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The Cost of Discipleship – 5: The Narrow Road


This is the fifth 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

Curious as to what Bonhoeffer’s take on judging others would be, I somewhat anxiously began reading his insights on Matthew 7. As I re-read the section titled, “The Disciple and the Unbelievers,” I was somewhat jarred by the words, “So disciples will always encounter other people only as those whose sins are forgiven and who from now on live solely from God’s love.” How is this realistic? Where do we make room for the necessary assessment that lets us know who’s safe, who’s right, who’s good? Well, in typical Bonhoeffer fashion, the surrounding discussion provides us with ample meat, adequate challenge, and an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Set within the framework of a disciple’s interactions with those who don’t believe, we could immediately argue that these words don’t apply to fellow believers. But instead of heading in that direction, let’s see how Bonhoeffer defines his terms. “When we judge,” says Bonhoeffer, “we encounter other people from the distance of observation and reflection. But love does not allot time and space to do that” (p. 170). Here we see Bonhoeffer set up a contrast between our judging and our love. He describes judging as something that only belongs to Jesus Christ and something Christ’s disciples cannot do even though they aspire to have the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5). For disciples, “Judging is the forbidden evaluation of other persons. It corrodes simple love. Love does not prohibit my having my own thoughts about others or my perceiving of their sin, but both thoughts and perceptions are liberated from evaluating them. They thereby become only an occasion for that forgiveness and unconditional love Jesus gives me” (p. 171). This isn’t a passive permissive stance which assumes that understanding everything means forgiving or pardoning everything. It’s easy for that to become our conclusion or our fear. Instead, Bonhoeffer helps us see that our focus should not be on being a standard but on extending the grace that God has extended to us.

This treatment of judging relies heavily on its placement in Scripture. As Bonhoeffer points out, the focus of the preceding chapters from the Sermon on the Mount on the disciplines of any follower of Christ is necessary and far from coincidental. There’s something essential about having surrendered who we are in order to have more fruitful relationships with others, particularly those who live differently from us or in a way we would describe as wrong.

In the next section, “The Great Separation,” Bonhoeffer moves the discussion of judging to that of the proximity between the faith community and the community of those who don’t hear Jesus’ call. This set of verses in Matthew 7:13-23 does not end the discussion on judging but provides more context, in a way reminding us of what was laid out in Matthew 5 and 6 and providing more clarity—the way is narrow. This certainly pertains not just to judging versus loving but to all aspects of discipleship. Yet, once again, placement helps us understand these concepts even more fully. If our gut reaction is to balk at being told not to judge, these verses remind us that the call of a disciple is high.

It is so high that it, the very nature of discipleship, creates separation between disciples and what we term “the world.” That’s not to say that disciples create separation. The separation is a result of Jesus’ call. Yet even though there is a discipleship community—a small group of people who have each said “yes” to the call, it is not immune to problems, which is why Jesus brings up the issue of false prophets.

Bonhoeffer speaks of this as something the community of disciples could then choose to worry about and certainly it would be hard for them not to “look into the heart of anyone else” (p. 186) which is what judging is and which is something only God is capable of. We may have been tempted to see judging as something we’re allowed to do within the community of faith but Bonhoeffer now helps us counter that conclusion. Indeed, even in this separated space, we aren’t given the option to judge. We are, however, invited to wait for and note the fruits of those who claim to believe. “That relieves [disciples] of all curious scrutinizing of other people, but it demands truthfulness and determination to recognize the decision God is making” (p.187).

Another aspect of separation found in these verses is between the confessor and the doer, the one who says, “Lord, Lord” and the one who actually does the will of God. Both claim to be disciples but Jesus knows who is giving lip service and who really believes in him. One day, Jesus will distinguish between them by either saying, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23) or “Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt 25:21). To be known by Christ is the ultimate mark of discipleship and yet it’s not a mark we should look for in each other but a mark only Christ can clearly see. Bonhoeffer’s treatment of judgment and discipleship as a whole is grounded in the reality that the only one who can see clearly is Christ. Therefore, anyone who is truly Christ’s disciple will leave the seeing to Christ and fully surrender to Christ‘s call, a life of costly obedience.

Bonhoeffer ends where the Sermon on the Mount ends, with a poignant commentary on obedience that harkens back to the beginning of both this book and Jesus’s sermon. To hear all this and do nothing is not discipleship. “Jesus has spoken; the word is his; our part is to obey” (p. 191). Bonhoeffer doesn’t assume a blind acquiescence to the will of God. Rather, he points out our inaction, the kind caused by spending time questioning and interpreting rather than doing. Discipleship is obedience.

I’ll end with two of the questions this section of the book has raised in my mind regarding our lives as Christians, and particularly as Adventists. How is our desire to be separate from others (“others” being anyone who doesn’t do things the way we do them) actually driving us further away from the obedience Jesus requires of his disciples? Are we willing to focus not on what sets us apart but on the One who has called us and the doing of his will even if that makes us less secure in our religious/faith labels and the traditions we’re accustomed to?


Michaela Lawrence Jeffery is chaplain of Advent House at the University of Tennessee and director of Adventist Christian Fellowship in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. 

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