Discipleship in the Gospels: Following Jesus

Discipleship in the Gospels is more than “being a Christian.” Putting it this way grants a notion of being a Christian that falls short. I don’t see a better way to speak about Christianity today. The reality is, many consider themselves Christians who have never been discipled, never considered the difference between discipleship and church membership, and never taken up the cross to follow Jesus. No doubt, this assertion sounds harsh. But can any other conclusion stand up to the witness of the Gospels? Perhaps the call to discipleship is harsh in some fundamental sense; it is certainly a narrow way. It is gracious too. I take this tension seriously but endeavor in this post to represent what following Jesus means in the Gospel stories.

Two key words guide this study: the noun disciple (mathētēs) and the verb to follow (akoloutheō). Other words are relevant, but these two terms dominate the narratives. The tension between discipleship and Christianity that I’ve identified is already evident in the various uses of both terms. Of course, the term Christian postdates the Gospel stories (Acts 11:26), so the point is not to defend an argument about the distinction between Christian and disciple. Rather, I’m arguing that a theology of discipleship should begin with an understanding of the difference between a discipleship that follows Jesus to the cross and a Christian self-identification that follows Jesus only so far.

Becoming a Disciple

The noun disciple appears 261 times in the New Testament: 72 in Matthew, 46 in Mark, 37 in Luke, 78 in John, and 29 in Acts. The cognate verb to be a student / to cause one to be a student (mathēteuō) appears 4 times: 3 in Matthew and 1 in Acts.

These data don’t tell us much, but they do suggest that the notion of discipleship is not only core to the Gospels and Acts, but it is so in a way that contrasts with the rest of the New Testament. I leave speculation about why the words above do not figure in the lexicon of Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers for a later moment. The present task is to explore the usage of this terminology and its implications. To this end, I forumulate some broad categories of usage and focus particularly on what they might indicate about the differences between various kinds of “discipleship” and about the process of becoming a “true” disciple. My argument is that this process of becoming is itself the essence of true discipleship.

Disciples in the Broadest Sense

All of the Gospels bear witness to the notion of people attending in a general sense to the teachings of Jesus. All refer to “his disciples” as a large, ambiguous group of adherents, particularly early in the Gospel narratives. As Jesus’s ministry begins, he teaches and baptizes many. John tells us, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee” (John 4:1–3). This text presents a few key points. (1) Jesus made “disciples” in a recognizable sense comparable to other such groups. (2) Discipleship to Jesus entailed not only learning but also a commitment embodied in baptism. (3) Disciples of Jesus participated in the process of making more disciples.

The convention of “discipleship” is further recorded in references to John’s and the Pharisees’ disciples in all four Gospels (Matt 9:14; 11:2; 14:12; 22:16; Mark 2:18; 6:29; Luke 5:33; 7:18; John 1:35, 37; 3:25; 9:27). In this sense, discipleship signifies adherence to a school of thought and practice. Hence, when the Pharisees refer to themselves as disciples of Moses (John 9:27), the implication is devotion to their particular interpretive tradition in contrast with Jesus’s teaching. Early in the narrative arc of the gospel stories, therefore, various references to “his disciples” depict a seemingly large and growing group of adherents to Jesus’s teachings about religious practices like table fellowship, prayer, sabbath-keeping, and ritual purification (see Mark 2:16, 18; 3:23; 6:1; 7:2, 5; and pars.).

Even by the time of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem toward the end of the story, Luke refers to “the whole multitude of the disciples” (Luke 19:37). Notably, John also entertains the notion of a “secret” disciple whose “fear” prevents open devotion (John 19:38; cf. 3:1). In its broadest usage, then, disciple refers to a significant number of adherents to Jesus’s teaching with varying degrees of commitment.

Yet, the difficulty of Jesus’s teaching has a winnowing effect throughout the story, and some identified as disciples are faced with critical moments of decision. Matthew, for example, records two dramatic exchanges: “A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead'” (Matt 8:19–22). Both of these followers are called disciples, suggesting an initial decision, but Jesus confronts them with a secondary decision in view of an unfolding understanding of his way of life. The implication is that discipleship in the broadest sense is a status that depends on an ongoing deepening of commitment.

John captures this dynamic most directly in the statement that, after a particularly difficult teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Certainly, then, the Gospels use disciple in a way that encompasses those who will follow Jesus only so far. This is, of course, true of all the disciples in the end. Save perhaps a core group of women (see below), all abandon Jesus upon his arrest (represented paradigmatically in Peter’s denials; Mark 14:66–72 and pars.). The cross is the ultimate moment of decision for everyone who would be a disciple.

Accordingly, the most pivotal text in this discussion is Mark 8:34 (and pars.): “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'” The NRSV has rendered the phrase thele opisō mou akolouthein (“wants to follow after me”) as “want to become my followers,” adding with “become” a sense of process that applies even to the disciples. (Matthew and Luke vary the verbiage for “follow” but phrase the assertion in essentially the same way.) In my view, this is entirely appropriate because the cross poses the question of a decision that even those who identify as disciples must answer. To “take up their cross,” Luke adds the phrase kath’ hēmeran (“daily”), further heightening the sense of an ongoing process. All who are “disciples” in the broadest sense must decide whether they will truly follow Jesus and, on a daily basis, make that choice again.

Disciples in Contrast to Others

Mark 8:34 encapsulates three distinctions between “disciples” and others interested in Jesus to a limited extent: (1) disciples in contrast to the crowd that also “follows” Jesus; (2) the twelve disciples (aka the apostles) in contrast to other disciples; and (3) the disciples who take up their cross in contrast with those to do not. These distinctions are more numerous than the broader usage of disciple and establish the church’s more limited understanding of discipleship in light of the whole gospel story (Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension).

The Disciples and the Crowd

Mark notes that Jesus summons both the crowd and the disciples for the crucial teaching in 8:34. The discussion of commitment and baptism above already marks a difference between those who commit to Jesus as rabbi and those who do not. Yet, the Gospels are full of references to those who follow Jesus in order to hear his teaching in contrast to the disciples. The Sermon on the Mount begins: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him” (Matt 5:1; cf. Luke 6:17). One might read “the crowd” and “his disciples” as one and the same in this case, but it is clear that a multitude of people who were not his disciples regularly followed Jesus throughout his ministry. For example, “the crowds” are the thousands miraculously fed after extensive teaching (Matt 14:15, 19, 22; 15:32, 36 and pars.), while the disciples are those who participate in feeding them. Likewise, there is a distinction between the disciples and the “tax collectors and sinners” with whom Jesus eats (Matt 9:10–11 and pars.). And again, Jesus marks a difference between the crowds’ and the disciples’ identification of Jesus (Luke 9:18 and pars.; Mark and Matthew refer to “the people” rather than the crowds). Over and over in the Gospels, this distinction stands.

The Twelve and the Rest

From among the disciples, Jesus chooses twelve to be “apostles” (sent ones) (Luke 6:13). These are distinguished from the “great crowd of the disciples” (Luke 6:17). Mark adds that they are given “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7; cf. 3:15), and Matthew expands the description to “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matt 10:1). They are, in other words, commissioned to extend Jesus’s kingdom ministry. Matthew uniquely refers to them as “the/his twelve disciples” (Matt 10:1; 11:1; 20:17; cf. “the eleven disciples” in 28:16). These chosen ones are paradigmatic disciples. Jesus later commissions seventy others (Luke 10:1) in similar fashion, but the twelve have a permanent special status (see also the eleven in Acts 1:13 and the addition of Matthias in Acts 1:26).

At various moments in the Gospels, however, it is difficult to discern whether “the/his disciples” refers to the twelve or the larger group. But the situation often suggests the twelve are in view: they can fit in a fishing boat, the upper room, or other small settings (Matt 8:23; 14:26; 16:15; 26:8; 17–19, 26, 35, 36, 40, 45, 56 and pars.) or they are in private conversation with Jesus (Matt 13:10, 36; 15:12; 17:10, 13, 19; 24:3 and pars.). All of these circumstances betoken a key characteristic that Mark highlights: they are called “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) in some special sense. This phrase speaks of intimacy that the rest of the disciples do not have.

At the same time, the Gospels present the twelve not as categorically different than but as representative of all who would draw near to Jesus. Following the biblical pattern of election—quintessentially manifest in the call of Abraham, who received blessing in order that all nations might be blessed (Gen 12:1–3)—the twelve are chosen to become disciples in a deeper sense in order others might become disciples. So Mark completes his depiction of apostleship: “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14–15). To be with him and to be sent out is the paradigm of discipleship that the twelve embody.

Cruciform Discipleship

The final distinction intensifies our notion of discipleship one step further. As I’ve already argued, Jesus’s teaching about the cross marks the critical distinction between disciples who ultimately follow Jesus and those who do not. The linguistic data of the Gospels indicate that there is no point in claiming the latter are not actually disciples. Delimiting our language in that way is a handy shortcut, but it ignores biblical terminology. The deeper question is which use of the term informs the church’s theology of discipleship. I began with a distinction between “being a Christian” and discipleship that assumes a limited use of disciple, though not an absolute restriction of the language (as though anyone could practically arbitrate such a restriction!). I am after a theology of discipleship that persuasively identifies the meaning of “true” discipleship in the church’s contemporary language. The discussion hinges on what true signifies in this sentence.

John provides a handle on what true discipleship means in contrast with mere belief in Jesus: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples'” (John 8:31). One may be truly Jesus’s disciple, and the criterion for deciding the point is “continuing” (menō) in Jesus’s “word” (logos). There is much to unpack regarding sin and freedom in this passage, but the saying establishes a critical distinction between belief and discipleship.

And again, John asserts, “‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another'” (John 13:35). Here as well, Jesus’s teaching (“a new command;” John 13:34) is the condition of discipleship—not assent but a practical way of life. This is a profoundly useful criterion because it allows us to pose a decisive question: can there be such a thing as an unloving disciple of Jesus? Finally, Jesus asserts, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). Once more, the notion of “becoming” resounds in connection with discipleship. Being a disciple follows from bearing fruit. Fruitless disciples, who do not “abide” (menō) in Jesus, are cast away, whereas those in whom his “words” (hrēma in v. 7; cf. logos in v. 3) abide accordingly abide in his love. This “word” about love binds together all of these teachings on discipleship and serves as John’s version of taking up the cross: “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends'” (John 15:12–13). Denying self and taking up the cross become laying down one’s life for others in John’s Gospel. The logic of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which Jesus “gives his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), resounds in John’s story as a way of life for disciples who must lay down their lives for others in order to abide in Jesus’s word.

