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Thin Discipleship

June 9th, 2021 | 18 min read

By Josh Fenska

co-authored with Bob Stevenson

We are experiencing a crisis in American evangelicalism. Responses to issues such as partisan politics, police brutality, or the pandemic demonstrate deep “fault lines” — as one author has recently argued. One explanation argues that these fault lines have developed because evangelicals have abandoned their allegiance to the sufficiency of Scripture, and turned instead to secular theories and frameworks to explain and address social phenomena. A deluge of books, conferences, podcasts, and tweets have poured forth to make the case that evangelicalism is in danger, and only a return to Scripture alone — coupled with an outright rejection of “wokeism,” CRT, etc. — can save it.

As noble as this plea may sound to many evangelicals, we believe this plea is, in itself, a symptom of something deeper: a crisis of thin discipleship.

We are grateful for many things about our evangelical heritage — we grew up in evangelical churches, learned at some of America’s best known evangelical schools, and now pastor evangelical churches that we dearly love. When we hear leaders objecting that the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture has been lost, we pay attention — because we love the Bible, and are convinced that it is indeed central for our lives.

Yet as we listen to the arguments of the anti-woke polemicists, we find their approach thin — lacking dimension.

Thick and Thin Discipleship

In Galilee two thousand years ago, Jesus declared his universal authority and commanded his followers to engage in his great discipleship project: “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20). Discipleship was never about conversion alone; it has always been about the formation of lives along the contours of Christ’s life. The act of teaching disciples to observe all that Jesus commanded implies holistic instruction that includes both the content of Jesus’s teaching and practical application of that teaching where they are. More subtly, but no less importantly, since the creation of disciples is to take place among “all nations,” the discipleship project is designed to engage the cultural context of each nation (ethnos).[1]

Discipleship is fundamentally about knowing and following Jesus in all of life. The Christian life is meant to be lived out truthfully and lovingly, with boldness, in our world. This is how faith in Christ works: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 5:19; cf. Gal. 5:6). The earliest disciples understood that discipleship had an eye toward the needy and was never meant to be restricted to the inner affections or the cognitive realm — as any reader of 1 John or James can see. This understanding of discipleship resonates with the character of our Redeemer, the ethics of Exodus, the proclamations of the prophets, the good news for the poor in the Gospels, the very thing Paul was eager to do (Gal. 2:10), and the hope of the new earth. When the project of discipleship focuses on inner spirituality to the exclusion of our social responsibilities — or vice versa — it becomes “thin.” Thin discipleship focuses on one aspect to the neglect of others. “Thick” discipleship, on the other hand, is discipleship with dimension.[2]

At the surface level, it would be difficult to find an American evangelical leader who disagrees with us on this point — at least conceptually. And yet, in churches and conferences throughout American evangelicalism, a thinning of discipleship is taking place as Christians are asking anew, “and who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). These leaders and influencers do not deny that the gospel has social implications, but they do limit the effective application of the gospel.

Thick discipleship asks, “What does it mean to follow Jesus fully, in all of life, in my particular context?” Thin discipleship, on the other hand, dilutes faithful application of the Scriptures by restricting the Christian’s capacity to adequately understand the context in which she or he inhabits.

Double Listening

How should we follow Christ in a particular culture? Evangelicalism, at its best, has tried to answer this question with both conviction and compassion. A generation ago, John Stott — a towering figure in twentieth-century evangelicalism— wrote frequently about discipleship in the modern world. A common theme in his writing was the “struggle to relate God’s unchanging Word to our ever-changing world.”[3] The language of “struggle” is insightful: Christian convictions (or the “Christian mind,” as he would put it) are not formed without effort. It requires intentional study of both the Word and the world.

Essential to Stott’s path forward is “the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening.’” By this, he means that “we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.”[4]

As Christians, we must listen to the voice of God in the Scriptures above all. If we fail on this point, we careen toward shipwreck — a reality we have seen as pastors all too often.

