Discipleship and Context

by Ed Mackenzie.

It’s a familiar maxim today that all theology is contextual. In other words, our ideas about God and God’s relationship with humanity are always constructed in relationship to the wider cultural, religious and social context in which we exist. This does not mean, of course, that there is nothing stable or foundational in Christian discourse; there is indeed a ‘faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 1:3, NRSV) which the church is commissioned to proclaim. But the different contexts in which we find ourselves does mean that we are always wrestling with the relationship between the coherence of Christian faith and its contingent expression in our own contexts.[i]

Just as theology is contextual, so too is discipleship. While the New Testament points to a specific shape to discipleship, it also gives us a vast array of images and motifs, instructions and examples to guide us in the way of Jesus. It recognises too that different people will be called in different ways to follow Jesus.

We can see this dynamic played out in Paul’s instructions to the early Christians in Colossae. For Paul, there are certain values and ‘fruits’ that all Christians are called to pursue. But at the same time, Paul recognises that how we live out our discipleship may look different depending on our situation.

To begin with the ‘coherent’ features of discipleship, Paul calls all Christians to reject the life of sin (Col 3:5-9) and to embrace the way of Christ(Col 3:12-14). We ‘put to death’ the values of our old self, such as impurity, greed and evil speech, and ‘put on’ the values of Christ, such as kindness, patience, and – above all – love.

Paul’s vision of discipleship here points to a ‘double-movement’ that is found throughout the whole of the New Testament: to be a disciple is always to turn from sin and turn to Christ. Such a double movement is not just a ‘one-off’ decision but needs to characterise our lives as a whole. As Martin Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses, ‘When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.’[ii]

For Paul as well, discipleship involves growing closer to Christ through community (Col 3:12-17). The way of Christ emerges as we relate to one another, and so Paul calls all believers to let the ‘word of Christ’ dwell within their lives and their communities. All within the church are called to encourage each other and learn together to do all for the sake of Jesus.

But Paul in Colossians also recognises that our own contexts – where we find ourselves in life – will shape our discipleship too. This becomes especially clear in Paul’s instructions for Christian households (Col 3:18 – 4:1). While all within the household are to orientate themselves to the ‘Lord’, those in different circumstances will live out their calling in different kinds of ways. The calling of parents will differ from that of children, for instance.

While the household code raises interpretive challenges for today, perhaps especially in its treatment of slavery, it nonetheless shows that Paul was attentive to context when calling people to follow Jesus. What it means to live to the Lord will be expressed in different ways depending on our circumstances in life. God knows our contexts and want us to follow Jesus in and through them.

It’s for this reason that a focus on discipleship rightly explores what is essential for all who follow Jesus and what is helpful for different ages and stages. Following Jesus for a child will look different from an adolescent, and different still for someone in work or someone in retirement. As we journey with Jesus together in faith, we can encourage one another both in what we share and in the specific challenges and choices our lives bring us. This is part of what it means, in Paul’s words, to ‘teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ (Col 3:16b).


[i] I am drawing this language from J. C. Beker. Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).

[ii] Cited in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. J. Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), p. 490.

3 thoughts on “Discipleship and Context”

  1. I would suggest that there is far more to discipleship than the ‘double-movement’ of turning from sin and turning to Christ, which for many these days seems to consist of saying the sinners’ prayer, joining a church and perhaps even a bible study group, and then looking forward to the eternal benefits of being a Christian.

    “Follow me!” The call that the first disciples responded to is still the call today. Jesus comes asking disciples to follow him — not only “believe in him,” not just “worship him,” but follow him. And you can’t follow him by staying just where you are. Christianity is about changed lives. It’s about changes in thinking and attitudes and priorities; it’s about changes in life-style and in relationships. It’s about being ready to walk with God in the direction he’s showing us – even if that means moving outside our comfort zone. It’s about joining in where God is already active in our community. It’s about being a catalyst for change as we help to further the kingdom of God.

