Christ Follower: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I stood at the side of the stage talking to a young musician in his late twenties. He was telling me how he had been brought up in an evangelical household and had even played in the church’s praise band. When I asked him if he still went to church, he became slightly uncomfortable and replied, “No, I’m a Christ follower, but I’ve had enough of the Church”. We chatted for a few more minutes and I wished him well as he got on the stage to play.
It was not an unusual conversation these days. I’ve had the same discussion with people in their teens and people in their sixties.
Yet, there is a problem with the lack of resolution in these conversations. To acknowledge Christ and his work, does not stop at the Cross, or the empty tomb, or even at his ascension into heaven. The death, resurrection and ascension of Christ was the manner in which God chose to engage the human race in a way that was to continue and grow until the end of the age. In some sense, it was the beginning, not the end, of God’s work among us. If we had to try and define what Christianity is all about, or to define its purpose, it is to bring that grace, power, love and truth to each succeeding generation. Yet, this does not happen in isolation. We remain, in each succeeding generation, dependent upon those who make Christ known by what they say, or by what they write, or even by their mere influence upon us. While we might try to live a Christian life in isolation, we enter the Christian life, in almost every case, owing to another. Moreover, that “other” who influences or speaks to us, is likewise connected to others of like mind, in our own time or in the time of those who came before us stretching across the generations. In that process of “connection” we see, even if in a simple or rudimentary form, a society or institution that we identify as the Church.
From the earliest times, to be a follower of Christ involved at least three points of identification. Firstly, one acknowledged that “Jesus is Lord”. Secondly, one lived one’s life with an ethic based upon the teachings of Christ in the Gospels and informed by those letters of the Apostles which one may have been able to read or hear. Lastly, one belonged to a society. This society provided for a manner, or rite, of initiation which was baptism. Once a member of this society, the central act of worship and fellowship was the corporate participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, also known as Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Through the centuries, these three simple points of identification would become increasingly elaborate and often weighed down with theological propositions. Nevertheless, although the simplicity of these points of identification may have become obscured through time, they remain valid as to what defines a follower of Christ some 2000 years later.
Moreover, we must confess that through the centuries more than “theological propositions” or elaborate ceremonial obscured the simplicity of these points of identification. Often, the society which was to share Christ with others actually prevented Christ from being seen owing to scandals, moral compromises, quarrels, divisions, intellectual distortions, and much more that was shameful. As a result, we are left with a puzzle. There is a society, the Church, the chief purpose of which is to have knowledge of Christ, to teach about Christ, to bring people into fellowship with Christ; yet, at the same time, this very same society conceals Christ and misrepresents Christ owing to human weakness, moral failures or intellectual dishonesty.
Like Christ, this society is both human and divine. Ours, however, is a fallen humanity. We are human in our scandals, in our moral failures, in our crude partisanship, in our lack of love. Nevertheless, within this society there is something divine, because within it is the risen Christ and the life of the Holy Spirit. I think that it is owing to this “dual nature” that this society, the Church, seems to stumble though the pages of history going from disasters to revivals and back again, yet always, so it seems, with a remnant who take it forward to the next generation.
I have often wondered, however, how that remnant remains? Additionally, how do we reach out to those who have “had enough with Church”. In both cases, I think it is a return to those three points of identification and, perhaps more importantly, what those points of identification signify – that of being a servant in the Church and the world.
To acknowledge that “Jesus is Lord” may mean many things, but chief among them is to be a servant. This is the practical service indicated by the word diakonos (deacon) and it is also the servitude expressed by the word doulos, which is not about the practical matters of “what we do”, but of a relationship – that of being owned by another. It is about “who we are” in that relationship. In being owned by another we give up our rights, our claims of preeminence. Yet, it is not mere servitude, for in baptism we become a part of his family – sons and daughters – given over to a Christ-possessed existence where we serve together. It is in that Christ-possessed existence that Christ himself comes to us as we worship together and partake of his Supper. As we serve him, he gives himself to us – all of us. This is where we hear the good news that enables us, however falteringly, to live the lives that we are called to live in the Gospels as others walk beside us. This is uniquely the life of the society that we call the Church. It is how the remnant remains and it is what we call others to share with us. This is the essence of who we are.
Outside of this society, one might seek to be a solitary “Christ follower”, but, in reality, it is a contradiction in terms. Christ has already shown us the way to follow… and it is not in isolation, but in the society of others who follow him.