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Since the 16th Century, discipleship has been closely associated with Anabaptism. In his famous 1943 lecture, Harold S. Bender saw discipleship as the central theme of how the Anabaptists understood their Christian faith (Harold S. Bender, “The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision,” pp. 67-88). Since that time discipleship has been studied as an expression of non-violent Anabaptism (Clarence Bauman, Nonviolence in Anabaptism, 1968) and as a key concept in the systematic development of a peace theology (John H. Yoder, Discipleship, 1964). It is remarkable that the Encyclopedia of the Reformation (1996) does not include an article on discipleship, and that the Taschenlexikons Religion und Theologie (1983) in its article on discipleship makes no mention of the Anabaptists. That is also the case for the extensive article in the Theologischen Realenzyklopädie (1994). Also, Ökumene Lexikon does not include a separate article on discipleship, even though the impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge Christi (1937) on the Lutheran Church, on the teachings of Harold S. Bender and on Mennonites throughout the world, could have been reason enough. In recent research on the history of the Reformation, it has become quite typical to associate the Anabaptists’ emphasis on the faithful practical life with their understanding Jesus’ call to discipleship.

Discipleship in the New Testament

In the field of New Testament studies, discipleship has been examined both frequently and critically. On the one hand, efforts have focused on the Jewish and Hellenistic origins of the concept of discipleship, and on the other hand, on the difference between “following after” and “imitating” (Anselm Schulz, Nachfolgen und Nachahmen, 1962; Hans Dieter Betz, Nachfolge und Nachahmung Jesu Christi im Neuen Testament, 1967; Martin Hengel, Nachfolge und Charisma, 1968). It has often been observed that the Synoptic Gospels portrayed Jesus as the one who called disciples and that Christians in the New Testament letters were never described as disciples. While a strong skepticism prevailed over the extent to which the gospel writers portrayed an historical Jesus, and while the focus was on the theology of the early church, there was a growing impression that the tradition of Jesus gathering his disciples around him not for their service to him (Matt. 20: 24f), in contrast to other rabbis, actually reflected the historical reality (Hans Dieter Betz, Nachfolge und Nachahmung Jesu Christi im Neuen Testament, p. 12). Jesus called people to respond with a level of commitment seldom seen, a choice that even led to death. The fact that this call often went to the oppressed of the society (e.g., Roman collaborators and tax collectors) distinguishes him from the call of the Zealots, who also called for the cross to be carried. They did not address their call to the collaborators because the Zealots intended to do what Phinehas once did: collaborators were to be killed to stop the wrath of God (Numbers 25). Above all, Jesus’ understanding of discipleship was seen in the demand to love the enemy and in the absolute commitment that he combined with the call. To see how Paul viewed discipleship and its implication on salvation history, Romans 6 is the clearest expression. In studying New Testament discipleship, one needs to differentiate between a pre- and a post-Easter understanding, distinguishing between the authentic historical words of Jesus and the later church formation (see Ulrich Luz, “Nachfolge” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, pp. 678-686).