Laying down one’s life has economic implications. All three Synoptics record Jesus’s teaching about the difficulty of entering the kingdom while holding on to riches. As a representative of the disciples’ desperation, Peter declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Matt 19:27 and pars.). Evidently, this sacrifice entails property, family, and livelihood (Matt 19:29 and pars.). Among the Synoptics, Luke especially emphasizes such cruciformity (cross-shaped-ness): “‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions'” (Luke 14:26–27, 33; cf. Matt 10:37–38; John 12:25). True discipleship, apparently, entails a death to self that results in loving Jesus and others at the cost of everything one possesses, including family and livelihood. Cruciform discipleship means nothing less.

Obviously, not all who are called disciples (much less believers) in the Gospels meet this standard. And the point of emphasizing the characteristics of cruciform discipleship is not to cast judgment on or discourage those who are at another point in the discipleship process. The point is that discipleship is a process aimed at cruciformity. Therefore, cruciformity is the standard of true discipleship defined in terms of its aim.

Following and Following

The uses of the verb to follow in the Gospels can be organized in the same way as the noun disciple, highlighting the difference between the crowd that follows Jesus, the disciples who follow Jesus’s teachings broadly, and the disciples who follow Jesus to the cross and beyond.

First, the word that characterizes the crowd’s relationship to Jesus is follow (e.g., Matt 4:25; 8:1; 12:15; 14:13; 19:2; 20:29; 21:9 and pars). Evidently, this relationship is, to some extent, about seeking the healing and blessing of the kingdom that he manifested and, to some extent, about responding to this benefit (e.g., Matt 9:27; 20:34).

Second, other references to “following” seem to apply to the “many” who comprise the broader group of disciples (Mark 2:15). These are “his disciples” in general (Mark 6:1). To them Jesus speaks publically about the cost of following him (Matt 8:19; 22 and pars.). The inner group of disciples identify this broader group as those who follow “us” (Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). For Mark, “those who followed” contrast with the twelve (Mark 10:32). For John, this broader group includes “whoever” follows Jesus (John 8:12; 12:26) and recognizes the shepherd’s voice (John 10:4, 27).

Third, the disciples called directly by Jesus are commanded to “follow” him (Matt 4:20, 22; 9:9 and pars.). Likewise, the demands of cruciformity are expressed in terms of following (Matt 10:38; 16:24; 19:21, 27 and pars.). And John extends the notion of following to a figurative post-crucifixion notion (13:36–37). John’s account of Peter’s restoration accordingly includes the personal command, “Follow me!” (John 21:19, 22).

Female “Followers”

Before offering some concluding reflections, Jesus’s female followers deserve comment because they are an important use case regarding the intersection of disciple and follow. Jesus, as a first-century rabbi, is famously unconventional in his relationship to women, at times astonishing “the disciples” (John 4:27). Many read these stories as evidence that Jesus subverted established Judaistic gender roles, opening the church to a notion of discipleship without gender distinctions and even to female leadership among his followers. Others note that his selection of male apostles is conventional and highlight the fact that no women are explicitly called disciples in the Gospels.

The evidence following the Gospels is mixed. On the one hand, male leadership is predominant in the first-century church, and a patriarchal model emerges subsequently. On the other hand, an inclusive notion of discipleship indisputably prevails (Acts 2:17–18; Gal 3:28), and women serve in leadership roles—Priscilla (Acts 18:26), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), and Junia (Rom 16:7) to name a few. So what does the language of discipleship in the Gospels indicate?

First, women repeatedly manifest exemplary faith in the Gospels (Matt 9:22; 15:28; 26:7 and pars.). The theological significance of faith in Christian theology must inform our understanding of what these passages mean. All disciples are meant to learn from them. Given that there is a variety of uses of “to follow” in the Gospels, faith in Jesus undoubtedly plays an important role in distinguishing between them.

Second, a key group of women figures prominently in the category of followers in contrast to the crowd (Matt 27:55 and pars.). This group is uniquely described as providing financial support for Jesus’s ministry. These women are, in turn, those whom Jesus chooses to proclaim the resurrection to apostles (Luke 24:10 and pars.), making them not only the first preachers of the gospel but also reordering their relationship to the twelve in an astonishing way. Notably, the twelve refer to them as “women of our group” (Luke 24:22).

Third, Jesus treats women as disciples. Perhaps most tellingly: “And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” (Matt 12:49 and pars). He adds, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50 and pars.). Jesus accordingly indicates that both women and men are “his disciples.” Mary Magdalene, in particular, “sat at the Lord’s feet” as a disciple (Luke 10:42) and, along with her sister Martha, refers to Jesus as “Teacher” (John 11:28; 20:16).

Despite these indications, the distinction between the twelve and “certain women” remains (Acts 1:14). But, obviously, the distinction between the twelve and all other disciples, regardless of gender, remains. What stands out is that these women alone are with the twelve in the aftermath of the resurrection. Like the apostles at the Last Supper, they are among the small group together in an upper room following Jesus’s ascension (Acts 1:13). They are part of the one hundred twenty believers to whom Peter preached (Acts 1:15). An inclusive vision of the church emerges at the beginning.

So what can we learn about the language of discipleship from Jesus’s female followers? (1) Disciples are those who demonstrate faith in Jesus. (2) Disciples are those who economically support Jesus’s ministry and proclaim his resurrection. (3) Disciples are those devoted to Jesus’s teaching, who do the will of the Father that Jesus reveals. (4) Disciples are those who remain prayerfully faithful to the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jesus.

Sincere Discipleship

The Gospels demonstrate that the process of becoming is the essence of true discipleship. In view of John’s language, reference to “true” discipleship is justified, but perhaps it is better in the contemporary American context to speak of sincere discipleship. The cultural importance of sincerity is difficult to overstate. While the word connotes truth in provocative ways, it offers other semantic nuances that resonate with the idea of discipleship that the Gospels portray.

If discipleship in the broadest sense is an ongoing deepening commitment to Jesus, sincerity speaks of the personal nature of this commitment. It is not a binary, as many understand true/false to be. It is the quality of a disciple in process, one who truly seeks, who asks every day what it might mean to take up the cross here and now, who struggles and falls short but really seeks. So the ultimate decision to follow Jesus is not a single decision. It is ultimate because, every time, it is a life-and-death decision about the self in relation to others.

The apostles embody sincere discipleship. They not only respond to Jesus’s call but, through misunderstanding, frustration, fear, failure, and betrayal, draw near to him over and over in order to receive clarification, forgiveness, and renewed responsibility. This persistent seeking is our essential model of the process called discipleship. Those who follow Jesus to the end embark on a way of life characterized by love for Jesus and, therefore, love for others at the cost of everything else. Sincere discipleship is the relentless pursuit of this cross-shaped way of life.

So how should the church speak of discipleship? What do the Gospels tell us about the idea of being a disciple? The biblical language presents important distinctions without absolute categories. Many follow Jesus to some extent. Many who claim to be disciples do not follow Jesus when the cross looms. Many who falter do not come to Jesus for transformation. Yet, the point is not to draw lines for the purpose of judgment, much less exclusion. If discipleship is a process, Christians can easily admit that we are all in process. At the same time, the mere claim to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, or a disciple is irrelevant if sincerity is the issue. We rightly ask ourselves whether we are engaged in a process of increasing cruciformity. And the church rightly speaks of discipleship in these terms. Self-denial, not self-identification, is the criterion for our use of discipleship language.

Walking in Prayer

Local Mission at Stones River Church

August–December 2022

As I mentioned in the previous post, a lot of the good things that have taken place at Stones River Church in the last year have grown out of a commitment to prayer. We’ve had dedicated seasons of prayer and fasting, but perhaps the most transformative practice has been prayer walking. We began by walking through the neighborhood around the church property, asking God to open our eyes to his presence, lead us into relationships, and give us opportunities to serve. This becomes a powerful discernment process as we debrief together after each walk.

Early on, our attention was drawn to the local elementary school, Mitchell-Neilson. I have to give credit to my wife Megan, who shared a strong spiritual perception that we should be engaging this school. Our little church has a disproportionate number of educators and school workers, and a significant overlap between our gifting, passion, and context quickly emerged. Through another church member, we made contact with the principle, Dr. Shields, and were immediately invited to bring our prayer walk into the hallways and classrooms of the school after hours. We began supporting the staff and faculty in a variety of ways, and a wonderful partnership has emerged.

Mitchell-Neilson is only a few blocks from the church building, and it happens to be the elementary school with the highest incidence of low-income and at-risk students in the Murfreesboro City system. A surprising number of the students’ families live in temporary housing (such as motels) and lack basic resources.

At the beginning of the school year, the principal and much of the faculty and staff attended SRC on Sunday morning to share their struggles and hopes. It was an astonishing time of dialogue and worship. We continue to be amazed by the opportunities to serve families in our immediate context that have arisen through this new relationship.

Jon McPeters (SRC preacher), Dr. Shields (Mitchell-Neilson principal), and me discussing the school’s needs

An example of our work with Mitchell-Neilson: We received an email early this semester requesting help with with an unplanned shortage of lunch monitors. We sent out a last-minute request to church members, and a handful of us were able to respond. (We can’t take pictures of the kids, but the photos below represent our response team’s effort.)

Our desire to is to support the teachers, faculty, staff, and students in such as away as to convey God’s love for them. We’ve helped with field day, read books to classes, and helped stock the Soar Store with items for rewarding student behavior. One of our favorite things to do is delivering surprise treats to the teachers’ lounge (since so many of our members are teachers, we know how much this is appreciated). Most recently, we delivered a delicious chips and dips buffet just before Thanksgiving break. My daughter Ana used her mad skills to ink the posters below.

More good things are in the works—look for future updates. In the meantime, join us in prayer for all of our Mitchell-Neilson friends. We’re so grateful to God for the open doors that have accelerated this ministry in ways would couldn’t have imagined a year and a half ago. We’re hopeful that trust will grow and deeper relationships will soon emerge.

Release to the Captives

Transitional and Homeless Ministry at Stones River Church

August–December 2022

When Julie Hadlock showed up at Stones River Church last year, we were in a season of prayer and discernment about our local participation in God’s mission. Julie is an expert in transitional ministry. Following her own release after eleven months in prison (a story that deserves its own telling), she dedicated herself to helping the formerly incarcerated transition into society. She came to SRC looking for a church home and a support system for her ministry. We became convinced that God was leading us to partner with Julie and, within a few months, decided to turn our largest storage building into a distribution center for clothing, hygiene kits, small appliances, sheets and blankets, and other essentials for rebuilding a life from scratch.

After clearing out the accumulation of decades, I dedicated much of my work in August to installing shelves, hanging wracks, lights, and ventilation. Then church members gathered to sort and organize donations.

Julie also began officing at the church. In the last few months, we—mostly Julie—have distributed hundreds of items. “The shed,” as we call it, has quickly become a key resource in Mufreesboro for those who come out of prison with nowhere else to turn for basic help, as well as other neighbors experiencing homelessness.

