Wineskins Archive

February 3, 2014

Book Excerpts: Mere Discipleship (Mar-Apr 2004)

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by Lee Camp
March – April, 2004

Today, as in days past, there is no way to tell from a person’s life, from his deeds, whether or not he is a believer.
Leo Tolstoy1

Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer2

“The Most Christian Country”

On an April morning in 1994 I heard the radio transmission of the BBC’s report—my wife Laura and I were far from our home, working with a Christian school in Nairobi, Kenya, and not more than several hundred miles from the location of the strife. The airplane carrying the president of Rwanda had crashed. Foul play was suspected, and the terror had begun. But at that point, no one appeared to have any premonition of the extent of the slaughter soon to occur. Over the next several months, Rwanda—“the most Christian country in Africa,” with as much as 90 percent of the population claiming some Christian church affiliation—became the site of genocide unlike any in recent history, with as many as 800,000 men, women, and children slaughtered within a one-hundred-day period. Ethnic tensions between the two dominant tribes, the Tutsis and the Hutus, erupted into widespread slaughter, with neighbor killing neighbor. The national army, vigilante groups, and average citizens hunted those of different ethnic identity, often using machetes to hack their enemies to death.3

Much of the subsequent international attention focused on the breakdown of U.N. “peacekeeping forces” to restrain violence effectively or to protect the weak.4 But the breakdown of Rwandan Christianity, unable to stem the tide of mass murder, is all the more puzzling. Rwanda had often been cited as a case study for the success of “Christian missions,” after the so-called Tornade in the 1930s swept the Tutsi aristocracy into the folds of the Catholic church. Following the conversions of the leaders of Rwanda, the country was dubbed a “Christian Kingdom.” But the genocide demonstrated—in a graphic and horrific way—that the Western Christianity imported into the heart of Africa apparently failed to create communities of disciples. In actuality, the “triumph of Christian missions” preceded the triumph of ethnic hatred. When push came to shove, the Jesus who taught his disciples to “love your neighbor” was missing when young men were hacking old men, women, and children to death, simply because these neighbors were of a different ethnic background. Numerous Christian martyrs of both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic identity died because of their resistance to the massacres. But that these faithful martyrs were a minority among the fold of Christians has led critics to suggest that the “gospel” imported into Rwanda failed to ever challenge the ethnic identities of its “converts”—they “became Christian,” but many remained first and foremost either Hutu or Tutsi.5

In fact, the Rwandan genocide highlights a recurrent failure of much historic Christianity. The proclamation of the “gospel” has often failed to emphasize a fundamental element of the teaching of Jesus, and indeed, of orthodox Christian doctrine: “Jesus is Lord” is a radical claim, one that is ultimately rooted in questions of allegiance, of ultimate authority, of the ultimate norm and standard for human life. Instead, Christianity has often sought to ally itself comfortably with allegiance to other authorities, be they political, economic, cultural, or ethnic. Could it be that “Jesus is Lord” has become one of the most widespread Christian lies? Have Christians claimed the lordship of Jesus, but systematically set aside the call to obedience to this Lord? At least in Rwanda, with “Christian Hutus” slaughtering “Christian Tutsis” (and vice versa), “Christian” apparently served as a faith brand name—a “spirituality,” or a “religion”—but not a commitment to a common Lord.

A Rwandan couple, who barely escaped the slaughter themselves, shared their story at our university campus. Faculty and students listened in disbelief. Their report of the carnage was simply mind-boggling. But as I listened, a frightening question occurred to me: We American Christians, are we any different? Do we have all the same cultural assumptions about Christianity that would allow us to shelve our discipleship, to compartmentalize our faith, so that we too could fall prey to such demonic forces? Do we have on the same blinders? We good American Christians, could we do that same thing?

The Most Christian City

Raised in the “Bible Belt,” my upbringing in Alabama provided personal experience with “cultural Christianity.” Particularly in the South there is a Christianity thoroughly sanctioned and supported by the prevailing cultural forces, a Christianity I sometimes suspect to be not too different from the failed Rwandan Christianity. My wife, three sons, and I now live in Nashville, Tennessee, which has been dubbed by some to be the “Protestant Vatican.” It is, in addition, the “Jerusalem” for my own Christian heritage, with over one hundred congregations of Churches of Christ in the greater metropolitan Nashville area. According to some reports, as many as one thousand houses of Christian worship find Davidson County alone as their home. Add to that mix the multitude of denominational boards and institutions, Christian book publishers, the contemporary Christian music industry, and even the largest Christian diet marketer in the country, and you get a culture in which “church” is inextricably intertwined with every facet of life. Nashville is as “Christian” as it gets.

