Volume 7 - Issue 3
Radical discipleshipBy David Wenham
The coming of Jesus Christ into the world was the coming of a wonderful revolution: the sick were healed, the hungry fed, the possessed were cured, sinners were brought back into fellowship with God, social and racial barriers were broken down, rich and poor began to share, the dead were raised. And this revolution was achieved not by violence and hatred, but through the power and love of God working through Jesus.
But what has happened to that revolution? The church of Jesus Christ today, at least by comparison, seems anything but a revolutionary force.
Was Jesus’ revolution, like so many revolutions, just a short-lived and exciting experiment that soon burned out, and that lost momentum as soon as it became institutionalized in the church? No Christian can accept that diagnosis.
Three things deserve to be said: first, the Jesus revolution never was an unqualified success. The time of his ministry certainly was a very exciting time; but Jesus faced intense opposition from outside his community and stubborn selfishness and materialism within his community. His ministry was a struggle with Satan, and, although the resurrection was proof of his final victory, his death was a measure of the fierceness of Satan’s attack; his enemies killed him, and his friends deserted him. Jesus warned his disciples that they would face the same sort of thing: lack of response to the sowing of the Word of God, people falling away under the heat of persecution and through the choking effect of riches, and personal suffering and danger.
This was, of course, what happened in the New Testament church: although the church was in many ways a sensational success, it was not all like that. It only takes a reading of Paul’s epistles or of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation to show that the early church experienced many of the problems and sins that we face today.
A second thing to be said is that, although today’s church has its full share of problems and sins, the light of Jesus’ revolutionary love is still shining brightly in many parts of the church. Sometimes we may be inclined, because of the difficulty of our particular situation, to accept the popular and distorted image of the church as an irrelevant and outmoded institution; but in reality in many places and in many ways Christ’s revolution is going on: people are coming to new life in Christ and are being wonderfully changed; missionary work is increasing, not decreasing, in some parts of the world; Christians are living lives that are different—both famous people like Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and unknown people like the saints in your church and mine who cheerfully sacrifice themselves for others.
But to point to the problems of the New Testament church and to encouragements in today’s church situation must not lead us to complacency. The early church and Jesus’ own fellowship of disciples had plenty of faults; but these were not regarded as things to be tolerated, but as denials of the gospel and as meriting judgment. Jesus warned against religiously saying ‘Lord, Lord’ without acting accordingly. So the third and most important thing to say about the church’s failure to live out Jesus’ revolution is that the situation poses an urgent challenge to us and to our churches: we must repent—really and not only in word—and follow in Jesus’ revolutionary footsteps—really and not only in word. That challenge is a costly one: it was the path that took Jesus to the cross.
The title of this editorial is borrowed from a recent book1 written by a former Themelios contributor, Chris Sugden, who is at present working in India. In his book he takes further the thinking of Ronald Sider and others about the social implications of the gospel and the relationship of social concern and evangelism (providing plenty of thought-provoking ideas and a very useful bibliography). He notes interestingly how ‘the proposers of radical discipleship’ have often come from evangelical churches with very conservative views of the Bible. This is surely as it should be (but not as it always has been): no-one who takes the Bible seriously and Jesus Christ seriously should be content with a comfortable undemanding form of Christianity (though many of us and many evangelical churches easily slip into that). We may not find all of Sugden’s suggestions applicable to our situations; but we do need to hear the challenge to follow Jesus radically—in every aspect of our lives, and not only to hear but also to begin to work it out in practice. This might seem a hopeless task; but it is not: Jesus inaugurated the revolution of the kingdom of God; he gives us his Spirit so that we may live the revolution here and now, and he will one day bring what he has begun to completion.
1 Christopher Sugden, Radical Discipleship (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1981).