Radical Discipleship

Over the next several months, I will likely use the term radical discipleship more than a few times in these blog posts. I thought I would take this opportunity to define that term as I will be using it.

If you’re like me, the word radical could seem a bit scary; it might even make you nervous. When I was growing up, my parents and other adults I knew used the term to describe people or behavior which they considered extreme and, by extension, irresponsible and unreasonable. I remember hearing my father refer to a well-known Fundamentalist preacher as “that old radical.” On another occasion, in referring to some sort of political protest of which he disapproved, he said something like, “you’d have to be really radical to act like that.” That is still probably the most common way the term is used… to refer to something that is extreme, maybe unreasonable, a bit “out there.”

I was still thinking of the word radical in those terms the first time I read the phrase “radical discipleship.” I couldn’t imagine that such an expression could refer to anything positive with regard to Christian living. Then I learned that our English word radical comes from the Latin word, radix, which means “root.” So, to be precise, I should understand the word radical to mean “that which relates or pertains to the root” of something.

In other words, to call something radical means, at least technically, that it represents the most basic, most essential, most fundamental characteristics or qualities of the subject under consideration. Thus, radical discipleship, as I will use the term, refers to discipleship (by which I mean “following Christ”) of the most basic, most essential sort. Discipleship that takes the teaching and example of Jesus seriously. Discipleship without any “fine print” that attempts to explain why the principles which Jesus laid down in the Gospels cannot apply to “our day and age.” Discipleship without any excuses.

I was drawn to Anabaptism because of its historical commitment to radical discipleship. I served in that communion for more than twenty-five years, and over the course of that time I discovered that Anabaptists (specifically Mennonites), just like everybody else, sometimes “talk a better game than they play.” But I did not leave that tradition because of any glaring hypocrisy. Mennonites are no better or worse in that regard than adherents of any other religious tradition. I left Anabaptism for Anglicanism because I was drawn to the beauty, the mystery, the majesty of liturgical worship. But in many respects I will always be an Anabaptist at heart. I never want to lose the spirit of those sixteenth-century Christians who said, in effect, let’s take Jesus at His word and act as though we believe He meant what He said.

For example, in Luke 14, at the height of His popularity during His earthly ministry, unlike modern politicians or religious leaders who might temper their “stump speech” to avoid offending any of their supporters, Jesus issued His most demanding terms and conditions for those who would be His disciples.

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. … (And) any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”     

(Luke 14:25-27, 33 ESV)

This is “radical discipleship.” Granted, in this discourse Jesus uses a teaching technique called hyperbole. He lays out His terms in language that is exaggerated for effect, but His meaning is crystal clear. He expects His disciples to be loyal to Him alone, rejecting all competition.  He requires His followers to be willing to suffer for His sake, voicing no complaint. And He demands that those who follow Him hold their possessions loosely, willing to surrender everything for the Kingdom, if necessary, expecting no compensation. This is straightforward, no excuses, “get-your-priorities-right” Christianity.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the word disciple comes from the same root as the word discipline. That doesn’t mean that following Jesus is a joyless, burdensome, “boot camp”-like existence. It does mean that representing the King of Kings before a watching world requires a seriousness appropriate to the endeavor. And talk about joy. All those who embrace discipleship with this kind of earnest devotion are constantly motivated and encouraged by the prospect of hearing the King welcome us home with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. It is time for you to enter fully into the joy of your Lord.”

The question, of course, is what does radical discipleship look like in twenty-first century America? That is what I have been exploring, both for myself personally and for the church, the Body of Christ, as I have undertaken this “relentless pursuit of authentic faith.” I’ll be sharing some of my conclusions in the days ahead, along with the areas where I still have questions. Thank you for reading what I write here and for interacting with me, as you may feel inclined.

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