The overlap between these two groups is significant. Julie estimates that as much as 70% of the homeless population has recently been released from jail or prison. The street is an inevitable destination for many formerly incarcerated persons. While a variety of organizations also serve these populations, our help is uniquely free of charge. This is a vital issue for Julie, who knows personally how difficult it is to earn an income as a felon.

I’ve been learning a lot from Julie. She is well-known in Murfreesboro and surrounding counties as a “fixer” for transitional ministries and other organizations that serve those coming out of prison, including the prison system itself. Many people trying to make their way in the aftermath of incarceration hear, “You should call Ms. Julie.” She is a consummate networker and a tireless, sacrificial friend to these neighbors.

This became clear to me in September as I joined her at a local resource fair hosted by another church’s prison ministry. Around twenty organizations had booths at this event. I marveled as client after client made their way to our table, having been told by others that they couldn’t help with clothing, housing, or employment but that Julie might have an idea. There are frustrating limitations on what we can do, but Julie often knows who else to contact or how to navigate the system.

Another dimension of Julie’s work is a weekly class taught to women at the county “workhouse,” as we call it. The Rutherford County Correctional Work Center is a low-security facility to which well-behaved inmates transition before release. Julie’s class, Concepts for Living, teaches basic life skills and similar topics. As Julie puts it, it’s about teaching what she learned from her grandmother. For example, in October Julie’s brother Wesley, a professional chef, was a guest speaker who taught about cooking. I’ve joined the class when appropriate and begun forming friendships with some of the women who will soon transition back into society. Our prayer is that some of these friends will work with us as they seek to rebuild their lives on the outside.

Another area of ministry is our broader work with the homeless population. The shed has afforded contact with many neighbors who “live outside.” In November, we hosted a special event to teach about the use of cast iron (many homeless folks burn up regular cookware by cooking over open flame). Julie’s brother, Wesley, and I cooked chili, and Wesley added cornbread and cobbler. Another collaborator, Ms. Carolyn, who has fed homeless neighbors in Murfreesboro for nineteen years, spread the word and brought carloads of folks to the church facilities. We hosted around forty friends. It was a bitterly cold night, and the teaching portion of the evening was abortive, but we had a great time eating together.

We’ve begun referring to the ministry as The Yard because the church property features a large yard, fire pit, and picnic tables located between the church building and our auxiliary building, a house called Taylor Place where our offices and kitchen facilities are located. The resource shed is located at The Yard, and many of our activities and conversations take place there.

Recently, one of our church members, Pat Thweatt, began offering sewing classes for formerly incarcerated friends. Then we transferred these classes to the workhouse. Most recently, we held a class on creating Christmas rag wreaths (mine turned out quite lovely!). Church members, including the youth group, spent hours cutting holiday fabric into thousands of strips for this purpose because bringing scissors into the workhouse isn’t possible. The project was a huge hit. (We can’t take pictures inside the prison, so you’ll have to make due with Pat, me, and Julie.)

Finally, I want to share the story of Albert. In November, prison officials approached Julie about an inmate who did not speak English (remember, she’s the fixer!). The workhouse staff includes no one who speaks Spanish, and they were struggling to help Albert, a Venezuelan, understand the release process. Julie brought me in to translate, and we met Albert the week before his release. We began learning his story and let him know we would be waiting for him when he came out.

On the day of his release, Julie and I met Albert in the workhouse lobby. Julie had arranged a spot for him in a transitional house, so I took him there to meet his housemates and then carried him to the Rutherford County Probation Office, but his case file had not been transferred to their office. So we left my number with his case officer and waited to hear. Afterward, we visited a local food pantry to get some staples. Julie held my hand through this process. Afterward, because of a language barrier, I ran point. I asked myself What would Julie do? and did my best to help.

Albert had been in prison for a few months on a misdemeanor vandalism charge. His story is stunning, so I’ll share it in some detail. He walked from Venezuela four times (having been caught and deported from other countries three times) before entering the United States. Of course, he hitched rides when possible, but yes, he walked from South America. This is not an uncommon story. I encourage you to ask yourself what would compel a person to make that journey.

Just before crossing the border, he was robbed and lost the contact information for those he knew in Texas. Therefore, once he entered the US, he immediately turned himself in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a Venezuelan, he was given papers that put him on a path to political asylum. These papers leave him in legal limbo but ensure he will not be deported directly. ICE bought him a bus ticket to New York, where a large Venezuelan community resides. By the time he reached Nashville, he had decided to avoid the cold weather, so he got off the bus and made a plan to travel to Florida. He found work in Nashville for a couple of days, bought a bicycle, and set out for Atlanta, en route to Florida. If that sounds crazy, consider how biking from Tennessee to Florida compares to walking from Venezuela to Texas. He was biking down I24 near Murfreesboro when he came across an abandoned vehicle. He saw clothing inside and, being cold, decided to break a window to collect it. Police spotted him, and he was picked up and charged for the broken window.

When he came out of prison, only a few days remained before his ICE papers expired. So I took him to the immigration office in Nashville to confirm his status and take the next step. In March, he will be formally processed (fingerprints, etc.) and given a hearing date upon which a judge will decide his political asylum status.

In the meantime, we worked with the Spanish-speaking Seventh Day Adventist church that meets in the SRC building to find him a place to stay and a job. The transitional house costs $200 a week, and without income, this is not a long-term strategy (not to mention the language barrier; no one else in the house speaks Spanish). Unfortunately, job prospects for undocumented workers are scarce during the holiday season, and we were at a loss for what to do. So Albert decided to return to Nashville, where he had met other Venzuelans and found work. After two weeks in Mufreesboro, I dropped him off in Nashville to make his way. It was rainy, and I was loath to leave him on the street, but it was his decision. We gave him clothes, a blanket, and a hygiene kit, but it seemed like too little. Please pray for him and other “aliens and strangers” in our land. They depend on the Christlikeness of the church as they seek to make a life.

Stones River Updates

A New Logo

Let’s start with the least important thing. There are many “renovation” efforts afoot at Stones River Church. Among the relatively superficial changes in the queue, the first is a new logo.

Our preaching minister, Jon McPeters, and I led the charge on this process. Our feelings about spending time and money on a “look” are ambivalent. Such matters are superficial and, of course, ultimately unimportant. Yet, we agreed that it is worthwhile to take steps toward representing the vibrant life inside the church community through a renewal of our outward-facing symbols. Frankly, I think the new logo is pretty sweet (shout out to designer blakeoliver.co). The church website is next, and other improvements will follow.

Preaching and Teaching

It has been my privilege to share more of the preaching load in recent months. Jon is also a part-time employee of Stones River, and he does a great deal outside the pulpit, not least in disciple-making. So collaborating in this way has allowed him to invest more time in other endeavors while giving me the opportunity to encourage the church on a regular basis. It is a joy to proclaim the word of God, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to use my gifts in this way.

Let me also take the opportunity to advocate the “shared pulpit” model. It’s a blast to collaborate on the formation of a sermons series, but more importantly, I think the synergy of different strengths and perspectives is a blessing to the church. Something important happens when we regularly hear multiple voices.

I’ve also restarted Sunday morning Bible class, which had evaporated during the pandemic. For our first study, I’ve been teaching the evangelistic study guide titled Mark as Gospel that I drafted during our years in Peru. I have continued to refine it, and I’m thrilled to share it with the Stones River family. Happily, about a third of the church has shown up for class, and our time together has been a delight. (I plan eventually to publish the study guide, so if your church or Bible class is interested in the curriculum, please let me know.)

Reviving Wednesday Nights

A while back I was reflecting with one of my former grad. school companions, who is now a preaching minister, about the state of the “mid-week” meeting. We recalled feeling, as young ministry students, quite superior in our dismissivness toward the traditional requirement of Sunday and Wednesday evening meetings. For those of us who grew up with a sense that attendance was close to goliness, the critique was necessary. But at this point in our ministries, the deficit of community among most American Christians looms ominously. It’s hard to estimate what we would give for just 45 minutes more with our church family each week.

In the aftermath of Covid19, the feeling of disconnection was significant in our community. At the same time, God began to open doors into missional engagement in our neighborhood, and the need for more time together in prayer and planning became acute. So Megan and I determined to revive the mid-week meeting at Stones River. We began with a slow walk through David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission.

During the Advent season we’re meditating on The Anticipated Christ: A Journey Through Advent and Christmas by Brian Zahnd.

Attendance has been modest. Once the weekly grind absorbs that time, it’s difficult to free it for something else. But the time together is imeasurably valuable. Going forward, we’ll continue to prioritize reflection on and equipping for participation in God’s mission.

Toward Evangelism

Jon and I have also dedicated a weekly nighttime outing to exploring spaces where people gather for community and conversation, namely, bars. In the days of craft beer’s ascendancy, this often means taprooms and brewhouses. I’m sure this seems suspect to many, but, for us, the critical question is where people actually gather in pursuit of human connection. The fact that craft culture has transformed some scenes into environments we actually enjoy is just a side benefit! We’ve spent a couple of months hopping from spot to spot in Murfreesboro, looking for opportunities and assessing challenges.

The upshot is our conclusion that we need to become “regulars” in a couple of places in order to foster consistent relationships. A plan is in the works, but I’ll leave details for the next update. For now, we ask for prayers as we seek to discover how to witness to the kingdom in places where loneliness and longing reign.

Discipleship Group

For me and Megan, one of the most vital spiritual practices is the formation of discipleship groups. I learned about discipleship groups from Mission Alive during our years in Pasadena (and recommend their training!). These groups entail a process of intentional formation as a community of missional followers of Jesus. We piloted a DGroup as members of Hollywood Church of Christ, and the experience was transformative. So we started a DGroup at Stones River a little over a year ago, and we’re now getting ready to multiply. That’s the hope anyway; these things are always tenuous.

To be clear, our discipleship group is not a church program. It’s more like an “underground” effort to foster a culture of authentic discipleship within the local congregation. The process involves a significant time commitment, and I find it best to make personal invitations that participants accept only after a forthright description of the cost. As the time frame of more than a year suggests, the journey is slow and demanding. Yet, debriefing conversations indicate that most find it well worth the sacrifice. As far as I can tell, turning the discipleship group into a church program would subvert its power. This percpetion deserves a post of its own, which I hope to write in due course. For now, I note that committing to explore a missional life together, regularly and peristently, produces something imcomparable to classes, small groups, and other such institutionalized efforts at facilitating an inclusive (read: low-commitment) process of spiritual formation. If “exclusivity” seems to be a problem, then recall that the way is narrow, and taking up the cross to follow Jesus is hardly attractive.

MTSU Students

Recently, Jon and I began a conversation with a small group of Middle Tennesse State University students about providing discipleship mentoring. Some of these students have begun attending Stones River on Sunday mornings, which has given us an opportunity to form relationships. We’re praying for a deepening of these spiritual friendships that will result in significant witness on campus. The prospect is exciting but uncertain. Our hope is that something substantial will materialize in the coming months. Join us in prayer!

