer is the church a sign community pointing to the coming reign of God.  Instead the church becomes “merely a reflection of what’s happening in its worldly context.” [iii] 

The sad reality of our contemporary situation in the United States is that we have largely become an enculturated church.  Instead of Christ-centered congregations composed of individuals intentionally seeking to follow Jesus, we have self-centered churches whose primary concern is offering benefits to their members.  Anabaptist ecclesiology offers an effective way of combating enculturation in the church—that being to return Jesus Christ to the center of discipleship.

The recovery of Anabaptist ecclesiology can help remind the church that it ought not accept a person’s confession of faith or vow of commitment without also giving them the nurture and support they need to keep their promises.  John Wesley once said that to win converts to Christ without providing them with support and a structure for discipline was to “breed children for the murderer.”[iv]

(Caution:  There is a very real danger that the voluntary submission of self to a process of encouragement and accountability to Christ might lend itself to a rule-based, legalistic form of religion that was a far cry of the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship.  Future blogs will address the importance of properly understanding God’s grace and understanding that grace must be integral to all aspects of church life.

The format for discipleship structures will vary depending upon each congregation.  Options might include the develop of missional prayer groups who endorsed by the congregation for prayer, fellowship, and organized efforts to addressed specific ministry needs as identified by then church.  Other options might pair individuals into discipleship partnership teams who meet regularly to share and pray.  Others might develop an undersheperd program where the members of the community are divided into smaller units with lay leaders responsible for each unit.  Still others might form covenant discipleship groups that meet weekly to encourage one another in their relationship with Christ as one of his followers.[v]

[i] Ibid., 74.

[ii] Watson, Forming Christian Disciples, 50.

[iii]Ibid., 26-27.

[iv] Quoted Gish, Living in Christian Community, 141.

[v]See Gish, Living in Christian Community, 141-43, Watson, Forming Christian Disciples, 67-114, and Palmer Becker, Called to Care:  A Training Manual for Small Group Leaders, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1993).

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