    So many church-goers are stuck in a comfortable routine. They hear the same stories year after year as the church calendar goes round. They know much of the content by heart and some have stopped thinking seriously about the meaning of the stories for their own lives. They’ve forgotten that comfortable Christianity is a contradiction in terms. Discipleship demands a response; commitment comes at a cost. It’s about loving until it hurts and then loving some more. Faith isn’t two-dimensional (“Just you and me, Jesus”) and it’s not just about qualifying for Heaven; it’s three-dimensional; it’s our relationship with God worked out through our love for others. John Wesley said: “There’s no holiness but social holiness.’ A key factor in the growth of the Early Church even under persecution was the way those first Christians served their communities, as they sought to further the work of the Kingdom of God.

    Time was when Christians who felt called to respond to community need would set up a school or a hospital or a charity, or work within such groups, primarily alongside other Christians. Nowadays, the context within which we work out our faith is that there are far more secular charities than Christian ones. Thousands of people give hours of their time to help others, and in loving others they are serving God whether they realise it or not. As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “It is impossible to love Christ without loving others… and it is impossible to love others … without moving nearer to Christ.”

    God’s call comes in different forms. #Living life to the full in response to that call is not just about personal salvation. Some find more spiritual stimulus from helping others than from attending church. Their faith is more about caring than creeds. We need to recognize and nurture people whose compassion, acts of caring and sacrificial love reflect Jesus’ message. People who are motivated by love and a sense of justice, are our allies in the struggle to bring about God’s kingdom. We have to recognize that serving God through caring for others is a valid form of worship that we should celebrate. We need to affirm people’s strengths and provide them with support networks other than formal church services. It is when we value people for themselves and journey alongside them, rather than pressurising them to conform to our views, that we provide opportunities for faith to flourish.

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  2. ”Our ideas about God and God’s relationship with humanity are always constructed in relationship to the wider cultural, religious and social context in which we exist.” Well, yes to the religious context, but many of our ideas about God and his relationship with humanity have not been constructed in our current cultural and social context. At the heart of our faith we have a fourth century creed, medieval ideas on atonement and the concept of original sin. A high proportion of our talk about God concerns him working in a pre-scientific society two millennia ago, when people thought the earth was the centre of a small 3-tier cosmos, and the accepted norms of society included a ruler with absolute power, a patriarchy with women and children treated as of little account and slavery. Religious practices focused on blood sacrifices. You can only teach people at the level they can understand and so God’s communication within that era would be in terms that fitted that society. With a less than 10% literacy rate, stories had to be memorable and texts were written to be read aloud, and so authors used techniques to aid the listener, such as vivid illustrations. Getting the message across was more important than factual accuracy.

    In our society, one can face-time friends on the opposite side of the world and click on information about creatures who lived many millions of years before the first modern humans; technologists send people into space; doctors resuscitate thousands of people a year and psychiatrists treat people with mental disorders. We are aware that the universe is 43 million light years across with 200 billion galaxies and still expanding. Yet the church still
    assumes that the bible trumps whatever God has communicated to us since. We are in danger of freezing our descriptions of faith in the past and missing out on how God is working in our society today. In doing that, we shall seem increasingly irrelevant.

    Yes, human nature is just the same; values, relationships and behaviours are still crucially important; and we need a personal relationship with God; but we need to talk about these in terms that people today can relate to.

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    1. Pavel. I could not add to that! Your words encourage me to persevere, against the odds, in living with Christ in a broken world that increasingly marginalises the amazing love of God in which we live , move and have our being, irrespective of Church, religion, creeds, doctrines and whatever, I find God virtually everyday, implicit in the simple act of meeting others and talking of a world in which we care for each other, loving the lost and the unloveable, and seeking fairness and justice for all. Here is an interesting thought! In what planet would it be right to encourage people to endure excruciating pain so as to be worthy of entry to “paradise”. And yet this is precisely what Mother Theresa (soon to be Saint Theresa), encouraged, and practiced. Where, O where is the love in that! This does not reflect the Jesus I read of in the Gospels! Have they not read the bible! This credal stuff about self sacrifice and sinners in need of redemption has done wonders for human suffering and, yes, I am angry. This perversion of the Word is anathema to me. Thanks again for putting your thoughts on TE Pavel.

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