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Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (Discipleship in the Letters)

Discipleship in the Letters
A curious development in the New Testament is the disappearance of the term disciple from the text after the book of Acts. Wilkins notices “In the Gospels, disciple is the most common label for the followers of Jesus, and in Acts it is the common universal label for believers in the risen and ascended Jesus.”[1] However, in the Letters the label disappears completely.[2] The theme of discipleship remains in spite of the dearth of occurrences of the term in writings, applying to the generalized form of life assumed by the followers of Jesus in the generations after the ascension.[3] What does appear in the New Testament outside of the Gospels and Acts are (1) statements regarding the nature of authentic Christian existence, (2) exhortations urging that the truths of these statements be put into practice, and (3) calls for believers to be “imitators” and/or to reflect in their lives the “example” or “pattern” of the apostle Paul, of Jesus Christ, or even of God himself.[4]
            Rather than the explicit use of the term “disciple” (maqhthjV) in the Letters there are several cognates that serves descriptors and metaphors for the life of following after Jesus.[5] The terms “believers,” and “imitation” are used frequently in the Letters to illustrate the discipleship life. Let us briefly examine these terms so as to better grasp how discipleship is expanded in the New Testament.
            Believers: Since the word “disciple” implied an immediate, physical presence with the Master, the early Church was compelled to develop a new term for those who participating in the Kingdom’s coming in Christ Jesus. With Jesus gone from their physical presence, the Church adopted “belief” as “one of the chief characteristics of their relationships with [Jesus] in the new age.”[6] John’s Gospel begins such a transition, declaring that Jesus’ disciples “believed” in him after the wedding in Cana (20:31).[7] Further, Thomas’ confession of Jesus’ lordship at the conclusion of the Gospel of John ends with Jesus blessing “those who believe without seeing” (20:24-29). Belief, that is, the trust in Jesus’ identity and work without being in his immediate presence, finds fertile soil in the Gospel of John and grows throughout the later books of the New Testament.
            Paul develops the idea of belief as a substitute concept for that of disciple by moving “belief in Jesus” to “belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13), which “for him essentially means belief in all that which comprises apostolic Christianity.”[8] In his letter to Timothy[9] Paul uses “belief” in the objective sense to imply “Christianity,” catching all of those things that are rightly taught about Jesus and declaring them to be “the faith.” By doing so, Paul redefines discipleship in the absence of the physical Master as “one who…focuses his or her belief on the reality of a risen Lord and Savior, exercises personal faith unto salvation, and it characterized by a lifestyle consistent with apostolic teaching concerning the Christian life.”[10]

Imitation:[11] A second development in the Letters to re-define discipleship is that if imitation, whether of Jesus Christ, God, or Paul.  The goal of this imitation was to become more like Christ, just as the goal of discipleship in the presence of Jesus was to live with the Master toward becoming more like him.[12] There are three lexical cognates that appear in the New Testament related to imitation: mimejomai (2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 11) mimhthjV (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; Heb. 6:12) summimhthjV (1 Cor. 7:7-11; Gal. 4:12-20; Phil. 4:9; James 5:10-11). What is interesting about these passages is the non-necessity of proximity from the believer to the object of their belief; it is possible, by the use of these words, to imitate a person or idea without being physically present to that person.[13]
            Imitation becomes the new model of discipleship “in the sense that it is the process of transferring one’s lifestyle to the next generations.”[14] It is this perspective of generational emulation that drives Paul’s vision of imitation-cum-discipleship. This imitation is not undifferentiated, though. Samra identifies five epistolary themes for believers to imitate: humility, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love;[15] commitment to serving God;[16] receiving and sharing the gospel with joy;[17] holy living and lives of faith;[18] and suffering for Christ.[19]
Paul uses the theme of imitation especially in the Corinthian correspondence, yet Linda Belleville finds that theme as a cognate for discipleship throughout the Pauline corpus. She says, “In virtually every letter Paul devotes a major segment to spelling out for his readers what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel. He also presents Jesus, himself, and other colleagues…as models of discipleship.”[20] Segovia notes that in Philippians “it is not only the imitation of Jesus but also of Paul, as well as of other believers and groups of believers, that is used to describe the central thrust of Christian living: a surrendering of all personal prerogatives, including those that would spare suffering and death, and a trusting in God instead for ultimate vindication and exaltation.”[21] He continues, “In Ephesians, it is the imitation of God as such…that provides the proper end or purpose of Christian existence: an assimilation to God through virtuous human activity in everyday life.”[22] Still comments on the theme of imitation in Philippians 3 saying, “Paul follows his call for the Philippians to be joint imitators of him with another exhortation, namely, that the assembly mark, observe, or pay careful attention to those who walk in keeping with the example of the apostle and other more mature believers. Such people are to serve as spiritual models.”[23] The objects of the church’s imitation are not limited to Christ, Paul, and the Twelve; as local believers mature, they themselves are to be held up for imitation insofar as they exemplify the teachings of the Apostle in their lives.[24]
Imitation, then, is a theme that cuts across the Letters as a major cognate for discipleship. Although this theme would be pressed too far in generations after the Apostolic Age,[25] it was an extremely useful idea for the young church to adopt in the absence of the Lord. Wilkins sums up the impact of the imitation theme well, saying, “The New Testament use of “imitation” has a unique ethical dimension that stresses the contrast between the “indicative” and the “imperative” in the Christian life. Participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is constituted in the life of the believer here and now by obedience to the imperatival call to imitation.”[26]