Yet “double listening” also calls us to listen to voices of others in the world around us. As followers of Christ, this especially means listening to the voices of those who are hurting. “The contemporary world is positively reverberating with cries of anger, frustration and pain. Too often, we turn a deaf ear to these anguished voices,” Stott explains. And with regard to the “pain of the poor and the hungry, the dispossessed and the oppressed,” Stott adds, “Many of us are only now waking up to the obligation which Scripture has always laid on the people of God to care about social justice. We should be listening more attentively to the cries and sighs of those who are suffering.”[5]

In short, a failure to listen doubly creates a discipleship conundrum by restricting our capacity to follow Jesus faithfully in our particular contexts, when confronted with the “cries and sighs” of the world in which we inhabit. As Charlie Dates has more recently argued, we must do biblical and theological exegesis “alongside and in front of social and cultural exegesis because the Bible is not just a book we interpret. It is a book that interprets us and it is a book that interprets culture. If we are unfamiliar with the things going on in our world, then we do not give the Bible in our preaching a chance to speak prophetically, critically and theologically about sociological issues.”

Thin Discipleship as Selective Sufficiency

Thin discipleship happens as we fail to listen doubly. This is important to notice, because thin discipleship is not merely a problem in gospel-lite or mass-appeal churches, where the Bible is deprioritized. It is, to the contrary, found in many Scripture-heavy churches in our nation.

In his book Fault Lines, Voddie Baucham argues that

The social sciences may be useful tools, but they are far from necessary. ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16–17). In no area does God require me to walk in a level of righteousness for which the Scriptures do not equip me — including any and all aspects of justice.[6]

The logic of Baucham’s argument, which permeates his book, is that the Bible is enough. It is enough to parse the complexity of race in the United States, and enough to provide a roadmap for justice. Let’s be clear: Baucham agrees that the gospel has social implications. He is also clear that the social sciences are simply unnecessary to illuminate what those social implications are, and how the gospel compels us to act.

This is, in fact, explicitly outlined in the Dallas Statement:

We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.[7]

According to Baucham and the signers of the Dallas Statement, the claim that secular scholarship is necessary to understand and address the contemporary racial landscape are violating the doctrine of sufficiency, and compromising their fidelity to Scripture. Despite passing affirmations that Christians ought to read broadly,[8] insofar as it pertains to matters of race and justice, Baucham, et al., clearly view secular scholarship as suspect, and inessential to comprehending and shaping responses to the social problems we face.

Of course, in their view, not all secular sources are suspect. Many of the signers of the Dallas Statement happily employ the work of James Lindsay or Thomas Sowell in their analysis of our social realities. The real concern lies in a particular set of sources: “postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory.”[9] It is these sources which consume massive amounts of energy expended by Owen Strachan, Voddie Baucham, Tom Ascol, and many others. Summarized by many under the slushy appellation “wokeness,” these writers are convinced that reliance on anything that smacks of woke is deleterious to the faith given once for all to the saints. For example, John MacArthur writes that woke evangelicals

are setting aside the offense of the gospel in favor of a theme that is trending in the secular world: ‘wokeness.’…I don’t think it overstates the case to say that the true evangel is in danger of being swept away with a deluge of grandiloquence from some of the Evangelical Movement’s best known and most influential thought leaders.

Owen Strachan goes further:

Wokeness is not friendly to Christianity. It might seem like it is but it cannot be adapted to biblical Christianity. Wokeness is not a prism by which we discover truth we couldn’t find in a Christian worldview; wokeness is a different system. It is not just a different gospel, it is anti-gospel. (emphasis ours)

Notice this double step. First, orthopraxy is bound to a selective doctrine of sufficiency that diminishes the value of secular sources in understanding our world. Second, particular sources are marked not only as unnecessary, but dangerously corrosive to Christian discipleship. In doing so, any individual benefit which may be achieved through sociological research that smacks of postmodernism influence or critical studies is not only suspect, but flagged as a direct threat.

