December 1, 2020

Dissident Discipleship: A Book Overview

Recently I read the book Dissident Discipleship by David Augsburger. He wrote it in 2006, but I think his topic is evergreen: What makes someone a true disciple of Jesus? Augsburger tells it from an Anabaptist perspective.

Once we give assent to Christ’s lordship, recognize the necessity for and effectiveness of his shed blood to atone for our sin and trust him to reconcile us to the Father, what happens next? Do we stop and rest forever in the comfortable thought of our salvation … or do we lace up our sandals and spend our remaining time on earth following the Rabbi into the unknown … the all too often inconvenient and frightening unknown?

Augsburger writes with the weight of a Ph.D. and a whole career of thought behind the theology he develops in the pages of his book. I write with many fewer words, a much shallower background on the subject and an admitted defensiveness in a couple of instances. Nevertheless, following is an overview as well as some personal response and reaction.

True discipleship, according to Augsburger, consists first of practicing radical attachment. He describes it as not just believing in Jesus, but “believing Jesus and believing what Jesus believed.” Agreeing with German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, he contends that radical attachment is a dangerous prospect. Moltmann writes, “It does not promise the confirmation of one’s own conceptions, hopes and good intentions.” Amen. (I say this with a degree of confusion that comes from being in the process of assessing and abandoning a few long held ideas and acquiring new ones. The transition is painful. At what point does it stop feeling that way … or do I just need to get over my need to always feel unconflicted?) Radical attachment puts us at odds with our own expectations of what is good and right. We think it shouldn’t, but it does. We use internal peace … or comfort … as the gauge to determine adherence to Christ. Ironically, it seems that holding onto the ideas and ways that bring us peace often keep us from following Christ. Witness the rich young ruler. Abandoning all and risking the familiar and comfortable to run after Jesus brings us into true fellowship, but the resulting heart pounding and inner turmoil is too much to bear for many would-be disciples.

Augsburger further quotes Moltmann, “the religion of the cross … scandalizes; and most of all it scandalizes one’s co-religionists.” Amen, again. (I say this with much trepidation. I have a burning need for approval. Could I ever be okay with being shunned in order to follow Christ?) Discipleship puts us at odds with others. Again, we think it shouldn’t, but it does. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). What’s evidence for some is not for others. We think discipleship looks a certain way, but sometimes it’s difficult to recognize discipleship as discipleship. It may just look controversial or dangerous or foolish because it gets the disciple a bad reputation … or persecuted … or killed. Whatever it is, discipleship is often not what we always thought. And it is often and especially not comfortable.

Augsburger’s opening chapter further defines authentic spirituality as tripolar – with the three poles being self, God and others. Monopolar spirituality is primarily self-discovery and the examination of our inner cries for meaning, but shared human experience can also lead to a moral sensitivity that informs us how to relate to one another appropriately. “Bipolar spirituality links the depths of personal discovery” of individuals with “open receptivity toward the transcendent – toward God.” That receptivity to God becomes a shared experience around which worshipping communities are formed. Tripolar spirituality is man in relationship with God embracing his neighbor and drawing him into the communion that God has initiated through Jesus Christ.

Many would agree with this basic definition whether Roman Catholic or any form of Protestant, but depending on our faith traditions, our individual personalities or even our seasons of life we might attend to those poles with varying degrees of intensity. I don’t disagree with Augsburger’s definitions. His development of thought on community seems biblical and even prophetic. By that I mean, he understands the times, knows what is lacking and what Scripture applies to the Church’s most current and glaring failings. His prescriptions closely mirror those of Leonard Sweet writing in So Beautiful. Augsburger just comes across as more dogmatic and maybe a tad bit condemning of non-Anabaptist traditions.

Another element of discipleship—that of tenacious serenity—is essentially ascent to God’s will. Augsburger writes, “In serenity one can let go, let be, let come what may, and ultimately, let God. These four dimensions of freedom for the soul, which I shall call let-go-ness, let-be-ness, let-come-ness, let-Thy-will-be-done-ness, are successive acts of relinquishment and moments of discovery. In these discoveries, the soul makes radical shifts from controlling and demanding to releasing the clenched fist and welcoming serenity.”

Yes, this is what I long for, but for the anxious and self-conscious it is oh, so difficult. I grew up looking for safety and striving to be in control. Old habits die very hard. My own mother said to me the other day, “You make everything so complicated.” Yes, I do. Anyone else out there compulsively unable to leave things as they are?

