The Cost of Discipleship
The following is my blogpost for the Bethel Seminary admissions Blog on June 25th 2014
“The Cost of Discipleship” is the wrongly translated title of Bonhoeffer’s “Nachfolge.” It should simply be “Discipleship,” although the translator was quite right in pointing out the cost involved in discipleship as Bonhoeffer saw it. What is, so I want to ponder in this piece, the cost of discipleship for us evangelicals today? As we will see it is one thing to have the mind of Christ but quite another to know what that mind is. This may seem a contradiction, but by the end of this article I hope it will be a self-evident paradox.
We are all familiar with the “what-would-Jesus-do” phenomenon (WWJD) and perhaps equally aware of the criticism against the concept and its merchandise. This hype among young evangelicals to express the desire to act in a way Jesus would, told believers to ask themselves in any given situation: What would Jesus do? and consequently act in accordance with the apparently self-evident answer that ensues. So what would Jesus do? No one really knows. Jesus neither lives in the 21st century nor in our culture. He’s not around to be consulted on politics in the US, world economics, ecological problems, or gay marriage.
Theologian John Caputo, in his ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct’ traces the origin of the WWJD acronym back to a book by Charles Sheldon written in 1896, “In His Steps” with the subtitle “What Would Jesus Do?” He points out how between the evangelical WWJD and the original there already exists such a strong thematic discrepancy that it looks like a perversion. The Jesus of the evangelical WWJD concerns himself primarily with a vertical ethics between God and the individualized believer, while Sheldon’s Jesus was particularly concerned with the social Gospel. The retrieval of the would-be doings of the WWJD Jesus is thoroughly embedded in an implicit evangelical hermeneutics that attempts to contextualize Jesus’ supposed-to-be actions but in the process arguably alters some significant characteristics of the Jesus that once was.
In short, the WWJD hype is beset by all sorts of problems that instead of resulting in an authentic Jesus ends up with a well-intended but fabricated one that serves the self-identity of the community that has conjured him up. Implicit hermeneutics leads to a hijacked Christ. Jesus no longer gets to do what he would do; he gets to be a doer fashioned in the image of the community that worships him. The evangelical Jesus by and large cares a lot about sexual ethics but little about the results of Western imperialism, destruction of ecosystems in the name of economic progress, or perpetuated injustice in the form of slave trafficking and racial oppression. Inner city development is not high on his agenda either. The evangelical Jesus says and does little more than what evangelicals would have him say and do. (I say this about evangelicals because my audience is evangelical and because I myself am, but I could easily turn this against entrenched liberals as well.)
What would Jesus Think
I am not really interested in deconstructing WWJD. Insofar it is a sincere attempt of young evangelicals to express a contemporary form of discipleship I can have sympathy for it. But the distortion of the actual Jesus even in such well-intended efforts as WWJD gives us pause to think. I want to point out an even more insidious form of Jesus following. I dub it WWJT. The “D” of doing is replaced by the “T” of thinking. In order to critically engage the world in the name of Christ by shaping a Christian worldview and taking a stand against forces in our societies that lead away from what previously was a Christianized culture, some evangelical leaders try to define what Christ would think. The idea is that the Bible lends itself well to the formulation of all manner of absolutist positions that allegedly represent the thinking of Christ, for Christ is the Christ of the Scriptures and the Scriptures are of Christ.
If, however, presenting Christ as the quintessential anti-socialist or gay-hater is what it means to follow after Christ, we have entered dangerous waters. This is not following Christ, but using the Christ-figure to follow us. We drag him along wherever we need him to show up to lend credibility to our rhetoric and to sanction our own valiant efforts at trampling our enemies under our feet. Jesus then becomes like a statue carried around in religious folk processions. Let’s be careful not to drop him and let’s make sure the Philistines won’t capture him in order to present him as a trophy to their gods. This is not discipleship.
What would Jesus think? I have no idea, but I can guarantee you that it is not what I think, not what you think, and certainly not what die hard conservatives or liberals think it is. Just when you think you have figured him out, he is eating with sinners and prostitutes. And when you ask him about it, you get some cryptic answer that leaves you confused. If it is hard to know what Jesus would do, it is impossible to say what he would think. Every attempt is a betrayal, a perversion, a suffocation of the Truth.
And that brings me to Bonhoeffer’s title again. “Nachfolge” is one of those delightful German words that helps us to recapture the true meaning of discipleship. Discipleship of Jesus is a ‘following after.’ Jesus doesn’t take positions that we can figure out and then take a stand on. Our immovability is the very essence of denial of discipleship. Jesus is on the move, now here, now there. He is traveling, sharing his life, giving himself away. He is never in one place for a long time. Disciples follow Jesus: now here, now there. The essence of discipleship is being on the move in service of others in the name of our Lord. It will never be taking a hardline position in political debates, or it must be one against injustice.
Disciples shift from location to location, and situation to situation. They have given up everything they possess or at least don’t treasure anything they own more than they love their Lord. But wait! If disciples of Jesus give up all they possess, aren’t they also required to give up their entrenched positions, their absolute stances, and their hard-line opinions? Shouldn’t they admit that the whole WWJT thing is an idolatrous fallacy and no more than a reversal of allegiance whereby one’s own opinion is projected on Jesus who in turn is forced to participate in a macabre marionette game? This is not to say that Christians are not to have opinions, but that they should stop lying to themselves when they pretend to think after Christ while in reality they are merely defending their own way of life and their own contextualized Christ rubber-stamping it with Jesus’ blood.
Discipleship is about self-giving; giving of self. The one thing we evangelicals need to learn to give up, or give away, is our opinion about what Jesus thought. It imprisons Jesus, it renders the discipleship we are called to meaningless because it is fashioned after our own imagination, our own interpretation, and—what is worse—our own moral capacity. The cost of discipleship demands nothing less. We give up all we have and follow after Jesus in service of the other. Having the mind of Christ is to not know what Christ thinks; it is to ask: How may I serve you?