Transitional Ministry, Homeless Ministry, and Other Local Mission

I’ll save the updates on these specific areas of work for dedicated posts. But here’s the link, as I see it, between these and everything above: altogether, we’re in the process of directing our shared life in Christ toward deeper participation in God’s mission. I am convinced that Jesus is leading SRC into the margins of our city where the least and the lost scrape by, into the lives of those for whom sincere friendship offers real hope, and into the places where the seams of community hang together by a few threads. This calling is fearful, and I’m struck again by how desperately we need the faithfulness of God, to whom belong the kingdom and the power and the glory in every age.

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.

After Freedom

Imagine, if you can, that you are in prison. Perhaps the justice system worked as it should. It does much of the time. You committed a crime and paid the penalty. Perhaps the system failed you. It does far too much of the time. You languished in prison unjustly. Either way, your former life is nothing but a memory.

You did what you could to endure encarceration. Church people came into the prison regularly to read the Bible with the inmates, and you attended every time, even when the lessons were not particularly helpful. Because of good behavior, you were transferred to the county workhouse, which allowed for lower security and additional opportunities. You made the most of each one. You attended classes offered by well-meaning people on the outside. They weren’t always interesting, but their kindness was meaningful.

Now, your release date approaches. But your family and friends cut ties. You have no money, and your prospects for employment are few, to say the least. The question looms: how will you begin again?

Upon release, things are worse than you imagined. You have no income, but fees, fines, and expenses pile up immediately. You have nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, no clothes but what you wore out, and no income. And it turns out, the church people who taught you the Bible on the inside are not interested in helping practically now that you’re out. Your “debt to society” is paid, but society clearly has no place for you. Suddenly, the question is not how you will begin again but how you will survive.

You’re sleeping on the street and relying on public services and benevolence for basics: a meal, a shower, a coat, a blanket. You’ve interviewed for a few jobs, but most employers won’t give you a second look because of your record, and you don’t have the clothing necessary to make a good impression anyway. And how would you get to work if you got a job? You can’t afford to get a driver’s license (forget a vehicle) or other essential documents. Sometimes you can use public transportation, but most of the time walking is the only option. You have no cell phone, and payphones are a relic of the past.

People look at you with pity or derision, or they simply ignore you. Maybe drugs or alcohol were part of what landed you in prison, but you’ve been sober for years. Maybe not. Either way, your situation is overwhelming, and any escape is tempting. Swiping something to eat from a gas station starts to feel like your best option today. You live at constant risk of being cited for loitering or public nuisance.

The cycle we call recidivism is frequently rooted in such situations. Beginning again is massively challenging. There are many public services on offer in most cities, but they tend to create dependents. Even the best services—so-called “wrap-around” services—tend to leave critical gaps that break down the process for many prospective clients.

For example, one organization in my area requires prospective clients to attend a three-day orientation in order to become eligible for services. But how can a newly released person get to the organization’s facilities? What will she eat for those three days? Where will she sleep? Even if other organizations might provide solutions, it is not obvious how one would find them, much less travel from place to place to acquire them.

Even more fundamentally, many newly released people lack basic life skills, such as making a plan for the day or budgeting. Many landed in legal trouble because of bad decisions rooted in learned behavior, and prison does not serve to inculcate a different way of life. Old patterns persist.

“Reentry,” as it’s called, is complex and dauting for these reasons and more. So what does it mean to begin again? How is it even possible?

When Jesus read the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he identified the release of prisoners as a dimension of the good news of the kingdom of God:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19; NRSV)

Thankfully, the twenty-first century has witnessed an increasing embrace of the kingdom’s holistic implications among Christian traditions that previously reduced the gospel to one version or another of “spiritual” salvation. The gospel redemes every dimension of life! The good news is truly good in every way. But the hard truth is that the modern “penal” institution creates all kinds of challenges that the gospel must also address, and the American church has largely failed to imagine its role in bearing witness to the kingdom after freedom.

The term of art for church work among the recently encarcerated is transitional ministry. In recent months, I’ve begun learning what transitional ministry means. There is plenty of poverty in the United States, and it has many faces. But I’ve learned that one of its most powerful manifestations is the desperation that plagues so many who come out of prison. The transformation that Jesus’s kingdom promises in American society should be manifest among the tens of thousands who struggle to find new life after freedom. Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release. As the church in my context struggles to imagine what it means to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in word and deed, transitional ministry is a sphere of vital witness.

Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release.

But, frankly, most Christians fear to step out on this water. The challenges are overwhelming. The costs are extreme. The risks are unavoidable. The “results” are elusive. In short, transitional ministry is a mission field.

I will continue to reflect on transitional ministry as I learn what it means to love neighbors who seek new life after prison. My hope is to help Chrisitians who seek to imagine what participating in God’s mission means in their communities. For many, bringing Luke 4 to life contextually and personally is not easy. There are reasons this is true, and I do not judge anyone—even myself—who longs to proclaim good news to the poor but struggles to imagine what that means in practice.

Praise be to the God of salvation, who leads his people in mission!

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.

Back in Ministry!

This month, I started a part-time position as the missions minister at Stones River Church (SRC) in Murfreesboro, TN!

SRC is a small church of about fifty adult members, and the leadership has graciously stretched our budget to the limit to make this support possible. At present, my responsibilities are limited to 10 hrs./wk., but I’m hoping to expand this role through fundraising (jump to details below).

Maybe you’d like to help? In this post I explain what’s happening and how you can get involved. Here’s the headline: God is up to something amazing in Murfreesboro!

The New Gig

I finished my PhD work in February and hoped to begin teaching full-time this school year. As the door closed on that plan, another opened. I now find myself called to leadership in a church that is leaning into a missional way of life. I’m truly delighted to help lead my spiritual community into deeper participation in God’s mission.

So what is a missions minister? I admit to suggesting this title.

“Outreach minister” is the conventional language for such roles, I suppose. But I’m not sure “reaching out” quite captures the essence of joining in God’s mission in our local context. The Spirit is at work before and beyond us, and our intention is to witness to the kingdom’s inbreaking wherever it manifests. We’re not “in here” trying to reach people “out there” (doesn’t that have the ring of attractional church models?) but to join God out and about in the neighborhood!

Whatever missions minister means, it surely involves serving the church as we share in God’s work in the lives of others.

At SRC, my role is focused on organization, equipping, and leadership in relation to congregational participation in God’s mission. We are on the way toward a missional life together as disciples of Jesus, and I get to help guide the journey. It is a breathtaking, joyful process.

In recent months, God has led us into unimagined relationships and opportunities. At a pace that has surprised us and stretched our capacities, we’ve begun serving both our local public school, Mitchell-Neilson Elementary, and our neighbors who have recently transitioned out of incarceration.

The Story

Late last year, SRC entered a season of prayer and fasting with the hope of discerning how to participate in God’s mission in our city. We began walking around the church’s neighborhood together, asking God to open our eyes to the Holy Spirit’s work, and spending time in prayerful conversation afterward.

Soon, new relationships began to form. We found ourselves in Mitchell-Neilson Elementary, welcomed to pray and speak with the principal about the school’s needs. So we brought our prayer walk into the school’s hallways and classrooms and quickly were given opportunities to serve. SRC volunteers have provided breakfast for the teachers and staff, read to students on Read Across America Day, presented on Career Day, helped facilitate Field Day, helped stock prizes for student accomplishments, and delivered essentials to struggling parents.

Mitchell-Neilson is only a few blocks from the church building, and it happens to be a Title 1 school with the highest incidence of low-income and at-risk students in the Murfreesboro City system. A surprising number of the families live in temporary housing (such as motels) and lack basic resources. Last month, the principal and many of the faculty and staff attended SRC on Sunday morning to share their struggles and hopes. It was an astonishing time of dialogue and worship.

We continue to be surprised by the opportunities to serve families in our immediate context that have arisen through this new relationship.

At the same time, God brought a visitor named Julie Hadlock to SRC. For years, Julie has led a ministry called Next Step, which primarily serves men and women transitioning from prison back into society.

Many of the people who live on the street in Middle Tennessee are former convicts, and many of them end up back in prison. This cycle has a great deal to do with the lack of resources available to people released from prison. From needs as simple as obtaining a driver’s license and finding a place to sleep to challenges as complex as learning key life skills and joining a healthy community, the difficulties of transitioning into “normal” life can be overwhelming.

When Julie showed up looking for a church home, we were in disbelief. We had prayed about learning to serve the homeless and marginalized in our city in deeper ways than volunteering at soup kitchens or handing out hygiene kits. But we never imagined that God would put an expert on our doorstep! Since then, Julie has placed Next Step under the oversight of SRC. We have hosted over 60 men from local transitional housing (“halfway houses”) at a yard party on the church grounds, and we’re outfitting a storage building to house essentials such as clothing and small appliances for neighbors newly released from prison. We anticipate many new friendships will develop from this partnership!

There is so much good work to do, and I’m praying that God will provide financially so that I can devote my attention to this ministry.

If you are able, please consider supporting me.

If you want to hear more, I’m happy to talk! Let’s schedule a conversation.

Fundraising Status

My goal is to raise $40,000 for August 2022–July 2023.

At present, SRC is providing $12,000 of that total, and I have received pledges of another $5000.

The remaining need is $23,000.


Tax-exempt donations can be made by giving online or sending a check.

Online Giving

Go to the Stones River Church of Christ donation page on paypal.com.

  1. Type in the amount you would like to give.
  2. Select “Support Greg McKinzie” on the “Use this donation for” dropdown box:
  3. If you want to cover the PayPal fees (2.89% + $0.49), tick the box for “Add $#.## to help cover the fees.”
  4. If you want to set up a recurring donation, tick the box for “Make this a monthly donation.” Note: In order to set up a recurring donation, you must log into a PayPal account. One-time donations do not require an account.


Make check payable to:
Stones River Church of Christ

Memo line:
Greg McKinzie

Send to:
Stones River Church
1607 Hamilton Dr.
Murfreesboro, TN 37129

Doctoral Study as I Remember It

I suppose a reflection like this one is bound to be somewhat self-indulgent. It is personal and particular. But I hope it also proves useful for others considering a similar path. And perhaps it will serve a deeper purpose. At the heart of my journey is a question of vocation, tangled in a messy relationship with values inherited from my church tradition and cultural background as well as my own commitments to God’s mission. I wonder (still!) how to live in the tensive space between the church and the academy and how to serve God’s purposes with the peculiar gifts and acquired skills that pertain to scholarship. What follows is a narrative, neither prescriptive nor critical. It is how I remember this journey.

