The term 'discipleship' is pervasive in church language, and for good reason since Jesus had disciples and called them to go out and make more disciples. What is particularly interesting about the ecclesial use of the language of discipleship is how it is used by believers to refer to a kind of general Christian category that would align with what academics call 'ethics'. For many churches, denominations, seminaries, and biblical scholars, discipleship is equivalent to Christian obedience to God.1 A cursory look at denominational vision statements will bear this out. The United Methodist Church, for example, claims, 'The church calls our response to God Christian discipleship'.2 The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America places the following conviction under the heading of 'discipleship': 'To live our lives in and for Christ in both church and society',
None of this should be that unsettling since discipleship is central to Jesus' own theological programme, and the Gospels certainly inspire their readers to take up the cross and follow Jesus wholeheartedly (Mt. 16.24//Mk 8.34//Lk. 9.23). However, the central question I want to raise, particularly in view of the Church (ecclesia) and 'ethics; as the focus of this collection of essays, is this: even though a strong case can be made that the term 'discipleship' should be a central concept for Christian obedience, are we missing something if it becomes the only way we think about Christian obedience? Again, I am not suggesting it is improper to think of Christian obedience in terms of 'discipleship'; however, it maintains a kind of exclusive status as the language of Christian obedience.
One might wonder- who cares? Why not allow it to hold this paramount status vis-a-vis ethics? There are, I believe, a number of reasons why this is an important question for the church to address, but I would like to organize the discussion around two historical issues and conclude with a theological one. At the outset here, though, I will simply say that the Christian language of obedience should reflect the language and emphases of Scripture, all of Scripture, and, thus, we would do well to pay attention to how all parts of the Bible talk about ethics and obedience.
Gupta, Nijay, "Did Saint Paul Take Up the Great Commission?: Discipleship Transposed into a Pauline Key (Chapter 7 of Ethics and Ecclesia)" (2016). Faculty Publications - Portland Seminary. 104.