The very first followers of Jesus were individuals that he called away from their jobs and their homes and exile under the Roman Empire to follow him.
He made no bones about it. The kingdom of God had come, and you could either leave the kingdoms of this world and sign up with it and enjoy its future, or you could live out a very pleasant, basically moral life keeping the kingdoms of this world going and experience their future.
Signing on with the arrived kingdom of God meant cutting your ties to other allegiances.
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.
Luke 14:26 (NRSV)
As well as everything that associated you with a life built on the principles of the world as it was:
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Luke 14:33 (NRSV)
He knew that following him would invite the hostility and persecution of the surrounding culture:
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:27 (NRSV)
Jesus warns his disciples what will happen as they go out and announce the arrival of the kingdom:
Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Matthew 10:21-22 (NRSV)
He has very direct words as to his impact on families:
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Matthew 10:35-36 (NRSV)
We do know that at least some of this was conditioned by a specific time frame:
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.
Luke 22:35-36 (NRSV)
Such that we should not assume that everything Jesus said about discipleship at that time automatically carries over to all disciples everywhere at all times. We have to think. We have to look at what was going on at the time, what the disciples would have understood by Jesus’ words, and whether or not that has any applicability to our experience of discipleship and disciple-making, today.
Nevertheless, one thing that remains a constant refrain throughout the New Testament is the idea of being “called out.” The Greek word ekklesia that is translated as “church” means “called out.” You have come out of the kingdoms of this world and into the kingdom of God, and some degree of separation and persecution are bound to follow because your very existence and faithful life is a testimony against the kingdoms of this world.
In Western missiology, we have been guilty (and are often still guilty, but more subtly so) about calling people out of their culture into Western culture. Or calling people out of their cultural expression of following Christ into a Western one. Or calling people out of their theological tradition into a Western one. This is obviously dumb, harmful, and pride in the extreme – as if Western Christianity has been any great shakes so far.
And historically, we’ve certainly paid the price in both ancient and more recent history. We can think of the eradication of other cultures in the name of “Christianizing” them, which was the cool thing to do for several centuries, but even within Christianity, these ways of thinking have been disastrous. Many of the countries that are Muslim strongholds, today, were once epicenters of Christian thought that were actively persecuted and dispersed by other Christians. Can you imagine such a thing? Well, it happened. Christians had to seek out the relative tolerance and protection of Islam to survive the persecution of other Christians. You can see where our great love for our “brand” of Christianity has taken us, both inside and outside the faith.
And yet, we can’t let go of the otherworldly nature of the kingdom of God. Joining God’s kingdom is disruptive. It is not supposed to be easy. Great numbers flooding in are atypical and worthy of special mention in the Bible, not the norm. Jesus would disperse crowds of “followers” all the time by making a sidelong comment about taking up a cross or selling possessions or embracing the people considered unclean.
Your culture minimizes children? Too bad – Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to them and people who become like them. Your culture treats women like property? Too bad – Jesus educates them, lifts them up, values their testimony, and discovers that they are far more courageous followers than the men. Your culture admires wealth? Too bad – Jesus exalts the poor and says your riches will keep you out of the kingdom short of a miracle (or the much simpler solution to give it away). Your culture values the military? Jesus hates violence and preaches love for enemies. Your culture exalts the family to be the most important institution? Jesus says following him takes precedence. Your culture wants to revolt against an oppressive government? Jesus says to turn the other cheek.
Pursuing these ways are offensive to American culture, as they are to any culture that exists. They challenge cultural expressions of Christianity – not in the music or clothes or how you structure a worship service – but the very core values and traditions a given nation is founded on – the engines that make it run. Money, power, ostracism, division, living only for yourself, living only for yourself and your family, numbers, size, military might, alliances – all these things and more become unimportant at best and weapons of Satan at worst as far as the kingdom of God is concerned.
We are, in a very real sense, testifying against all nations, all cultures, and calling people out of those kingdoms into the kingdom of God. The arrival of the kingdom isn’t good news because it gets you out of Hell or gives you a new Moral Code. It’s good news because it’s the end of the world as you know it.