Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rethinking The Meaning Of The Cross For Christian Discipleship

Festschrift for Dr David (Past Chairman, OMF, Malaysia)

(Essay in Honour of Dr David's 70th Birthday)

Evangelical spirituality or Evangelicalism has always emphasised the importance of the cross. Indeed John Stott[1]argued that “the cross is at the centre of the evangelical faith. Indeed….it lies at the centre of the historic, biblical faith..” Stott pointed out that JI Packer called the atoning death of Christ for sinful rebellious humanity as Evangelicalism’s distinguishing mark. (Stott 1986:7)

The apostle Paul in Philippians chapter two gives us a lovely vignette of the character, person and life of Christ :

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ life was the embodiment of self-denial, sacrifice, suffering and cross bearing. As disciples of Jesus we are called to be like Christ. Luke records Jesus saying, “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Lk 6.40) . Discipleship as understood by Luke in his gospel and Acts, involves “‘both a way to walk and a mission to fulfil” (Charles Talbert quoted in Wilkins 1992: 271). Discipleship means to follow Jesus and become like him in the totality of our life. It involves the whole person, what we do and who we are. When Jesus called men and women to follow him, he warned them to consider what Wilkins calls “the twin prerequisites of discipleship – cost and cross”. There is a cost to pay and a cross of suffering to bear. Luke’s gospel records many such “cost and cross passages”. (Wilkins, 1992:217)

Consider the following verses:

(Cost, Cross) "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Lk 9.23).

(Cost )"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14.26)

(Cost) He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." 60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 61Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good bye to my family." 62Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." (Lk 9.59)

However, difficulties arise when we try to faithfully apply the teachings of the above passages. Wilkins[2]in his seminal study on discipleship pointed out that

these cost and cross messages in the Gospels are some of the most difficult passages in Scripture to understand rightly. He goes on to say:

“when we try to apply Jesus’ challenge to count the cost, we often struggle with going to extremes. Some people emphasise counting the cost so strongly that they have been accused of advocating ‘works salvation.’ Some people who do not include any challenge to count the cost have been accused of advocating ‘easy believism’. (Wilkins 1992: 220)

Young people (below the age of 30)(Buster generation) have often complained to me as their pastor about the older folk’s (the booster generation also known as silent or builder generation in the States), someone born between 1927 and 1945, Dr David’s vintage) [3]severe and even harsh demands on them. They claim that discipleship as understood by the booster generation is arguably more demanding and more narrow than biblically warranted. Pose them the question, “Should Christians emigrate” and the answer inevitably would be a resounding no!

“Is discipleship always about suffering and taking the least attractive option? Given a choice must a Christian always choose the harder and more sacrificial option? Is there no place for a theoretical chemist, a nuclear physicist, a brilliant pianist and the like, to emigrate so as to find a happy niche to pursue his or her career in a developed country? (see Hwa Yung[4]2007: 20)

Let me try to flesh out some of the problems, young people face with the Gospels’ cost and cross passages as they seek to follow God’s will in their choice and place of career. Consider the following fictitious case study:

Case study

A young man (from the busters generation, born between 1965 and 1983) fresh from his PhD studies in Theology from Cambridge University had two offers to teach. One came from a seminary in Malaysia, a developing country. At the seminary in Malaysia, he has to be a generalist, prepared to teach any subject, and not just his specialty. The other offer comes from a prestigious and well known but liberal seminary in Singapore, regarded by many as a developed nation. At this seminary, he will be expected only to teach in his specialised field. He is also given much time and opportunity to do further research. Anxious to know the will of the Lord, he asked two men whom he respected very much for advice and guidance.

The first man he asked for counsel come from the booster generation (someone born between 1927 and 1945).

“Simple, young man. Go to where the need is more serious”, was the older man’s counsel.

To which the young man replied, “ But the need in both seminaries is serious. The one in Malaysia needs well trained lecturers. The one in Singapore urgently needs an evangelical voice.”

“Young man, the seminary in the developed world will always be able to attract intelligent, gifted men and women. Not so many man or woman would be so willing to go teach in the third world seminary. You take the harder road, the road less travelled. After all the Lord said, ‘ "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”. (Lk 9.23). In addition ponder upon these verses (and he goes on to quote the passages above)

Still not quite satisfied, our young man sought out another respected mentor, someone from the baby boomers generation ( born between 1946 and 1964).

