Weaving a Coherent Pattern of Discipleship

by Richard J. Mouw

Richard J. Mouw is provost of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

This is the eighth in a series: New Turns in Religious thought. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 20-27, 1975, pp. 728-731. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We will never be able to experience the "Christian fellowship" that fundamentalists claim to cherish without a change in the political and economic patterns that are presently barriers to genuine reconciliation. However, the argument must also move in the other direction: a concern for structural change must be rooted in an experience of personal liberation.

Like most Calvinistic Augustinians, I have difficulty drawing clear lines between philosophy and theology. My continual commerce between the two seems to me to be an instance of what Tillich meant by the "method of correlation." The Christian philosopher must attempt to find points of contact between the ongoing philosophical/cultural dialogue and those themes which characterize the life and mission of that community which seeks to live in obedience to the Word from God. On each of the agendas there are typical questions and answers. Sometimes the commitments of the community of faith will lead us to criticize the answers, and even the questions, of philosophy. At other times the philosophical dialogue will thrust questions upon us which will force the church to create new categories within its own discussions.


Political philosophers -- at least the ones I have been interested in since graduate school days -- have devoted considerable attention to three fundamental questions: Why ought human beings to participate in any kind of social relationships at all? Why ought human beings to submit to any kind of political authority? And what sort of political arrangements, if any, are best for human societies? As stated, these questions are in the order of logical priority. To ask what sorts of political structures are best for humans is to assume some account of the point of political arrangements as such. This in turn presupposes something about what social needs political processes are meant to expedite.

When philosophers ask these questions they are usually seeking normative justifications. They are not interested in how human beings actually come to be entangled in a network of social and political relationships; they are asking why it is right or good that this should be. The defender of philosophical anarchism, for example, will not consider it a relevant observation to be told that we are all in fact born into social and political units. He wants to know whether there are legitimate reasons to consider that to be a good state of affairs.

Philosophical questions often have an "irrelevant" feel to them. But not always. What in one era might be deemed a purely "academic" question will in another period be an urgent cry. Philosophical questions often acquire urgency in times of disillusionment. This is what has happened, or so it seems to me, to the questions of social/political philosophy in the past decade or so. On our recent cultural agenda they have been asked with reference to specific institutions: What is a classroom? What is it for? Could it adequately be replaced by, say, a large sandbox? Similarly: What is a marriage? What is a family? What is a church? The form in which the answers to these questions have come is not so much that of systematic treatises as of concretizations of alternative philosophical models: the open classroom, gay marriages, tire commune, house churches. Popular titles reflect a widespread conceptual exploration of the political dimensions of social institutions: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Sexual Politics, The Politics of the Family, Churchless Protestantism.

Recent popular investigations of these questions have had a frantic and faddish quality that is easy to criticize. Nonetheless, the questions which have been raised in the past decade, even if in tones of anger and frustration, are ones that should not be set aside. They deserve careful philosophical discussion. They must also be given more serious theological reflection than they have received thus far.


After one year at a seminary in the early ‘60s I dropped out and decided to become a philosopher. Earlier, I had been enthusiastic about studying theology. I had also considered myself to be a "conservative evangelical" Christian. My decision to change to philosophy was in part a decision to suspend both of these commitments for a time. Two years of work at a university in western Canada, where I studied with Wittgensteinian defenders of "ordinary language" as well as with Trotskyites and non-Marxist socialists, provided the necessary distance in terms of both ideologies and miles.

When I returned to the U.S. for a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, I began to reassess my evangelical roots. I was by then committed to various political causes, the most important having to do with my decision to refuse induction into the military. Even though my political attitudes were in conflict on almost every point with those which prevailed in the evangelical community, it seemed to me that my concerns were a proper extension of my evangelical experiences. I remembered lines from songs that we had sung with endless monotony at "evangelistic meetings": "I surrender all." "Is your all on the altar?" "Nothing between my soul and the Savior." "Break down every idol, cast out every foe."

Wasn’t it proper at least to raise the question of whether my draft card should be surrendered to the lordship of Christ? Shouldn’t nationalism be offered on the altar of sacrifice? Doesn’t racism stand between a soul and the Savior? Shouldn’t we be constantly on guard against political idols and economic foes? I could not understand why evangelicals did not want even to hear such questions. They had, it seemed, promoted a posture of radical self-examination about some things -- usually very personal patterns of behavior -- but they refused to extend their questions to systemic and institutional matters.

After a cautious re-entry into the evangelical community following graduate school, I discovered that I had not been alone in asking these questions. Strictly speaking, the "Evangelicals for McGovern" organization of 1972 and the 1973 Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns were not the beginnings of a new evangelical activism; they were formal announcements of what had been happening in individual lives for at least a decade. When we regathered after the evangelical diaspora of the ‘60s, we discovered that there had been a significant number of scattered, lonely and frustrated "Evangelicals for Gene McCarthy." For such persons, to see the words "Evangelicals for McGovern" actually in print was an experience of sweet vindication.

