Discipleship: A Theological Problem (Toward a Theology of Discipleship 1)

I recently gave a lecture titled “Discipleship in a Secular Age: Toward Missional Community” at Harding University’s annual lectureship, which focused this year on “Culture and the Crucified Christ: Studies in 1 and 2 Corinthians.” My present ambition is to repurpose the research and reflection that went into preparation for that lecture in order to develop this series, Toward a Theology of Discipleship.

Admittedly, I’m taken with the idea of moving “toward” theological concepts. The subtitle of this website is “Theology on the Way.” Triple entendre aside (ask me later), the journey metaphor dominates my imagination. Theology happens on the way, in the experience of participation in God’s mission. This journey is the church’s locus theologicus (theological location), inescapably. It defines us; we are the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Our path follows behind Jesus, who is the Way (John 14:6). Our God-talk happens in-process, provisionally, haltingly. Faithful understanding is a horizon we are always moving toward.

In this sense, I am in pursuit of a theology of discipleship. I see the need not only for a theology born of the journey of discipleship but also, more specifically, for a journey toward a more faithful account of discipleship. My core contention is that discipleship is a theological problem. I circumscribe this claim contextually by referring to discipleship in twenty-first-century US America. I am after a contextual theology of discipleship that addresses the needs of the church in American culture.

What needs? I see many that are relevant. The need to talk more deeply about discipleship than much of the popular discourse does. The need to provide an account of discipleship that makes a difference in the midst of the US church’s post-Christendom decline. The need to awaken those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus but have never experienced discipleship. The need to make better sense of the call to make disciples. The need to reunify the life of discipleship and the theology that should animate it. The need to engender local, missional communities.

That’s a tall enough order! I’ve mapped out a long series of posts, and I expect many more will emerge . . . along the way. I intend to keep each one short—well, shorter than I’m prone to, anyway. But in the aggregate, I hope a theological panorama will come into view, a vision of discipleship rich and textured enough to fire our imagination but also concrete and practical enough to answer questions on the ground. That means I’m interested in your questions. Please share them in the comments or on social media. Yours might become the topic of a post.

On a final note, I should locate myself (again) in my theological tradition. Although I hope to engage readers and friends beyond Churches of Christ, although I will consciously write for a broader Christian audience, and although most of my interlocutors will come from other traditions, I am nonetheless committed to practicing critical self-awareness as a theologian. So I begin with a necessary, if pedestrian, confession: my tradition shapes my perspective inextricably, for good and ill. I write as a member of Churches of Christ, shouldering our baggage on this journey with others whose packs are quite different. The implications are sure to unfold as we progress, but I’ll do my best to transform them into explications. The first is this:

Mark, John Mark, and I argued in Discipleship in Community that discipleship is the theological center of gravity that holds the core commitments of Churches of Christ in orbit. Well, that’s my metaphor. But it captures our idea. Like holiness in the Wesleyan tradition or God’s sovereignty in the Reformed tradition, discipleship orients our understanding and experience of God:

It is our contention that the orienting theological concern of the Stone-Campbell movement and Churches of Christ can be summarized by the word discipleship. . . . A concern for discipleship is deeply embedded in our DNA, but it is also a central biblical theme and one that helps set the church on mission. We propose that the best way to address our current disorientation is (1) to return to an emphasis on discipleship in our theological reflection and (2) to actually get back to the work of discipleship. It should also be stressed that discipleship includes reliance on God and participating in God’s work in God’s timing. Prayerfully waiting on God is an important spiritual exercise during times of disorientation. Theological reflection in Churches of Christ gains traction not when it is an exercise in abstract speculation, but when it arises from and aids authentic discipleship.

Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (Abilene: ACU Press, 2020), 13–14.

Discipleship is not optional or ancillary. It is not a mere practice or a program. It is the organizing principle of our way of life.

Discipleship is not optional or ancillary. It is not a mere practice or a program. It is the organizing principle of our way of life.

In God, “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But in Christ, we are disciples, for God is “always leading us in a triumphal procession in Christ and spreading everywhere, through us, the smell of knowing him. Because, to God, we are the aroma of Christ among both those who are being saved and those who are being ruined: to some the stink of death unto death, to some fragrance of life unto life. So who is qualified for these things? For we are not like the many who sell the word of God for profit; rather, we speak in Christ, as people of sincerity—as people sent from God, standing in God’s presence” (2 Cor 2:14–17; my translation).

Being led by God, sent from God, in God’s presence: this is discipleship, and it shapes how we speak about God and emanate the knowledge of God. So theology arises from and aids authentic discipleship. And the same is necessarily true of our theology of discipleship! This circularity presents a unique problem, and its nature is theological.

If you’d like to come along as I address it, then join me on this leg of the journey. It might be long, and my baggage might slow us down sometimes, but the horizon is full of promise.

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