The Church’s Call to “thermostat” Discipleship

Thoughts on Martin Luther King’s call to what we ought to view as “normal” Christian discipleship…


“In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the Church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the Church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is   consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the Church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

-excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963

Jesus’s call to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14) is not a mere invitation to join a social club called “church”. Jesus’s call is a call to actual discipleship in a body of self-giving and grace-dependence, a spiritual union with one another and with the Holy Trinity, initiated by the Father’s will, accomplished through the cross and resurrection of the Son, and sealed by the Spirit of God himself. This is what the normative Christian life is to be. There’s nothing radical about it.

This call to apprentice with Jesus, is a call to personal and communal transformation, a call to suffering and dying to self, and a call to hope in and live for a Messiah who brings renewal to the world through his simultaneous judgment for sin, and grace for broken, desperate, and contrite sinners.

And, it is through this gathered body of apprenticing sinners-renewed-by-Jesus’s-grace-alone that we see the advance of the Kingdom of God breaking in to challenge and transform the distorted mores and practices of what the Apostle Peter calls “this corrupt generation,” (Acts 2:40). This was true for Christians in the 1st Century advancing the gospel under Jewish and Roman opposition; for those in the 2nd-4th Century facing Roman persecution, the corruptions of Roman decadence, and the threat from heretical movements; for Christians in the era of the Reformation facing the threat of violent suppression of the gospel through the Roman Catholic establishment; for Christians in the era of the First Great Awakening facing the messianic allure of revolutionary political movements, the decadence of that era, and the ever-present gravitational pull of the slave trade on all aspects of society. And, this certainly remains the case for Christians today in a culture that has become habituated to sin, where the “empire of personal desire” is the primary ruler and driving force in the lives of most of us, and where the Church is once again caught in the tension of functioning as either a “thermometer” or a “thermostat” for our culture.

This call to discipleship under Jesus is beyond the politics of the Left or the Right. The call to Christ supercedes political dispositions, cultural affiliations, and racial identifications. The call to discipleship with Jesus is a call to Jesus himself as he comes to us through the gospel and received by faith as the incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended Son of God himself. This is a call to Jesus’s Body itself as instituted through the gift of the Holy Spirit built on the Word of God given to the apostles and prophets. This call to discipleship with Jesus, by the Spirit, through the Church centered on the gospel, for the glory of God– this is the only way in which the Church can actually be who she was instituted to be, and the way in which God’s Kingdom renewal might once again spill over through the lives of ordinary disciples and into all the spheres of culture, bringing about both social transformation and personal conversion to Christ.

The impact of the gospel through the preaching of grace, affirmed in the sacraments, and witnessed through disciples’ own lifestyles of humble faith and repentance is just the sort of influence our world is desperate for, that the Church was instituted to effect, and the way in which the Church regains her faithfulness with the power Jesus has delegated to her.  This is the Church as “thermostat”, the Church normal, the Church living a lifestyle of repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.