Also on Augsburger’s list is the practice of habitual humility, the root of which is humor. “Humor will not keep us from all sin, but it is a significant deterrent. When we laugh at ourselves, the laughter is a kind of reverence, a kind of self-deprecation and truth appreciation that expresses acceptance and wonder. In practice, it is a type of confession, a means of contrition; indeed, an act of repentance.” Agreed.

I frequently drive my high school daughter and a few of her teammates to or from color guard practice. These girls practice so many hours that they are like family. They have their moments of contention, but something I always notice is their ease and humor. They are loud and funny. It comes from the intimacy of shared meals, long hours, close quarters, tending one another’s injuries, consoling each other and even fighting. All of it becomes fodder for humor and the humor is a sign that they have forgiven each other over and over for their imperfections.

One of the great tragedies within the Church is that we are very unfunny and we have lots of walls. By and large, we don’t live in close enough community to reach the level of authenticity that produces humor. We all take ourselves so seriously. A few nights ago, a lady from my church told me a story … and I probably shouldn’t tell it here. Suffice it to say, a serious illness produced an undignified situation for her that was no doubt mortifying, but she decided to let it be hilarious instead. And it was side-splittingly hilarious. As I laughed with tears streaming down my face I was struck by a sense of fellowship with her that I had never felt before. She let her walls down and brought me into the truth of her life. She did it with humor that sprang from humility. It was a moment that could not have happened had she hidden behind a façade of decorum and perfection. Of all Augsburger’s points, I find humor perhaps the most compelling.

Two other evidences of discipleship Augsburger mentions are concrete service and authentic witness. To my way of thinking, they are pretty self-explanatory and don’t require much discussion. We know what they are. We probably even know how to do them. Achieving them becomes a matter of overcoming fear, laziness or selfishness. We may have different ideas on how to serve and witness, but the truth is that the variety of needs that people have, in combination with the variety of personalities fulfilling them, will create innumerable manifestations of both. We don’t have to follow Plan A or Plan B. We can take joy in an explosion of creativity that happens when the Spirit of God moves in our individual personalities.

Where I really struggle with Augsburger’s prescription for discipleship is what he calls the practice of stubborn loyalty (a radical commitment to community) … and also the practice of resolute nonviolence. For a shy introvert who grew up with family and friends in military service and law enforcement and for whom an early education in firearms and the duty of protecting one’s people came with learning to take out the trash, these thoughts defy my culture and initially alarm me.

Let’s tackle stubborn loyalty first. Augsburger says, “Tripolar spirituality realizes that the love of God and love of neighbor become one when united in shared life together.” This makes sense when we consider that Christ said when we care for the poor, feed the hungry and visit the prisoner, it’s as if we were doing all these things for him. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).

Overall, I think Augsburger’s ideas on community are thought provoking and insightfully convey its beauty and necessity. However, he makes only a halfhearted concession to the value or need for solitude. Maybe it’s just my own hunger for solitude that drives my thinking. Introverts get their energy from alone time. Not that we don’t want to be with people or in community, but power goes out of us in those settings. We need refueling. Mine gets used up primarily in working and spending myself on a big family of ailing elders, rambunctious grandchildren, adult and teen children and other of my people who live in close proximity. Life without any incoming boundaries, as Augsburger seems to advocate, would flatten me.

Augsburger also takes somewhat of a shot at St. Augustine, referring to him as the father of bipolar spirituality. Maybe he thought Augustine’s tendency toward study and articulating theology instead of hosting small groups in his home was off-kilter. Maybe I’m just snippier about this because I would be uncomfortable living a completely communal and accessible life. Honestly, it could well be. I’m not on any high horse here. My shyness and desire for a generous amount of solitude could spring from selfishness or fear and might be traits in me that need to die.

On the other hand, I have been wondering if Jesus’ frequent getaways to be with the Father would have upset someone like Augsburger who seems to advocate that any human interruption should be allowed at any time. Does he think that those who believe they are called to a life of prayer and contemplation are not true disciples? I have wondered how he and Thomas Merton might duke things out on this subject. Merton believed that anyone who will not respect someone’s solitude is, in essence, trying to rule him … to be his God. I have also wondered what I would do without the benefit of the writings of Merton and others who, because of their discipline of solitude could minister the word of God so effectively.