Ryman Auditorium aptly symbolizes the relationship between Christianity and southern culture. In the heart of Nashville, the Ryman Auditorium was built in the late 1800s as a home for revivals. Were one to be plopped, unknowingly, in the midst of the Ryman, one could only presume to be in a church building, given the trademark pews and churchy architecture. Southern gospel has long been tied to southern sectionalism and patriotism, and so the balcony of the Ryman aptly represents this facet of the larger culture—the “Confederate Gallery,” it’s called, built to hold the Confederate veterans for one of the last reunions of those who fought in the “Lost Cause.” And then the real claim to fame of the Ryman—the site of early Spirit-led revivals in time became the locale of the internationally renowned Grand Ole Opry, whose roots are inseparable from gospel music. Beer-drinking, wife-cheating, flag-waving, and “Amazing Grace” appear almost as one, so subtly are country-and-western culture and Jesus woven into the same fabric of both the Ryman and Nashville.

The two largest Christian traditions in Nashville have a long tradition of mutual enmity: the Southern Baptists and the Churches of Christ. Baptists—often unaware of their own tradition of exclusivity—have often chided members of Churches of Christ: “You think you’re the only ones going to heaven, don’t you?!” There was a basis, though, for the accusation of sectarianism. Particularly in north-central Alabama, we in the Churches of Christ embodied Luke’s account of Jesus’ proclamation, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (11:23). My adolescence was inundated with preaching that drew lines in no uncertain terms between the (“New Testament”) church and the world; and often, those lines were drawn through a number of boiled-down points, among which the most important were the proper acts of worship (like a cappella singing and weekly communion), adult baptism by immersion (for “remission of sins”), and upright personal moral conduct (no drinking, dancing, or cussing).

Whatever one makes of such a list, that preaching taught me a particular habit that, depending upon one’s perspective, could be taken as either a virtue or a vice: the habit of questioning professions of Christian faith sanctioned by a larger unrepentant culture. Perhaps in our well-intentioned efforts to bring all things under the lordship of Christ, American Christian culture has been guilty of baptizing unrepentant social systems and structures. Is it sufficient to “sprinkle” the culture of a city or nation-state and dub it “Christian”? Which brings us back to the question of whether Rwandan Christianity is all that different from Nashville Christianity, or American Christianity. Has American Christianity too often shelved its discipleship, compartmentalized its faith, and thus been blinded by unredeemed cultural forces that leave us prey to the principalities and powers of this world?

The namesake of the Christian university where I teach, David Lipscomb, shared the sentiment of many nineteenth-century Christians in his great optimism about the United States, and its experiment in democracy. But the U.S. Civil War dashed Lipscomb’s optimism. Lipscomb witnessed the Battle of Nashville, in December 1864, in which 1,500 Confederates and 3,000 Union soldiers died in a two-day period, the battle lines of which passed just a few blocks north and, a day later, just to the south of his farm—which is now the campus of Lipscomb University. How, Lipscomb wanted to know, could southern Christians slaughter their northern Christian brothers? How could northern disciples make widows out of their southern sisters in Christ? Over the course of the war, six hundred thousand men were slaughtered—most of whom claimed Jesus as Lord. Brothers in Christ, on opposite sides of the battle lines, seeking to kill one another, their battles bathed not only in blood but in prayer—and witnessing this, Lipscomb knew that there was some agenda other than the kingdom of God at work. So he began to insist that disciples prioritize God’s kingdom, rather than the self-seeking agendas of the kingdoms of this world.

Lipscomb’s prioritization of God’s kingdom over all other kingdoms led him to profound commitments. First, Lipscomb refused to be cowed by either the Confederate or Union forces and admonished disciples to refuse to kill on behalf of either. During the war, the famed Confederate command-er Nathan Bedford Forest (subsequently a cofounder of the Ku Klux Klan and now heralded in Nashville in a privately funded memorial prominently placed alongside Interstate 65) sent a soldier to hear Lipscomb preach so that he might judge whether Lipscomb was advocating treason. After the sermon, the soldier remarked, “I have not reached a conclusion as to whether or not the doctrine of the sermon is loyal to the Southern Confederacy, but I am profoundly convinced that he is loyal to the Christian religion.”6 Neither the piety of a Robert E. Lee nor the religion of the Yankees would suffice in Lipscomb’s eyes. Lipscomb refused to separate the gospel from the real world, believing the Good News to proclaim a kingdom that held to Jesus as its head: the kingdom of heaven is a real kingdom in the midst of time and history. It is in the world but not of the world, and thus would refuse either to submit to sectional war-making and southern racism, or to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor.

