Rising Leader Series: Week 37 - Church: Discipleship
Updated: Feb 25
AS SUN AND I ARISE
As sun and I arise, my Lord, I greet You
To share this bright new day in prayer before You
Shine light on sin, that I might seek grace from You
To ready my soul so that I might serve You
Prepare me, then, to be Your humble servant
Pray banish from my heart all selfish thoughts
Replace within a heart-fire ever fervent
That brings me to my knees before the cross
And if it be Your will that I should lead,
Pray keep my gaze fixed firm upon Your face
That in Your Church Your work through me succeed
Well sheltered in Your love-imbued embrace
Take all of mine, my Savior, make it Thine–
Small contributions to Your grand design
In the years before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a rising star in the German Lutheran Church. Ordained at age 25, he took up pastoral duties at Old-Prussian United Church in Berlin. In his inspiring and theologically rigorous sermons, he spoke with conviction and authority. Soon word got around; he rose in prominence. But this was Germany in the thirties. As Hitler began his ascent– and as the teachings of the Gospel got in Hitler’s way– Godly leaders became a threat. Indeed, Bonhoeffer was a threat— because he saw Nazism for what it was. At great risk, he became an outspoken opponent of Hitler and the evils of Nazism.
The institutional German Lutheran Church didn’t do the same. It became infiltrated with Nazi sympathizers. A movement arose to purge church leadership of all who carried even a trace of Jewish blood. Soon came the call to banish the Old Testament– it was too Jewish. Preachers began to claim Jesus was not a Jew; that Jews were the perpetrators of Jesus’ death; that the entire Jewish race was illegitimate and forever stained.
Bonhoeffer fought hard to wrench his church back from the demonic abyss– but the forces of evil were too strong. In the end, after all his efforts had failed, he came to the painful conclusion that the German Lutheran Church was irredeemable. It had fled the Holy Spirit; it had abandoned the Gospel.
And so he departed to form a new, Gospel-centered church. It was an act of great courage, since it was a direct rebuke to the Nazi regime. He called it The Confessing Church. He opened up a seminary so as to teach young men to become its pastors. Soon the Nazis got wind of it, discovered the seminary’s location and shut it down. Bonhoeffer went underground. He continued to instruct and ordain new pastors for the fledgling church. The Confessing Church lived on, its services conducted secretly in German homes. As long as he could, Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept the flame of Christ alive in the midst of utter darkness, right under the eyes of the Gestapo. In the end, he paid for his discipleship with his life.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes discipleship by differentiating between cheap grace (which avoids it) and costly grace (which embraces it). Says Bonhoeffer:
"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves… the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ… Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ … It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."
We must acknowledge that across Christianity's history, the church has all too often lost its way-- invariably due to weak or misguided leaders.
Consider my Catholic Church. It has been a force for great good in the world-- from the individual faith formation of billions, to the survival of Western philosophy via scribes in monasteries, to great schools and universities and hospitals all around the globe. Across the ages, leaders of goodness have sought to serve Jesus by giving their lives in service of the Church. But in its long history, there have been times that the Catholic Church has gravely erred. Corrupt Popes have impoverished the people to fund their own excess-- fruits of ungodly greed and lust for power. The Church initiated the Spanish Inquisition (300,000 died). The Crusades (5 million died). The Doctrine of Discovery (which gave Apostolic blessing to European colonizers to "invade, search out, capture and subjugate all Muslims, pagans and any other unbelievers... and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery"). More recently, leaders turned a blind eye to the horrific scandal of priest abuse. No, my Catholic Church has not always been a force for good.
Protestantism arose in opposition to a wayward Catholic Church. Its leaders sought to build churches more aligned with Jesus and the Gospel; less hierarchical; less centralized; less money-centric. Protestants printed the Bible and preached in local languages, making Christ's message more accessible. Over the past 200 years, it was mainstream Protestant churches at the forefront of the abolition-of-slavery movement, the women's suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement.
But Protestants were also the ones who tried many women for witchcraft, killing 40,000 of them. Most early Protestant Christian leaders, including Martin Luther, were deeply anti-Semitic; Protestant and Orthodox Christian vilification of Jews over the centuries contributed to the deaths of millions via the Holocaust and earlier pogroms. It was Protestant American settlers who coined the phrase, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian". For over 300 years, some large Protestant church denominations used the Bible to defend slavery in America. Even to this day, there are certain Evangelical churches that have bound themselves to the extreme wing of one political party.
