This is an excerpt from a much longer essay I wrote called “Royal Scribes in the King’s Court: Ancient Education & Christian Discipleship.” Enjoy!
I hail from good Lutheran stock from the Midwest (Minnesota) where we shared potlucks (with an endless variety of “hot dishes”) in the church basement, and Bible studies in the Fireside Room off the narthex. Beyond the church walls, however, we were careful to keep the two unwritten laws of all Scandinavian Lutherans.
First, our Lutheranism taught us to draw a sharp line between the kingdoms of the world (politics) and the Kingdom of God (viewed as personal faith)—and ne’er the twain shall meet. Second, my Norwegian/Swedish background taught me to keep my faith to myself lest I come off like a Baptist or Pentecostal. The Eleventh Commandment was unspoken but universally known in these circles: Thou shalt not bring up religion or politics at the dinner table.
The deep irony is that when we examine the heart of the Christian faith in the pages of the New Testament we discover precisely what we’ve been trying to avoid: a ‘religion’ announcing a new kind of ‘politics’ (‘kingdom of God’) that transformed the nature of ‘table fellowship’ among its adherents! As we familiarize ourselves with the first-century world of the New Testament, we may find ourselves echoing Dorothy in Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Or Minnesota!
But press on we must in our exploration of this strange land of the Bible if we want to pull back the curtain and really come to know the One who’s behind it all. So, like Dorothy and her traveling companions, we must take heart, have courage and use our brains as we explore a fresh angle on Christian discipleship for the church today.
Myrtle’s tater tot hot dish is settling in satisfied stomachs while the adult Sunday school class migrates up stairs to the Fireside Room for a Bible Study. The young pastor’s hands are a bit clammy and a bead of sweat appears on his brow. He knows the faithful have come to learn how to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Peter 3:8) and “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). But he hesitates as he introduces tonight’s topic because he’s quite certain nobody sitting in that room is expecting a class on ‘Christian civics’ or ‘Kingdom political theory’ or Jesus’ Statecraft.
Fred Johnson, a dairy farmer, and Franny Nelson the local librarian, would be the last people you’d expect to run for any public office. They represent most attenders of the church in that they are quite happy to say their prayers, be good neighbors, donate to the local food shelf and live a quiet Christian life with gratitude in their hearts and eternity in view.
How will they react when the pastor invites them on a discipleship journey aimed at teaching them how to conduct themselves as “royal ambassadors” and serve as wise scribes in the King’s court? What will these unassuming folks say when the pastor tries to convince them that they were created and redeemed to be co-rulers with Christ, beginning now and lasting into eternity? What does this royal vision of discipleship mean for all the Freds and Frannys filling our churches today? Let me offer some practical suggestions that flow from a kind of royal discipleship shaped by what I’m calling a royal pedagogy.
First, royal discipleship is centered on the King, not his blessings. The good news preached in many churches today offers the blessings and benefits of King Jesus for those who “accept him”—namely, forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the main goal of Christianity becomes “salvation”, discipleship becomes an optional next step for the more ambitious. Royal discipleship, on the other hand, invites people to pursue King Jesus himself and give their sole allegiance to Him through a life of undivided service and obedience. All the riches of heaven still await Fred and Franny, but for now they must also learn to let their own world be turned upside-down by giving their lives over to another King, Jesus (Acts 17:6).
Second, royal discipleship promotes the King’s culture and values. Many churchgoers today are carrying around with them bits and pieces of Christian ideas and biblical concepts, but still being shaped by the dominant ideas, values and narratives—especially political—of the culture around us. To borrow an image from King Jesus, we are too often trying to pour Kingdom wine into American (or whatever competing culture) wineskins. Or, to use a current-day image, we’re trying to install Apple software on a PC.
Royal discipleship takes serious the challenge of Christian education as a kingdom-enculturation process. Christian discipleship must move beyond personal piety and otherworldly goals to engage and challenge the competing value-shaping cultural narratives of our day. The church needs a culture-making strategy, robust and rehearsed “cultural liturgies”, and Kingdom-shaped ‘propaganda machine’ as ambitious and world-reaching as the one that spread Augustus’ culture across the Roman world long ago. This, of course, requires that royal servants of Jesus “be no longer conformed to the culture of this world” (Rom. 12:2) and learn to “seek first his kingdom and justice” (Matt 6:33). Fred and Franny’s Bible studies have fallen short if they haven’t yet taught them how to “be in this world but not of it” (John 17:14-15).
Third, royal discipleship builds up the King’s economy. If Christians are to embody the Way of Jesus in our world today, they need to be trained in the paradoxical dynamics his new upside-down, last-are-first, strong-when-I’m-weak, blessed-are-the-poor kind of economy of King Jesus. A pastor should not sweat bullets teaching the very unAmerican Kingdom economics of Acts 4:32-35. The fact that many preachers do get so nervous teaching the King’s economics reveals the extent to which many Christians want the “fruit” of the Kingdom (“There were no needy persons among them”) without embracing the radical countercultural economics of the Kingdom (“No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had”). Franny and Fred may happily share a tater-tot hot dish in the fellowship hall, but they have yet to be trained in the royal economy of King Jesus until they are willing to share an extra vehicle, offer up a spare bedroom, take in orphans and widows, and opening up not only their hearts but their wallets to their extended family in the Messiah.
Fourth, royal discipleship teaches the King’s redefinition of power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus taught his inner circle of kingdom servants. Sadly, the ways Christians exercise power and authority both inside and outside the church are too often “of this world.” If the Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution for a ‘cruciform life’ under the reign of King Jesus, then discipleship courses need to include topics like “How to Love Your Enemies”, “Praying for Your Persecutors”, and “Non-Retaliation 101.” Royal discipleship will seek Kingdom wisdom by observing the ways and wonders of children in our midst, learning to become more childlike in our faith.
I was recently invited to a “Strong Man’s Conference” at a church featuring a 350 pound bodybuilder who bench-pressed small children, ripped phone books in half with his hands, and crushed bricks with the triceps. With a deep, gruff voice he urged men to be strong warriors for God like Samson. I suspect the kind of power and strength King Jesus desires in his royal administration might be more effectively taught at a “Foot Washing Conference.” But when was the last time you saw that kind of an event at a church?
When King Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, gave his final lesson to his royal courtiers, he redefined kingly power as humble service and deconstructed hierarchy in his royal administration. Let’s observe the scene with the fresh eyes of royal-court disciples:
When King Jesus had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘King,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your King and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no royal servant is greater than his king, nor is an ambassador greater than the king who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:12-17).
The King’s words linger and cast a question mark over all of us—church leaders and the Freds and Frannies in our midst: Do we yet “know these things”? If so, are we training up the kinds of disciples who will actually “do them”? Perhaps one reason we are slow to embrace King Jesus’ radical new vision of power is that we assume the King operates on a different plane than his servants and we just don’t “know his business.” But we’ve been invited into the inner circle of his Kingdom operations. Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know the King’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father [about the Kingdom] I have made known to you” [my Kingdom ambassadors] (John 15:5).
The task of discipleship today is to convince the Freds and Frannies among us that we actually do know the King’s business—his politics, economics, culture and values—because Jesus made it known to us. Will we take serious our call to become scribes trained in the kingdom? Will we embrace our vocation to be God’s royal ambassadors out in the world? This is how we put feet to the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in Heaven.’
CONCLUSION: ’THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME?’
Back in the Fireside Room of with our tater-to hot dish now nearly digested, the pastor wraps up his Bible Study by offering an alternative ending to the Wizard of Oz. In the original, Dorothy and her companions discover Oz to be a land of dangers and disappointments. They follow the Yellow Brick Road only to enter the palace of a king, or Wizard, who turns out to be a giant fraud.
As the shimmer and shine of Emerald City now fades away, Dorothy turns her heart toward her true home—Kansas. She clicks her heels and says her prayers, “There’s no place like home.” And many Christians do the same. We grit our teeth as we pass through this tear-stained land, and find hope by waiting and longing for another home—Heaven. Our gospel message gets shrunk down to our version of clicking our heels—the reciting-of-a-prayer. Discipleship often amounts to little more than training people to go tell others that ‘There’s no place like Heaven.”
But what if Dorothy and her inner circle of friends didn’t give up on the Land of Oz? What if they instead stopped placing their hopes in the sham king—the wisdom-less wizard—and set about the task of realizing Dorothy’s dreams for Oz and redeeming Emerald City? What if, instead of clicking their heels and longing for Kansas, they instead set their hearts and minds on bringing a taste of the life and culture of Kansas to the land of Oz? This is the task of the church today—to set up colonies of Heaven right here on earth as we await the King’s return. Such a vocation means ridding ourselves of all ruby slipper escapist gospels, and instead of saying ‘There’s no place like home’ we pray ‘Thy kingdom come!’
The church has been commissioned to go into all the earth, awakening others to our original human vocation and ultimate Christian destiny to “be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6). Only discipleship that includes this dimension of royal education in the King’s court can prepare the church for such a task!