The Shape of Discipleship-The Shape of History: Problems With “Loyalty to Christ”

Tony SigThe idea that “loyalty to Christ” will entail a hard life, a life of the Cross indeed, and that such a life may make demands of us that even at times it will require the breaking of fellowship with other Christians for the sake of such “loyalty,” has been a subject of meditation for me for a while.  Scripture obviously at certain points indicate that “excommunication” sometimes is necessary, and this has been reinforced by many of the thinkers who have shaped my as-yet-young theological temperance.  A friend has recently had an extended (and excellent) blog series on just this point.  By some models though, “truth” – of the Gospel or of doctrine – is often set over against “unity,” which is sometimes even scorned as a concession to “man-made” structures and identities.  This comes up constantly in Anglican circles from both sides, the one is accused of favoring “unity” over “justice” or “truth” and vise versa.  Indeed “unity” almost always comes in short for these types of conversations.  This is the plague of Protestant sectarianism – if you can’t see the truth as it “plainly” is set forth in Scripture, then I’m starting a new sect.  “Unity” here is always thrown into the eschatological future and has nothing whatsoever to do with the empirical Church.

Ephraim Radner calls this kind of thinking into stark question in all of his writings but concisely in his Hope Among the Fragments, specifically here his chapter “The Figure of Truth and Unity.”  Radner recalls us to the perfect coincidence of Truth and Unity with respect to Jesus Christ, a truth brought out strongly in the Gospel of St. John, not least chapters 14-17.  Radner challenges the dichotomy:

“If…unity and truth were  viewed in parallel with pneumatic fruit (Gal. 5:16-26), their coordination would be of a profoundly different kind than if they were viewed as variously attained aspects of obedience.  We do not tend to place kindness and self-control over and against each other…In walking by the Spirit, a Christian may fail to exhibit one spiritual fruit or another, such failures pertain to that life as a whole, to the character and shape of its discrete pneumatic history, and not to separable histories of particular virtues, as if one could say, “Until now, I have worked on love; only when this is achieved can I turn to joy.” (113-114)

Instead Radner points us to the traditional figural interpretation of the Song of Songs as an elucidation of the relationship of the Church to its Lord, a history that cannot be anything other than a complex and layered story.

“If this response [of the Church and its Lord] represents some kind of narrative progress, all that takes place in between – desire, opposition, sorrow, renewal – must therefore form the historical matrix within which the larger movement of union and conformity takes flesh” (119)

For Radner, this story envisions the Church as “a single character, whose variegated experience in relation to its Lord and lover never undermines the singularity of that link, but only undermines its temporal difficulty” (118)


“As a figure of the Church in the course of its Lord-conforming history, then, the Song of Songs is a bracing challenge to any attempt at its evaluative dissection on the basis of identifiable virtues.  There is simply no room, in such a narrative, for assessing degrees of integrity and then acting distinctly upon them.  For the existence of such degrees-the church of the more or less truthful, or more or less loving, or in more or less communion within its parts, upon which distinctions we must make decisions-cannot be detached from the single movements of its history in relation to its Lord.” (119)

This then is where I have and continue to struggle with the idea of understanding discipleship and sanctification, both individually within a parish and corporately between disparate bodies, as a singular “loyalty to Christ” which must be at all times maintained, for this is what (we are told) Scripture demands.  Such a position assumes that the appropriate response to the Lords calling will be clear and readily apparent, yet in a divided Church, such clarity is hardly forthcoming.  There is a sort of rigorist or puritan striving toward holiness, a position that historically has almost always lost.

Although I remain convinced that excommunication and parish discipline is absolutely necessary, this often can only be an exercise of authority open to contestation.  Because of course I myself demonstrate both loyalty and disloyalty to Christ, more and less obedience.  Rather than wrap up with a confident position of my own, I will end with a story from the desert monastics:

“There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault.  So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses.  He refused to go.  The priest sent someone to say to him, “They’re all waiting for you.” So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him.  The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, father?”  The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of somebody else.”  When they heard this, they called off the meeting.”



  1. Is excommunication even valid in a Protestant mindset?

    I mean the purpose of excommunication is not to simply remove the individual from the communion. It’s primary purpose is to force the individual to repent since there wasn’t(up until the reformation)any place else to go. The choice was repent or hell.

    Today excommunication has no such affect nor does it present the individual with any notion of repentance. They simply find a different church or start up their own one and happily claim the title Christian. And indeed most if not all Christians will support them in that claim.

    So if there is a necessity is it simply to maintain a smaller unity within that communion or is it for the benefit of the believer gone astray?

    I’m asking because I don’t know.


    1. Quickbeam,

      There are plenty of Protestants I’ve run into and respect who give a lot of thought to excommunication. The blog I linked and a pastor/commentator there is a prime example. There is certainly a way in which it can work with respect to a particular parish or even denomination, but it gets complicated between denominations to be sure, not least in churches where the goal is to get butts into pews rather than a focus on discipleship.

      The inability to “properly” excommunicate – and thus drive the Christian to repentance (the goal after all) – is at least one of the many realities that attend a divided church. Of course I know for you there isn’t a divided ‘Church,’ but we work with different paradigms.

      Whatever the case, this practice does get at least sustained reflection by Protestants even if it doesn’t always drive towards reunion with the Roman Catholic Church, as it ought.


    1. Thanks Chris, your excellent posts simply revived a conversation I’ve been having in my head for quite some time, not least because many of my internet interlocutors are anabaptists and so the “judging” of “faithfullness” gets brought up. Hauerwas too has made me think about this, as have as my ecumenical interests. Finally, the Anglican divisions only make this issue all the more relevant. I was really enjoying the interactions between you and Michael Potter on this. I hope my hopelessly curt jab at “protestantism” was merely taken to imply that the issue of church discipline is irreducibly frustrating within the plethora of Protestant fellowships.


  2. Yeah, wow, that’s pretty much exactly what I said here – – not that long ago. Women as priests and bishops are, for better and worse, a part of Anglicanism now and not to realize this is fantasy.

    Unfortunately Anglo-catholicism barely exists today precisely because it can only imagine “anglo-catholics” as “catholics:” this plainly testifies that they don’t understand “catholic” ecclesiology anymore! Unless “evangelical” Anglicans are also “anglo-catholic,” that is, unless they stop seeing “catholicism” as a sort of approach to liturgy, or as a homebase for “opposing” womens ordination, or whatever, and start seeing the Church through episcopacy (ie- all Anglicans under their bishop), then they’ll continue to be meaningless; because even pagans after all, can have killer liturgies.


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