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1959 Article

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. -- HSB

1989 Update

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.

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.

John Howard Yoder in 1978.

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.

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.

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

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 a MP3 clip (large 15 Mb file) of Sider's World Conference presentation. Also available in Windows Media format (5 Mb)

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


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.

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.

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.

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 uppublished writings web site

Mennonite World Conference


Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Harry Huebner
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Harry Huebner. "Discipleship." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 5 Dec 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipleship&oldid=55982.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Harry Huebner. (1989). Discipleship. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 December 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Discipleship&oldid=55982.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1076-1077; v. 5, pp. 238-239. All rights reserved.

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