In addition to this countercultural commitment, Lipscomb’s allegiance to the kingdom of God led him to other practices profoundly opposed to the norms of southern Christian culture of the late nineteenth century. Not only should allegiance to the kingdom dissolve commitments to sectional and war-making factions. It should also undercut racist distinctions. Racial barriers grew only more entrenched in the decades following the war, fostered not only by the Christians who populated Nathan Bedford Forest’s KKK but perhaps more perniciously by the moderate Christians who silently supported and perpetuated segregation. But Lipscomb refused to be silent. The kingdom of God, Lipscomb insisted, knew no such distinctions. So, for example, when a church in McKinney, Texas, objected in 1878 to an African-American man placing membership in their ranks, Lipscomb denounced such as “sinful” and “blasphemous.” “The individual who assumes such a position shows a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God.”7

No realm of culture was exempt from the church’s calling to bear witness to the way of Christ and the kingdom of God. Thus Lipscomb founded a school in 1891 whose aim was to provide a liberal arts education;8 but that education was never intended for the service of upward social mobility in the New South, but for service in Jesus’ kingdom. In the same way, Lipscomb had earlier insisted that money could not be hoarded but stewarded for the good of the poor. Thus Lipscomb had admonished those Christians in the poverty-stricken Reconstruction south to share their goods. “The man that can spend money in extending his already broad acres, while his brother and his brother’s children cry for bread—the woman that can spend money in purchasing a stylish bonnet, an expensive cloak, or a fine dress, merely to appear fashionable, while her sister and her sister’s children are shivering with cold and scarce able to cover their nakedness, are no Christians . . . they are on the broad road that leads to death.”9 Thus position and power could properly be used only in authentic service for those in need. So when a cholera epidemic struck Nashville in 1873, Lipscomb refused to flee the city along with the wealthy who made their way to safer environs, but himself worked in the homes of the destitute and diseased, helping to clean and care for them. 10 Allegiance to God’s kingdom, for Lipscomb, was an all-or-nothing proposition.

The Hamlet of Rose-Colored Cataracts

Imagine a remote hamlet, removed from the rest of the world, in which all the inhabitants were afflicted with a strange eye disease. Suppose that this genetically inherited disease manifested itself with only one symptom—a strange cataract, which did not blur the victim’s vision. Instead, the cataract simply cast a rose-colored tint to the afflicted’s vision. In such a scenario, it’s quite likely that all the inhabitants of that small, provincial village would simply assume that the world is rose-tinted. So strong, in fact, would be this presupposition—that the world is rose-colored—that the inhabitants of that little hamlet would likely never even discuss it, and certainly never question it! And anyone who might question such an empirical assumption would certainly be considered a bit strange—if not simply irrational. What more do you need—you can see it with your own eyes?!

But just what if—what if the Christian church looks at the world with some long-inherited presuppositions, assumptions so long held that for anyone to question them leaves us looking for a way to get out of the conversation? What if what has so long been presumed to be “common sense” and “reality” and “truth” is neither true nor real?

Logically, of course, one cannot deny that this may be a possibility. Thus, each generation of followers of Jesus must reassess our faithfulness to our calling; we must grapple with how our viewpoint and understanding has been shaped by tradition and history. James Cone, for example, is a classic example of a theologian who asks questions about historical identity and assumptions. Cone designates himself a “Black theologian,” and argues that the (white) Western tradition of theology has forgotten that our history, our “social location,” our position of wealth and prestige shapes the questions we ask of Scripture. Consider Athanasius, Cone suggests, a fourth-century theologian involved in the debates regarding the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son who pushed for the use of the Greek philosophical term homoousion, asserting that the Son is one substance with the Father. There is indeed, notes Cone, a place for philosophical concerns like these. But had Athanasius been a black slave in America, “he might have asked about the status of the Son in relation to slaveholders.” Similarly, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther concerned himself with the “ubiquitous presence of Jesus Christ at the Lord’s table.” Had Martin Luther been an African, kidnapped and sold on the slave market in the United States in the nineteenth century, “his first question would not have been whether Jesus was at the Lord’s table, but whether he was really present at the slave’s cabin.” Luther might have asked “whether slaves could expect Jesus to be with them as they tried to survive the cotton field, the whip, and the pistol.”11