The Journey to Doctoral Study

I went to Harding University (Searcy, AR) in 2000 to pursue a BA in missions. There was enough wise counsel in my life at that time to convince me of the need for both a college degree and preparation for mission work. I never seriously considered attempting to go straight to the mission field, but by the time I graduated high school I was set on cross-cultural mission work, and I was impatient to get to “the field.” The degree was a means to the ends of effectiveness and fundraising. Yet, I was convinced of the need for education, and I had a thirst for knowledge. That lost-in-the-desert, cracked-lip kind of thirst. One of my dearest friends, Bryan Tarpley, and I imagined for ourselves a future in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Inklings—thinking, writing, and arguing in a pub about the deep matters of faith and their representation in our work. These were childish ambitions, no doubt, but they were at the heart of my love for learning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already torn between the desire to get to work in mission and the longing to understand.

Harding was a life-changing experience, as the university should be. I quickly realized that my seriousness about learning was a relative outlier. Megan Bills, who would become my wife, was in my freshman Bible classes for majors. (Her brothers, who were also ministry majors, told her about the loophole that allowed Bible minors to take the “best” Bible classes, so she declared a minor and enjoyed the benefits.) She likes to recount her memory of the long-haired guy who constantly (and impatiently) raised his hand with questions at the end of class, preventing early dismissal. For me, questions about God were urgent, and the university was there to answer them. I revelled in the pursuit of their resolution. I needed it. And I found that I was good at seeking answers and finding even better questions.

Me and Megan during HU’s study abroad program in Chile (2002) before we started dating: I’m studying Greek; she’s reading the Bible

By the time I graduated—with two minors (Spanish and Psychology) and a glut of elective biblical Greek courses—I had discovered an unrequited love of scholarship. I had also realized that I was not yet prepared for mission work.

I applied to graduate schools and chose Harding School of Theology (at that time, Harding University Graduate School of Religion) in Memphis, TN. Part of the Harding school system, HST is a separate campus, the closest thing to a dedicated seminary among Churches of Christ schools. The experience of graduate education was a sheer delight. I completed an MDiv with voracious pleasure (and painful labor), all the while working on mission-team formation and fundraising, as well as serving in ministry with a Spanish-speaking congregation. In that course of study, I took one of Evertt Huffard’s courses, Spiritual Leadership. Evertt was a mentor in many ways, but this course in particular culminated in a spiritual autobiography that served to identify a personal “bent in life.” Through this process, I identified my trajectory as that of a “missionary scholar.” I knew that I was called to the concrete practices of mission work, but scholarship now had a permanent place in my life. I didn’t know what this would entail, only that it was true.

Dr. Huffard and me at my MDiv graduation from HST

My family and our teammates landed in Arequipa, Peru, on September 1, 2008. We gave ourselves to the best practices I had learned in the previous eight years of study: language and culture study, relationship formation, and prayerful discernment of God’s purposes in our context. In the meantime, I launched Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis because I couldn’t let go of the scholarly dimensions of my vocation. God blessed our work and taught us so much along the way. I was far from the best missionary during the six and a half years we lived in Arequipa, but God was faithful. I believe we bore witness to the kingdom of God in our faltering ways. But above all, I’m grateful for what my Peruvian sisters and brothers taught me about God. Those lessons have shaped my vocation more than any others.

My family went to Peru prepared to stay for ten years but intending to question our place there after five. In 2013, we began thinking about how to transition in a way that would leave the church in a healthy place (a story for another post). For our family, the primary motivation for this question was Megan’s and my sense that the next phase of our journey toward a scholarly vocation was on the horizon. The decision was fraught, to say the least.

God called us to Peru. We staked a great deal on that perception, and nothing in our experience suggested it was wrong. I was not an academic who had ended up in the mission field but a missionary who had fallen in love with the academy. But was that love also in service of God’s mission, or was it a betrayal of my family’s calling? We decided that following Jesus meant applying to PhD programs and returning to the US.

Application and Admission

The first step in application to PhD programs was the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test. Although I had taken the GRE for grad. school applications, the scores are valid for only five years, so retaking it was necessary. The exam must be taken at an official test site, which required me travel from Arequipa to Lima to make the attempt.

To say I hated this process is an understatement. The test consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. According to my natural gifts, words come easily, and math is a nightmare. If you wonder what math has to do with a PhD in theology, I can confirm that nothing is the answer (usually). Nonetheless, I had to suffer the indignity of demonstrating that my mathematical abilities place me in the 50th percentile of GRE test takers. I’m not an idiot savant, just a math idiot, and my math score was not likely to improve with further attempts. Competitive programs sometimes take all three scores into account, and I had no idea how this would affect my applications. I scored quite well on the verbal reasoning portion, but the further rub was my writing score. Unlike the other two sections, analytical writing is scored by a human. Despite the subjective element of this process, I had confidence in my writing abilities. After all, I had excelled in writing throughout my academic career so far, and I had spent four years editing others’ composition. As it turned out, however, I scored a 4.5 of 6, little better than the 3.5 average score. It was a travesty, in my estimation, proof of the fallibility of timed writing exercises and standardized grading practices alike. Still, the feedback was humbling, and I had to decide whether to retake the exam on the chance that the score would improve. Since a 4.5 was sufficient to apply to the programs that interested me, I decided to rely on the second step of application, the writing sample, to make my case for admission.

To serve as my writing sample, I wrote an article for Missio Dei titled “Currents in Missional Hermeneutics.” I intended that missional hermeneutics would be the focus of my dissertation, one way or another. This intention also shaped the selection of the programs to which I applied. PhD study is largely a function of “fit,” the extent to which one’s research interests match the faculty of prospective programs. That is, I applied to schools with faculty whose interests seemed to match my own. Ultimately, a single faculty member must choose to take on an applicant, becoming an advisor or mentor (called Doctorvater [Doctor Father] in the German tradition that dominated theological studies for centuries). Missional hermeneutics is an interdisciplinary endeavor, so I looked for programs in which missional theology, biblical interpretation, and theological hermeneutics might converge. I applied to three: Fuller Theological Seminary, Boston University, and Southern Methodist University. In each of these programs my degree would have been different. In other words, I was not pursuing a specific degree—systematic theology, missiology, practical theology, or biblical studies—but a place from which to develop missional hermeneutics interdisciplinarily.

In the mean time, we left Arequipa, arriving in the US on January 12, 2015. We lived with my wife’s parents and prepared for a move to Pasadena, Boston, or Dallas with the awareness that I might not be accepted anywhere. It was a time of nervous waiting and hope. I worked on my in-laws’ farm and taught Bible class at one of our supporting churches as we coped with reverse culture shock. Finally, I received a no from SMU and a notification that I was on the wait list for Boston. The acceptance letter from Fuller came last. Shortly thereafter, Boston let me know that I had been moved from the wait list to accepted status. The financial prospects were far better at Boston, but I believed that Fuller was the best fit, and Joel Green, my future mentor, would be best suited for guiding my interdisciplinary pursuits in missional hermeneutics. So, we set our sights on Pasadena, California.

Residency at Fuller

The PhD is built to guarantee expertise, which traditionally has meant depth at the cost of breadth. This is not an arbitrary mode of operation but a requirement of mastery. The sheer amount of work already done in any single, small area of scholarship is staggering. A scholar can easily and profitably spend an entire career focused on one aspect of one subspecialty. To attempt more is typically the work of a lifetime that stays within the confines of a single discipline. It is, therefore, no wonder that so many scholars look askance at supposedly interdisciplinary work. All too easily, work between disciplines does injustice to each specialty at issue. I pursued a degree in theology, commonly called systematic or constructive theology. Given Fuller’s structure and faculty, this was my best approach to missional hermeneutics. My focus meant working in hermeneutics from a theological perspective (so-called theological hermeneutics) and crossing into biblical studies and missiology. The traditional divisions between systematic theology and biblical studies already problematize this project. The further division between theology and missiology, expressed at Fuller in the existence of two separate schools—the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies (formerly the School of World Mission)—indicates the complexity and hazard of my undertaking.

I was right about my fit at Fuller. In 2020, the seminary made the groundbreaking decision to combine the two schools as the School of Mission and Theology. This was, to say the least, a significant development. But it predates my coursework. When I entered, separate faculties and relatively incompatible degree plans were the norm. Nonetheless, my program was open to me crossing into the School of Intercultural Studies for missiological coursework. This was a tremendous privilege that benefited my thinking and writing in significant ways. Even in the discourse called missional theology, which is my point of departure, the division between missiology and theology has persisted in powerful ways, and I was looking for a bridge across the gulf. Fuller afforded that possibility. Moreover, Dr. Green is an expert in and a practitioner of interdisciplinarity. His guidance helped me to navigate the tensions between the methods and interests of distinctive approaches to my subject matter in a way that, I believe, does justice to their particularity. I like to say that I did a systematics degree under the guidance of a New Testament scholar in order to develop a missional approach to Scripture. Whatever the result, I found in Fuller a place to make the attempt.

Doctoral study was a delight, even as it was grueling labor. Over and over during those years, I looked up from my reading to marvel at the opportunity to focus exclusively on the pursuit of understanding and gave thanks to God. Dedication to research and writing is understandably of interest to few. More than that, it is a privilege. I could not have asked for more, and I loved every minute, both the successes and the failures. Seriously. The flood of reading, the seminars, and the struggle to put it all together in words brought me great joy.

I have to mention the mentorship of Dr. Green as a highlight of the experience. He is one of those rare individuals with the capacity for an unbelievable amount of productivity at the highest level. Among his unusually large number of doctoral mentees, how he manages to do so much is a commonly discussed mystery. A scholar of the first degree who publishes prolifically, he was both the dean of the School of Theology and the seminary’s Provost when I entered the program. Despite this, he was always available to offer counsel and hosted a reading group in his home every Tuesday evening for most of the school year. His communication was prompt and his feedback on work was extensive. His guidance was kind and generous. I’m not being compensated by Fuller to say such things! These are the facts of my experience. I undertake my career in the academy with his mentorship as the standard that I will try to meet.

Working as a teaching assistant and a research assistant was another valuable part of the experience. I served as a teaching assistant for ethicist Erin Dufault-Hunter and, later, for New Testament theologian Marianne Meye Thompson. From these outstanding professors, I learned important lessons about teaching in graduate theological education. I also worked as a research assistant for Dr. Green, gaining further insight into the scholarly publication process. These jobs allowed me to earn a bit of income while remaining focused on my vocation. I did not take those opportunities for granted, and I remain grateful to have worked under scholars of such high calibre.

Shortly after landing in Pasadena, my family found a spiritual home at Hollywood Church of Christ. For me, theological scholarship is for the church and is properly rooted in the life of the local congregation. HCC is the church family that grounded and sustained my PhD work. This is to say too little, but words fail. Our time in California would have been immeasurably impoverished without the love of the sisters and brothers in Christ who gather to worship God as HCC. It is impossible to imagine our lives at Fuller without these spiritual friendships.

