A few weeks ago, Linda Woodhead suggested in the Church Times that discipleship was a ‘theologically peripheral concept’, and the following week Angela Tilby dismissed the ‘d-word’ as ‘sectarian vocabulary that…shows the influence of American-derived Evangelicalism on the Church’s current leadership.’ The short discussions in each place actually raise not one but three, inter-related, questions:
1. Is ‘discipleship’ Anglican?
2. Is ‘discipleship’ biblical?
3. Is the Church of England biblical?
On the first question, Tilby is certainly right to note that the ‘d-word’ is being used quite a lot at the moment. In his excellent Lambeth Lecture on evangelism, Justin Welby put the making of disciples central to the purpose of the church:
I want to start by saying just two simple sentences about the church. First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.
Apart from the report on discipleship discussed by Synod, the fascinating report on leadership from the Faith and Order Commission also drew on the term extensively. The term is mentioned 20 times, and in fact its rounded reflection on the nature of leadership roots it in the concept of discipleship:
Do the virtues being demanded of senior leaders today sit uneasily with the virtues of discipleship? A Christian leader is, after all, a disciple first and a leader second, and that means that he or she is and remains a follower even while being a leader. Furthermore, as a disciple a leader is called to display the fruit of the Spirit… (para 46, p 18)
The two authors, Mike Higton and Loveday Alexander, are hardly people who have succumbed to ‘American Evangelicalism’, and in fact Higton has elsewhere suggested in a Grove Ethics booklet) that this NT idea of discipleship offers a paradigm for all educational learning:
[In Mark 1.18] Jesus sees what these two men currently are, and calls them to a transformation—to a strange fulfilment of what they are. They are fishermen (halieis), but he calls them to become fishermen (halieis anthropon: fishers of people, ‘fishers of men’ in an older translations). Simon and Andrew respond by leaving what they are, and beginning their journey towards this mysterious fulfilment—towards what they will be. They become, in that moment, disciples. They become learners…They are captivated by the possibility of transformation. (p 4)
If ‘discipleship’ is not thought of as particularly Anglican, then it certainly needs to be. In an online discussion on this issue, David Runcorn asks this question:
What if our response (and Angela Tilby’s) was to say at this point – we understand the word ‘discipleship’ but for a variety of thoughtful and theological reasons we don’t use it. We prefer the word ……. for these reasons ……. Can anyone fill in the blanks here?
What word do we claim to be authentically Anglican that sums up our calling to be a church being led and leading others into radical conversion of life, taking up your cross, faith, prayer and holiness, self denial and the service of others, following Jesus, loving enemies, peacemaking, justice, attentiveness to scripture, obedience to the divine will and being formed in the likeness of Christ?
In terms of ordained ministry, what does the ordinal say about the role of priests/presbyters?
They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God.
What is interesting here is that, though the metaphor of ‘discipleship’ is not explicitly dominant, it is certainly present, and many of the terms present can easily be associated with ideas present in the notion of discipleship. It is no surprise then that, not only do a good number of dioceses now use the language of discipleship in their statement of diocesan mission or goals, so does the Pilgrim Course. It is ‘a specifically Anglican resource’ and ‘a major new teaching and discipleship resource from the Church of England.’ According to the Archbishop:
The Pilgrim Course has been used wonderfully by God both to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ and to enable them to grow as his disciples. It is my prayer that the complete course will continue to be an effective tool for the Church as it seeks to fulfil, in God’s grace, the urgent task of making disciples – so that the light of Christ may shine in every corner of this land through all who follow him.
So if you don’t think discipleship is a very Anglican term, you are going to have to dissociate yourself from a good deal of what is happening in the Church today!
It is still important to reflect on the place that the idea has in Scripture. I would agree with Angela Tilby that ‘There’s little about disciples in the rest of the New Testament; certainly not in Paul’s letters, in spite of his missionary passion.’ But we need to think about this carefully.
First, the language of discipleship is not found per se, since the NT does not share our fondness for abstract nouns but prefers personal, concrete terms. So the question is to what extent ‘disciples’ (rather than ‘discipleship’) features.