What Cone wants us to see might be put this way: someone reading the story of God’s chosen people will tend to ask different questions depending upon one’s own history, one’s own social location, one’s own position of relative power or powerlessness. One asks different questions of the meaning of “God,” depending upon whether one finds oneself in the “ivory tower” or in the slave cabin, in Pharaoh’s throne room or Pharaoh’s mud-pits, in the boardroom or the sweatshop. Where we are and where we have been deeply affects who we think God is and what we think God wants us to be.

The “Constantinian Cataract”

If one’s social location impacts or affects one’s understanding of who God is and what God is concerned with, it would appear that the church’s social location may affect its understanding of Jesus. For this reason, many have suggested that the meaning of “Jesus” depends upon whether one finds oneself on this side of Emperor Constantine or the other. But what possible difference could an early-fourth-century Roman emperor make to our understanding of Jesus?

Before attempting to answer that question, a brief bit of storytelling may be in order for those unfamiliar with the rise of Constantine. For the first three centuries of the church, the Roman Empire, at best, ignored Christians; at worst, it killed them. Periods of persecution were sporadic, and though persecution was never a constant feature of early Christian history, the uncertain social position of Christianity persisted. But the minority, persecuted status of Christianity suddenly changed, symbolized by Emperor Constantine’s battle of the Milvian Bridge, just outside Rome, in October 312. There, according to one legendary account, a vision called Constantine to draw the Chi Rho—the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ”—on the shields of his soldiers. “By this sign you shall conquer,” the vision is said to have revealed.

Constantine’s opponent, meanwhile, was busy preparing for battle, offering sacrifices to the Roman gods. In short order, Constantine triumphed in battle, his foe withdrawing in defeat across the Milvian Bridge, his dead body discovered the next day in the Tiber River. The Romans hailed the triumphant Constantine as their new ruler, and Constantine hailed the victory as a gift from the God of the Christians: the power of Christ had triumphed over Constantine’s enemy. How, then, should he respond?

Constantine and his fellow ruler in the East issued an empire-wide edict of general religious toleration: good news for the Christian church indeed! More, Constantine restored previously confiscated property to the church. Soon the Christian church served a new, very visible social and political role within the empire. Moreover, the emperor appeared to care even for the unity and purity of doctrine in the church. Calling the Council of Nicea, the emperor desired that debated matters of the nature of the relation between the Father and the Son be settled, so that nothing would disrupt the unity of the church.

By the end of the century, the emperor Theodosius finalized the conquest of Christianity, making the faith of the Christians the only legal religion in the empire. Within one century, the Christian church had moved from the status of a minority, persecuted sect to that of the only legally sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire. Indeed, as some historians tell the story, Christianity had “triumphed” over its enemies.12 There arose, from there, “Christendom”—an alliance between church and empire. The Christian church had arrived, or so it appeared.

On the other hand, other historians and theologians recount these events as the “fall of the church.” This type of storytelling is perhaps too naïve, simplistic, or sweepingly judgmental—surely there is much to be learned from post-Constantine Christians. Nonetheless, one finds in “Christendom” particular ways of thinking about Jesus that obscure (if not set aside) his teaching. In other words, some serious consequences came in the wake of the “triumph of Christianity.” Painting in too-broad strokes, one might characterize some of these consequences this way: “Christianity” increasingly loses the biblical emphasis upon discipleship, and replaces it with an emphasis upon religious ritual. “Church,” rather than connoting the New Testament concept as a community of disciples living as the “body of Christ,” begins to connote a hierarchy that protects “orthodoxy.” “Salvation,” instead of being construed as the gift of a transformed, abundant life in the now-present kingdom of God, begins to be equated with an otherworldly reward. More crassly put, “salvation” is increasingly viewed as a fire-insurance policy—rather than the gift of new life in the here and now that stands confident even in the face of death, “salvation” becomes a “Get Out of Hell Free Card,” guaranteeing an escape from the fires of torment and ensuring the receipt of treasures in heaven. In Christendom, the “whole world” may be dubbed “Christian,” and yet it is un-Christlike.13

In such a way, Christianity becomes its own worst enemy: the “triumph” of Christianity actually inhibits discipleship, for the masses already too easily believe themselves to be Christian. Any call to be “truly Christian” is seen through a Constantinian cataract: “What do you mean, become ‘truly Christian’? We already are!” Leo Tolstoy described his experience of nineteenth-century Christendom this way: “Today, as in days past, there is no way to tell from a person’s life, from his deeds, whether or not he is a believer.”