At the same time, integrating with HCC was challenging because we had only recently left behind our roles in Arequipa, where ministry was a lifestyle and, therefore, a key piece of our identity. To land in a church as nothing more than new members was a shock. We had to begin learning what it would mean for us to live like we had taught others—not as employed missionaries but as missional disciples. Seven years later, I can’t say we have figured out what exactly that means—or, rather, that I have figured it out (I think my wife is way farther down the road). But I’m profoundly thankful that we began that journey with HCC.

Our family life during those Pasadena years is full of sweet memories. Our kids grew from 8, 6, and 4 years old to 12, 10, and 8.

My Fuller littles, 2015
My Fuller not-so-littles, 2019

The five of us lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment on Fuller’s campus—the most “affordable” option in Pasadena that would allow us to function with a single vehicle. Megan commuted to her job teaching middle school in a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, and I walked the kids to school. That first year, Cohen (our youngest) hung out with me while I studied and stayed with church friends or babysitters while I was in class. The diversity of LA was a huge blessing for the kids, who saw themselves as Peruvians. The girls’ half-year in the small-town school system of Tullahoma, Tennessee, had been jarring. They had been the only White kids in their Peruvian schools, so the multiethnic experience of the McKinley Elementary School (host to more than 80 languages) was a relief. I remember Ana (our oldest) happily explaining after her first few months in school that her two best friends were from India and Colombia, and she was from Peru. When she went to the Colombian fiend’s birthday party, her mother was surprised to learn that Anita was a gringa. In truth, LA eased culture shock for me and Megan too. That emotional monster loomed over us for some time to come, and the diversity of both Fuller and Megan’s job, as well as our new church family, was a joy.

Maintaining emotional health in a PhD program is no easy feat. Across disciplines, rates of depression and anxiety diagnosed among doctoral students are extraordinarily high. Christian schools are no exception. A friend recently said the experience sounds like prolonged hazing, and I think the analogy is apt. The pressures are immense. Fortunately, I did not experience the extreme suffering that many do. I believe a strong support system made the difference—my wife, church family, and mentor deserve credit. But, without a doubt, longterm friendships helped me maintain sanity. I have to thank Kyle Smith (my former teammate in Arequipa), Bryan Tarpley, and John Middleton for serving as a pressure release valve. I cannot imagine what might have become of my emotional health without their encouragement. I managed to escape every summer to spend days playing Dungeons & Dragons, laughing hysterically, and soaking in their companionship. They were a blessing in ways they do not understand.

Likewise, finding friendship among colleagues was a tremendous blessing. It happened that the minister at HCC, Martin Rodriguez, started a PhD in intercultural studies at Fuller at the same time that I began my program. Martin is a first-class missiologist and a gifted practitioner whose spiritual companionship proved to be among the most life-giving serendipities of my time at Fuller. Similarly, a number of my classmates, who also participated in Dr. Green’s weekly theological interpretation reading group, became friends. That group—I’m thinking especially of Reed Metcalf, Jason Moraff, Ryan Gutierrez, and Melanie Dzugan—continues to reconnect at the Society of Biblical Literature’s annual meeting and spur one another on in the pursuit of scholarship. Finally, I am grateful for the friendship and collaboration of Carlos Cevallos, the director of Fuller’s Centro Latino and my co-author on “Between Service and Scripture: A Qualitative Study of Missional Hermeneutics,” an article published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation. Carlos generously introduced me to his lovely church community in the course of our research. I treasure the experience of working with him to produce that article.

Another vital dimension of my experience was participation in two scholarly societies. First, the professor who guided my independent study in philosophical hermeneutics, Dan Stiver, encouraged me to present my work at the Society of Ricoeur Studies (dedicated to the study of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s work). I did and became an SRS member. Until the pandemic, I was a regular at the annual meeting, presenting a paper every year and savoring the high-flown philosophical discourse of those gatherings. Delving the depths of Ricoeur’s thought has been such a life-giving experience. That must sound strange to most readers, probably for more than one reason. But it’s true. Laboring through his translated works (I don’t read French, yet!) is difficult, but I have found a sense of—the best word for it is relief in his insights. It’s a feeling like everything has been a bit out of focus, and you didn’t know that was the problem, but you could sense that something was wrong, and then suddenly everything shifts into HD resolution. I’ve had similar experiences with other philosophers (Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer) and many theologians: that sensation is the high that scholars chase. But wrestling with Ricoeur was unique in the extent to which it gave me clarity. It has been such a privilege to get to know SRS members and learn from them. I’ve been warmly welcomed as an “evangelical” (that’s how they see me) theologian, which no doubt has much to do with the fact that Dr. Stiver, a Baptist, is a founding member of the society. Thank God for trailblazers.

Second, the Society of Biblical Literature’s Forum on Missional Hermeneutics is the group I was most eager to join. I had been thinking about missional hermeneutics as such almost since the Forum’s inception, though I was unaware of its existence before I found some of its conference papers posted online around 2009. So I went into the doctoral program with every intention of hanging around the Forum meetings at the SBL conference until they let me in or told me to go away. It turned out (no surprise) that they were open and inviting to anyone with interest in missional hermeneutics. And let’s just say, I was aggressively interested. The Forum cochairs, Michael Barram and John Franke, whose work I had been incorporating into my thinking since grad. school, were an encouragement as I began to participate in Forum discussions and share my work. In 2020, I presented a paper (via Zoom, of course) titled “Revisioning the ‘Mission’ of Missional Hermeneutics as Solidarity: Womanist, Mujerista, and Feminist Contributions to a Postcolonialist Missiology.” In 2021, I participated in a review panel for Dr. Franke’s book Missional Theology: An Introduction. Delightfully, my program ended up tapping Dr. Franke to be the external reader for my dissertation. I suppose turn about is fair play! I’ve served on the Forum steering committee for a few years now and help keep our website updated. To be affiliated with this cohort of scholars is a deep privilege.

All the while, my work with Missio Dei continued. Shortly before our departure from Peru, I brought together the first board of directors for the Missio Dei Foundation (MDF), the legal entity under which I had created Missio Dei. My intention was always to build from the journal, whose management was feasible while I was a full-time missionary, to an organization with a larger agenda. During my years in Pasadena, the board grew and began to explore new initiatives. Principle among those was the establishment of a section dedicated to mission studies at the Christian Scholars’ Conference (CSC), an annual meeting of Stone-Campbell scholars and friends. I have had the opportunity to convene or participate in a variety of the ensuing sessions. One of the most memorable CSC events during these years was the banquet we hosted in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Mission journal, a watershed publication for Churches of Christ. In conjunction, I edited the oral history of Mission, written by my long-time friend and graduate school companion Bob Turner, and conducted an interview with some of Mission‘s key protagonists. The MDF board has built the Mission and World Christianity section of the CSC into a vital forum for missiological dialogue among Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Lately, our energies have been directed toward the establishment of the Gailyn Van Rheenen Endowed Session in Mission and World Christianity, whose inaugural lecture will take place at this year’s CSC. Like the other scholarly conferences, these meetings were formative and life-giving. I am especially grateful to David Fleer, the CSC director, for his patient support of our work. Among the MDF board members, Chris Flanders of Abilene Christian University, who also serves as an editor for the journal, became a friend and mentor. Chris is a graduate of Fuller’s intercultural studies PhD program and a brilliant missiologist. His partnership has meant a great deal during the turbulent years of doctoral study. But I must add that collaboration with all of the MDJ editors, MDF board members, and CSC participants has been a profound privilege. Once again, I cannot conceive of my doctoral study years without these relationships shaping the experience.

In addition to the constant composition of editorials, articles, and book reviews for Missio Dei, conference papers, and other writing assignments, I was fortunate to share my work in various publications. Those are listed in my CV and do not bear specific mention here. I should note, however, that most of these publications are largely a result of the encouragement and aid of my doctoral mentor, Joel Green. Wise counsel is worth more than silver and gold. Especially noteworthy is the publication of a coauthored work, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (2020). I was privileged to collaborate with my former teachers Mark Powell and John Mark Hicks on this important project. In keeping with my emphases in the doctoral program, I worked especially on the chapters devoted to the themes of Scripture and mission. To say I was delighted by this opportunity would be an understatement. Mark and John Mark played a major role in my theological formation, and writing with them was a joy.

I would be whitewashing my story of postgraduate study if I failed to mention the financial hardship that came with it. Talking about money is gauche. It tramples the strict divide between public and private in American life. And it risks the appearance of a sort of whiny self-pity. I was raised among a people who would say, “If you want money, get a job. If you want more money, work harder,” so I feel this hazard keenly. As missionaries, we chose a lifestyle of financial hazard. In some ways (including some unhealthy ways!), this choice affords a spiritual validation. Serving God whatever the cost is its own kind of blessing. To be clear, we wanted for nothing in Peru, and our supporting churches (congregational support is the model among Churches of Christ) provided faithfully for our family’s needs. Nonetheless, the notion of accruing savings, much less wealth, is typically foreign to the missionary lifestyle. Perhaps this is as it should be. Regardless, it made the move to expensive doctoral study in southern California daunting. Megan’s public school-teacher salary was our primary income, and the cost of living was significant. We paid for the program and the margin of expenses that a teacher’s salary could not cover with federal student loans. I obtained some doctoral fellowship money from Fuller, but the model there is competition for limited funds (things would have been different at a highly endowed school like Boston University). We accrued over $90,000 of debt in my four years of coursework at Fuller. This is not a complaint but a fact. Like most doctorates, attaining a PhD in theology does not result in significant financial prospects: it allows one to work as a university professor, which is not a lucrative career path. This is the vocation I have pursued, and the cost of doing so in the early twenty-first century economy of higher education is part of that calling. As one of my graduate professors advised, if you can do anything else, do not get a PhD. I could not choose anything else, and I do not regret its cost. But the financial reality of that decision deserves to be recorded in this recollection.

The culmination of doctoral coursework is comps. (comprehensive examinations). In my program, this consisted of four exams: one on the methods of my primary concentration (systematic theology), one on the methods of my secondary concentration (New Testament studies, focused on biblical theology), and two on theological subjects of my choosing: theological anthropology and the doctrine of atonement. I took one quarter (Fuller’s is a quarter system), which is effectively ten weeks, to study. For each exam, students are given an extensive bibliography and a menu of example essay questions. While the adjective comprehensive is somewhat misleading—the point is not total knowledge of a subject, which is impossible—the process serves to demonstrate mastery through wide-ranging, nuanced discussion of major questions in a given subject area. Alongside the dissertation, these exams represent the bar one must clear in order to earn the title “doctor.” I read, took notes, and organized my thinking with an intensity that far surpassed anything my studies so far had required. Essentially, I created and memorized a detailed outline of my understanding of each subject area. I can say without reservation that preparation for these exams was the hardest single thing I’ve done. The experiences was exhausting, but it was gratifying to realize that I had achieved a grasp of and a perspective on each topic: passing the exams instilled a profound sense of accomplishment and did a great deal to subdue the feelings of inadequacy, usually referred to as imposter syndrome, that persisted despite my strong performance in my courses.

