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.