Christian or Jesus Follower

Some American Christians want to disown the name “Christian.” They think it has become politically tainted and want to replace it with “Jesus-follower” or some other phrase. I’ll stick with “Christian.”

In the first centuries of the church’s existence, Rome treated those who claimed the name “Christian” as enemies of the state. Tertullian’s  Apology makes it very clear: the word “Christian” itself was the basis of the accusation. Believers were torn apart by animals and put to the sword rather than surrender the name.  That alone would make me slow to give it up.

The word “Christian” captures the totality of my life in Christ better than “Jesus-follower.” I follow Jesus, but I also worship him, believe his word, give thanks for his victory over sin and death, live in sacramental union with him and look for his return. “Jesus-follower” highlights only one aspect of a Christian’s life.

And when I say that I follow Jesus, I don’t just mean that I follow his teachings and imitate his life. I mean that I offer him my personal allegiance no matter the cost. I put all my time and resources at his disposal and I do my best to stay in his presence. In our culture, most people are going to hear “follow”only in the ethical sense.

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Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All

John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of the end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.

As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.

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Leaders, Tasks and the Mission of Making Disciples

The Bible is nowhere near as interested in the abstractions of leadership theory as contemporary organizational theorists, but there may be some value in looking at the church through that lens.

I spent more more than a quarter century in an organization where mission accomplishment was central to all that we did. To plan operations, we learned to receive the mission, analyze the mission, restate the mission, develop and evaluate courses of action to accomplish the mission. Units of the organization trained repeatedly on their “mission-essential task list” (METL). Leaders led the organization using the principles of “mission command”.

Leaders lead organizations to accomplish their missions. Insofar as the church in the world shares the characteristics of all organizations, church leaders lead the church to accomplish its mission. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The UMC mission statement is a Wesleyan riff on Jesus’ “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The church needs its leaders to direct their energies and talents to accomplish that mission.

Having said that, I also need to frame the mission of the church within the mission of God. Before disciple-making is human work, it is God’s work. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him, and he will be present with his church until he comes in glory at the end of the age. The Book of Acts portrays the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John reminds us that the wind of God blows where it wills.

As a Wesleyan Christian, I also see this  work of God through the lens of the Wesleyan order of grace:

  • Prevenient Grace: God’s work to prepare his way in the human heart and open the way to repentance and faith.
  • Convincing Grace: God’s work to convince people of sin and lead them to repentance.
  • Justifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from guilt and restore a right relationship with God.
  • Sanctifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from the power of sin, restore the image of God and perfect believers in love

Within the Wesleyan framework, discipleship is always communal or social. Making, baptizing and teaching disciples is the work of the whole church, takes place within the church and unites people to the church. Discipleship is not a solitary endeavor or experience.

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Whitfield, Wesley and a Rope of Sand

John Wesley was not the greatest preacher of his day. His occasional friend and sometime nemesis George Whitefield was that. “My brother Wesley acted wisely,” Whitefield said. “The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” …. Wesley himself used the image to describe the Christianity against which his people reacted in eighteenth-century England: “Those who were desirous to save their souls were no longer a rope of sand, but clave to one another, and began to watch over each other in love. Societies were formed, and Christian discipline was introduced in all its branches.” …. There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world.

Thus write Jason Byassee and L. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School in a 2009 article at First Things. The article focuses on Wesley as the inventor of what is now known as the micro-loan or the micro-credit movement. It begins, however, by describing the difference between John Wesley and George Whitfield’s approach to evangelism and discipleship.

The authors use the word “organize” to describe the secret of Wesley’s success. I would prefer to use the word “community.” Organization is a method; community is the product, and organizational leadership is not the only key to its existence.

 

Who Was the Real Threat to the Kingdom Community?

Mark 9:38-50 is a strange passage. At first reading, it appears to be a collection of disconnected sayings and anecdotes tied together by an arbitrary string of keywords highlighted below. Mark may have indeed received these sayings as stand-alone logia. Together, though, they answer the question, “Who was the real threat to God’s work in the life of Christ, and to the community that formed the seed of the coming kingdom?” It wasn’t the tangentially connected or the marginally aligned, those who saw and responded to only to part of what God was doing in Jesus. It wasn’t even really the evil men who would put Jesus to death, for God promised to raise his messiah from the grave. God’s victory over evil is certain.

No, the threat that most concerned Jesus was the internal threat. Those who followed the worst examples of religious piety were concerned only with themselves. There were believers within the messiah’s own fellowship who aspired to worldly greatness. Moreover, some members of the Christian community were leading their brothers and sisters astray, taking them away from the saving life of faith and causing them to fall.

How they were causing their brothers and sisters to fall, Jesus does not say. Was it false teaching? Was it worldliness, a lack of commitment or setting a bad example? Was it hypocrisy or insincerity? Was it a lack of love or a failure to build a fellowship that incorporated all believers? All can be deadly.

If the church’s mission is to seek and save the lost, every apostasy – every case of falling away from the kingdom – is a kind of mission failure (one which the church should never seek to remedy by force or threats).

Instead of looking at the threats outside the church, Jesus’ followers should look at their own lives and the quality of  the fellowship within their own community.

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