Inclusivity and discipleship

passover-usaDuring Easter Week I enjoyed saying the Easter Anthems in Morning Prayer. This is a set of eight versicles drawn from three passages in Paul; they used to be a weekly option in ASB, but in Common Worship they have been relegated to p 634 and used only seasonally, which is a loss (but that is another story). The verses are as follows:

Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us: 
so let us celebrate the feast,

not with the old leaven of corruption and wickedness: 
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5.7b, 8)

Christ once raised from the dead dies no more: 
death has no more dominion over him.

In dying he died to sin once for all: 
in living he lives to God.

See yourselves therefore as dead to sin: 
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6.9-11)

Christ has been raised from the dead: 
the first fruits of those who sleep.

For as by man came death: 
by man has come also the resurrection of the dead;

for as in Adam all die: 
even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15.20-22)

It is a creative and helpful linking of different but related theological ideas, and celebrates the Easter faith we live the whole year around.

During the week, I have been most struck by the first pair of verse, from 1 Cor 5. It depicts the Christian life as one long, continuous Passover feast, in which we celebrate the sacrifice of Jesus as the one who protects us from judgement and death and opens the way for the journey from slavery (to sin) to freedom in the promised land. The metaphor is not a complete one, since within the Passover story there is no equivalent to Jesus’ resurrection; that is supplied by different metaphorical framework in the following verses from Romans 6, which links Jesus’ death and resurrection to our going into and emerging from the waters of baptism (which does in fact then link metaphorically to the journey through the exodus waters of the Red Sea).

But what has most struck me is that, in the context of the mixed Jewish-Gentile congregation(s) in Corinth, this is a thoroughly Jewish theological idea. It locates the Christian story very specifically within the story of the Jewish people and invites this mixed Jewish-Gentile group to see itself as in continuity with the Old Testament people of God. It also draws on one use of the metaphor of leaven in Jesus’ teaching. In Matt 13.33 (and par Luke 13.21) Jesus speaks positively of leaven in dough as a metaphor for the kingdom of God, whose influences spreads far wider than we might expect, and adds something to the celebration of life (if the large amount of dough suggest some sort of feast). But elsewhere (Matt 16.6, Mark 8.15 and Luke 12.1) the leaven (or yeast) of the Pharisees is the corrupting influence of hypocrisy, which follows the same metaphorical understanding of the unleavened bread of Passover. On a surface meaning, the Passover bread is unleavened because of the speed with which the people need to get ready to respond to God’s deliverance and leave their homes. But it then becomes symbolic of lives cleansed of sin ready for the encounter with the Holy One of Israel.

This must mean that Paul is expecting the Gentile Christians in Corinth to have become thoroughly inducted into and identified with the Jewish religious outlook as a context for understanding the proclamation of the good news of Jesus (articulated in summary form in 1 Cor 15.1–7). It is clear from passages like 1 Cor 6.1 ‘…and such were some of you…’ that many of Paul’s addressees have come from a non-Jewish background. But it is also clear from 1 Cor 10.1–11 that Paul is expecting them to have adopted the OT story as their story, whether Jew or Gentile, and this before there is any sense that the Hebrew Bible has become the Christian Old Testament by its inclusion in a single volume with the New Testament as we now have it. In fact, Paul uses very striking language here: he talks of those who went through the Red Sea on the Exodus journey with Moses as ‘our ancestors’, and it is clear that he is not talking here only to his fellow Jews, since the argument is about avoiding involvement with idol meat, something that would have been an ethical issue for Gentile former pagans, and not for Jewish believers.

There is a similar striking dynamic within the shape of Romans. There is some historical evidence of the tension between the Jewish and early Jew-Gentile Christian communities in Rome, and we are made aware of the division by the rhetorical structure of Paul’s argument in Romans 1–2. He first deploys traditional Jewish critique of the Gentile world in Romans 1, and then deploys an inner-Jewish critique of Jewish devotion to God in chapter 2. The preliminary conclusion Paul comes to as a result of this is that great evangelical memory verse, Romans 3.23 ‘All have sinned…’ but Paul specifically means here ‘all, that is, both Jews (who have been given the law) and Gentiles (who are judged by their consciences) equally have sinned and are in need of salvation in Jesus.’ So Paul is clearly writing to a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience—but he looks to Abraham, within Jewish historical self-understanding, as the ancestor of all who trust in God in Romans 4. Again, he is expecting Gentile followers of Jesus to see themselves as having adopted and been adopted into the Jewish heritage and self-understanding, and makes this explicit in the metaphor of being grafted into the olive tree of Israel in Romans 11.24.

All this then assumes that there must have been a process of inducting Gentile converts into the very Jewish-looking early Christian communities—and this is backed up by two pieces of historical evidence.

51zwf8ncOPLThe first is that, contrary to common assumptions about the ‘failure of the Jewish mission’,  Christianity remained a very Jewish movement and Hellenized Jews continued to convert as late as the fourth or fifth centuries. That is the case made by Rodney Stark in chapter 4 of The Rise of Christianity. He bases this partly on what we know about the way religious movements grow and how people convert, but also from the actual data of conflicts in the early church.