Last, but not least is the discipline of resolute non-violence. I struggled with this as I read Augsburger’s writing on the subject. Not that I’m a violent person by any means. Most people who know me well would characterize me as gentle, but there are a couple of reasons I was troubled. First, he advocates a “persistent, unrelenting, unqualified love of enemy” because Jesus did. It’s true. We are to love our enemy. But he goes on to quote David Duke who says, “ … Christians have the responsibility of preserving all life, especially the enemy’s.” Why especially the enemy? Does that mean if we encountered a child predator in action, we prefer the predator to the child? A story like that just made headlines. I think in that situation a little violence could have been in order to rescue said child. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about vigilante justice, just the minimum necessary force to rescue a victim. If throwing the guy off the child would work, then fine. If something more became necessary, then that is fine too … but I would not especially preserve predator over prey.

Ditto for war, a very complicated and controversial subject, I know. In fact, it’s a whole other subject and I’ve already exceeded word count, but appeasing aggressors rarely brings peace. It invites more aggression. How is it moral for any government to say to an enemy, “Come on in boys. Feel free to rape and pillage and murder. We won’t fight back because we are obligated to especially preserve your lives?”

Furthermore, Augsburger quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer and uses him as a prime example of a dissident disciple. I happen to agree that he was, but to say that Bonhoeffer was radically non-violent would be in error since he was arrested and ultimately executed because he was helping to plot Hitler’s assassination. I admire Bonhoeffer’s writings and believe he was a man willing to die in order to follow Christ, but I don’t think Augsburger can have this both ways.

As I said, discipleship is often uncomfortable so even if I don’t agree one hundred percent I want to give Augsburger’s writings real consideration – especially over what makes me squirm. I’ve written previously about the importance of not allowing Christianity to become cultural. I want to be willing to have my ingrained defaults changed or eradicated if Christ says, “Come, follow me this way.” This book has provoked prayerful examination of whether I believe Christ and believe what he believes. It’s more than the average fluff. It is a worthy piece of writing on what it means to be a disciple.




  1. I’m sure people are getting tired of hearing Luther’s opinion on things, but again, Luther nailed it when it comes to Christian self defense:

    If now one asks whether a Christian’s to go to law, or defend himself, etc., then answer simply: No. For a Christian is such a person who has nothing to do with such worldly affairs and law, and belongs to such a kingdom or government in which the only current rule is, as we pray: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Here there should be nothing but mutual love and service, even towards those who do not love us, but are hostile to us, and do us harm and injury, etc. Therefore he says to such that they shall not resist evil, and even not seek revenge, but that they should turn the other cheek to him who strikes them, etc.

    And then there is another question, whether a Christian may be a man in a secular position and conduct the office and work of a ruler or judge, in such a way that the two persons or two kinds of office are joined in one man, and he thus be a Christian and a prince, judge, lord, servant, maid, which are merely worldly persons, for they belong to the sphere of the world. To this we answer: Yes. For God has Himself ordained and appointed this worldly sphere and these distinctions, and has besides confirmed and praised them by his word. …

    See, we are now speaking of a Christian in relation, not of him as a Christian, but as bound in this life to another person, whom he has under or over him, or also alongside of him, as lord, lady, wife, child, neighbor, etc., when one is bound to defend, shield and protect another, if he can.

    Therefore it would not be right to teach here to turn the other cheek and to throw away the cloak after the coat. For that would be just playing the fool, as was said of a cranky saint, who allowed the lice to nibble at him, and would not kill any of them on account of this text, asserting that one must suffer and not resist evil.


    Self-defense out of love to protect those for whom one has responsibility or duty in one’s vocation, is permitted. Self-defense to protect oneself from harm is not.

    • Thank you for sharing this. This particular issue is one that I have struggled with and it it helpful to read this position. It seems the that whether the use of violence is right or wrong is like so much else in the Christian life and it depends on the heart/motivations.

  2. An introvert who is basically anxious, wanting to control everything, looking for safety, who needs their alone time?

    Lisa, I think we may be twins separated at birth! My struggles exactly!

    I sense that Augsburger captured the underpinnings of his faith and theology quite well….but then went on to extrapolate what the Lord was calling HIM to do with what is good for each of us to do. The tri-polar faith and “letting go” are part of the Christian walk. BUT, the concepts of community and total non-violence are a personal calling to Augsburger that do NOT apply to all.

