I’ve blogged on several occasions about the contemporary rediscovery of ‘discipleship’ as the word to describe the stuff which comprises the practice of the Christian life or, to put it in simpler terms, what every Christian, lay or ordained, is called to be and to do. The word is not universally used or understood: many people simply talk about ‘being a Christian’ or ‘living the Christian life’, and in this sense it’s possible that ‘discipleship’ is a short-hand more in currency amongst church professionals and those with a degree of academic theological training, than in day-to-day congregational life. Nevertheless, a fairly rough and ready search of a copyright library catalogue does suggest a recent spike in publications with ‘discipleship’ in the title, even allowing for the greater number of books published overall in more recent decades.
Today we are to be ‘disciples’ and certainly this is the most common biblical term for those who followed Jesus in his earthly ministry (although there are others – the early church called themselves ‘followers of the Way’, followers of ‘the Name’ and other things as well as, increasingly, ‘Christians’). However, as the biblical scholar A.H. McNeile’s 1917 study Discipleship (SPCK) suggests, early Christian writers were remarkably hesitant in applying the label to themselves, seeing it as a title to earn, a goal to achieve, rather than a description of someone on the way to achieving it. By contrast Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose classic Discipleship (1937) must in no small part have influenced the more recent resurgence of interest in the concept, sees discipleship as beginning with the very first step towards accepting God’s offer of grace. Other words to describe the being and doing of the Christian life have also come and gone: Jeremy Taylor titled his devotional classic Holy Living (1650) and this is echoed in William Law’s widely-read A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729). Trawling through local parish magazines in the early- to mid-20th Century, the word ‘disciple’ is rarely used, whereas clergy regularly describe the assiduously practising lay person as ‘a good churchman’ (or woman). As a member of the youth group at a gently charismatic evangelical church in the 1980s, ‘being a Christian’, ‘living the Christian life’ or (less often) ‘being a follower of Jesus’ was the preferred nomenclature.
All this has got me wondering about the longer history of the concept:
– What was the preferred words at different points in the history of Christianity, and why?
– What it referred to (how did the ‘content’ of discipleship – what the faithful, practising Christian was to be and to do – change over time and why, but also what threads of continuity can be found between different historical periods?)
– What sort of formation, training, catechesis or nurture ‘discipleship’ (or its variants) was felt to require.
– How ‘learned’ theological writing on discipleship or its variants interplayed with ‘discipleship as practised’ in various ways.
I’m currently wondering about undertaking a small project on this, possibly with a view to sketching some sort of historical overview and/or putting together an anthology of key writings. Here my primary focus would be on the practice of the Christian life (what every Christian is called to be and to do as the base level of an obedient response to God), rather than on ‘the theology of the laity’ or the more interior architecture of the spiritual life/history of Christian spirituality more generally (although clearly both of those are an important part of the picture).
As I begin to think this through, I’d be interested in suggestions of influential or widely-read works from different periods and contexts within the history of Christianity, although with a primary focus on that which was widely known and used in Britain. Do add your suggestions here!