True Discipleship and The 51st Synod

Bernard Spragg, flickr

He said what?!

By now, most of you would have heard about Archbishop Glenn Davies’ address at the 51st Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.  It has been quoted and misquoted on social media, the Sydney Morning Herald, and has even reached British shores where I am living, with an article in the Guardian from former Sydney pastor Joel Hollier.

As he has made clear, Archbishop Davies was not calling on those struggling with same-sex attraction to leave the church.  We all struggle with sin, which is why the grace and mercy of Christ is such a wonderful message to the world.  But there is a difference between struggling with sin, and declaring something not to be a sin.  One is the ordinary experience of every Christian throughout the ages.  The other is the action of an apostate and false teacher.  It was clear for all who read the speech that Glenn Davies was referring to Bishops who would deny the teaching of Christ by blessing same sex unions. 

There is a difference between struggling with sin, and declaring something not to be a sin.  One is the ordinary experience of every Christian throughout the ages.  The other is the action of an apostate and false teacher.

Nevertheless, all of this raises an important question:  who is in and who is out?  Can those who bless same-sex unions really call themselves Anglican, or even Christian, or should they leave?  What is the mark of a true disciple? 

The Test of True Discipleship

John 8:31 provides us with a clear test of true discipleship:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. 

From the beginning of John’s gospel, we are taught that the word of Christ is life-giving.  Christ himself is the eternal Word, through whom the world was created and in whom is life itself (John 1:1-4).  The time has now come when anyone who hears Christ’s word and believes has eternal life (John 5:24).  And the time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out to face judgment (John 5:28).  The words that Jesus has spoken that are full of the Spirit and life (John 6:63)—so Peter declares, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68)

The word of Christ is life-giving. Which is why Jesus insists that only those who remain or abide in his word are truly his disciples.  To abandon Christ’s word, is to abandon life itself.  And so here is the mark of true discipleship: if you don’t stick to Jesus’ teaching, you are not really his disciple. 

In his address, Archbishop Davies called on those Bishops who have rejected the teachings of Christ to leave the Anglican church.  Is this so outrageous?  In his article, Joel Hollier suggested that it wasn’t for the Archbishop to call the shots on who is in or out—that this privilege was reserved for someone far above the Archbishop’s pay-grade.  Leaving aside the whole notion of church discipline that Hollier seems to ignore (1 Cor 5:1-13), let’s turn to “someone far above the Archbishop’s pay-grade”.  Jesus is clear: if you abide in His word, you are truly His disciple.  You’re in.  But if you no longer stick to Jesus’ teaching, you’re not a real disciple.  You’re out. 

The Barriers to True Discipleship

The tragic irony of John 8 is that the new converts reject the very first teaching from Jesus.  They fall at the first hurdle.  And this is the same teaching that has been rejected down the generations ever since: that we are sinners and that Christ is Lord.

Jesus says:

If you abide in my word, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  (John 8:31)

These Jewish believers were deeply offended that Jesus would suggest they were slaves.  Their entire ethnic and religious narrative was framed by the story of their liberation—their exodus out of Egypt.  It would be like telling an African American today that he is still a slave.  Their freedom was their story.  But Jesus further stokes the fire,

Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)

Jesus’ logic is undeniable.  If you sin, sin must be your master.  It is the same logic Jesus uses later; if you do what the devil does, the devil is your Father.  These new converts were outraged.  And so here we see the first barrier to true discipleship: people don’t like to be told that they are sinful.   

The second barrier is like it.  If you want to reject Christ’s teachings, eventually you must reject Christ’s authority.  For if Christ is Lord, then His word is Law.  And so these false believers attack the authority of Christ.  They accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed and question how he could be greater than their father, Abraham. But again, Jesus stokes the fire:

Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am (John 8:58).

He’s not just greater than Abraham.  He is God!  Jesus claims absolute authority as their Lord and their God.  This was too much for these false believers, who pick up rocks to kill Jesus.  And so we see the second barrier to true discipleship:  people don’t want to submit to Christ as Lord.

This account in John 8 offers an important lesson for us today.  The two great teachings of Christ that most people will reject involve our sinfulness and Christ’s Lordship.  People don’t like to be told that they are sinners, and people don’t want Jesus to be Lord over their life.  Like the false converts back then, the narrative for our world today is that we are free.  Free to be me!  To say that I am a slave to sin or that Christ is Lord is a denial of my freedom and an attack on my choices. 

It should come as no surprise that these are the two very teachings that are under attack today in the church.  Those who would bless same-sex unions are rejecting Christ’s teaching on sin.  And those who deny the authority of Christ’s words in the Bible are denying the Lordship of Christ over their lives.  Our sinfulness and Christ’s Lordship are always the most common barriers to true discipleship.  Again, Jesus is clear: if you don’t stick to my teaching, you cannot be my disciple.

The Promise of True Discipleship

This is not a popular thing to say today—look at what’s happening to Archbishop Davies.  And it wasn’t popular in Jesus’ day—look what happened to Him!  But people often misunderstand why true believers take a stand on Christ’s teaching.  It can seem a bit superior; a failure to be caring and welcoming. It comes across as a mean-spirited love for doctrine over people.

But this could not be further from the truth.  For the call to abide in Christ’s word comes with a promise:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  (John 8:31)

Why are we making such a big deal about all of this?  Why did Archbishop Davies ask those bishops who reject the teaching of Christ to leave the Anglican church?  Why are we Sydney Anglicans so hung up on bible truth? Because the truth will set you free.

No one likes to hear that they are sinful.  But accepting that truth is the first step towards freedom.  It is our self-denial that keeps us enslaved to sin and Satan and headed toward a path of certain destruction.   But as our eyes are opened and we acknowledge our sin, we cry out for mercy and find forgiveness through the death of Christ.  As the old adage goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

The narrative that I am “free to be me” is a lie.  It is not liberating to do whatever you want.  It is instead a complete surrender and wilful bondage to the sinful desires inside of us.

Similarly, obedience to Christ can feel restrictive and oppressive.  But it is in fact perfect freedom.  The narrative that I am “free to be me” is a lie.  It is not liberating to do whatever you want.  It is instead a complete surrender and wilful bondage to the sinful desires inside of us.  And sin is a cruel master.  It will consume you until it destroys you.  But as we turn to Christ and are saved, we begin to learn that true freedom is found in following Him.  We renounce the shameful ways in which we once lived and walk instead in the light. 

As we sing in that old hymn,

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

This is the promise of true discipleship: the truth will set you free. 

Those who would bless what is sinful are neither loving nor kind.  By rejecting the word of Christ, they seek to re-enslave their flock in sin.  But those who would guard the good deposit and proclaim the gospel hold out freedom for a world in bondage and decay.  That is what my Bishop is doing, and I joyfully stand with him and all the saints who abide in Christ’s word. 

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