  1. The demand of Jesus to love the enemy (Matthew 5:43-48) is probably historically well-founded and not some words put into the mouth of Jesus later. This demand is very much in line with his teachings and deliberate distancing from those Old Testament passages that propose a different doctrine (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”). More importantly, however, this is a rejection of the teachings of the Qumran sect, who abandoned their enemies to hatred and annihilation, and also in sharp criticism of the Zealots who glorified violence as a means to establish the rule of God on earth (Martin Hengel, Die Zeloten, 1961). However, loving the enemy does not mean “renouncing oneself” (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus, p. 97), but according to Matthew a “concrete action” (Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, p. 315). Thus, Jesus is far from advocating withdrawal and passiveness; instead he understands his disciples as people who will create peace (Matthew 5:9). The call not to hate enemies but to love them, is not unique in the religious environment of Jesus and early Christianity. “In principle, the motto of unrestricted love for fellow humans” is also seen for example in the philosophical tradition of the Greeks (Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, p. 308). But there are two differences. On the one hand, there is no distinction between personal and corporate enemies, and on the other hand, the love of humankind in Jesus teachings is not based on general world harmony, but on the will of God. “The extreme demand to love the enemy corresponds specifically to the great love of God in the dawning of his kingdom, vis-à-vis the sinners and the downtrodden" (ibid., p. 309). According to Matthew, loving the enemy as Jesus taught is ultimately referenced to the suffering and cross of Jesus, the basis for a peace in which there is a non-violent overcoming of evil. For the Christian, to love the enemy is to show respect and reverence for Jesus. To follow Christ as Lord means to accept His way of overcoming evil with good.
  2. No Gospel writer expresses Jesus’ absolute call to discipleship more clearly and strongly than Luke 14:26. Even the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37f is a weaker expression. Both passages show, however, that the demands of Jesus are more urgent than any attachment to family or possessions, and more important even than self-love. Despite all radicalism, other relationships are not excluded. They are taken into the bond with the Lord who calls the individual to follow and makes him a member in the community which is already following the dawning of the Kingdom of God and its approaching fulfillment. Discipleship is realized in this community. Here faith and obedience unite. Discipleship becomes possible in faith, and in faith, discipleship manifests itself. The two cannot be separated.
  3. Discipleship as a metaphor of how faith and obedience are intertwined, shown in the synoptic understanding of discipleship, could not be represented in the Pauline epistles, since it was no longer about following the earthly Jesus, but rather, the crucified one, and to confess Jesus Christ, to die with him, to be resurrected with him and to walk in a new life (Romans 6). Jesus was not recommended as an example that should be imitated but rather obeyed, as one who obeyed, who humbled himself and "became obedient to death, even to death on the cross" (Philippians 2:8). To be like-minded as Jesus (Philippians 2:1) means to participate in the salvation and not to imitate every decision of Jesus during his earthly life. Those who profess Jesus as Lord embrace their life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul expresses this with his images of dying, resurrection and new life just as clearly as the synoptic image of discipleship. Thus, in general, discipleship becomes the “perfect example of the Christian life” (Ulrich Luz, “Nachfolge” in Theologische Realenzyklopädi, p. 683).

Discipleship in the Reformation and in Anabaptism

The biblical notion of Christian discipleship was taken and developed in various ways by the church fathers of the Middle Ages: sometimes the inner character of piety (serenity, humility, and suffering) was emphasized, other times an obedient life was emphasized. The call to discipleship was also reason to critique the wealth of the church and the clergy. From monasticism, where the notion was often firmly anchored, it spread into the poverty movements of the laity and began to exert a strong influence on piety in general. The notion of discipleship was also received well by medieval mysticism as it placed strong emphasis on the cross of Christ and the suffering of the righteous, seen especially in the preaching of Johannes Tauler: “For all the joy and comfort that God has given them (those who thirst for suffering), they seek to follow the loving example of their Lord and then long to do it in the hardest, most shameful and most painful manner that one can endure” (Johannes Tauler, Predigten, p. 437. In the tradition of medieval mysticism, Thomas à Kempis wrote De imitation Christi (1441), which circulated widely among the "Brothers of the Common Life" (Devotio moderna) and particularly influenced the spirituality of the laity. Pilgram Marpeck noted that many of his fellow believers valued the Theologia Deutsch and the discipleship booklet of Thomas à Kempis. Here the acceptance of inner salvation was linked with an upright life style. The influence of these mystics on the anti-clergy movements on the eve of the Reformation is unmistakable. Some figures also worked in the medieval mysticism traditions that were later found in the Anabaptist mystical movements.

During the early Reformation period, references and paintings were created that contrasted the simple life that Jesus led with the magnificent courts of the Pope, the cardinals and bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Lucas Cranach (senior), Passional Christi und Antichristi, 1519). The unmistakable pedagogical intent associated with this series of paintings was that the observers should follow Jesus' example and disdain the behavior of the clergy.

