Sunday Meditations: Contagious Discipleship

Youth Leader and all around awesome guy Cory Ozbun recommended the book Contagious Disciple Making by David and Paul Watson to me.  I just finished “Part 1 The Mind-Set of a Disciple-Maker.”

My reactions to what I’ve read so far generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Things that were so awesome for someone to say
  2. Things that troubled me because of my own character flaws
  3. Things that troubled me for reasons that might have a little more objective merit

You’ll notice that two out of three of those categories are “things that troubled me,” which might lead you to believe I mostly had issues with the book, but that’s misleading.  The first category covers the overwhelming majority of my response, and that second category shouldn’t even exist, but painfully does.  Also, all the categories have a degree of overlap.

Things That Were So Awesome for Someone to Say

One of the main ideas of this part of the book is that the things we believe and the way we express following Christ are typically defined by our own culture, background, and denominations.  So, when we try to plant churches, we often try to replicate that, and that’s a huge barrier to the success of planting churches.

This is a great point, because I think the church is generally aware of the overt evils of Westernization our missionaries used to be pretty bad about.  We would make other people groups talk like us, look like us, structure their society like America – becoming Christian in large part meant becoming European/American.  At broad levels, I think we’ve woken up to the fact that such a thing is, well, wrong.

However, I don’t know if we realize how radically Being Western has affected us and our ideas about Jesus, church, the Bible, etc., and I love how the Watsons challenge us to seek that out and avoid trying to transplant our specific concepts of what being a follower of Jesus or a church is “supposed to look like.”  Even corporate worship on Sundays is cultural.  We often have been taught these concepts and then back-filled them with Scripture to make it seem like the idea was in the Bible all along.  Rooting this up is easier said than done, but it’s a great challenge.

Part of the Western tradition the Watsons challenge is an emphasis on doctrine.  They rightly point out that you just don’t need to know a whole lot to be a follower of Christ or to spread his message.  In the West, we train and educate and train and train.  We like classes and seminars and have fairly rigorous ideas about how trained someone needs to be before they’re in a position to lead a church or before they’re truly followers of Jesus.  We define their discipleship heavily in terms of doctrinal content.  This does not seem to square with the New Testament church.

Finally, the emphasis on obedience was great.  I could see someone criticizing the book on the grounds of teaching a “works-based” faith, and that someone should probably shut up.  This flows right out of our cultural emphasis on doctrinal knowledge.  Believing the right things is more important than doing the right things to us, and you are going to be hard-pressed to find that to be the consistent message of Jesus and the Apostles, despite the fact that, at least in Protestantism, we have enshrined this as a central theological principle.

True disciples of Jesus are doing Jesus stuff.  There are no more qualifications to that.  Even the demons believe.

Things That Troubled Me Because of My Own Character Flaws

I like to study the Bible.  I like to know more about it and understand its content better.  I’ve been at this a while.  And as I understand its content better, I like to share it.  I like to teach.  I like to preach.  I like to watch people’s eyes light up or nod their heads as they begin to connect dots.  What’s more – I think teaching is a gift God has given me.

So you can imagine how distressing it is for someone like me to come to grips with the fact that biblical and theological knowledge is just not as important as we hold it in the West.  In fact, holding it in that elevated position can be a hindrance to service and the spread of the Gospel.

It’s distressing because I define my service to the church largely in terms of that very thing and a large part of my identity and self-esteem is tied up in that enterprise.  Some of you who have heard me teach are probably thinking, “Dude, you absolutely should not be resting your self-esteem on your teaching,” and you are probably right, but I do.

So, I found these kinds of statements by the Watsons particularly troubling.  I don’t like the idea of new believers being released “into the wild” to make new disciples.  Like an overbearing parent, I want to keep them in the fold until I have created them in my own image.  I want to replicate -myself- in many ways.

