Discipleship – 4: A Call for Adventist Piety


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This is the fourth post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that some of the core elements of discipleship can be found in the Sermon on the Mount. Major themes he focuses on include the notion of hidden righteousness (p. 146-152), the hiddenness of prayer (152-158), the hiddenness of practicing piety (158-161), concluding with the simplicity of a carefree life (161-168).

In a nutshell, Bonhoeffer argues that the believer lives within paradox between the ordinary and extraordinary. The community of disciples rises above the world; this is extraordinary. Yet their behavior, at the same time, is rather mundane (“everyday, regular, unobtrusive”). “The call to the extraordinary is the great, inevitable danger of discipleship,” he articulates. Thus Jesus “calls us to reflection” (148). The crux of the danger has to do with making the call a goal in itself. This should never happen so that “we do not stray into reflection about our extraordinariness” (149). What is remarkable, according to Bonhoeffer, is that the true disciple views the extraordinary as the normal act of obedience. The paradox is finally resolved in the cross of Christ. “The only required reflection for disciples is to be completely oblivious, completely unreflective in obedience, in discipleship, in love” (150). Thus a disciple does not recognize the hiddenness of their lives, and consequently God has the responsibility to make things visible, not ourselves within the context of “self-forgetting love.”

After explaining the paradox between what is ordinary/hidden versus what is extraordinary/visible, Bonhoeffer applies this to prayer and piety. All prayer must be mediated through Christ. “It is not the formulation, not the number of words, but faith which reaches God’s fatherly heart that has known us so long” (153). Selfish prayer is a danger to discipleship; one is not safe from oneself. “The right and proper attitude of a human being before God is to entreat God with outstretched hands, knowing that God has the heart of a loving parent. . . . The only thing that matters is knowing that your Father knows what you need” (154-55).

Another demonstration of this concerns piety. Disciples must be disciplined. “The practice of austerity,” noted Bonhoeffer, “makes me feel the estrangement of my Christian life from the world” (158). “This takes place in daily and extraordinary practice of discipline” forcing “the flesh” to learn “that it has no rights of its own” (159). The danger with this is that some disciples lose sight of their joy and freedom. Disciples will not be afraid to practice Christian “spiritual exercises,” most notably fasting, study of Scripture, and prayer. “Asceticism is a self-chosen suffering.” It leads to “better ministry and deeper humility on the basis of Christ’s suffering” (160).

Bonhoeffer’s call to piety is the call for Seventh-day Adventists to develop a more intentional theology of Adventist piety. What does Adventist piety consist of? What should it look like? I fear that discussions against “spiritual formation” over the last decade have focused on such fringe and obscure movements within Christianity that it can be extremely difficult for some Adventists to even practice some of the most basic Christian disciplines or forms of piety. Make no mistake, Bonhoeffer was no mystic. But, within some circles of Adventism, some have become so paranoid with what they are against that they forget what they should be doing in their own personal walk with Jesus Christ. All Adventists would do well to carefully reflect on this chapter by Bonhoeffer simply to be reminded about the discipline of discipleship. I believe that Adventist theologians need to and must proactively develop a theology of Adventist spirituality for the future. I have witnessed a need for this in various churches where I have met church members who are so afraid of “spiritual formation” that they forget to pray together at all!

Bonhoeffer warns us about the dangers of discipleship and, within Adventism, we have our own version of taking pride in the extraordinary, or conversely, the danger of eclipsing the visible for the invisible. I observed such a danger one day from a church member who believed it was his duty to supervise church potlucks. This particular vegetarian was of the mean variety (as a vegetarian, I certainly recognize there are many more of the loving kind). One day I decided to challenge this particular individual with the fact that Jesus ate fish. “Jesus didn’t have all the truth,” he responded as he glared at me. “He did not have the Spirit of Prophecy [Ellen White’s writings].” If Jesus had studied Ellen White’s writings, evidently, he would have been a vegetarian. For this professed disciple, being extraordinary was more important than being a disciple. Ellen G. White would not doubt have rebuked such a person if she were alive, and in fact, did rebuke such fanatics during her lifetime. For her part, she prioritized both an Adventist theology and piety that emphasized a proper and healthy tension between what is visible versus the invisible, one rooted and grounded in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. For this reason, some of her key works, such as The Desire of the Ages (1898), focused much on Christ’s sufferings.

In conclusion, the true disciple should see only Christ and follow Christ in everything! Anything that keeps you from loving God above all things is idolatry. “Communion with Jesus and obedience to his commandment come first; then everything else follows” (167). Seventh-day Adventists should be, and must be, as they actively proclaim the “everlasting gospel” to the world, the most “loving and lovable Christians” (Ministry of Healing, pg. 470). Such a disciple can move forward in confidence.

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., is assistant professor of historical/theological studies at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. He blogs at www.adventisthistory.org.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6161