Martin Luther adopted the notion of discipleship from the mystical tradition, publishing the Theologia Deutsch (1518) himself, and emphasizing the justification of the sinner by grace alone: In taking up the call to discipleship God's gracious action takes place in the person, and the person responds in the obedience of faith. Thus, Luther understood the “conformity” of the justified in Christ, but avoided any thought of combining pious performance with discipleship. In daily repentance, following Christ became a praise of divine grace (Martin Luther, Werke 2, p. 518; “Ablassthese”, Werke 1, pp. 233-238). Thomas Müntzer, who also dealt with German mysticism in his younger years, used the idea of discipleship to ask people to follow the suffering Christ to the cross, i.e., to suffer the mortifying work of God within, and thus to attain faith. Such discipleship was part of the salvation process. It was first and foremost a "purification of the person on the path to faith" (Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Innere und äußere Ordnung in der Theologie Thomas Müntzers, p. 132) and only secondarily the behavior and action of the chosen one. The behavior and actions followed the experience of faith. Actions in the political and social sphere were understood as the purification of the world on the way to the Kingdom of God, and in a sense, an extension of the internal process of salvation to social conditions.

Jesus call to discipleship held a special place for the Anabaptists. Harold S. Bender emphasized this point, but lacked an analysis of the writings of the Anabaptists on this theme. He argued that the concept of discipleship was the most characteristic, most central, most essential and regulative idea in Anabaptist thought which largely determined all else. An analysis of the Anabaptist writings was first made by Clarence Bauman in 1968. He confirmed Bender's argument (Gewaltlosigkeit im Täufertum pp. 170-188). He pointed to statements by Felix Manz in early Swiss Anabaptism (1526) and to a passage in the Schleitheim Confession (1527). Felix Manz wrote from prison to his brothers: “Christ has never hated anyone, similarly his true servants also hate no one and thus follow Christ on the right way, as he went before them. This Light of Life precedes them and they are glad to walk therein (Leonhard v. Muralt and Walter Schmid, Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, 1, p. 219). Here, following Jesus becomes the criteria for distinguishing between believers and unbelievers. On the one hand, we have those who hate and harm no one, and on the other hand, those who under false pretenses "shed innocent blood," and therefore cannot “be Christians” (ibid., p. 219). This citation confirms how foundational following Jesus was for the early Anabaptists. It is also confirmed in the article concerning the sword in the Schleitheim Confession: “Christ has suffered (not ruled) and has left us an example, that you should follow after in his steps” (Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer in der Schweiz, 2, p. 32). Manz targeted false prophets, teachers and shepherds and corresponded about the anticlerical contrast paintings. In the Schleitheim Confession, following Jesus marks how far the Anabaptists were from the magisterial power, and the it justifies the refusal to take office as a magistrate. In both cases it is the earthly Jesus who is to be followed. At the same time, the Anabaptists at Schleitheim were aware that this following Jesus makes a significant contribution to the unity of the community, seen in their corporate behavior and actions. Above all it is not the earthly Jesus that is sought, but the Risen Christ: “Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding” (ibid., p. 32f.). Manz and the Schleitheim brothers have another thing in common: in both cases it is not about discipleship as imitating but about following “in the light” (not toward the light). Humans are freed by the grace of God by faith. Followers of Christ become like-minded not by themselves, but in “Him.” This suggests that discipleship is understood more in the sense of participation than of imitation (of which Ulrich Zwingli accused the Anabaptists) or, according to Bauman, imitation only has meaning through participation (Clarence Bauman, Gewaltlosigkeit im Täufertum, p. 188).

