Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Theology and Followership

As I study and reflect upon the scriptures, I notice that when Jesus (and the Apostles after him) taught right thinking about God (good theology) they did so partly through the means of “followership.”  In the gospels, the call of Jesus to all who would be his disciples was (and still is), “Follow me.”  In fact, Jesus indicates that ‘followership’ is a necessary criterion for us to even identify as his disciples (Matt 16:24, for example).  Similarly in the New Testament, we see a few examples where the Apostles also exhort us to actively follow as a necessary component of our faith, discipleship, and right thinking.  In 1 Corinthians 11:1 we read, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ.”  The model of followership is a fundamental element of the Jesus movement.

As we observe the ministry of Jesus, His teaching about God and the Kingdom was accompanied with demonstrations of the Kingdom - cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.  The commission given to us by Jesus (that we see most clearly in passages like Matthew 10, Luke 9, and Luke 10) invites us as disciples to follow Jesus through participating in His ministry.  It is through this participation in the life and the ministry of Jesus that His followers gain revelation and insight.  In Luke 10:21, as disciples return from having done what Jesus taught them, we read, 
“Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.””  
In Mark 4:24-25 (NLT) we read, 
“Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen [and do], the more understanding you will be given - and you will receive even more. To those who listen to [and do] my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening [and doing], even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.””  
In this more cryptic passage we learn that the amount of revelation and understanding into the things of God is directly related whether or not we choose to put it into practice.  James 1:22-25 makes a similar point.  James makes the point by using the analogy of looking into a mirror, going away, and then immediately forgetting what we look like.  If the word of God is going to stick in any tangible way, we need to be doers [followers], not hearers only.  Followership, putting the word of God into practice and imitating the person of Jesus, is a vital component to the forming and informing of our faith and the theological structures that support it.

In our present western church culture we have a high value for teaching as the primary means of learning and theological development.  Almost all of our theological training and development is done in the classroom at our most popular theological education institutions.  With the possible exception of some ‘spiritual formation’ tracks, it is far more rare to see programs that view followership as a necessary element of theological education and development. We’ve become big on the ‘believe in me’ but soft on the ‘follow me.’  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all disparaging the excellent educational and academic work done at many fine institutions.  We’re all greatly in debt to the tireless and enriching work of countless scholars.  What I am saying is that our learning is incomplete when we become lax on Jesus’ call to “follow me.”

Our exaltation of theory and our indifference to followership in our learning has a blind spot.  In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus remarks, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”  According to Jesus, the Pharisees knew a lot of good doctrine.  Yet there is a disastrous problem.  Their lack of followership keeps them in places of blindness where they lock themselves and others out of the Kingdom (see v. 13).

Right doctrine doesn’t automatically produce right behavior.  If this were so then the Reformers who each claim to have “pure doctrine” have to adjust their theologies to accommodate the atrocities in their history.  Good theology does certainly inform us towards right action, but it doesn’t end there.  Nor does it always start there.  Something else is needed, and I believe Jesus has the key when he says, “follow me.”  Right behavior is a lesson all its own.  Right behavior can and does form and inform our theology.  The best defense from the blindness, self-centeredness, and absurdity of our own intense intellectual brilliance is to 'follow The Leader.'  We don’t fully see and understand – but He does and it’s His pleasure to reveal Himself and His ways in a manner that can only be done when we join along with Him in the journey.

I believe our indifference to followership in the formation of our theology is complicit with some of the current spiritual poverty within our western church culture.  We have become consumers of ideas, of theologies, of philosophies.  We’ll read about them, discuss and debate them ad nauseum.  It’s later that we consider if we approve and will actually obey or put into practice.  Yet, without the experience of followership, do we really know what we’re talking about or advocating?

A person can admire the idea of surfing.  She can learn the ‘theory’ of surfing – the physics of waves, buoyancy, the mechanics and techniques of using a surfboard.  She can read surfing magazines, watch surfing movies, become a total surfing junky.  Yet for those of us who watch ambulances frequently rush to the beaches, we know that consistent practical experience is also a vitally necessary element.  Without consistently practicing surfing while we learn the theory, we discover there are significant and meaningful gaps in our knowledge that leave us vulnerable to tragedy in a powerful and turbulent ocean.

If we want to a good theology on God’s heart for the poor, we need to follow Jesus to the poor and lovingly engage them as he taught us.  If we want a good theology on healing the sick, we need to follow Jesus and heal them as he taught us.  If we want a good theology of love, we need to follow Jesus and engage the in radical self-sacrifice that he demonstrated on the cross.  If we want to know Him - truly know Him - we need to enter into His space, doing life His way by answering his call "follow me" with a hearty and faithful, "yes, Lord!"


  1. Many of the best of those academic theologians would actually echo your call to action. It is in doing that we discover those gaps in knowing. It is a big reason why I've taken risks for the Kingdom, because we don't know often until we do. If we see Jesus leading then our role is to follow and let experience be our teacher. Great exhortation to orthopraxy (right doing) through action! One of the things I often lament is that in the early days we just did a lot of things because we didn't know any better - and God showed up with healings, prophetic words, transformed lives. I still long for those things - but I also know that part of that experience was to build that longing in me, a longing that informs my theology and colours my ministry. Exciting post Nathan!