Why has following in “the way of Jesus” become a more popular descriptor of Christian discipleship than “following Jesus?”
How did this happen and why?

I’ve heard the phrase “the way of Jesus” 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 alone.

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 millennials and Anabaptist types like me, 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 kinds of things, including being present with the poor.

Again, the personal piety thing is de-emphasized, if not totally ignored.

I’ve even noticed more traditional evangelical types, even megachurches, using the language of the “way of Jesus” in terms of their discipleship practices. 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 phrase, “way of Jesus,” does some good things.

First, 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.

Second, it connects with 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.

Third, it plays on the history that the original Christian gatherings in Acts were called “the Way” (see Acts 22:4). 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 justice 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.

Churches and 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 are portrayed as lacking concern for the poor.

Ironically, “the way of Jesus” – a term meant to emphasize 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.

Cherith Fee Nordling, associate professor of theology at Northern Seminary, said something at a recent conference on missions that I’ve been thinking for a while now.

“As we pursue the way of Jesus, let us not forget Jesus,” she urged.

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, do we now have the “way of Jesus”?

Has “the way of Jesus” become an empty signifier? Is it merely a linguistic device to disassociate ourselves 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?

David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.

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