No treatise concerning discipleship was developed in Anabaptism: nevertheless, it makes sense to see discipleship as a foundational motive. There are numerous statements in Swiss, Upper German, Hutterite and Low German Anabaptism that make reference to it. The strongest theological statement comes from Hans Denck: No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life (Hans Denck, Schriften, 2, p. 45). Here Denck drew from the Theologia Deutsch and theological knowledge, connecting and anchoring life style with Christology. Knowing Christ is linked directly with following Christ. This establishes that in the process of salvation, which is more of an inner experience, humans are put in a position to see and follow what is happening to them. Here it becomes apparent that discipleship as participation binds the believer to the person of Jesus Christ, whereby no distinction is made between Jesus and Christ, and the entire existence of man is understood. In discipleship, it is decided whether the one called remains in the “fellowship of the Evangel” or is judged and banished by his master (ibid, p. 45). In Hans Hut we have similar statements as in Hans Denck, more individualistic than corporate. Pilgram Marpeck also commented on discipleship and warned against purely imitating outwardly the human Jesus (William Klassen, Covenant and Community, p. 65). Through discipleship, Christ, who is active in the faith of the believer, becomes present in this world.

In the Low German Anabaptist stream, the notion of discipleship has not been that theologically noticeable. It is difficult to find the concept at all in Melchior Hoffman. He does speak of believers having to go through a multi-level “learning and school of the Lord” to gain the “second blessing” after experiencing justification by grace alone. Those who remain in the “teaching of Christ and then walk in those ways, are the true disciples of the Lord” (Melchior Hoffman, Ordonanntie, p. 154 and p. 166). On the other hand, Menno Simons consciously used the discipleship metaphor to view the meaning of salvation: “Let all your thoughts, words and actions be conformed to the crucified Christ Jesus; follow his footsteps” (Menno Simons, Opera omnia theologica, p. 329 or Complete Works of Menno Simons, Vol. 2, p. 111). Here discipleship’s emphasis is on the actions. While this is not theologically original or conspicuously theological, “in the context of a life that was daily in danger for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel, it gains the weight and credibility, as a personal testimony” (Christoph Bornhäuser, Leben und Lehre Menno Simons´, p. 74).

The concept of discipleship that most Anabaptists hold in common varies in concrete expression. On the one hand, it is a theological central concept and, on the other, only an explanatory metaphor for how faith and works are related. In one instance ethical challenges are more addressed; in another instance the inner mystical transformation is addressed as faith is received. In general, however, it confirms that discipleship is the basis for participation in the salvation in which God encounters the sinner in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Discipleship points to the love with which God loved the sinner, and the love with which the believer encounters fellow human beings. It also points beyond the refusal to confront others with coercion or violence. The result is a community of love and peace, also a community of suffering in the world, seen especially in the countless deaths of the martyrs among Anabaptists. Discipleship acquires a corporate form in the world via martyrdom.

