The Language of Discipleship: Some Basics

Words for Things

I believe in arguing about words. The quest for understanding and the discovery of meaning—dialogical endeavors from beginning to end—require a certain verbal contentiousness. The truth is logos and not just any logos. With these stakes, semantic naïveté will not do. The struggle to say what we mean is too important.

But I would say that. My religious forebears cried, “Bible words for Bible things!” Such wordiness is in my theological DNA. Then again, those ancestors would likely see me as a mutant (or maybe just a degenerate). I let fall the banner of biblicism and took up the cause of theology: to speak of things taught by the Spirit, “interpreting Spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor 2:13); to speak, in Christ, “as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence” (2 Cor 2:17); “speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15); “as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Pet 4:11). Yes, these are themselves Bible words for a Bible thing. Yes, Bible words are indispensable. But these words speak of a thing that exceeds the bounds of Bible words alone: the truth—all truth, to which the Spirit guides us (John 16:13) in every language, context, and situation.

The Bible interprets the world but does not speak every word of interpretation for us. So the sufficiency of Scripture is a hermeneutical doctrine. The work of theology is to interpret all things in relation to God, the logos (John 1:1), who is over all, through all, and in all (Eph 4:6), who is before all things and in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). Bible words are sufficient for guiding this interpretation, by the Spirit, in Christ, for the glory of God; Bible words are insufficient for articulating this interpretation faithfully, wisely, and contextually.

Interpreting all things in relation to God, therefore, requires something more than arguing about Bible words, important as those arguments might sometimes be. We need not only Bible words for Bible things but, more fundamentally, words for things—things the Bible does not speak of and cannot be forced to say (such as what it means to “follow” Jesus here and now!). We must argue about the words for those things because their meaning is not indisputable, and our disputes about meaning cannot be settled by appealing to Bible words alone.

This claim is a necessary prologue to what follows because disciple is a Bible word, which tempts us to narrow my essential question, What is a disciple?, to a discussion of biblical semantics. But even a sophisticated lexicography and a nuanced account of biblical usage cannot answer the question completely. Because the argument is about how the church today uses the word, and any well-intentioned urging to return to “the biblical meaning” of disciple will fail to provide an adequate answer. In this series, I will engage the relevant biblical semantics, because it provides the proper frame for the interpretive work that may give rise to a contextual theology of discipleship. But the question of what a disciple is—and, therefore, what discipleship is—in the twenty-first century will be answered through an argument about words that ranges beyond the bounds of biblical language. Accordingly, even the basics of discipleship language entail more than reference to a concordance and Greek dictionary.

What Is a Disciple?

I phrase this question in the context of a cultural upheaval in which the question What is a woman? animates public discourse. I hesitate to make reference to this skirmish in the culture wars because I’m convinced that the Western obsession with sexual identity is a passing phenomenon, and I would like to avoid the potential distraction it presents. Yet, there is presently no more poignant example of the problem of language that the question What is a disciple? also faces.

Here’s the problem: the meanings of words are socially constructed. This does not mean they are utterly subjective but that they are negotiated through convention and usage. Certainly, the letters that combine in the English word woman do not inherently contain significance. They are used to designate something, but what? Does woman refer to biological facts like XX chromosomes? A set of characteristics, whether physical, psychological, or social? A self-perception? And who is to say what the usage of the word should be? The linguists who write dictionaries? No, they are the curators of convention. Philosophers or sociologists? No, they may expertly analyze arguments or offer their own, but they cannot determine meaning.

Similar questions apply to the word disciple. Does it refer to essential characteristics? Behaviors? Dispositions? To whom should we appeal for answers? Lexicographers? Biblical scholars? Theologians? How might we settle disputes about usage?

Moreover, when words refer to matters of personal identity, negotiation commonly becomes conflict. Is a woman someone who identifies as a woman? Is a disciple someone who identifies as a disciple? Can we answer such questions individually? If not, how does the way someone else answers the question bear on my own identification? Is my identity itself socially negotiated? (Hint: absolutely.)

Many Christians feel they have a clear understanding of what disciple and discipleship mean and how their definitions are rightly delimited because they are accustomed to appealing to one source of authority or another. Abstactly, a disciple is, for Christians, whatever God says it is; a person is a disciple if God says she is. Concretely, a disciple is, for Christians, whatever the given sources of divine authority—the designated arbiters of convention, such as tradition, Scripture, and magisterium—specify. Yet, both what God “says” and what the sources of theological authority “say” is only ever a matter of interpretation.

For my anti-clerical, anti-tradition tradition, this is where biblicism rears its head. The payout of using the Bible as a catalog of definitive truths, including authoritative definitions that need no arbitration because of their utter perspicuity, is a sense of clarity and stability about our knowledge of things and the words we use for them. But many Christians, not least those with biblicist instincts, are mistaken about discipleship. I empathize with these instincts. I feel the pull of easy answers. They are comforting. But they are deceptive.

What we make of the biblical language of discipleship is a function of social construction. The meanings of Bible words are not a property of the text of Scripture. They are, rather, theologically constructed by the community of faith through interpretation.

What we make of the biblical language of discipleship is a function of social construction. The meanings of Bible words are not a property of the text of Scripture. They are, rather, theologically constructed by the community of faith through interpretation. We decide together what words like disciple mean through the properly conflictual process of interpretation, which involves argument and embodiment. Discipleship is inevitably what we make of it. This is as obvious as the freedom of every Christian reader to assess and critique what I say about the biblical language of discipleship. This is the game we are playing presently.

One thought on “The Language of Discipleship: Some Basics

  1. “It is a word. Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”

    My head was swimming by this point. “I still don’t understand.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: