In the latest issue of Modern Reformation Michael Horton has an article on "What is Discipleship Anyway?". The occasion for the article is the concern on the part of the younger generation to "follow Jesus." Not a bad desire by any means. But in this he detects this "promising emphasis on discipleship today is threatened by a strong tendency to reduce 'following Christ' to moral and social activism--apart from, and sometimes even against, a concern for doctrine." (15) I couldn't agree more. I see more and more Christians absorbed in social issues but with a disturbing corollary that they be solved apart from any uniquely Christian framework. In fact, for many any action which is deemed helping the needy is equated with being Christian. Horton quotes an article by Dan Kimball who appeals to Mark Oestreicher, "My Buddhist cousin, except for her unfortunate inability to embrace Jesus, is a better 'Christian' (based on Jesus' description of what a Christian does) than almost every Christian I know. If we were using Matthew 25 as a guide, she'd be a sheep; and almost every Christian I know personally would be a goat." (17, quote from The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for a New Generation, p. 35) The parable of the sheep and goats has become the paradigm for many as the "be all and end all" in any discussion on what defines a Christian. The argument goes something like this: "The final judgment is based on works. But not just any works. They are chiefly characterized by helping others. Therefore Christians are most fundamentally those who help others regardless of their doctrinal beliefs. There is nothing said here about having faith in Jesus. A Hindu or Buddhist can equally claim to be "Christian" by the standards of this parable." But Klyne Snodgrass in his book Stories With Intent offers some helpful comments regarding this viewpoint. He says, "Here, too, we must remember that parables are not whole systems of theology. They are limited analogies, and we interpret them correctly only when we stay within the analogies they propose." (559) And, "this narrative is not intended to be a complete statement of Matthew's view of discipleship or of the way of salvation. The narrative is a piece of the Gospel, not its whole theology in miniature." Singular appeals to this parable or any other are guilty of reductionism at its worst.
Horton is correct when he says, "When Jesus is turned into a generic moral example and his redemptive work is perceived chiefly in terms of a transforming social vision that we continue and extend, the gospel becomes a new law." (17) He continues, "We have become wordly at the places where we thought we were most pious. It is not a mark of faithfulness but of worldliness to identify Christian discipleship with emotional experience or a moral and social activism that eschews doctrine. It is not a sign of maturity when Christian communities no longer wrestle with the uniqueness of Christ and the objectivity of a gospel that can only be proclaimed and defended because its content is Christ's victorious life and obedience rather than ours." (18)
There is an implicit pride in this form of discipleship as well. It says we are more concerned with what we do for God than what God has done for us. At the end of the day it stands on the pathetic conglomerate of works as our prize to God rather than standing under the work of Christ. But works and faith aren't antithetical. Horton says, "Everything in the New Testament points to instruction in the faith that yields true discipleship, genuine maturity, and generous fruit bearing." (18) Works are the genuine fruit of a real faith. But outside the context of the gospel they are not Christ-exalting works.
(See the recent posts by Paul Adams on the role of faith and works in James chapter 2 and the quote of the day from the Scripture Zealot. Also relevant is the post from John Stackhouse "What Good are Theologians?" and the stinging reviews by Mike Wittmer on the works of Peter Rollins. The posts are called Theological Porn and Theological Chastity.)