Remember: the church is both divine and human. And at times, pride or power lust or rigidity or small-circle thinking might tilt the ratio human. So we must be alert, good leader. For the church is us. Not just the pastors and inner circle administrators-- all of us. When our churches fail to teach Jesus' radical love, it is on us to rise and challenge. We also must encourage, and support. It's hard to lead the flock. It's a collective effort; God needs all of us to keep the church true to Jesus' love.
A friend of mine describes vigilant leadership this way: "Keep on top of things. Because things are either green and growing, or ripe and rotting." Sometimes what's needed is a nudge-- to do the more courageous thing. For instance, much is taught from the pulpit about personal morality. But in most churches, systemic morality receives barely a mention. It's too touchy. Racism, social justice, the defense of democracy, respect for differing beliefs, equality and respect for all regardless of sexual orientation, planet sustainability-- these topics are just too sensitive for most pastors. Good leader, ask yourself: would they be too sensitive for Jesus? Of course not. He'd speak out. So should we. So should you.
You live Christian discipleship when you work within your church to nudge it closer to Jesus. St. Paul challenged the church to welcome Gentiles, and to not require them to be circumcised, as Jewish law stipulated. St. Augustine made Christian theology coherent to the masses, and then modeled the disciple’s path by publicizing his Confessions. For all his imperfections, Martin Luther stood up to (and eventually cleaved from) a misguided Catholic Church. St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Benedict– all opened the church’s doors and windows so fresh winds could blow in. So too with Mother Teresa, Corrie Ten Boom, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and many more.
Today, too many Christian churches are frozen. Who will lead them closer to Jesus?
Disciples: that's what our churches need. Discipleship starts on the inside; it progresses outward. The more we learn about Jesus, the more we are drawn into a reflection upon the state of our soul. Soon, without even realizing it, a change arises within us. We begin to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We find ourselves trying to “do what Jesus would do” in more situations. We begin to look beyond ourselves; to widen our circles of care. All of this helps prepare us to evangelize with our lives— to find a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ. Within the church and beyond its walls.
We go to church to receive encouragement and be challenged on our soul journeys. But it's a two-way street. Just as every church is called to challenge us, so we are called to challenge the church. For every church is also on a soul journey. Every church is a human construct, guided by God but influenced by history, culture and human power dynamics. A church is at its best when it seeks to understand and convey Christ's love, truth, grace and call. When a church is not at its best, leaders of goodness must rise up and act. Yes, good leader, you go to church to grow and learn-- to advance your own soul journey. But you also attend so as to make your church better. This requires that you question, challenge and, when necessary, nudge your church back towards Jesus.
No disciple is perfect. As the Roman centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” (Luke 6: 6-7). Even so, Jesus can work miracles with modest tools. He seeks our intention, not our perfection. To every imperfect disciple, His call is the same: “Love Me. Love others as you love yourself. Go out into the world. Build fellowship. Teach. Stand out; be steadfast and courageous. Deny yourself. And most importantly, imitate Me in all you do, to the best of your ability, every day.” He gives the same call to His church.
No matter how hard we try, of course, we (and our churches) are sure to fall short. But if we love Jesus and seek Him always, if we surrender all to His will, perhaps we might, as the sick woman did, “touch the hem of His garment”. And that is enough.
If you are a church leader, you bear an awesome responsibility. Whether clergy or lay minister, you are an instrument of God. You are called to carry Christ’s message to the flock– both in your words and your deeds. You are called to make your church more loving at its heart, and more serving and welcoming at its fringes. If the flock sees leaders who are humble, gracious and filled with love, they will respond accordingly. If not, they will become lost and in the shadow of death. That’s why, before you accept a leadership role, it is so vital for you to do the deep soul work necessary to become a disciple.
Are you one? Are you ready? Will you lead?
Next week, my letter to you will explore the topic of race relations.
“Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each needs all the others.”-- Romans 12: 4-5
Yours in discipleship,
Previous Weeks' Letters: