Saturday, September 8, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Cost of Discipleship for Pastors

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

We live in troubled times in both our politics and religion--and they can be especially troubling for pastors who are trying to be disciples.  Been there, done that, so I can testify on this issue. Being a pastor requires a commitment to preach the gospel, promote the church and nurture the spiritual needs of a congregation.  Being a disciple requires following the teachings of Jesus. Being both can be a mission impossible.

Jesus didn’t call his disciples to worship him, but to follow him.  He even rebuked a man who called him good, saying that only God is good.  Following Jesus meant challenging traditional customs and beliefs and putting love over law at a time when Mosaic Law was the standard of righteousness for ancient Jews.  Being a disciple was a narrow and unpopular way; but while the cost of discipleship could be high, the spiritual benefits were worth the cost.

Jesus was not very pastoral.  He was a radical--even subversive--Jewish rabbi who used pastoral metaphors in his teachings, but he never promoted any religion, not even his own.  He had no congregation and was more likely to criticize Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy and sanctimony than to commend them, and he expected his disciples to follow his example.  Jesus continues to be a hard act to follow for pastors promoting an institutional church.

Most pastors are good people, but few are good disciples.  That’s because their first priority is to promote the church as a popular social institution, and that requires promoting belief in Jesus as the Trinitarian alter ego of God over the more difficult challenge of following the teachings of Jesus. That’s a form of cheap grace that was never taught by Jesus.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer the cost of discipleship was to leave the safety and security of an American seminary to oppose Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, and it cost Bonhoeffer his life. Pastors in America don’t have to risk their lives or go anywhere to oppose political tyranny; they need only preach and practice discipleship and the stewardship of democracy in their churches.       

Discipleship is not a new problem for pastors.  It has existed throughout the history of the church.  But it has reached a crisis point in America with distorted doctrines of “family values” and a prosperity gospel that more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist teachings of Ayn Rand than the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  Pastors must refute these false gospels with the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to save the credibility and legitimacy of the church.

In normal times, the Christian pulpit would not have to mix religion and politics.  But these are not normal times. Distorted evangelical doctrines have promoted radical right politics that now represent an existential threat to American democracy and the church.  Silent pulpits in mainstream churches only aid and abet that threat. It is a time for discipleship in the pulpit.

In 2016 a majority of white Christians elected a President who is the antithesis of Christian morality.  But on November 6 those voters can repent and prevent a repeat of the 2016 political fiasco--that is, if pastors can motivate their congregations to follow the greatest commandment to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves, including their neighbors of other races and religions--even their homosexual neighbors.
To perform this modern miracle of faith and politics, pastors must be disciples first and pastors second.  They must have the courage to mount their pulpits and preach the moral imperatives taught by Jesus that are summarized in the greatest commandment and counter the radical right politics promoted by evangelical charlatans.  That’s what discipleship and the Christian stewardship of democracy is all about.  Let’s just hope that our pastors aren’t too late.


Jim Nates demonstrated the priority of discipleship over support for traditional values in his commentary on the issue of homosexuality in The Fork in the Road on page 11 in the September issue of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.  Nates questioned a statement in The United Methodist Book of Discipline that says, “While all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as clergy,” and then asked “why other practices contrary to Christian teaching...such as greed, hatred, sloth, etc.” do not prohibit ordination.  Nates’ advocacy of change to allow the ordination of homosexuals opposes the “family values” of evangelicals that consider homosexuality and same-sex marriage sinful. Nates has also been one of a few United Methodist pastors who have actively participated in interfaith dialogue, and he collaborated with Rudy Barnes, Jr. and Dr. Waleed El-Ansari in preparing The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted in the Resources listed on the home page of

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