We in the Western world are long removed from those days of governmental establishment of Christianity, living in the day of “separation of church and state.” Nonetheless, such habits of thought remain, Christendom assumptions remain pervasive, and “Christianity” gets sold short, removing any commitment to giving all to Christ, seeking first and only the kingdom of God and its righteousness. “Christianity without discipleship,” nonetheless, “is always Christianity without Christ,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Whosoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked,” asserted the sixteenth-century radical reformer Menno Simons, just as John asserted that “whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6). Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospel accounts relate, always comes asking disciples to follow him, not merely “accept him,” not merely “believe in him,” not merely “worship him,” but to follow him: one either follows Christ, or one does not. It is all or nothing. There is no compartmentalization of the faith, no realm, no sphere, no business, no politic in which the lordship of Christ will be excluded. We either make him Lord of all lords, or we deny him as Lord of any.

“Radical” Christianity

The call of the gospel is, in other words, “radical.” The word “radical” can be taken in at least two senses. For many, the word “radical” connotes “far-out,” or “overly zealous,” or “extreme,” or “fanatical.” Something “radical” is thus something to be discounted, not to be taken seriously in a mature world of responsible adults. “Radical” is akin to an adolescent stage of rebellion against the establishment order, a phase some pass through on their way to maturity. It seems precisely this sense of “radical” that Christendom affords us: following a Jesus who commands love of enemies, or sharing of one’s provisions, or ongoing practices of forgiveness, is looked upon as “far-out,” as an extreme viewpoint with little to offer the “real world.” Such “radical” claims are looked upon as idealistic, unrelated to the pragmatic concerns of those who are trying to “make a difference” in the world. Thus we fashion a religion that suits this model—we “go to church,” are offered pious sentiment to warm our hearts, theological warm-fuzzies intended to assure us of our eternal reward or a life filled with “meaning,” with little word of the kingdom of God.

But taken etymologically, the word “radical” simply means “to the root.” And it is in this sense that the Christian faith is radical: it demands thoroughgoing transformation, thoroughgoing conversion, of every realm of human endeavor, in personal relations, economics, and politics, in homes, culture, and social order. The gospel demands radical discipleship.

There is, I must confess, a deep part of me that is embarrassed to advocate a “radical Christianity.” For I find, especially in these recent days of my pilgrimage, that the more I seek to surrender to Christ, the more I discover those idols to which my “old self,” as the apostle Paul calls it, has been desperately clinging. It turns out, of course, that my sins are not all that interesting, but the same as the lot of all humankind: pride, ambition, lust, greed, self-seeking. The more I pursue the light of Christ, the more he illumines the diseases of my heart, the dysfunction of my soul. I have long desired quick fixes for my thorns in the flesh, my defects, my failings—but Christ has granted me none. But he does, as I walk behind him, alongside him, and alongside others on the Way, grant me daily bread, daily sustenance, his grace being always sufficient for the day.

I also fear speaking of “radical discipleship” because I continue to encounter innumerable souls deeply wounded by moralistic perversions of discipleship, by legalistic religion, good souls burdened with shame, knowing neither the joy nor peace that are born from the Spirit of Christ. I have walked that long, lonely road, too, and have found in it not life, but shame, and anger, and resentment. But this is not following the Master, in spite of its weighty religious veneer, for the true religion, the true life is found in the One who first loved us, even while we were yet self-centeredly rebelling; in the One who forgives us seventy times seven, even before calling us to do so; in the One who was tempted in all ways, like as we are, in order to share our suffering, to know our weaknesses, so that he might love us even there in our weaknesses.