The sense of vindication was even greater, for me at least, at the Chicago gathering that produced the Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns. Here were persons whose names had been household words in my childhood -- Gabelein, Rees, Henry, Grounds, Ramm. In one sense their formal blessing was now too late. It would have been good to hear words of guidance and encouragement from them when we were wondering not whether, but how, to respond positively to Martin Luther King’s calls to justice, or when a letter from one of them to a draft board would have provided pastoral support.

But there were more important considerations. Each of us had been praying our own versions of Jacob’s plea: Are you not "the Lord who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good’"? Those prayers were now being answered. We were being assured, belatedly, that our agonies of the ‘60s had been proper evangelical agonies. And now another generation, this one struggling particularly over sexism and economic discipleship, would not have to operate in a vacuum. These young people can say to their parents, "See, we’re not strange because we care about these things. Even they think that these are important Christian concerns." For many of us, the suggestion that evangelicals are "Johnnies come lately" to social action has a hollow sound.


My book Political Evangelism (Eerdmans, 1974) was an attempt to devise a framework for political action that is compatible with evangelical theology and piety. In my exploration of the connections between an emphasis on "personal salvation" and a recognition of the need for extensive structural change, two themes have seemed to me to be important to stress: first, that a concern for "individual conversion," properly understood, should naturally spill over into a desire for political change. To borrow an example from my book, it is very likely that somewhere there is a fundamentalist slum-dweller who rents from a fundamentalist slum landlord. They will never be able to experience the "Christian fellowship" that fundamentalists claim to cherish without a change in the political and economic patterns that are presently barriers to genuine reconciliation. It is simply not true in such a case that "changed hearts will change society" unless those "changed hearts" concentrate on the need for structural change.

However, the argument must also move in the other direction: a concern for structural change must be rooted in an experience of personal liberation. This is a point on which, as some of us see it, theological liberals have often been inconsistent. They have quickly recommended divorce for "hopeless" marriages while firing off "Give peace a chance" telegrams to Washington. They have failed to proclaim that the work of the Prince of Peace must also apply to the "warring within." They have hated the Lord’s institutionalized enemies with a perfect hatred, while ignoring the need to have him search out the wickedness that originates in the rebelliousness of our own hearts.

Many of these things are in the process of change. Evangelicals who are committed to a broader application of the gospel -- a subgroup recently given the quasi-official label "Young Evangelicals" -- have been "discovered" by the larger world in the past few years. Indeed, we are one of the few groups (along with, perhaps, the UCLA basketball team) wherein a young, white, "straight" male could experience a sense of being "in" in recent times. We have been invited to ecumenical consortiums, consultations and off-the-record sessions. We have been quoted by the national press. We have been the subject of books and scholarly papers.


For the most part, these developments have been good ones. But they have also been the occasion for a surfacing of some significant tensions. One such tension has to do with whether being an evangelical necessitates an adherence to the view of "biblical inerrancy" held by, e.g., Christianity Today and the Evangelical Theological Society. Others relate to disagreements over questions of life style (e.g., "voluntary poverty" versus "good stewardship"), triumphalist proposals of the "Let’s get organized and run candidates" type, and the proper relationship between activism and scholarship.

The most important tension, given my concerns (and my suspicion that it underlies many of the other tensions), is a theological one. Writing in the July 8, 1974, issue of Christianity and Crisis, Marlin Van Elderen rightly singled out the differences between Reformed and Anabaptist political perspectives as a crucial item on the evangelical agenda.

The Anabaptist position has as its chief evangelical defenders John Howard Yoder, Dale Brown and Arthur Gish; it is also given popular expression regularly in the pages of the Post American. Some of its most important emphases are as follows: The political order is presently under the control of the Pauline "principalities and powers." These powers were exposed at the cross as idolatrous. Their essential mode of operation is coercive and violent; this is also true of the political realm which operates under their influence. Christ confronted these powers, and assured their ultimate destruction, by "accepting powerlessness"; he refused to employ their tactics, and this refusal was the means of his victory -- it exposed the futility of their tactics. Christians, then, must follow Christ by imitating his way of the cross: they must fight "the Lamb’s war"; they too must accept powerlessness. This means viewing our actions not as ways of causing things to happen, but as effects of the cross. The Christian community is a "sign of the new order," the "first fruits" of the Kingdom which is presently visible only through faith. Involvement in the present political order -- except by "revolutionary subordination" -- is incompatible with living in "the new order."

Much of my recent effort has been devoted to an attempt at developing a plausible Reformed alternative to this perspective. I can only summarize here the major elements of that alternative. One crucial issue has to do with the degree to which Christians are called to imitate Christ’s confrontation with the powers. If his confrontation was to be the decisive one, Christ may have had to "accept powerlessness" completely in order to expose them for what they are. This having been accomplished, we are free to re-enter the domains of the powers, in the knowledge that they cannot separate us from the love of God. Because of the cross, then, we are freed to pursue justice and righteousness in the political order; and Christians can do so without experiencing the compulsion to use politics as a means of coercion and manipulation. It may be, of course, that the Christian exercise of political power will have the effect of coercing someone -- this is a feature, for example, of all acts of retributive justice. But if even the most modest accounts of "systemic violence" are correct, the question is not one of coercing or not coercing but of how we can promote just policies in the midst of a pervasively coercive society.