It’s very humbling to realize the thing that you do that you think is so awesome really isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things and may actually hurt more than it helps in some cases.  So, this will be an area of continued thought and soul-searching for me, but it was very unpleasant.  I found myself on the defensive for a good chunk of Part 1 just so I could protect myself, even summoning up Scriptures to help me protect myself.  There’s probably a blog post in there, somewhere.

Things That Troubled Me for Reasons That Might Have a Little More Objective Merit

There are two things in this category, basically.

The first is that I think it’s a mistake to bring the Bible to another culture and say, “Interpret and practice this according to your own cultural values and practices.”  We’d never intentionally do that with Americans, for example.  In fact, many would argue that’s how the American church ended up looking so much Not Like Jesus.  I think the Watsons would sort of agree with this, but they’re very big on just turning the Bible over to a people group and just kind of letting them run with it and seeing what happens.  At least at this point.  The next part is on Practices, and maybe they’ll rein this in a little.

The issue I have with that is that every earthly kingdom is fueled by similar core issues – issues that Jesus challenges.  There is no culture that does not need to be examined in light of the kingdom of God.  In fact, a community of Christ followers is supposed to be counter-cultural.  They are not supposed to fit in.  It is not supposed to be a comfortable transition.  While I agree with the authors that the differences should not come from being Western, and I also agree that we may put up a lot of unnecessary cultural barriers thinking them to be actually part of following Christ, the fact remains that a community of believers in any culture is going to have to get some distance from that culture – not to move closer to the West, but to move closer to the kingdom of God.

Don Richardson’s now famous missionary story Peace Child illustrates the issue in a way that is obviously uncommon, but it makes the point.  The Sawi people at the time valued cunning, and treachery was considered a mark of competence.  You admired someone who betrayed their close friends if they profited from it.  So, when they heard the story of Jesus, they instantly latched on to Judas as the hero of the story.

I don’t know what a Sawi church would look like if that idea went unchallenged, but you’d probably want to sit with your back to a wall if you visited.

Now, this cultural value would be a big obstacle for a Sawi convert, right?  To follow Jesus means laying down your own good for the good of others.  It involves love, compassion, and just and honest dealings.  To ask a Sawi at the time to do that would be a huge cultural barrier to entry, not just to give those things up, but then to suffer at the hands of a culture who still held those things.  People would be treacherous to you, and you would have to love and bless them in return.

But that’s how the kingdom of God rolls.  By creating that counter-cultural community and people perhaps even dying for it, this is how the Beast is fought.  This is the experience of the New Testament church.

And, yes, people may need to be taught to see that because they won’t see it with their cultural lenses in place.   They may decide Judas is the real hero.  It’s not the job of the West to correct this idea (like Western culture has any room to talk about treachery), but it may be the job of more mature Christians who know the faith well and have lived it out.

The second thing is that the New Testament itself is a product of a culture and traditions, specifically first-century Jewish ones, and those are rooted in the Old Testament cultures and traditions that brought them to that point.  The message of Jesus and his Apostles are not timeless aphorisms recorded in a book.  They are the lived out experience of first century Jews under the dominion of the Roman Empire.

If we aren’t at least considering this, we are almost guaranteed to replace the message of Jesus with our own.

For instance, the Watsons refer several times to completing the Great Commission.  The GC is incomplete because we haven’t reached the whole world, yet.

Well, when Jesus gives the Great Commission, the word we translate as nations is “ethne,” which means Gentiles.  Jesus has been given authority over everything, so now the mission that began in Jerusalem needs to extend to the surrounding peoples.  The Apostles, surely, and probably Jesus, would have understood this as the known world at the time, and not the aborigines in Australia.  And let’s not forget this command was given to the Eleven.

According to Paul, the Great Commission was already completed by the spread of the Gospel in the first century.

…provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

Colossians 1:23 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Or, perhaps the passage where Paul uses Jesus words:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith….

Romans 16:25-26 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

That word for Gentiles is “ethne,” exactly the same word in the Great Commission.