The call to “radical discipleship” is thus not a call to a burdensome moral perfectionism, but a call to leave the old ways of death and darkness, and walk in the new way of abundant life and glorious light, with the Christ who is Light and Life. There, on the path with Christ, we are loved even when we do not deserve to be loved. And there, on the path with Christ, we too are called to love those about us who do not deserve to be loved. On pilgrimage with Christ, we are forgiven with an extravagant love—he washes our feet, even when we would betray him. And there, on pilgrimage with Christ, we too are called to forgive with such extravagance. On the way with Christ, God’s abundance, provisions, and goods are shared with us, joyfully consumed and used, for we eat in the kingdom of God! And on the way with Christ, the provisions and goods in our hands are shared with those around us, for we do not live according to the rebellious kingdoms of the world, which hoard and hold, but according to the kingdom of God, in which God clothes the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and us, too, so that we live with a lightness and ease that befits sons and daughters of God.

And so I write not so much to instruct as to understand, to make more sense myself out of Christ’s call to follow him. I write to share my deep suspicion that our Western culture continues to pervert the word of Christ. I write with a sense of burden, suspecting that even the religious rhetoric that appears to take Jesus so seriously has domesticated him, cleaned him up, made him respectable so as not to embarrass us good church-going folk with our agendas of upward social mobility and social “responsibility,” and in so doing has limited the answers believed to be possible or sensible or respectable to that commonly asked question, “What would Jesus do?” And I write hoping to find more fellow travelers who share this suspicion, so that we might help one another on the way.

The ongoing Bible Belt experience notwithstanding, we are nearing the end of the cultural establishment of Christianity in the United States. Nonetheless, it appears that the reflexes of “Christendom,” that the cataract of the “establishment of the church,” continue in their own updated guises even today. Consequently, it may be that if we desire to follow Jesus, we will have to diagnose the cataract that wrongly colors, and thus distorts, our vision. The significance of these assumptions for our understanding of discipleship might not be readily apparent; nonetheless, if not questioned and challenged, they subtly and steadfastly compartmentalize, reduce, and trivialize a call to “follow Christ.” The shape and nature of this cataract is discussed in chapters two and three.

Then, in chapters four, five, and six, I suggest a reading of the New Testament that should help us configure our understanding of discipleship in a more biblical way, in a manner that does not continue to hold up the false assumptions that subtly corrode our understanding of discipleship. In brief, the basic narrative might be summarized this way: God’s good creation has rebelled against the good purposes of its Creator. This rebellion brought death, anguish, violence, lust, greed. And God, in Christ, has announced and acted to redeem the rebellious creation, restoring it to God’s good, original intentions—the kingdom of God is at hand! But surprise of all surprises, the redemption comes not through power and might, but by his sharing in our suffering, taking the very brunt and blow of our rebellion; the Son was crucified, refusing to be cowed by the rebellious principalities and powers, and in his crucifixion, triumphed over them; and in his resurrection, was vindicated by the Father. The church, then, a community called to follow in the way of Christ, a community that is “the body of Christ,” exists not to show the world how to be “religious,” but to show the world how to be the world God created it to be. We are to be salt and light—and as he was in the world, so are we to be.

But it is not sufficient for us simply to “tell the story right” or “hold to right doctrine.” A sufficient account must provide something concrete, and it is this more concrete task that I take up in the remaining chapters. There I discuss some of the “practices of the church” that help us sustain the life to which we have been called. Rather than understanding things like worship, baptism, and prayer as things we “must do” in order to be pleasing to God, we should understand that these are God’s gifts to us, and to the world. Rather than seeing these practices as mere religious ritual, we should understand these practices as the very type of good life for which we were created, and at the same time as practices that help sustain us in the good life to which we have been called.