Exams behind me, the dissertation proposal was the next step. This consisted of another quarter-long research process, focused now on determining the problem the dissertation would address. The proposal consists of a paper-length discussion of relevant sources and issues and, at last, a preliminary outline of the dissertation itself. This is submitted to one’s first and second readers, who must approve the project before it can move forward. In addition to Dr. Green, who was my first reader by default, I asked Dr. Stiver to be my second reader, knowing that theological engagement with Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy would play a major role in my argument. He graciously agreed, and I got after it. Frankly, this portion of the process was not difficult. In fact, it was a relief to put together the ideas I had been developing throughout the program in a focused thesis, and the proposal came together readily. Drs. Green and Stiver approved it with the advice that I would likely have to reduce the scope of the argument in one way or another. (They were right.)

Teaching and Dissertating

I began gleefully working on the dissertation the following quarter, producing a bloated and incomplete initial chapter by the end of the term, and then launched into another chapter the next quarter. I loved being immersed in the project, straining to build the largest argument I had ever attempted. Having the space to run at full-throttle was a blast. That freedom was a function of both the space a book-length project affords and the privilege of researching and writing full-time. I was aware that the latter was not a financially sustainable situation, however, so I rejoiced in the opportunity while it lasted. In the meantime, we began making plans to escape the southern California cost of living.

After applying for a couple of teaching positions, an opportunity to teach at Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) as an adjunct (part-time) faculty member came to my attention. I applied for the position, and in June 2019, four years after our pilgrimage to Pasadena, we said goodbye to our dear friends and church family and set out for a new home in middle Tennessee. With no guarantee of a full-time position, this was a risky move. But it put us in proximity of Megan’s parents (our kids had never lived near grandparents), and a part-time position in a more affordable economy was the best option for continuing to work on the dissertation while paying our bills. We landed in Murfreesboro, TN, half-way between Lipscomb and the grandparents. Megan got a job at a Murfreesboro middle school, and I set about finding a rhythm of teaching and writing.

Learning to be a university instructor is, of course, challenging all on its own. Even teaching part-time (3 courses per semester instead of the 4-course full load), the constant temptation was to neglect the dissertation. More, it was disheartening to recognize that splitting my attention between two important endeavors, not to mention family and church commitments, meant that I was doing nothing as well as I wanted. Everyone faces this challenge in one way or another, so I do not mean that the difficulty was unique. But I will say that writing a dissertation is demanding in a special way. As many have said, only those who have done it can appreciate the challenge. The demands of pursuing a research agenda at the highest level are tremendous, but unlike other sorts of scholarly writing, the psychological pressures of finishing the degree add a complication that is difficult to express. I have no doubt that others have faced this situation more gracefully, but in my experience, it was a long, hard road to travel.

In my second semester of teaching, COVID-19 began running through the US. The result was that more than half of my dissertation was written during the pandemic. For many who have similar stories, this no doubt compounded the difficulty of writing. I recall colleagues experiencing a malaise during the period of intensive social distancing that sapped their creativity and will to write. My students certainly displayed such struggles. I must admit, however, that, for me, it was an unbelievably productive period. It cut out my commute to Lipscomb and freed me from the seemingly endless parade of social obligations, activities, and school events that frustrated my concentration. (For me, long stretches of uninterrupted focus tend to produce more pages than cumulative small chunks of work). And, as a strong introvert, I conserved a great deal of emotional energy during the shutdown, which allowed me to manage the stress of writing more effectively. (This is not a retrospective assessment. I’m introspective enough to have noticed the comparison at the time. At the risk of seeming at least a little antisocial, I felt really good emotionally for almost the entire shutdown.) The result was that I got more done than I can explain. Looking back, I truly can’t recall how I managed to arrive at the summer of 2021 with only a fraction of the dissertation left to draft. I certainly recall the sensations of bogging down in endless reading, getting lost on rabbit trails, languishing over a paragraph, giving hours to a single footnote, and imagining that the dissertation would never end. And during this period, we bought a house and moved in. It doesn’t seem that the dissertation should have come together, but it did.

Along the way, I cut a chapter from the original proposal and wrote and discarded the better part of another. Still, the word count of the complete draft was nearly 20,000 words over the allowed 100,000. The revision process was bloody, and some darlings died. But finally, I cut it down to size, added the front matter, formatted the bibliography, and submitted. After generating the PDF of the final draft, I cried. Not from a sense of relief—the result remained unknown—but of gratitude and joy.

From the date of the dissertation’s submission, the committee (the first and second readers, plus an outside reader unknown to me) had six weeks to read it. The defense date was set for February 1, 2022. At Fuller, the doctoral defense entails a meeting (via Zoom in my case) of the candidate and the first and second reader. The outside reader submits written feedback, which the first reader represents in the defense conversation. Those six weeks were nerve-wracking, not because I lacked confidence about the work I had done but because I was ready to know the result. I was concerned about the possibility that I would pass “with revisions,” meaning I would have to put in significant time reworking some aspect of the argument in order to finish. I would have been happy to pass “adequate,” meaning no revisions were necessary, but I had worked with the ambition to pass “with distinction,” Fuller’s highest honor for the PhD dissertation. The day finally came, and I logged on to Zoom with great anticipation. Dr. Green put me in a waiting room for a few minutes while he and Dr. Stiver discussed their thoughts and the third reader’s (John Franke’s) written feedback. Then I rejoined the meeting and we talked for over an hour about various dimensions of my argument and the questions that it raised for them. Once we got started, my nerves subsided and I settled into a truly delightful conversation.

The defense: Dr. Stiver, me, and Dr. Green

After this, they put me back into a waiting room while they deliberated. Then I rejoined them and Joel delivered the verdict: pass with distinction. I was elated! But the additional feedback was overwhelming. All three readers expressed high praise for my work and encouraged me to seek publishing opportunities. I feel awkward sharing that feedback. But, to be transparent, I also feel tremendous gratification at the success that years of wholehearted work produced. I continue to feel surprise that the argument came together and gratitude to God, my family, and the church for the gifts that made it possible. I can hardly believe it. After almost seven years, I became doctor!

Unanswered Questions of Vocation

During the past seven years, I have struggled with the question of what doctoral study has to do with mission. My dissertation specifically addresses the theological definition of participation in God’s mission and argues that it is essential for the church’s engagement with Scripture. To a great extent, it is an argument for practice—theory for the sake of practice and theory that depends on practice. The result was a pressure to write not only from prior experiences of practice but in the midst of practice. Yet, the time that writing required, at least in order to finish relatively quickly, precluded significant participation in mission. In fits and starts, I gave time to what opportunities I could. But the truth is, research, writing, and teaching are consuming endeavors. The sense that I had left mission for the academy was a constant source of angst.

There are tidy answers to this dilemma. Some are content to point out that each part of the body has unique gifts and contributions. Others highlight the idea that scholarship is itself an aspect of ministry, a practice in its own right. These are valid points in the abstract, but I find them unsatisfying apart from the concrete practices of participation in God’s redemptive work in the world (which the academy frequently seems to ignore). This is an idea that requires explanation, but I’ll leave that to the dissertation! And that is precisely the bind that I find myself in: theory and practice, understanding and action, exist in an indissolvable tension. I am still working out the nature of this relationship for myself. Given my tradition’s skepticism about “theology” and the powerful cultural current of anti-intellectualism that sustains it, my tendency is to advocate for the value of rigorous, critical engagement with the ideas that inhabit practice. At the same time, my sympathies with those who call in good faith for action persist. It seems to me that the burden to justify the value of scholarship for the church is heavy. To be a “doctor of philosophy” necessarily calls for a reckoning with the wisdom of the cross, which any follower of Jesus may embody. Yet, theology, in the sense that vocational focus affords, best serves the church’s need to delve the deep things of God. Participation in mission that ignores theological critique is naïve at best and frequently destructive. So I set out on the next leg of the journey committed to theology on the way. For me, “faith seeking understanding,” as theology is classically defined, must be faith embodied in the practices of participation in God’s mission. No other faith is worth the quest for understanding; faith demands nothing less than the quest for understanding.

Discussion of Christopher R. Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture

[I wrote this for a doctoral seminar on Biblical Theology and Theological Hermeneutics. So, it’s technical . . .]

Broad Strokes

In The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible, Christopher Seitz takes up the work of his teacher, Brevard Childs, seeking to reform biblical theology in terms of its innate canonicity. Yet, the series in which the book is published—Studies in Theological Interpretation—implicitly identifies canonical interpretation with the biblical theology movement’s rebellious offspring, theological hermeneutics. Canon, for Seitz, is the common ground between biblical theology and theological hermeneutics. Thus, in the tradition of biblical theology, Seitz insists that theological interpretation must not silence the “discrete voice” of the OT, but, in a twist, this is a theological rather than a historical-critical argument. The claim that the character of Christian Scripture is its canonical form (its “formal aspect;” Kindle loc. 250) serves to pull OT theology toward theological interpretation while preserving, above all, the OT’s integrity apart from the witness of the NT and the authority of the church.

Seitz is also concerned about the hermeneutical crisis of the Anglican Communion. In addition to being the Senior Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, and a renowned OT scholar, Seitz holds three positions that stand to inform one’s reading of The Character of Christian Scripture. He is Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, President of The Anglican Communion Institute, and founder and executive director of The Cranmer Institute, which “seeks to rejuvenate Anglicanism in the US and throughout the Anglican Communion.”[1. The Cranmer Institute, “Vision,” http://www.cranmerinstitute.org/vision. The Anglican Communion Institute is housed within the Canmer Institute, and it is not evident how distinct the two initiatives are.] He writes, then, not merely with pastoral concern or love for the church but as an activist for unity and renewal within the Communion. Chapter six makes this evident, taking “the same-sex crisis in the American Episcopal Church” as a case study in the loss of canonical interpretation (Kindle loc. 2483). Despite the impression his style and interlocutors give, Seitz asks about the character of Christian Scripture not in the ivory tower of academic inquiry but in the mire of ecclesial dispute and decline. The hermeneutic to which the question corresponds is not objective but deeply interested. From this perspective, Seitz’s insistence on the “plain sense” of the final form and reliance on the liturgical inculcation of the rule of faith as “tacit knowledge” seem geared for the churchly purposes that motivate him.

In summary, an extension of Childs’s canonical interpretation preserves the discrete voice of the OT for an ecclesially interested theological hermeneutic. These broad strokes indicate the purpose and contours of the book’s argument. In what follows, I offer a more detailed review of the argument, then an assessment.