[1] Wilkins, Following the Master, 283.
[2] Scholarly reasons why this is so include the danger of Christianity being seen as a purely philosophical movement (Rengstorf, maqhth;V, TDNT 4:459; Carl W. Wilson, With Christ in the School of Disciple Building, 51.), the association of the term with those who physically walked with the historical Jesus, and the natural transition to more appropriate terms for those who follow Jesus. See Wilkins, Following the Master, 284-287.
[3] Segovia comments, “discipleship would be understood more generally in terms of Christian existence – that is, the self-understanding of the early Christian believers as believers: what such a way of life requires, implies, and entails.” Discipleship in the New Testament, 2.
[4] Taken from Richard N. Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 5.
[5] “Disciple” has a much broader meaning in the ancient near east. The concepts of disciple and discipleship are older than the New Testament and lasted long after the closing of the Christian cannon.
[6] Wilkins, Following the Master, 295.
[7] Hillmer argues that the theme of belief in John’s gospel is the essence of the Evangelist’s discipleship strategy. He says, “the verb “believe” characterizes the true disciple throughout. It is used about one hundred times in this gospel, which is an obvious indication of the tremendous importance that the evangelist placed on it….The disciple is the one who believes in Jesus and through Jesus believes in the Father who sent him.” In Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 84-85.
[8] Wilkins, Following the Master, 295.
[9] Cf. 1 Tim 4:1,6; Tit 1:4.
[10] Wilkins, Following the Master, 295.
[11] The imitation of Christ as a model of discipleship will be examined in more detail below. This section will stand as an introduction to the development of the concept of imitation as a sufficient substitutive concept for the Gospel’s definition of discipleship.
[12] Passages that reflect this essential quality of following after Jesus include Rom 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:13-15; Col. 3:9-10; 1 John 3:2.
[13] Samra is helpful to list examples of imitating people not physically present (Eph. 5:1; 1 Pet. 2:21; Rom. 4:12; Heb. 6:12; James 5:10-11), people who had previously been present (1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Cor. 12:18; Gal. 4:12; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7; 3 John 11), and two helpful examples of a combination of the two (1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Cor. 11:1), Samra, A Biblical View of Discipleship, 224.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; 4:16; 2 Cor. 12:17-18; Phil. 2:3-9; Eph. 5:1; 5:22-6:8.
[16] Cf. 1 Cor. 7:7-11; Phil. 3:17.
[17] Cf. 1 Thess. 1:6; 8.
[18] Cf. 2 Thess. 3:7-9; Heb. 13:7; 6:12; Gal. 4:12; Rom. 4:12; Phil 4:9; 1 Tim. 4:6, 12; Titus 2:7.
[19] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:21-23; 1 Thess. 2:14; James 5:10-11.
[20] Belleville, Linda L., “ ‘Imitate Me, Just as I Imitate Christ’: Discipleship in the Corinthian Correspondence” in Richard N. Longenecker, “Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 120.
[21] Segovia, 19.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Still, Philippians and Philemon, 110.
[24] The theme of imitation will be treated in more detail below.
[25] Cf. Wilkins, Following the Master, 308.
[26] Ibid.

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