So, in order for the Great Commission to remain incomplete, we have to make some theological decisions:

  1. Jesus’ command was not for the ministry of his immediate disciples, but was for the entire church at all times
  2. Jesus’ command was not to expand the mission to include the Gentiles of the known world, but was to bring the Gospel to every people group on planet Earth even if unknown at the time

Now, I’m not saying those are necessarily incorrect.  I am saying that to accept them uncritically is to ignore the actual point of view of the people who wrote the Bible in the first place – a point of view that can have a dramatic impact on what defines “all that Christ commands.”

For example, the Watsons point out that Jesus’ command that a man should only have one wife is often an obstacle to polygamous cultures.  What’s interesting is that Jesus issues no such command.  Jesus never ever commands that a man should only have one wife.

This is a theological implication drawn out of Jesus’ answer to a completely different question, “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason?”  Once again, I’m not saying this is necessarily a wrong implication.  In fact, if we look at first century Judaism, we find that polygamy was a practice largely of the existing power structure – something they inherited from the tradition of Israel’s powerful in the past (cf. David).  So, it’s probably a safe bet that Jesus, especially being in the Hillel school of Judaism, and his followers would have condemned the practice.

My point isn’t that this conclusion is wrong.  I doubt that it is.  Nor is my point that the Great Commission is over and done with.  My point is that there are no “clear commands of Jesus.”  We are separated from the commands of Jesus by 2000 years.  They may have been crystal clear to the original audience, but they aren’t clear to us.  They arose in a culture, religion, and historical situation very different from our own, and to just ignore that is to create disciples of your interpretations, but not necessarily of Jesus.

As a final example, let’s take a “clear” command of Jesus:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Matthew 18 (NRSV)

This is a clear command of Jesus, yes?  There is nothing in the text that suggests he is being hyperbolic or allegorical.  In fact, it’s painfully (no pun intended) concrete.  This creates a certain tension for modern interpretation because we assume Jesus is talking about our daily, personal sins, and if that’s the case, and we actually were to obey this command, we’d probably be missing almost every appendage you can think of.

What gives us our insight into Jesus’ teaching is the cultural and historical situation of the text.  The “fire of the ages” and “Gehenna” are references to an actual, geographical location outside of Jerusalem where you burned stuff.  Old Testament prophecy predicted a military force coming in judgement against Israel that would fill the valley of Gehenna with corpses needing to be burned.  The phrase “enter life” is actually “enter the life.”  It doesn’t make sense that cutting off your hand will make you born without a hand.  It means that it is better to enter an upcoming life without a hand – the life of the age to come.

640px-valley_of_hinom_pa180090

Gehenna, 2006 (and, ironically, some dude’s cut off elbow)

Jesus is referring to an upcoming judgement on the power structure that oppresses the people of God in Jerusalem.  The upshot is that its better to lose a limb and survive the judgement and live in the new world after that than to fall in the judgement and perish with the oppressors of that age.

Now, is it wrong to read that passage and get a sense of the importance of avoiding sin?  No, but it is also wrong to read that passage and see a clear command to poke our eye out if we keep looking at stuff we shouldn’t be looking at, and since Jesus said making a disciple meant teaching them to obey all his commands, we need to get to pluckin’.

This is the kind of thing that is unlikely to emerge naturally from discussions among people who are new to the Bible.  What would you say to a people group who started cutting their hands off to follow Jesus?  That Jesus was just exaggerating?  How do you tell when Jesus is exaggerating or not?

So, I love this book and am generally on board.  I have no doubt that doing what the authors have been doing will produce a lot of churches in a short amount of time.  But Paul didn’t just leave his churches to figure everything out on their own, either, nor was he ok with all the results of that process.  In addition, our understanding gap between us and the world of the Bible is much larger than it was for those original believers, and that gap needs crossing.  How to do that without making a discipleship a heavily academic exercise, I’m not entirely sure.