But this creates a false dichotomy. While many critical theories did develop to explain social realities in secular contexts, and are deeply flawed in toto as comprehensive solutions, it is not accurate to suggest they set themselves up as theological or philosophical competitors designed to displace Christianity — any more than the natural sciences are diametrically opposed to the gospel because they seek to explain the material world. How many in the natural sciences operate not only out of a methodological naturalism, but a framework of philosophical naturalism? Do we therefore reject all scientific advances because those who make them themselves believe they are describing a world without God? Calvin represents a historical Christian consensus in explaining, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”[10]

In point of fact, when secular frameworks are transposed into a theological key and rejected on the grounds of their ostensible theological claims, many otherwise benign observations are rendered suspect and rejected. Rather than using a hand trowel to root out weeds in the garden, the totalizing logic of Strachan, MacArthur, and Baucham calls in a backhoe.

Hidden beneath all of this is a subtle move for power and control through intellectual isolation. Rather than engaging deeply with like-minded Christians to learn and challenge one another, the anti-woke crowd frequently writes off race-conscious or justice-oriented evangelicals as “woke.” In their view, even a little wokeness leavens the whole lump. But the result is unnecessary exclusion and division.

Most importantly, this maneuver leaves these same critics as the definitional and applicational gatekeepers for matters of race and justice. If, after all, other evangelicals are “woke” and therefore compromised, who else is left to advise on the biblical way forward? But while the anti-woke folks are good at identifying seeming evidence of wokeness in other evangelicals, they are less productive in creating positive theories of justice or pathways for growth.

Critique and Construction

In 1973, Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla — a close friend of John Stott, and a leading figure in global evangelicalism — wrote an article in Christianity Today addressing liberation theology. The article begins with a critique — one Padilla knows many of his American evangelical readers will applaud. By the end of the article, however, you can feel Padilla turn pleading eyes toward his anti-liberation-theology readers, while asking a piercing question: “But where is the evangelical theology that will propose a solution…with a firmer basis in the Word of God?”[11]

Criticism is easier than construction. And in the case of justice — a word used with restorative ethical connotations over and over in the Bible — it will not suffice to only criticize other approaches. We must seek to creatively build a better way.

One vital link between our Bibles and our world is the kind of compassion that is created by double listening. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr., a preacher, and influential leader in the Civil Rights movement in Nashville, addresses this very concern:

Sometimes the preacher who does not really perceive that there is a serious crisis will simply decry the evil of the times in the attempt to salve his or her conscience and to satisfy certain elements in the congregation. This kind of approach may be of some small value, but will not suffice in a world that is aflame with specific issues and problems. The preacher cannot handle critical social issues with broad generalities. There must be full awareness of the existence and nature of crises in order for them to be effectively addressed.[12]

In his landmark book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Carl Henry explained the issue from an evangelical perspective, in even starker terms:

No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dares respond in the name of Christianity. Though the modern crisis is not basically political, economic or social —fundamentally it is religious — yet evangelicalism must be armed to declare the implications of its proposed religious solution for the politico-economic and sociological context for modern life.[13]

In short, if we do not adequately understand how the world is suffering, we are limited in our capacity to speak into that suffering with the particulars of the gospel.

Double listening is therefore vital for questions of race and justice. Because at the surface level, most evangelicals agree that Scripture opposes racism and injustice. In fact, many among the anti-woke crowd explicitly affirm that racism and injustice, when seen, must be condemned. But their opposition to much contemporary discourse about racial injustice hinges on the fact that, by and large, they don’t see it. So much of the argument these days pivots on who sees the world rightly.

The problem with this analysis is that it denies the testimony of the countless Christians — and our neighbors — who from experience testify that we do live in a racialized society. In other words, it fails to account for the social reality we actually inhabit. And really, it doesn’t take much imagination to acknowledge that sin goes underground when it’s not socially acceptable. No one watches porn in the pews at church or beats their wife at the grocery store. Why would we expect post-1965 racism to remain out in the open?

This is precisely the goal of many legal, sociological, and historical tools which aim to provide a lens for seeing and evaluating our society. They are not sufficient as theological or ethical tools, but they do not need to be. This is the genius of Stott’s evangelical approach to life in the world. The church, equipped with the Word of God and millennia of theological history and ethical development — and the very Spirit of God dwelling within us! — is meant to employ the riches of its theological and ethical toolkits to constructively engage the cultures we inhabit, with the gospel we treasure. This is the value of “double listening.”