I think examination of the Marcion affair reveals that a very Jewish Christianity still was overwhelmingly dominant in the mid-second century. The Marcion movement was very much what one would have expected Christianity to become if, from very early on, the Church in the West had been a Gentile-dominated movement, increasingly in conflict with the Jews of the diaspora, that it is alleged to have been. (p 64)

And he notes that later anti-Jewish polemic is much better explained as an argument to try and make the church look less Jewish than as a scapegoating of an insignificant minority group. I think Larry Hurtado’s forthcoming book on the impact of the Christian movement on the Roman Empire will also note this—that many of the distinctive features of this movement arose from its Jewish roots and identity.

The second piece of historical evidence is the rise of the catechumenate, the process of detailed instruction of converts into the teaching and disciplines of the church, which we see mentioned as early as the writings of Justin Martyr. By the time of Constantine, this process had become very extended and was often used as a reason to postpone baptism. But earlier on it was closely linked to admission into the community of faith.

This has a direct impact on our context. In contemporary debate about the direction the church should take in a post-Christendom and postmodern context, it is often claimed that the choice is between focussing on discipleship and become ‘sectarian’, or being open and inclusive to society around. But Paul’s example shows this is a completely false antithesis. To be open to and inclusive of those beyond the traditional culture and values of the Church—and to actually induct them into and involve them in the community of faith—will mean having clear and well-defined processes of discipleship in order to help them understand the story that is now their own. Focussing on discipleship is not an alternative to being open and inclusive; it is an essential process in a social context where church and society have moved apart (which they clearly have done) and where being part of the faith community is to actual mean something.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizo

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

15 thoughts on “Inclusivity and discipleship”

  1. I find the argument that the church should become more ‘open and inclusive’ to society baffling. In the sense that, throughout the Scriptures it is utterly clear that God’s people are expected to behave in certain ways. Just this morning I was reading 1 Thessalonians 4 about living to please God.

    e.g. 1 Thess 4:3-8

    “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

    So: (1) Christians should be sanctified, which involves ethical choices; (2) the Christian life should be different to lives of ‘the pagans, who do not know God’; (3) God calls us not to impurity but a holy life; (4) therefore those who reject this instruction reject God.

    • Phill

      I think the argument that the church should be ‘open and inclusive’ has at least three good reasons behind it.

      1. There’s a fundamental theological conviction in Scripture that God seeks out the lost, and that it is his initiative to invite people into the community of faith. The God’s people to put up barriers to others contradicts this.

      2. There is clear evidence that faith communities that are socially closed simply fail in making new converts and disciples.

      3. There are lots of other common sense reflections supporting this. For example, socially closed groups are more likely to have autocratic leadership and coercion and even abuse. This is the home of ‘poisonous religion’

      I entirely agree with you about the need for the people of God to be holy. But holiness and openness don’t appear to be opposites in the ministry of either Jesus or Paul

      • Hi Ian

        I see your point – I’m not arguing for being socially closed! I think every church should be ‘open and inclusive’ at point of entry – and if that’s all you mean then I apologise! Those words often mean something quite different at the moment, i.e. being open and inclusive no matter how long someone has been in the church.

        I suppose this is the problem which a lot of churches hit up against in every generation – belong, believe, behave: which comes first?

        Someone who doesn’t believe clearly can’t be expected to behave. But after someone believes then there should be an expectation of change in behaviour over time. And people do generally belong before believing, which is I think what you are talking about with being inclusive.

        But the Bible does seem to draw a sharp distinction between the church and the world and the expectations of both – I think it’s important to always bear in mind that it’s the world which should be becoming like the church, not vice versa! Which is why it’s important to, as you say, be intentional about discipleship rather than simply assuming it will happen.

  2. I entirely agree with you on this Ian; the question has always been “included for what…?” My answer to that is N T Wright’s – included as part of the story of God’s unfolding of redemptive history in Christ, included in Act V of the Christian ‘play’, included for the same inclusive vocation of service and compassion, peace and justice to all.

    Perhaps where there’s a need to distinguish is the other gap often between those who see ‘discipleship’ as primarily about theolgical and doctrinal understanding and those who see it as primary the living out of kingdom values. It has to be both, of course, but perhaps some of the conclusions we come to about the priority of orthodoxy or orthopraxis (and the theological and ethical conclusions we end up with) depends on where we sit on that difficult balance between the two. We have to sit somewhere and probably therefore have to make some choices about where our heart and head lie, even if we know that holding the two together is the right thing to do

  3. Dear Simon,

    You wrote: “…there’s a need to distinguish is the other gap often between those who see ‘discipleship’ as primarily about theolgical and doctrinal understanding and those who see it as primary the living out of kingdom values….”
    …but there is a third more worrying option and that is the group who believes God accepts them as they are and they stop at that and make no effort to change in any way God wants thereby showing that it is not really based on belief. This position is neither theological / doctrinal nor one of living out kingdom values.

  4. I like the Psephizo blog but on this occasion I felt you’d just got to the point when you stopped. The background was rich and interesting but I wanted to know more about where you were going.