Review of the Argument

Seitz unrolls his thesis slowly and, in fact, never really articulates the full argument that the book undertakes. In chapter four, he states:

A simple thesis would appear to commend itself at this point: historical analysis of the use of the Old in the New threatens to create a disproportionate picture of what theological use of the OT by the Christian church should actually look like. And in so doing, it has also failed to reflect on what it means to speak of the NT as canon. (Kindle locs. 2127–32)

An earlier iteration of the same “thesis” appears in chapter two:

It will also emerge as our thesis that for the purpose of Christian theological reflection, the OT and the NT simply do their work differently, and not crudely developmentally, such as would lead one to conclude that the NT is more suitable for theological reflection than the OT in the very nature of the case. (Kindle locs. 1493–95)

Seitz takes the developmentalism of the historical analysis of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum, represented chiefly by the popular work of Richard Hays, as the foe he must vanquish, and he insists on stating his thesis in terms of the need to vanquish this foe. This is such a critical issue because he perceives that developmentalism has gutted the canonicity of Anglican hermeneutics and, conversely, that the OT cannot speak into the Communion’s hermeneutical crisis unless developmentalism is decisively deposed:

At the heart of the problem is a model of approaching the Bible in which the two Testaments of Christian Scripture have been reduced to phases in the history-of-religion, one improving upon the other, and then finally, a new religious phase improving on them both and giving us a new word to guide our sexual lives under God. (Kindle locs. 2771–73)

This final “phase” is a direct descendent of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach, in which the church should, for example, imitate Paul’s OT interpretation. When Seitz takes up Childs’s claim that “we are not prophets or apostles,” it is not merely to assert that “it is not possible to adopt the pneumatological stance of Paul” (Kindle loc. 780) but, further, to rule out the logical conclusion of such a procedure: taking Paul’s example to legitimate a similar minimal selection of NT texts in the next phase of development. In other words, developmentalism tracks along the following route:

  1. The final form of the OT is reverse engineered into developmental phases in which later compositions and redactions are the reception of earlier ones. This sets theology in a history-of-religions mode, establishes a precedent for taking particular texts as developmentally relative, and prioritizes the historical reconstruction of “original” meaning.
  2. The NT is construed as another phrase of development, and the church identifies with the NT phase. The reception of the OT in the NT becomes authoritative, potentially restricting the “meaning” of the OT to the limits of its NT reception (either in scope or significance).
  3. In order to broaden the limits of the NT reception of the OT, historical-critical methods render the NT authors’ exegetical practices for replication with other OT texts.
  4. The historical-critical treatment of the NT renders it ultimately another developmental phase that must itself be selectively and critically received.
  5. The church ultimately identifies with the current developmental phase, construed in terms of the Spirit’s ongoing work. As always, it is necessary to progress beyond previous stages of understanding.

The “the present popularity of treatments of the use of the OT in the New” is what seems to put point #3 in Seitz’s crosshairs repetitively, almost redundantly, throughout the book (Kindle locs. 381–82) and to shape his articulation of the thesis.

Nonetheless, the critique of NT reception of the OT is only a premise of the the book’s actual argument. Seitz comes nearest expressing this in the introduction:

To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character. This need never line up with this or that material use of the OT in the NT in the precise form that the NT demonstrates, much less in a form we are able to reconstruct and then imitate. (Kindle locs. 308–11; emphasis added).

Still, the second premise of the thesis is missing: the rule of faith is what ensures such genuine interpretation.

The point is that the rule of faith opened the Scriptures to a reading of extended senses, which were argued to be embedded in the literal sense of the OT in its given form and in its historical life, in order to clarify the most basic theological and trinitarian confession in the church’s lived life. (Kindle locs. 238–41; emphasis added).

The correlation of the two premises is at the heart of the book. The rule of faith is a hermeneutical rule for reading the literal (also called “plain”) sense of the OT as a discrete canonical witness; but it is, in this argument specifically, the corrective to the popularization of the Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach that presently perpetuates historical-critical developmentalism. Accordingly, the conclusion of the seventh chapter, dedicated to the role of the rule of faith, does not draw its conclusion without asserting the corrective:

In sum, the use of the rule of faith, with its assumptions about the character of the Scriptures that would in time become an older Testament, should serve a limiting function, guarding against an account of the two Testaments of Scripture that views them as one-after-the-other and not as mutually informing, mutually influencing witnesses, and turning the OT as Christian Scripture into a species of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum. Rightly understood, the early appeal to the rule of faith is a guard against this precisely because the Scriptures of Israel make their Christian notes sound within the literal sense of their own stable deliverances and are seen to be decisive just for this reason. (Kindle locs. 2947–52; emphasis added)

For clarity, the thesis might therefore be restated thus: To speak of the OT as Christian Scripture requires a genuine interpretation of its literal sense according to its canonical form and character, which the popularity of Vetus Testamentum in Novo receptum approach undermines but the rule of faith preserves.

In this light, the book’s argument runs fairly straightforwardly. (1) Brevard Childs was right about the canonical form and character of the OT. (2) The NT reception of the OT leaves much to be desired as a form of biblical theology. (3) The Book of Hebrews is a good example of the problems with attempting to imitate a NT author’s reception of the OT. (4) Classic, premodern Christian interpreters offer a better option for theological interpretation of the OT than Richard Hays’s and N. T. Wright’s historicist reductionism. (5) The final form of the OT text requires a better option anyway (read: Childs, like Luther and Calvin, also offers a better option). (6) The same-sex crisis in the Anglican Communion is the fruit of developmentalism. (7) But the rule of faith can guard against developmentalism and restore to the church interpretive instincts commensurate with the character of the two-testament canon.


As my review suggests, the book lacks clarity in the articulation of its thesis and suffers from repetition and disorganization. Furthermore, Seitz’s prose is often tortuous, his turns of phrase muddled and his antecedents indiscernible. He oddly changes “tone” in chapter six, as though feeling the need to admit ecclesial concerns are not truly at home on the heights of canonical criticism. Happily, this results in a little more readability (causing one to wonder whether Seitz takes “tone” to refer to clarity). After the fashion of his teacher, the scope of Seitz’s argument is ambitious, to say the least, especially given the brevity of the volume. He engages the vast work of Childs and his recent detractors, the recent NT scholarship of Hays and company, the history of interpretation (particularly of the Reformers), the Book of Hebrews, a large selection of OT scholarship, contemporary Anglican hermeneutics, and the rule of faith. He is a jack of all trades and credibly a master of more than one, but those for whom he writes before the “tone” change are likely to find the argument broad and shallow.

Questions that Seitz might have addressed with deeper, more measured treatment therefore remain pressing. Regarding his chief concern, the portrayal of Hays’s work is disappointingly a caricature that devolves into assertions about “simply unilateral replication of this or that NT voice” (Kindle locs. 1627–28). Another core problem is his failure to define the “plain sense,” which is particularly important since it is only plain in light of the rule of faith. The plain sense seems to be that which refers to, variously, the “subject matter” and the “Sache” of Scripture, but this does not clarify the term. Instead, these terms coordinate with another vague notion: “theological pressure.” Following Childs, the final form of the OT exerts pressure as a discrete voice that refers to the same subject matter determined by the rule of faith, so that the literal or plain sense of the OT is “extended” canonically: “Yahweh is this Triune God and we know it from the first witness itself, when its literal sense yields this up in the light of the second witness (Kindle locs. 972–73). It never becomes evident how the definition of the word discrete can be reconciled with the phrase, “in the light of the second witness.” The dissonance is heightened by Seitz’s insistence that the rule of faith “arises on the basis of a stable, anterior witness (the OT)” (Kindle locs. 2899–2900). Without the “allied” (Kindle loc. 970) pressure that the rule of faith makes evident, the pressure of the OT’s discrete witness cannot be extended, yet that witness is so discrete that the rule of faith is based upon the OT already witnessing to God in Christ. In the end, there is a vicious circularity to Seitz’s argument. He hopes the rule of faith substantiates a theological case for the discrete voice of the OT’s plainly Christian sense, but this discreteness is undercut if that sense was not always already plain prior to the rule of faith.

My final critique regards the commitment to populism and perspicuity that undergirds Seitz’s argument. He states, “Appeal to Scripture’s plain sense is born of the conviction that the Bible can have something to say without other forces needing to regulate that or introduce a special hermeneutics from outside the text so we can know when and where it can speak” (Kindle locs. 2572–75). Concomitantly, “basic convictions about the way the Bible—and especially the OT—speaks of the Triune God are not sophisticated or theologically complicated ones” (Kindle locs. 2627–28). Instead, the “rhythms of worship” impart “tacit knowledge” of these basic convictions. (Kindle locs. 2629–31). In particular, “at the heart of the internal movement of a two-testament Scripture is a collateral conviction: that God is One, and unchanging. Or, to use the language of Prayer Book worship: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.’ ” (Kindle locs. 2585–87). The liturgy imparts the assumption that validates the canonical reading: God does not change, therefore, God in Christ is Yahweh. The logic of Seitz’s overall construal seems to be that the OT witness is perspicuous, because rule of faith is perspicuous, because liturgy is perspicuous. Therefore, the claim that God does not change needs no textual substantiation and is subject to no textual challenge. For example, God becoming flesh cannot entail actual becoming, because that would require the subsequent witness to refer differently to a changed subject matter. Seitz contends the two testaments refer to the same subject matter, unnecessarily flattening the notion of sameness and establishing it as a presupposition. In this way, Seitz uses the appeal to populism and perspicuity to make a confessional claim the unassailable basis for the discrete witness of the OT to the triune God. This is an example of the sort of move that makes me sympathetic to biblical theologians who see theological commitments as a threat, not because neutrality is better or even possible but because a commitment is so easily established methodologically as a way to short-circuit the very texts that would challenge the commitment itself.


  1. What does it mean to say the OT has a discrete voice as Christian Scripture?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of the historical analysis of NT reception of the OT? Is it inherently developmentalist? Why?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of classic or premodern interpretive practices in comparison with the practices of, for example, Paul? Does the “closure” of the NT create an essential difference between them? Why? What are the necessary differences between premodern and postmodern practices?
  4. Do the apostles and prophets have a distinctive “pneumatological stance” that sets their interpretive practices apart from the rest of the church’s? Why?
  5. What role should the rule of faith play in theological hermeneutics? Does it substantiate the discreteness of the OT’s witness? Why?
  6. What is the “plain sense” of the OT and how does it speak in relation to Christian faith?
  7. Does the liturgy serve to impart “tacit knowledge” that makes the plain sense of Scripture available to the church without need of “special hermeneutics from outside”? How? Where do the liturgy and its “basic convictions” come from? Can the text challenge the “plain sense” of the liturgy or the rule of faith? How?
  8. How does the preservation of the discrete witness of the OT to God in Christ address hermeneutical concerns such as the “same-sex crisis”? What does it do for the interpretation of specific texts in tension with other texts and other commitments?