Recent Discussions on Discipleship

The concept of discipleship has greatly influenced Anabaptism and has contributed significantly to the renewal of Mennonite communities in the 20th century. However, the biggest effect has come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge Christi (1937). Bonhoeffer’s understanding of discipleship which defies “cheap grace” and refuses to explain away the ethical demands of the beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, inspired Harold S. Bender’s interpretation and understanding of the close relationship of discipleship and present peace theology in Anabaptism. After the Second World War, Bonhoeffer's influence diminished among North American Mennonites as many interpreted his active resistance to Adolf Hitler as an abandonment of peace theological insights. In recent decades, some Mennonites have let go of Bonhoeffer's involvement in the assassination of Hitler, in favor of the many aspects of his theology, piety and biography that had an affinity to their own tradition. However, Mennonite theologians have become increasingly self-critical in their efforts to renew and extend the peace-theological approaches of the so-called Historic Peace Churches in discussions with partners from different churches, as in the Puidoux Theological Conferences and in consultations of the World Council of Churches. Setting the tone has been the theological efforts of John Howard Yoder, whose book The Politics of Jesus (1972) is essentially an ethic of contemporary discipleship of Jesus (see Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Friedenszeugnis im Gespräch. Der formative Grundakkord der Theologie John Howard Yoders, 2013). This is particularly clearly expressed in the subtitle of the German translation: Der Politik Jesu – Der Weg des Kreuzes (The Politics of Jesus - The Way of the Cross) (1981). Imitation and participation coincide in following the way of the cross, where the question is not about how to change the world, but about how the Christian is following his Lord. Although Yoder entitles his work Nachfolge als Gestalt politischer Verantwortung (1964) (Discipleship: A Form of Political Responsibility), the politics is not about state and society, but something oriented toward the behavior of Jesus. This radical discipleship of Jesus provided important impetus to the Mennonite peace position worldwide, and also a renewed reflection on the meaning and function of Christian responsibility toward state and society, both as individuals and as the church. So, J. Lawrence Burkholder and Gordon D. Kaufman sought a middle ground and advocated for a greater direct social engagement within the historical peace churches. This position has sometimes been called a "culturally engaged pacifism" (Lauren Friesen, Culturally Engaged Pacifism, 1991, pp. 15-25). Ronald J. Sider in recognizing the absurdity of nuclear warfare, saw that Christians from the historic peace church tradition were even more willing now to influence the course of history toward peace: "For Sider, discipleship implies taking responsibility for history and demonstrating the love of God through nonviolent direct action“ (Harry Huebner, “Discipleship” in Mennonite Encyclopedia V, p. 239; Ronald J. Sider, “God’s Reconciling People” in Proceedings of the Eleventh Assembly Mennonite World Conference, 1984). In this way, the theme of Christian discipleship has been kept alive among Mennonites and within ecumenical talks (Mark Thiessen Nation, John Howard Yoder, pp. 145-188; Ronald Sider, God´s Reconciling People, 1984; John Richard Burkholder and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types, 1991). This controversial discussion has also been opened in a framework beyond the Mennonite community. For example, Jürgen Moltmann consulted extensively with Mennonite theologians on the relationship between discipleship and social responsibility in Following Jesus Christ in the World Today (1983) and Mennonite theologians responded in Dialogue Sequel to Jürgen Moltmann's Following Jesus Christ (1984). Finally, liberation theologians have explored the possibilities of applying discipleship and peace theology in a revolutionary situation (e.g., Jon Sobrino, Cristológia desde América Latina, 1976). This expanded discussion clearly shows that the concept of “participation” leaves space beyond legalism in discipleship. The ethical decisions of Jesus need not necessarily be taken directly, but rather considered for the tendency that they bring to fruition.

This article was originally published in 2012 in German for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=top:nachfolge-jesu-christi


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Schnabel, Hildegard; Lucas Cranach (sen). Passional Christi und Antichristi. Berlin: Union Verlag, 1972.

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Original 1959 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Harold S. Bender. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1076-1077. All rights reserved.

It was the particular genius of 16th-century Anabaptism to interpret the essence of Christianity as discipleship to Christ (Nachfolge Christi). By this the Anabaptists meant something definite in experience, not just a connection with the church, or an espousal of the traditional doctrines of Christianity, or even doing good works. In their understanding the individual responds to the call of Christ, forsakes his life of sin and self, receives a new nature, comes under the lordship of Christ, and takes Christ's life and teachings as normative for himself and for the church, and indeed ultimately for the whole social order. His faith in Christ thus finds expression in "newness of life"; this expression and similar ones such as "a new creature" were common. The uniqueness of Anabaptism lies in its conviction that Christ is more than a divine being to be worshiped, more than a Saviour who brings forgiveness through the cross and deliverance from the penalty and power of sin; He is the Lord to be followed and obeyed, and with whom the Christian enters into a covenant that controls his whole life. Henceforth his life is to be lived so that Christ's life and teachings are to be concretely and realistically expressed by him in principle, in the context of the kingdom of God. This interpretation of Christianity with its attendant concept of the church as a fellowship of obedient disciples, and with its ethic of love, stands in contrast to the Lutheranism of the Reformation whose central emphasis upon man's alienation from God and his restoration (justification) by the grace of God, resulted in the interpretation of Christianity primarily as the experience of forgiveness.

The two Reformation movements, Lutheranism and Anabaptism, with their differing ideological foci, were consciously in opposition to each other. Lutheranism saw in Anabaptist discipleship a works-righteousness and legalism, while Anabaptism saw in Luther's "faith only"—justification a lifeless faith and a compromise with the claims and call of Christ. The two positions, purified of extremes and misunderstandings, are not in necessary conflict, but should be complementary parts of a full New Testament Christianity.

To describe in detail the meaning of discipleship as the Anabaptists saw it would mean an extensive exposition of their theology and ethics, which is impossible here. Major aspects of the concept include: (1) holy living; (2) suffering in the spirit of Christ, bearing the cross; (3) the practice of love and nonresistance; (4) separation from the world of sin and evil; (5) full brotherhood in the church; (6) obedience to the great commission; (7) a disciplined church; (8) rejection of the use of power by the Christian (e.g., state offices).

In adopting this concept of discipleship the Anabaptists committed themselves existentially to Christ without calculating all the consequences. They did realize that their stand meant a break with the continuity of the past "Christian" social order, the corpus christianum, and they consciously took this step. They saw the world as divided into two kingdoms, with the Christian partaking in only one, the kingdom of God, and standing in conflict with the other.

While the Anabaptist vision of discipleship is theoretically clear, its implications have not always been clear to those who have espoused it, Anabaptists, Mennonites, or others. Just how is it to be applied in all respects? For many it has meant withdrawal from the world as we know it in order to share the intimate fellowship and high standards of the Christian brotherhood, not always escaping in the process the temptations of legalism and externalism. Others, having either deliberately or unconsciously moved out into the world, lost much of the essence of the original vision and adopted the common compromises of traditional Christianity with the absolutes of Christ. The mid-20th century spiritual renascence among Mennonites, particularly in North America, has led to a critical re-examination of the contemporary Mennonite performance in the light of the high discipleship concept, and a search for a fuller and more effective expression of the concept in the context of the modern world.

Where Anabaptist discipleship has been kept from descending into mere ethics or even moralism, it has been by the strong sense of identification with Christ in personal love and dedication, including identification with Him in His sufferings and in His ultimate victory. The Anabaptists had a strong sense of history and of God at work in it, and hence also of eschatology. This sense, combined with their experience of suffering under persecution, produced their "theology of martyrdom," as Ethelbert Stauffer has called it, which was not merely a source of consolation in trial but a real theology of victory.

The Anabaptist concept of discipleship is to be distinguished from another historic concept of following Christ, the one set forth by Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ, written about a century before the Reformation. This book, for all its urging upon the Christian disciple the imitation of the character of his Master by the conquest of the human passions and the vices to which they lead, and its call for the production of the virtues of Christ, is concerned primarily with the inner world of the soul where the Christian is to cultivate his spiritual life with his eye upon heaven as his goal. Self-renunciation and resignation are the highest virtues; it is mysticism mixed with asceticism. The ideal is withdrawal from society for contemplation; hence the social dimension is almost completely lacking, and there is no criticism of the social or religious order with a view to establishing a full Christian order in the brotherhood and church of the living Christ in the midst of the present world. Thomas à Kempis and the many who follow his concept evade the conflict with the world, and thus escape the cross-bearing experience of true discipleship. Thomas has more kinship with the later Pietists than with the Anabaptists.

The idea of discipleship is not unique with Anabaptism; it has appeared in various forms through the centuries both before and after the Reformation. It was the vision of the earliest Christians, of certain groups through the Middle Ages, of Peter Chelčický of Bohemia (1390-1460), spiritual father of the Bohemian Brethren, of George Fox, of John Wesley, and others, although it did not always take the same form as in Anabaptism. It has been a recurring creative idea throughout Christian history. It was the mission of the Anabaptists to give powerful expression to this vision at a creative moment in history, at the beginning of the "Modern Age," and not only to enunciate the vision but to strive earnestly to put it into practice. But they were ahead of their time. Caught in the crushing grip of a church and state which refused their vision, they were almost destroyed, and largely prevented from becoming a significant factor in the ongoing life of western Christendom. But their vision has survived and continued to challenge the modern church.

Original 1990 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Harry Huebner. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 238-239. All rights reserved.

Discipleship denotes a specific basis for Christian living. As such it is closely connected with the topic of Christian ethics. Discipleship is seen by most scholars as the central framework for the Anabaptist and Mennonite understanding of ethics and the church. In the 1980s there were Christian ethicists from several other denominations advocating the use of this term to describe their ecclesiology. Also, Mennonite theologians, e.g. Gordon Kaufman and J. Lawrence Burkholder, have suggested that the term "responsibility" is an important component of discipleship and could serve as a corrective to a naive following of Jesus, because it can more readily deal with the ambiguities of contemporary society in relation to which a Mennonite ethic is to be constructed. The tension between discipleship and responsibility characterizes much of the current debate.

John Howard Yoder in 1978.

The discipleship understanding of Christian living sees the church as a body of believers (disciples) who together commit themselves to following Jesus Christ (Nachfolge Christi). Hence it roots the identity of the church in the biblical story of faith. It suggests that Christians cannot be the church today, unless they understand and model their living after the Bible of yesterday.

This unique interpretation of the church had its roots in the Reformation. There the Anabaptists were in conscious opposition to both the Catholics and the Lutherans. For them Luther's strong emphasis and narrow interpretation of "justification by grace through faith" depreciated the importance of Christian living, while the Catholic foundation of "natural theology" ignored the centrality of Jesus as a model for the church. For the early Anabaptists, Christians were called to separate themselves from the world of sin and evil, and live a life of love and nonresistance as Jesus had taught.

Much of the current discussion on discipleship among Mennonite scholars today focuses on the moral agency of the church. In the 1940s and 1950s H. S. Bender and G. F. Hershberger were the dominant Mennonite voices on the subject. In several articles Bender argued that being disciples implies nonresistance and a rejection of the use of force and power. Hershberger agreed and on this basis drew a sharp distinction between pacifism, which employs power, albeit nonviolently, and nonresistance, which refuses to employ power. The former he calls non-Christian. The latter follows from Christian discipleship.

With John H. Yoder, who began writing on the subject in the late 1950s, the language changed only slightly. In his The Politics of Jesus, using as his foil the Niebuhr brothers, he articulated a Christian ethical framework based on discipleship which he defined as "imitation-participation." The central locus of discipleship is the Cross. "There is but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds ... this is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power.... Thus--and only thus--are we bound by New Testament thought to 'be like Jesus' " (Politics, p. 134). Discipleship, as imitation-participation, is our moral linkage with the Cross. Here the question for the disciple is not how to change the world but how to be like Jesus; it is not how to be "responsible," but how to follow.

Ron Sider in the 1970s.
Source: Mennonite Reporter photo

For Yoder as for Bender and Hershberger, being a disciple of Jesus means renouncing responsibility for and control over the world, just like it did for Jesus on the Cross. Christians cannot be disciples of Jesus unless they are willing to give up the desire to make history come out right; unless they resist the temptation to take responsibility for the world. This means that they must be willing to renounce all interest in effectiveness. Christians are not the ones to change history. God does that. Like Jesus, disciples also are willing to die rather than resist evil violently.

Ronald J. Sider, in his much discussed address at Mennonite World Conference (Strasbourg, 1984), emphasized the other pole of discipleship. He suggested that, for disciples of Jesus, the decade of the 1980s was a Kairos moment in history. The reality of nuclear arms has demonstrated the absurdity of war, and the heirs of those Christians who through the centuries have been a living testimony to this conviction, must rise up to use their influence to alter the course of history. He said: "The God of Shalom has been preparing us Anabaptists for a late 20th century rendezvous with history.... God's reconciling people will profoundly impact the course of world history." For Sider, discipleship implies taking responsibility for history and demonstrating the love of God through nonviolent direct action.

Listen to Sider's World Conference presentation.

Sider's language was certainly closer to discipleship as "responsibility" than to discipleship as "imitation-participation." The two views of discipleship answer the question, "How ought disciples of Jesus relate to the world?" differently. Hershberger, Bender, and Yoder all held that discipleship implies that it is not our business to take responsibility for history. Sider, and earlier Kaufman and Burkholder, argued that it is our business, and moreover it is extremely urgent. This was the state of the debate in 1990.

The discussion raised the central issue of the Gospel message: the social and ethical meaning of the Cross event. Throughout Christian history the Cross has been understood as the Christian way of dealing with sin, even though there has not always been agreement on precisely how this happens. The discipleship view of the church has held that just as Jesus died nonviolently in response to the violence done to him, so his disciples are called to respond to sinners in love and forgiveness. The power inherent in this response can transform the lives of sinners. Yet can this power be used strategically to transform the world? On this Mennonites are not agreed.

It is important to note that the contemporary Mennonite discussion on discipleship has taken place in dialogue with other theologians and church denominations. Already when Bender and Hershberger were formulating their views of discipleship, in the 1940s, a German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was articulating a very similar concept. German-speaking theologians, e.g., Karl Barth , and Jürgen Moltmann, have also been in considerable dialogue with Mennonite scholars on the topic. In North America, Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, and James McClendon, a Baptist, are two examples of theologians who are consciously developing ethical and ecclesiological models on the basis of an Anabaptist view of discipleship. In addition, there are several groups like the Sojourners community, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Shalom Institute (Vancouver B.C.), and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, which, in dialogue with Mennonites, have adopted the discipleship paradigm of being Christian.

See also Ethics

1990 Bibliography

Bauman, Clarence. "The Meaning of Christian Discipleship," in The Church in Mission, ed. A. J. Klassen. Fresno: MB Board of Christian Literature , 1967: 50-67.

Bender, Harold S. "The Anabaptist Vision." Church History 13 (March 1944). Also reprinted in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957: 29-54

Bender, Harold S. "The Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 25-32.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Nachfolge. Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1937; Engl. trans. 1949.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "The Problem of Social Responsibility from the Perspective of the Mennonite Church." PhD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1958; publ. by the author, 1988.

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship." Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1959: 135-51.

Dialogue Sequel to Jürgen Moltmann's Following Jesus Christ in the world today. Occasional Papers, 8 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984; Winnipeg: CMBC, 1984.

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: a Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Hershberger, Guy F. War, Peace and Nonresistance. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1944.

Kaufman, Gordon. "Nonresistance and Responsibility." Concern pamphlet no. 6. 1958.

Littell, F. H. The Anabaptist View of the Church. Philadelphia, 1952.

McClendon, James W. Systematic Theology: Ethics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Following Jesus Christ in the World Today: Responsibility for the World and Christian Discipleship. Occasional Papers, 4 (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1983; Winnipeg: CMBC, 1983.

Sider, Ronald J. "God's Reconciling People," in Proceedings of the Eleventh Assembly Mennonite World Conference, Strasbourg, France, July, 1984.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1972.

Additional Information

Evangelicals for Social Action

John Howard Yoder Digital Library

Mennonite World Conference


Author(s) William Klassen
Hans-Juergen Goertz
Date Published June 2019

Cite This Article

MLA style

Klassen, William and Hans-Juergen Goertz. "Discipleship." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2019. Web. 23 Sep 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipleship&oldid=172972.

APA style

Klassen, William and Hans-Juergen Goertz. (June 2019). Discipleship. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 September 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipleship&oldid=172972.

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