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Words Matter: How Does "The Way of Jesus" Differ From "Following Jesus"?

Why has following in “the way of Jesus” become more a popular descriptor of Christian discipleship than simply “following Jesus?”

Have you noticed? “The way of Jesus” has taken the place of “following Jesus” in the vernacular of Christian leaders these days. How did this happen and why?

I’ve heard it used by people on all sides of the theological spectrum. I think it does something positive in correcting Christians’ tendency to turn Christian life into personal piety (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It refocuses discipleship away from merely learning, assenting to certain truths and a personal devotional life, to actually living a certain “way,” a more rigorous life of engaging the ethical demands of life under Christ’s reign. This resonates with millenials and Anabaptist types like myself. But what does it actually mean?

I’ve noticed, for instance, social activist types using this language. These people are strong on resisting injustices in the world as a part of Christ’s Kingdom. They also tend to de-emphasize the personal piety aspects of relationship with God through Jesus. For them, “the way of Jesus” means standing up for the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed in demonstrative ways. I’ve also noticed more local activists using this language to encourage modeling the way Jesus Himself did these kind of things, including being present with the poor. Again, the personal piety thing is de-emphasized, if not totally ignored. Mark Scandrette wrote a book with “the way of Jesus” in the title. In his work, there is a balanced mix of all of the above plus some personal practices. I’ve even noticed more traditional evangelical types, even megachurches, using the language of the “way of Jesus” in terms of their discipleship practices (some of these churches are under the influence of Mike Breen). All of this points out how amorphous the words “way of Jesus” have become. One might observe all this and conclude that Christian churches are reacting against the traditional language of discipleship (like “following Jesus”) because of its negative associations with your standard American evangelicalism (which has decidedly fallen out of favor in mainstream culture).

Nonetheless, the verbage “way of Jesus” does some good things. It plays on the idea that we need to focus on following Jesus with our lives, not merely receiving a transactional gift by way of the atonement that offers us forgiveness and pardon from the punishment of hell. It plays on the Anabaptist emphasis that Jesus challenges us to live a certain “way,” not merely assent to a creedal statement about His ontology that makes possible an atonement. It plays on the history that the original Christian gatherings in Acts were called “the Way.” It is meant, I believe, to resist the abstracting of Jesus out of His impact of the way we live daily life.

But good ideas, when they get used too much, can become extracted out of daily life and in essence become a signifier ( a word ‘container’) which we can then fill with any meaning we so choose. So suddenly, in almost unquestioned form, the “way of Jesus” becomes equated with a host of social injustice endeavors in which it is not entirely clear how this has anything to do with Jesus, His reign, His person or His work. Likewise, the new lingo can be used to upgrade (make more relevant) the old discipleship practices that in essence continue to train Christians to make Christian faith private and detached from what God is doing in the world for His mission. Ironically then, “the way of Jesus” becomes an empty signifier into which we can import just about any behavior we might deem part of our own agenda (I learned all this from the political theorist Zizek et. al.). Churches/social organizations can then use it as a defining cause (or object) to rally people around something and say we’re different than what you’ve heard before (especially those evangelicals who don’t care about the poor). Ironically, “the way of Jesus” (a term meant to emphasis practical, everyday Christian life) becomes extracted (and abstracted) from everyday real life with Jesus as Lord in the real world. It becomes an ideological object with all its attendant consequences. It works against an actual practice of a way of life together under His Lordship as manifested by the Holy Spirit alive and at work in a community.

At the #OnceFutureMission Conference (which used “the way of Jesus” in its title) a few weeks ago, Cherith Fee Nordling said something I’ve been thinking for a while now. She said, “As we pursue the way of Jesus, let us not forget Jesus.” It was a statement that gets at my concerns in this post. Has “the way of Jesus” become a moniker that has ideological power but enables us to escape what it actually means to live as a people together submitting to and living out of Christ’s Lordship over us? In lieu of the living Jesus who reigns, we now have the “way of Jesus”?

What do you think? Am I on to something? Has “the way of Jesus” become an empty signifier? Is it merely a linguistic device to disassociate us from evangelicals? Has it now become a phrase that is more ideological and less helpful in forming groups into His reign for the Mission of God in the world?  

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.