(1) Leo Tolstoy, Confession, trans. David Patterson (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), 14.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 59.
(3) My thanks to my colleague Earl Lavender for drawing my attention to Rwanda as a horrific case that has opened the eyes of missiologists to the failure of traditional, Western Christian evangelism. See the very helpful discussion of Michael L. Budde, “Pledging Allegiance: Reflections on Discipleship and the Church after Rwanda,” in The Church as Counterculture, eds Michael L. Budde and Robert W. Brimlow (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).
(4) And this is, of course, a legitimate line of critique. Why do western nations who supposedly espouse the just war tradition appear so slow to take up arms in situations of mass killing when no economic interest is at stake? The reigning doctrine of conservative U.S. politics of only using military force when our national interest is at stake betrays the selfish interest pacifists (and the letter of James 4:1-10) always believe to be at work in waging warfare.
(5) See also the analysis of Ian Linden, “The Church and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwandan Tragedy,” in Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, eds., The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to the Churches (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), pp. 49ff. esp. The point here is not to blame the Church or Christianity for the genocide, though some have suggested that the ethnic distinctions were made greater and even utilized for purposes of social control with the coming of a “Christian culture.” The point here is a more modest one: that the gospel, which proclaims the overcoming of ethnic and racial difference (“neither Greek nor Jew”), failed to be embodied in the wide-spread nominal Christianity of Rwanda.
(6) Cited in Robert E. Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness: A Biography of David Lipscomb (Nashville: David Lipscomb College, 1979), 72.
(7) David Lipscomb, “Race Prejudice,” Gospel Advocate (21 Feburary 1878): 121.
(8) The school began as the Nashville Bible School and was named Lipscomb College following Lipscomb’s death. See the announcement “Bible School” in Gospel Advocate (17 June 1891): 377.
(9) David Lipscomb, “The Restitution South,” Gospel Advocate (28 February 1867): 172. See the discussion in Anthony L. Dunnavant, “David Lipscomb on the Church and the Poor,” Restoration Quarterly33 (1991): 83.
(10) See C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press, 1993), 93-94.
(11) James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 13. “Black theology” and “black theologian” are Cone’s own self-descriptors.
(12) See, e.g., Robert M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine: The Rise and Triumph of Christianity in the Roman World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1970). His part four, “The Triumph of the Christian Movement,” refers to the rise of Constantine following the Diocletian persecution.
(13) An extended note of qualification, on several points, is in order here. First, on my use of history: I have not here given sufficient historical evidence to induct a historical type that one might dub “Christendom.” Instead, I am more interested in identifying particular ways of thinking that appear with much greater frequency after the so-called “Constantinian shift.” My interest in identifying them is because, to my way of understanding the biblical texts, these modes of thinking lead us away from the teaching and intentions of Jesus. These ways of thinking (discussed in chapters two and three), common in Roman Church history, are also common in European Protestant history, and American Church history. The historical anecdotes I use are just that—anecdotal and illustrative, rather than a careful inductive presentation of historical material in order to develop a historical “type,” but I do nonetheless assume that one can induce such a way of thinking, evidenced in my use of the terms “Christendom cataracts” and “Con-stantinian reflexes.” But I construe my task here more as a theological one, rather than historical one—I do believe it fairly evident that one can discern these ways of thinking in the history of “Christendom” as well as in popular American religious culture today, but my primary concern here is to suggest that these ways of thinking distort our reading of biblical texts and our understanding of discipleship. Yoder’s article, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 135-150, is one helpful source in this regard. His outline “The Difference ‘Constantine’ Made in Moral Reasoning” (unpublished mss.) is another source I’ve found helpful in conceptualizing these “Constantinian” ways of thinking about Christian ethics. Furthermore, on this historical note, those who criticize a “Constantinian shift” such as I am assuming here should not depict Constantine as the lone or even primary character in some mythical “fall of the church.” The conceptual and ethical categories critiqued here have their roots in earlier Christian fathers, and the full fruit of a fourth century “shift” developed only after centuries of growth. Nonetheless, the historical events of the fourth century—of “Constantine”—serve as a powerful symbol of what I take to be faulty ways of understanding Jesus’ intentions and teaching. Second, on the distinction between “doctrine” and “ethics.” I am not wanting to suggest by my story telling that the early church was more primarily concerned with “ethics,” and the latter church with “doctrine.” Instead, these things always go together. As Yoder’s Politics of Jesus argues, a refusal to compartmentalize Jesus, and an embrace of, say, Jesus’ non-violence, flows directly from Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy. If we take Jesus as humanly normative, such ethical practices follow as a matter of course. Third, on whether “Constantine” (taken as a [faulty] theological construct) is the most helpful way to go: I don’t know if it is, or not. But I find in my teaching that it has the capacity to communicate well something very impor-tant. But perhaps there are better ways to go. Gerald Schlabach’s very helpful suggestion (in his nicely nuanced critique of Yoder’s use of “Constantine”) that the concerns of the Deuteronomist are more basic than “Constantine” would be one viable and different way of doing the social critique I want to do here. See his essay in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, eds. Stanley Hauerwas, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). New Wineskins

Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003).

Used by permission of Brazos, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright © 2003. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.

Purchase this book from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Books

Lee Camp is professor of Christian Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

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