Another issue is the degree of continuity that exists between Old Testament outlooks concerning the state and those of the New Testament. Yoder argues that while Paul follows the advice to wives and slaves to "submit" with instructions to husbands and masters, his advice to Christian citizens is not accompanied by reciprocal instructions for political officeholders. Yoder infers from this that the New Testament does not contain criteria whereby rulers can be judged to be responding properly to the submission of the church. But if this is true, it is difficult to know what the "supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings" which Paul urges Timothy to offer on behalf of "kings and all who are in high positions" amount to. I suspect that these prayers must be viewed in the light of Old Testament petitions that ‘the king might exercise justice (see Ps. 72: 1-4). Without some content of this sort, such prayers would be meaningless.

A more fundamental set of issues concerns the status of political relationships as such in the various stages of the biblical drama: creation, fall, redemption, and future transformation. My interest in these issues has led me to pursue a variety of biblical-theological topics: the imago dei of Genesis, as discussed by Barth, Bonhoeffer and Berkouwer; biblical concepts of power; ecclesiology (especially the kinds of issues treated in Avery Dulles’s recent Models of the Church); authority, lordship and servanthood; apocalyptic perspectives on political units (e.g., Revelation’s opening description of Christ as "ruler of the kings on earth," and its final vision of "the kings of the earth" bringing "the glory and the honor of the nations" into a city which has a tree whose "leaves are for the healing of the nations").

All of this is really an elaborate attempt on my part to explore the specifically political dimensions of H. Richard Niebuhr’s questions in Christ and Culture: Is the present political order a "corrupted order" or is it an "order for corruption"? Is its present evil that of a perverted good or of a "badness of being"? These questions must be discussed in conjunction with philosophical reflections on the most fundamental issues of society and politics.


The task of correlating the theological and cultural /philosophical agendas must be characterized by patience and tentativeness -- qualities which have not always been highly prized among conservative evangelicals. Fortunately, my immediate academic surroundings provide a healthy environment for cultivating such attributes. Calvin College, along with its supporting constituency, draws strength from an ethnic and theological tradition that promotes the kind of cultural and political involvements, scholarly pursuits, social mores, and liturgical patterns which allow for only a cautious partnership with Anglo-American evangelicalism. One of the patron saints of this particular community of Dutch Calvinists is Abraham Kuyper, who died in 1920 after a career as a philosopher-theologian, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, and prime minister of the Netherlands. Kuyperianism stresses not only the narrowly soteriological Calvinism of the "tulip" (Synod of Dort) doctrines, but also the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ over all spheres of human activity.

The opportunity to explore these European roots -- from which my own family had been seduced away by American fundamentalism -- has been a refreshing experience. It has also been a disciplining task. The members of my department devote one afternoon a week to critical discussions of a paper written by one of our number. My involvement with the Reformed Journal provides a continuing education on a more general level; several of my fellow editors have been promoting a combination of sane orthodoxy and enlightened social concern for decades.

A growing sense of communal identity has generated the freedom to enter into dialogue with other Christian traditions. Many visits, brief and extended ones alike, to Catholic campuses have expanded my understanding of what it means to work within a confessional tradition. Gestures of friendly encouragement have come from previously alien circles, in a spirit that I would have thought unimaginable a decade ago. The invitation to write this piece is one such gesture. Richard Neuhaus and Peter Berger have prodded me to broaden my sense of proper ecumenical participation, without trying to make me exchange my own brand of theological stubbornness for theirs. The "Hartford group" occasioned the formation of some new loyalties and concerns.


A recently awarded fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities will make it possible for me to study and write at Princeton University next academic year. This experience will also allow me to view many of my present activities and concerns from a critical distance. I have often argued that we ought to take the Pauline emphasis on the diversity of gifts and callings more seriously than we do -- and yet I myself have sometimes attempted to claim more than my allotted share. I look forward to a period of reassessment.

In a profound sense the task of "correlation" is coextensive with the Christian life in its entirety. Jesus Christ holds all things together; our response to his total lordship must be an attempt to make visible his work of comprehensive reconciliation -- by witnessing to the fact that he is the Lord of families as well as nations, by finding points of contact among diverse academic agendas, by weaving together the intricate strands of human roles and relationships into a coherent pattern of discipleship.

I am convinced that this kind of obedient response to the gospel must be undergirded by a high regard for the integrity and uniqueness of the biblical message. There are signs that some kind of consensus on this point is emerging out of the theological shambles of the past decade or so. If so, we may soon experience new and more profound ecumenical alignments than those of the past. Such developments may present many of us with a healthy challenge to reconcile our past loyalties with "things present" and "things to come."