This isn’t quite how the conversation unfolded, but it’s pretty close: I was sitting across from a fellow pastor in his forties, a man who — unlike me —was hip enough to look like he belonged in the minimalist cafe where we met. We were talking about the pastoral challenges that come with yet more public failures from religious leaders. While I was deeply impressed by my conversation partner’s commitment to the local community, I noticed a peculiar pattern as the conversation unfolded.
He was a pastor but never called himself a “Christian.” He never referred to his faith community as Christian either. Instead, he used the designation “Jesus-follower.” He was a Jesus-follower; the congregation was a community of Jesus-followers, not a church.
I am sympathetic to this way of self-identifying, at least in part. During the month that I write this, a grand jury in my home state of Pennsylvania released a report that told how over a 1,000 people were abused by Christian leaders in that state—and how the church hierarchy worked to prevent the prosecution of the accused. Why would anyone want to associate with that?
In the café, my mind drifted to some historical precedents for the phrase “following Jesus.” I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his book The Cost of Discipleship, where he extolled this kind of direct obedience as a response to costly grace. I thought of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and the Christian communities that book influenced, which included some of the most spiritually-sensitive and service-minded European Christians just before the Reformation. They, like this pastor and his community, summed it up as following Jesus.
Yet even with these old saints whispering in my ear, I couldn’t stop myself from announcing that, “I don’t follow Jesus anymore.”
As I said it, I knew it didn’t sound like something a pastor should say. I hedged a bit. I said that I was sure there were situations where identifying simply as a Jesus-follower made sense. I know, for instance, that some Indigenous theologians find this a helpful way to distinguish between their embrace of Jesus and the ‘Christianity’ of the colonialists and settlers. But in the context I shared with the other pastor — a major Canadian city where church buildings are regularly being turned into brewpubs— I don’t think the idea of following Jesus means much.
To explain myself, I told him a story that has taken on mythical status in Anabaptist circles. It’s about a young American, a theology student, who was taking a course with the eminent Swiss theologian Karl Barth. The theology student asked Barth to explain the moral implications of his approach to the Christian life. Barth responded with a long explanation of how his approach was shaped by our living between Easter and Christ’s return. He said, “In-between we look back and remember and we look forward and hope. We remember . . . and we hope.” The student was not impressed by Barth’s vague response and muttered a frustrated retort under his breath, saying simply, “We obey!”
The student was John Howard Yoder and he would go on to become the most famous Anabaptist theologian since Jesus himself.
This story is usually told to highlight the triumphant simplicity of following Jesus. The Christian is to obey God as Jesus did, which is the essence of discipleship. There’s no need for the clumsiness of Barth’s “memory and hope,” no need for embarrassing historical ties to people who have abused power and trust. As Jesus-followers we eliminate all that by plugging our spiritual extension cord directly into Jesus. The emphasis turns toward the individual and something akin to a corporate slogan; it turns away from mutual accountability and the formative practices of personal devotion.
My coffee buddy knew enough about contemporary theology to realize that I wasn’t recounting the Anabaptist myth to show my enthusiasm: John Howard Yoder, the “we obey” guy, is one of the Christian leaders who repeatedly misused his power in selfish and abusive ways. He compelled women to acquiesce to his forceful advances by suggesting that he was on the cutting edge of an experiment in radical Jesus-following. Following Jesus outside the mutual accountability of the church body can lead to disastrous results.
Another way to describe the problem with following Jesus is that few of us actually know what that means. It reduces faith to something that seems intuitive but actually isn’t. The philosopher Charles Taylor explains the problem in an essay called To Follow a Rule. Taylor’s essay is, as you might expect, a technical piece of writing addressing a larger issue. What he points out, though, is that a rule “doesn’t apply itself.” Following rules, or even obeying signs, is a skill we need to learn. When we see an arrow pointing us to the refreshments, do we take direction from the arrow’s point or from its feathers? Following or obeying never stands on its own. As weird as it sounds, there are prerequisites and corequisites to following Jesus.
If I was in the same room with the old saints who so heartily recommended following Jesus, I’m not sure I would have the courage to disagree with them as easily as I disagreed with the fellow in the sleek steel chair. But maybe I wouldn’t need to.
What struck me the first time I read The Imitation of Christ was the rich sacramental, and therefore communal, way of life it implied. I found the same to be true of The Rule of Saint Benedict, even the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the early Anabaptists. You learn to follow Jesus through all the complex and tangled stuff that makes up the Christian life: the practices, the virtues, the accountability, the annoyance of being packaged with parishioners we don’t like and a history we regret. There aren’t any shortcuts.
My conversation partner was wise. He told me I was being overly dramatic when I said I had stopped following Jesus. He was right, yet in a secular society I find the slogan too little and too weak. It’s too reductionistic, too ahistorical, too content-hollow, too predigested.
When I am pushed to describe the essence of the Christian life I use a variation of Jesus’ own words: to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. But mostly I try to avoid this kind of essentializing. These little summaries and slogans give us a false sense of mastery; they hide the time, the scars, and the hard-earned wisdom the pilgrimage of faith in community requires. To suggest we can follow Jesus away from church, from accountability, from learning our history, is to miss membership in the broken body of Christ.