Secondly, we need to note what being a disciple involves. In the gospels, it includes three key ideas.
- The first is that of change, a departure from one’s current situation (literally or metaphorically), a new pattern of life. Typically this involves a moment of decision, and is summed up in Jesus’ early preaching ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1.15).
- The second is the idea of journey, a commitment to learning from the one the disciple is following. This is made explicit in Matthew’s gospel, by gathering Jesus’ teaching into five blocks (possibly imitating the five books of Moses). This then gives a two-fold movement to the life of the disciple—an inward movement to gather around the teacher and listen to his teaching, and an outward moving in mission and ministry to make this teaching and practice known. This is perhaps what makes Matthew (in the words of one commentator) ‘a manual for discipleship’. This journey of learning is expressed in a slightly different way by Luke, who styles the central section of his gospel as a journey following Jesus ‘on the way’ (from Luke 9.51 onwards).
- The third idea is that of community. Following the Jewish pattern of being attached to a rabbi, it is clear that to be a disciple, leaving behind the old way of life and embarking on a journey of learning, means to join with a community of others on a similar journey. Such was the radical nature of this commitment that the band of disciples that you had joined actually displaced your natural family in terms of loyalty and solidarity. This is behind Jesus’ shocking injunction to ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ (Matt 8.22) as well as Jesus explicit teaching on who constituted his own family (Matt 12.46–50). Matthew has this saying stand on its own, but Mark characteristically wraps it around another episode—the debate about whether a house divided against itself can stand—in order to emphasise the sense of committed unity amongst the disciples (Mark 3.20–35).
These are all pretty central to any understanding of the Christian faith. As Tilby says, the idea of discipleship is only ‘supported’ in ‘one part of the New Testament’; but when that ‘one part’ is the gospels, and the support comes from Jesus using it as a controlling paradigm, we had better take it seriously. The term ‘disciple’ is used most often of The Twelve, but it is not used so exclusively. Moreover, The Twelve are frequently offered as models of what it means to be a disciple, warts and all; we are not to read the gospel accounts as a history of the early leadership of the church, but as a pattern of life and experience for all who want to follow Jesus. (Despite Tilby’s protestations, Acts is similarly offered as a model for subsequent readers.)
Recognising these three dimensions of discipleship makes sense of two things. First, you can begin to see how the ordinal, and other discussion in Anglican documents, touches on issues of decision, learning and community. They might not always use the term ‘discipleship’ explicitly, but this is the root from which such ideas spring up.
Secondly, this also makes sense of other terms that the NT uses. I would suggest that the five terms ‘disciple’, ‘family’, ‘kingdom’, ‘body’ and ekklesia (citizens’ gathering) are different ways of expressing this three-fold idea of decision, learning and community, but with slightly different emphases and deployed in different contexts. For example, Paul’s language of Christians as ‘the body of Christ’ clearly includes the sense of demarcation that comes from decision (1 Cor 12.3) and the idea of mutual belonging is powerfully expressed. But because learning is not an obvious part of this (slightly static) metaphor, Paul adds to it the notion of ‘building up’ (1 Cor 14.4, 12). It would be perfectly possible to map each of these five ideas onto each other, and see where and how the three elements are expressed.
But why should anyone resist discipleship as an important part of the Church of England’s self-understanding? In a recent discussion on the Facebook page of Changing Attitude, someone complained about how the C of E is becoming ‘more evangelical’ and is unclear why this is. If true, I think there is one fairly simple answer: evangelicals have taken the idea of making disciples more seriously than other traditions in the Church. As Justin Welby comments, the idea of making disciples is not a reaction to falling attendances or a simply a means to refill the pews. Rather,
Witness and evangelism are expressions of the overflow of the love and joy of the grace of God into our lives, and the life of His whole Church and His whole world.
But empty pews won’t be filled without it. So if discipleship is biblical, and making disciples isn’t very Anglican, it is perhaps just at this moment that the Church of England needs to become a little more biblical again.
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