When the young man explained his dilemma, the second mentor replied,

“ What is most important is that you engaged in a ministry which allows you to best develop your gifts. Remember with your PhD, you are a specialist, you need to be in a place that allows you to pursue excellence and be an agent of change. Obviously the seminary in the Singapore is the place for you.”

“But what about the biblical call to taking up the cross, self denial, and sacrifice?” asked the perplexed young man.

“Remember Daniel and his three friends?” replied second mentor. Opening his bible he read from Daniel chapter 1,

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king's palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king's table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service.

6 Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.’

God placed Daniel and his three friends in an elitist and privileged environment. He gave them special ability to do well in their studies. They did so much better than their Babylonian rivals. They demonstrated excellence and in later years were instrumental in ensuring an efficient and corrupt free administration. God could have put them in an obscure and insignificant village. But that will be a waste of the special abilities or gifts that He had given them.” Concluded the second mentor.

Before we examine whether the counsel given to the young man, were biblically correct and acceptable, let us look at the issues at stake here.

On the surface both the booster and boomer generation respectively, will like to claim that their advice was based on scripture. Both will be surprised that their advice to the young man may be based on values, tradition and understanding of discipleship which are characteristic of their generation or socio-cultural era. This may or may not be based on a perspective and interpretation that is biblically correct. We all come to the biblical text wearing our cultural and generational biasness or lenses. This is the reason why for many years, good biblical Christians in South Africa were unable to see how unjust and unbiblical the Apartheid system was. A cultural blind spot prevented them from seeing the clear teaching about the equality of all men and women before God[5]. In a similar way, the booster’s and boomers’ generation may be more influenced by their generational biasness than they realised.

Here is a snapshot[6]of the booster generation who are missionaries of the traditional school.

“The boosters were brought up in a world which had experienced the Great Depression and World War II. In both events, people endured great hardship and won through. Boosters were hardworking, single-minded, persevering, committed, frugal and willing to turn their hands to whatever needed doing for the sake of goal…..

As missionaries, boosters provided the model of missionary service still followed by traditional missionary societies today. They went out in response to a clear, firmly held sense of all to a particular country with a particular society for life, sight unseen. They were prepared to go anywhere and do anything. No sacrifice was too great for the sake of the gospel, and however great the hardship, resignation was unthinkable….” (Donavan and Myors 1997: 42,43)

In contrast, as Donavan and Myors point out :

“the baby boomers were born into material prosperity as a result of the hard work of their fathers….they were aware of the horrors rather than the glory of war – through hearing about the Holocaust and Hiroshima… boomers became the protesting, questioning, pragmatic, yet idealistic generation. They hold themselves responsible for their own lives and choices and respect the right of others to do the same…..the baby boomers bring to mission specialised knowledge, skill, vision, energy and willingness for hard work. They place great importance on using their God given skills and training to the maximum to His glory. Fulfilment in their work is very important to them, as is continuing professional development. If these things are not available or do not seem likely to happen, boomers will become frustrated and discouraged and may leave the mission.” (Donavan and Myors 1997:43,44)

The defining characteristic of the booster generation is their hardiness, their commitment, their readiness to bear the cost and cross of discipleship. Theirs is a disciplined generation that says, “ No bible, no breakfast”. So their advice would inevitably be: go where the need is greatest. Imitate Christ in self denial and self sacrifice.

The boomers’ on the other hand, place a deep importance on using their God given gifts, skills and training to the maximum for God’s glory. “Fulfilment in work is very important to them, as is continuing professional development”. (Donovan and Myors 1997:44). Therefore to the boomers, being in a place where they cannot use their skills to the best makes no sense. It cannot be honouring to God. They identify such a situation with the unfaithful servant who given one talent by his master, did nothing with it. Instead, he buried it under the ground. (Mt 25.24-28) So the boomers’ advice is predictable: be in a place where you can use best use your gifts for the Lord’s glory.

These distinctive generational and socio-cultural perspectives are the lenses that the boosters and the boomers bring to their reading and understanding of Scripture. The purpose of this essay is to examine the respective generational perspectives and see whether they are in line with biblical teaching.

Arguably the most influential leaders in Asia today, still come from the booster generation. Though many in the booster generation may have retired, they still retained immense influence as highly respected elder statesman. Their lives of faithful dedication, self sacrifice, obedience, godliness and commitment is the ‘gold’ standard by which contemporary Christians are measured by.

In Malaysia, many men and women[7] of Dr David’s generation were pioneers in many movements and institutions that we take for granted today. Movements like the Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Graduates Christian Fellowship, Scripture Union, bible colleges like Malaysia Bible Seminari, social services like Malaysian Care, national Christian movements like the NECF and so on. They were among the first generation of Evangelical leaders and provided needed leadership for many churches in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

The torch is now slowly but surely passing on to the baby boomers generation. Many from this generation are currently the senior pastors, and senior Christian leaders in churches, and organisations, both secular and Christian today. Their influence will rise even as that of the booster generation wane.

Therefore it is important for us to ask whether the booster generation’s emphasis on self denial, and sacrifice, is more of a generational cultural perspective rather than necessarily a biblical perspective. Conversely, has the baby boomers’ generational cultural perspective soft pedalled the biblical demands concerning the cost and cross of discipleship? Has self fulfilment taken priority over Christ centeredness?[8]

It is important for these conflicting perspectives to be sorted out properly based on biblical principles and understanding. If not, unnecessary conflict in their understanding of the demands of discipleship between the booster generation and the baby boomers generation will hinder the progress of the Gospel[9].

Let us now consider the Gospels’ cost and cross passages in more detail. It is clear from the passages that there is indeed a cost and a cross to discipleship. However Wilkins argues that :

“the same cost of discipleship is not demanded for all. Jesus personalises the cost of discipleship according to what he knows are the priorities of a person’s heart. For example, the saying on hating father and mother and leaving family must be balanced with incidents such as the one involving the Gerasene demoniac. The Gerasene man, out of whom were cast a legion of demons, begged to accompany Jesus, yet Jesus redirected his attention, telling him, ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you. (Mk 5.18; Lk 8.38-39). Here the person is told to go back specifically to his household and friends to tell them of Jesus. Jesus knew the heart of the person, knew what was best for the proclamation of the Gospel, and did not call the person to the same kind of ‘cost’ to which others were called. His calling was personalised in line with Jesus’ knowledge of the priorities of his life and Jesus’ intentions for him.” (Wilkins 1992: 110, italics, mine)

In consistently asking all Christians to always take on the more difficult and less travelled path, we forget that Jesus did not uniformly ask the same cost of discipleship for all his disciples. Some were asked to leave father and mother, others to stay home. Some like the rich young ruler was told to sell everything he has and give to the poor.

22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Lk 18.22-25)

At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mk 10.22)

But Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea who were also rich were not told to do the same. For these two men, wealth was not the issue in their lives.

Similarly to consistently advise Christians to a place where they may fully utilise their gifts may be akin to urging Christians to put self fulfilment and development above Christ. Our priorities must be the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. Not our ambitions, personal development, security and family.

In the final analysis, the Gospel’s cost and cross passages must be understood at two different levels. So far we have been concentrating on the first level which is directed to the would-be disciple of Jesus. These passages tell the would be disciple what it cost to respond to the biblical call to salvation. Which is essentially a call to the Kingdom of God, a call to believe on Jesus for eternal life. For the term disciple in the bible designated a believer in Jesus. ( See Wilkins 1992:111)

In presenting our evangelistic message, we must make clear that there is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus. The good news of the Gospel as Grayston puts it, is not a “time-share presentation detailing the benefits. We do not pander to the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality of the world”[10]. (Grayston 2007:41) It is clear that true faith means having an allegiance to Christ alone. No other allegiances must hinder a person from a life of discipleship and obedience to God. Hence no ‘idol’, be it ambition, family or personal desires for power, wealth and influence must take precedence over Christ. Christ sternly taught: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. (Mk 9.43). There is a thus a cost to pay and a cross to be carried.

The second level in which the cost and cross passages need to be understood is the continuing cost of what it means to live out the call of God upon our lives, once we are now his disciples. It is a more than a question of vocation. It involves the whole person before Christ. It asks the question, “ In all that I am, in all that I do, am I living in conformity to Christ? Am I obedient to His call and will in my life?”

Without a good and biblical understanding of call, it is difficult to properly apply the gospel’s cost and cross passages. Either we are too hard or we are too soft on ourselves. We find it hard to find the proper balance. Therefore on a personal level, the conscientious Christian may have the tendency to be harder on himself than biblically warranted. Given a situation where he is given a choice between a ‘harder’[11] option and an ‘easier’ option, he will always opt without much thinking for the harder option.

For in his mind, this will always please the Lord. For he fears that the easier option is a temptation to put self above Christ. Therefore in taking the harder option, he has the assurance, that he is certainly not pleasing himself. For given a choice he will choose the easier option. But amidst all this troubled soul searching, it is not pleasing the Lord which is the main motive. It is taking the easy way out in ensuring a guilt free state of mind. He has not taken the pains to consider God’s call upon his life at all.

The uncommitted Christian on the other hand as Hwa Yung so perceptively put it, “will take the path of least resistance in life, spiritually and emotionally”[12] ( Yung 2007:23)

So how do we understand God’s call upon our lives? One of the best definitions of calling is that given by Os Guinness. Calling according to him is much more than a job or even a vocation. It involves not only what we do, but who we are, the complete person before God He writes:

Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service[13]. (Guinness 1998: 4)

In other words, calling gives us a focused sense of purpose in our life, a reason for being not just doing a task, or a job or responsibility. A biblical purpose is always an unchanging reason for being. It holds true for you regardless of your circumstances or season of life. As Boa puts it “When a Christ-centred purpose become the focus of your life, it harmonizes all the other areas, such as family, work, finances and [14]ministry”. Life without a transcendent source of purpose and calling would be an exercise in futility. Malcolm Muggeridge[15] puts it well,

“It has never been possible for me to persuade myself that the universe could have been created, and we, homo sapiens, so-called, have, generation after gen­eration, somehow made our appearance to sojourn briefly on our tiny earth, solely in order to mount the interminable soap opera, with the same charac­ters and situations endlessly recurring, that we call history. It would be like building a great stadium for a display of tiddly-winks, or a vast opera house for a mouth-organ recital. There must, in other words, be another reason for our existence and that of the universe than just getting through the days of our life as best we may; some other destiny than merely using up such physical, intel­lectual and spiritual creativity as has been vouchsafed us”.

Understanding call in terms of life-purpose, life-task help us to release the full potential of Christians to serve the Lord according to their talents, gifts, burdens and passion. As Steven Covey writing in the context of secular management observes:

“when you engage in work (ministry) that taps your talents and fuels your passion that rises out of a great need in the world (church?) that you feel drawn by conscience to meet; therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code”. [16] (Boa 2004:5)

It is therefore possible that God’s call upon our life, vocationally, may be to a place and a lifestyle that on the surface is comfortable and luxurious. Nonetheless, in God’s wisdom, it would prove strategic, effective and essential for the proclamation of the gospel. Nehemiah’s position as cup bearer to King Artaxerxes was a privileged, cushioned and influential position. So too, Daniel and his three friends. It would be a great mistake to ask Nehemiah, Daniel and his three friends to go to a small village in the Babylonian empire simply because we believe mistakenly that Christ asked us to always take the more sacrificial and less attractive option. We must not rule out the possibility that God may have placed them where they are.

On the other hand, Dr Paul Brand , a world renowned hand surgeon in his early years worked in an unknown Christian missionary leprosy hospital in Vellore, India. Arguably he could have worked in any well known hospital in the Western world. There he will have access to much better facilities. But Vellore was the place where he made most of his cutting edge discoveries in hand surgery. Fiona E. Thomas gives additional information below[17]:

“A skilled and inventive surgeon , he pioneered tendon transfer techniques with leprosy patients, and opened up a whole new world of disability prevention and rehabilitation for the most vulnerable and helpless in society. In the late 1940s, he became the first surgeon in the world to use reconstructive surgery to correct the deformities of leprosy in the hands and feet”.

Dr Paul was highly honoured for his pioneering surgical work. Among them:

He was Hunterian Professor of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1952; in 1960 he received the Albert Lasker Award for outstanding leadership and service in the field of rehabilitation; in 1961 he was honoured by Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for promotion of good relations between the Republic of India and Great Britain; in 1977 the Damian-Dutton Award for outstanding contributions in prevention of disabilities due to leprosy; and the US Surgeon General's Medallion for his rehabilitation work in Carville, LA..

He passed away in 2003. So Dr Paul Brand chose the harder, more sacrificial route in his early years as a doctor. Later he chose the ‘easier’ route and moved to America.[18] . He also received many honours and awards. Did he therefore compromise in his later years, the principles taught in the biblical passages of cost and cross?

Surely not. He responded to the continuing call of God on his life. Dr Paul Brand surrendered his life to Christ. His life was like the other great Paul, the apostle who wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2.20)

Henri Nouwen[19] sums it up well:

“Whether we work in an office, travel the world, write books, make films, care for the poor, offer leadership, or fulfil unspectacular tasks, the question is not ‘What do I most want?’ but ‘What is my vocation?’ The most prestigious position in society can be an expression of obedience to our call as well as a sign of our refusal to hear that call, and the least prestigious position, too, can a be a response to our vocation as well as a way to avoid it.” (Nouwen 1996:77)

It is thus helpful to realize that Jesus personalized the cost of discipleship according to each individual. One person’s weakness is another person’s strength. Our Lord and Shepherd knows our hearts intimately and he personalizes His call accordingly. We cannot demand the cost of discipleship to be the same, on all and sundry. In addition, a proper understanding of calling will help us to better evaluate the insights, the strengths and weaknesses of the booster and boomers generation understanding of the cost and cross messages of the Gospels. If we clearly understand God’s will or calling for us, then we must be prepared to pay whatever cost Christ may have for us. We must be willing to bear whatever cross He may have for us.

Christ may send us to an impoverished third world country. A country without proper medical care, running water or electricity. Where it is a severe trial just to carry out we routine daily chores, like cooking and washing. But at the same time, it may be a place where the people are responsive and seek the Lord with great fervour. Or He may send us to a place where we have access to the best medical care and every possible modern conveniences. But where the people are cold and hardened against the gospel. Conversely, Christ may send us to a place that is modern, developed and where the people are zealous and hungry for the Lord!

In the end, however, the cost of discipleship to each individual is the same for all true disciples of Christ. We are to completely surrender our lives to the Lord. To go where He send us without question. For finally: “The cost of discipleship is one’s own life”. (Wilkins 1992: 218).

[1] Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove: IVP, 1986, p7

[2] Wilkins, Michael Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, p 221

[3] However I am not suggesting in any way that Dr David subscribes fully to the Booster generation’s worldview. In his advice to young and old, he seeks prayerfully to discover the will of God together with whoever is seeking his counsel. He certainly doesn’t give un-reflected standard advice.

[4] Yung, Hwa, "Should Christian Emigrate," Understanding the Modern World Through Modern Eyes, October 2007, Kairos Publications

[5] Consider the Pauline theme of equality within the social structure in Gal 3.28; 1 Cor 12.13; Col 3.11

[6] See Kath Donovan, Myors, Ruth, "Reflections on Attrition in Career Missionaries: A Generational Perspective into the Future," in Too Valuable to Lose, ed. William D. Taylor (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1997).

[7] We think of Rev Peter Young, David Boler, Rev Loh Soon Choy, Elena and Harold Cooke and others like them. Dr David himself was the first chairman of the OMF Malaysia.

[8] Because of space constrains we will leave out the busters generational cultural perspective. Besides we want to major on the influence of leaders. The busters as a whole are still too young to exercise wide spread, national influence.

[9] Some of the points of difficulty between the booster, boomers and buster generation had been documented by Donavan and Myors in their article quoted in the essay.

[10] John Grayston, "Devotional on Ps 27," Encounter With God, October to, Dec, 2007,p 41 .

[11] “Harder” is relative. Teaching in a third world country may be more difficult in terms of physical conditions. But teaching in a ‘liberal’ seminary may be ‘harder’ emotionally, socially and academically. One may very well be ridiculed, marginalised and put into cold storage for your evangelical views.

[12] Although in his article, Yung is writing about issues pertaining to ‘migration’.

[13] Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), p 4

[14] Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p 465

[15] Quoted by Kenneth Boa in Conformed to His Image, p 455

[16] Stephen Covey, The 8Th Habit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). p5, parenthesis, mine

[17] The information on Paul Brand is taken from an obituary written by Fiona Ellen Thomas Communications Officer The Leprosy Mission International

[18] In 1966 he was seconded to the United States Public Health Service Hospital in Carville, Louisiana, which is the only leprosy hospital in the US and a world-famous centre for leprosy research

[19] Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink The Cup? (Mumbai: Pauline Publications, 1996), 77.

1 comment:

The Hedonese said...

If the cross is at the heart of evangelical faith, i shudder to hear remarks by folks like Chalke and brian Mclaren that substitutionary atonement is 'cosmic child abuse'...

Thanks for posting all these good stuffs, will forward them around cos they surely deserve a wider audience!