Doing Thick Discipleship

So where do we go from here? The goal of thick discipleship is, to borrow a phrase from Augustine, to cultivate “the double love of God and neighbor.”[14] Our crucified, risen, and reigning Lord has commissioned us to make this kind of disciples in every culture. Of course, the task of relating the “unchanging Word and the ever-changing world” is not for the faint of heart. It is a struggle. But it is a worthy struggle.

Christians don’t have to read CRT to do thick discipleship; we do have to listen well. We have to listen to the pain and perspectives of our brothers and sisters in our churches — some of whom have been muted for too long — and to the “cries and sighs” of the world around us — whether the voices of our neighbors down the street or thoughtful scholars outside our own traditions.[15]

Instead of building bunkers for battle, we must build bridges for love. Instead of choosing an easy way by flattening or narrowing this mission, we are calling for discipleship with dimension that aims for an ever-expanding love for our neighbors growing in proportion to an ever-expanding love for our great Redeemer.

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  1. See Andrew Walls’ discussion of “the indigenizing principle” and “the pilgrim principle” in The Modern Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 3-15.
  2. In this article, we are focusing on dimension within the horizontal axis of discipleship; much more could be said about the vertical or God-focused axis of discipleship. Mark A. Noll has observed a shift in earlier generations of American Christian history “from contemplative theocentrism to activistic anthropocentrism.” See America’s God: from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 440. Although this article focuses on questions about the activistic dimensions of discipleship, we do not wish to see the riches of “contemplative theocentrism” lost in sacrifice to activism.
  3. John Stott. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 144.
  4. John Stott. The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 13. He goes on: “Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission” (ibid, 29).
  5. Ibid, 110-11.
  6. Voddie T. Baucham. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe. Kindle Edition. (Washington: Salem Books, 2021), 119. Similarly, Owen Strachan asserted, “God has ordained that the church would be fed by preaching of the Bible. Not psychology. Not therapy. Not sociology. Not anthropology. Not felt needs. Not history lessons. The true church is fed by the Word of God, and the Word of God alone. ‘Preach the word’ (2 Tim 4:2).”
  7. Emphasis ours. It is worth noting that the signatories include some of the more vocal proponents of what we are calling thin discipleship, including John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, Phil Johnson, Josh Buice, Tom Ascol, Tom Buck, James White, Darrell Harrison, et al.
  8. Baucham, for example, writes: “allow me to be clear about one thing: I do not share the sentiment of those who believe that reading beyond the Bible is unwarranted, unwise, unfruitful, or unfaithful.” (Baucham, Fault Lines. 115-116)
  9. The Dallas Statement.
  10. For example, see Calvin’s comments on Titus 1:12: “From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?” Calvin also refers to Basil here, who argues (in the 4th century!) that we can and should read pagan authors, insofar as what they write corresponds with truth. This, of course, requires wisdom, but he essentially advocates for an “eat the meat and spit out the bones” approach. “So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest. And just as in culling roses we avoid the thorns, from such writings as these we will gather everything useful, and guard against the noxious.”
  11. A little more context: “We may be able to show that both the diagnosis of the evils of society and the cure offered by the theology of liberation are colored by Marxist dialectics, but the economic dependence of the underdeveloped countries is by no means a myth created by that theology. It is, rather, a crude fact in relation to which evangelical theology should be exercised in an honest attempt to discern the will of God and the demands of Christian discipleship in the historical situation.” C. René Padilla, “The Theology of Liberation” Christianity Today. Nov. 9, 1973.
  12. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. Social Crisis Preaching (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press), 1984.
  13. Carl F. H. Henry. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003 [1947]), 83.
  14. Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 27.
  15. For a helpful discussion of this dynamic, see Cha, Peter T. “Doing Theology in a Multicultural Theological Community.” Torch Trinity Journal 10 (2007): 95-106.