    Perhaps because discipleship is such a loosely used and rarely defined word I wanted to know what the assertion in your final paragraph would look like in practice. What is a ‘clear and well defined’ process of discipleship? Does that mean something like a regular Alpha course? If so, in what way do you claim that is inclusive? Inclusive of whom?

    Best wishes – hope my questions are helpful.

    • Thanks Simon. Always helpful to hear impressions!

      I stopped mainly because I had reached 1,400 words, and that is enough for one post (my posts are consistently longer than many bloggers already!).

      I think my immediate response would possibly be along the lines of the metaphor of a building.

      a. doors. What are the ways into faith? e.g. Alpha
      b. walls. What are the distinctives of the Christian faith?
      c. windows. How do I make sense of the world around me and respond to it?
      d. roof. how do I thrive in the face of the challenges that life throws at me?
      e. inner space. how do I continue to grow in my faith?

      I would love to see more churches in the UK doing the ‘adult sunday school’ thing you find in lots of US churches.

  5. As a non-theologically-educated reader of Psephizo, I thought you’d made a very interesting set of points, and anything further would have been too much in one post! Could be followed up, I suppose, in part two?

  6. Ian, early in your post you speak of Jewish Heritage and self understanding. I have just read ‘Radical Then, The Radical Now’ by Jonathan Sacks. Of course it’s from a (particular?) Jewish perspective. A major part of it considers what it is to be Jewish – how being Jewish has persisted for thousands of years and the current new threats of secularism to that. (There have been a handful of dreadful periods of persecution and mass conversion to other faiths, similar numbers are now not continuing in Jewish Faith but not due to persecution). It includes a celebration of following God the Father and bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. Those phrases are frequent in the book. From a Jewish, not Christian perspective, huge overlaps.

    In my opinion, it is a good read for how faith / faithfulness works out in practice, in individuals, families, synagogues, community and nationhood.

    As an aside, I’ve put (a particular?) Jewish perspective. That’s because JS says that Judaism does not require salvation. Doesn’t require a Saviour. Messiah, yes. For me this brings into focus why some Jews react(ed) with great anger in John 10:33. From their perspective they already have / had free access to Father God, experiencing his closeness for example at the Sabbath table in their homes.

    • Dave, how fascinating! I am not surprised that he says Judaism does not need a saviour, since God is the saviour and deliverer and anyone claiming to do that would be claiming to do what only God can do….!

      • Dear Ian, I think his point about forgiveness/salvation (you’d need to read his book yourself) is that Jews considered themselves already forgiven and already having access to Father God. Therefor, for them, the way Christians see Jesus as Saviour is superfluous. They already felt God’s presence particularly at Sabbath family meals.

        Jonathan also has a stab at the development of synagogue from some OT texts, through to before Jesus in the diaspora. So that by the time the Temple was destroyed, Jewish spirituality was ready to spread in a way it had not before.

        • Hi Dave,

          The contrast that Sachs describes between Paul and Rabbi Akiva Ben Joseph is telling. Especially, where he says of the era foretold by the prophets:

          ‘For Paul, man is innately corrupt and under the burden of sin. For Akiva and rabbis generally, no-one is innately good or evil; what we are depends on the choices we make. For Paul, people achieve atonement through someone else, the son of God, who died for our sins. For Akiva, they achieve it by themselves by relinquishing their sins. For Paul, there is still a sacrificial system, albeit in heaven. For Akiva, the whole system no longer exists.

          So, the question remains whether Akiva’s position is supported by the very prophets, whom Akiva considers to have heralded the replacement of sacrificial atonement with the atonement of contrition.

          While the Jewish prophets encourage realisation of God’s boundless mercy, they do not do so at the expense of declaring his infinite holiness and intense hatred of sin.

          The real theological issue at stake has always been whether we retain (or abandon) congruence between God’s Law given to Moses, the revelations which He gave to His prophets and any future dispensation. St. Paul amply addresses this in Romans. Akiva doesn’t.

          What might a lack of congruence in revelation imply about the nature of God? Is God one and immutable, or not?

          • Yes indeed.
            What I find impressive is JS descriptions of what it is to be Jewish in practical out working for individuals, families, synagogues and so on. Really practical.

            Then how this compares and contrasts to Christian practice. In the UK I think that most evangelical churches are a largely middle class phenomenon- even if in more disadvantaged areas the people will travel from other areas to them – not something I see with Roman Catholics. I am bearing in mind James letter. If you ain’t doing it, your faith is dead.

            The questions I am confronted by then are along the lines of (in the UK) how real are most ‘Christians’ experience of God? What are many churches doing mainly, apart from some getting more folk to join them? Of course there are some great examples, but numerically small. Even the Eden project, with all of New Wine’s support found it difficult to get a team to go to Hull.

            Our church in Bridlington is one of those great exceptions! (I am a member, not a clergy!)

  7. My first visit to your excellent blog: thank you. On the Easter Anthems… in Common Worship: Daily Prayer the Easter Anthems are given for every day in Eastertide, up to Ascension Day. The Book of Common Prayer has them only set for Easter Day Morning Prayer. So for those who use daily offices they are more prominent than ever!


Leave a comment