    I cannot remember which female saint spoke of God’s “message in the common room” meant for all, and His “bedroom Voice” where we hear the instructions meant for us and us alone. The author takes his “bedroom” instuctions and moves them into the common room, which is not where they belong.

    • Kindred spirit … I like this… God’s bedroom Voice. Lewis spoke similarly of the Great Hall where the entire Church could feast around central truths. Off the Great Hall were little rooms where those of like mind (denominations) would go to fellowship in agreement over things less central. The thing is, once we get in our little room we often like to think of it as the Great Hall. Hence, the many disagreements in the Church.

  3. Very nice. I just finished reading Myron Augsburger (i guess they are related – can’t help playing the Mennonite game) ‘Peace Maker’ it is a great book about Peace Making as Evangelism.
    Some of your worries about community are real. We all need Community – The Church should be Community ( sadly, today it often is not), but we also need Solitude.
    Solitude energizes community & community energizes solitude. Both can connect us to God.
    as far as Augsburger taking “a shot at St. Augustine”. Anabaptists can’t help it. We see him as the Theologian behind “Constantinian shift” – taking a Community of Faith & making them into a State Church Empire.
    As far as Non-Violence is concerned. Non-violence can transform this world towards good & freedom (see middle-east, India, civil-rights in America). War brings disruption, evil, & horror – but weirdly enough Humanity can usually find a way to justify it. Your examples for using violence can be delt w/ non-violently, if we are willing to risk lives, instead of killing. Thanks for your honest review.

    • briank: I am very interested in the “Mennonite game” and trying to learn more about it. But, could you give some examples of how viiolence was dealt with non-violently in a street crime situation and/or the kind of situations that CM is referring to in a predator victim event? Before becoming a hospital chaplain, I was a chaplain in our cities criminal justice system, my wife is still working in the system as an adult probation officer and member of our cities FOP. Our city is ranked in the top ten of the most violent cities in America and I have never heard of any example where non-violence changed the victims status in a criminal act. I know that you are referring to examples that are more international in scope but I’m just wondering how the Mennonite perspective applies to my daily life in the city where I live.

      • “the Mennonite game” is trying to find out who is related to who in the Mennonite circles.
        as far as how to deal with random acts of violence? I am not an expert, but the non-violent way is NOT the safest way. Neither is tithing of giving away your wealth to charity. Neither is going to foreign, dangerous lands to share the gospel.
        carrying a firearm is powerful. It can give you the power to judge, to execute, to defend, to sin. I do not live in fear. I know many gun-owners (actually most gun-owners I know) who seem to live in constant fear. They have the weapon & they spend most of their time in fear. They have the ultimate power to keep strangers away & they begin to trust it.
        If I would run into a situation where some child was being molested or hurt everyone (Pacifists included) should get involved & risk their lives to stop the asault. If it requires some violence in restraining someone to keep them from sinning & damaging others that is the best option. It would benefit the sinner & the offended.
        Hope I am making some sense in as short a space as possible. Also a community working together, like Guardian Angels, Neighborhood Watch, or just nosie neighbors helps to protect each other. Thanks.

  4. “Merton believed that anyone who will not respect someone’s solitude is, in essence, trying to rule him … to be his God.”

    That’s interesting, Lisa. I tend to need a lot of solitude, but my hubby ALWAYS wants to be talking at me! It must be God’s way of teaching me patience. 😉

  5. I never understood why so many pacifists are enamored with Bonhoeffer. Clearly any man who was willing to pull the trigger if need be, is quite the opposite of a pacifist.

    • check out:

      “Bonhoeffer was labeled by the Nazi Gestapo from 1933 on as “a pacifist and enemy of the state.” He avoided military service because he could not allow himself to take human life, especially as an agent of the Nazis. Through family connections, he managed to evade military induction by working for a military intelligence agency—but his work there did not involve anything that directly supported the war effort and in fact served as a cover for him to pursue ecumenical contacts in western Europe. The purpose of these secret contacts was to make possible postwar church relationships.

      Bonhoeffer was part of a collection of about 100 Nazi resisters in this intelligence agency, and a handful of those were directly involved in the assassination plot. But there is no evidence that Bonhoeffer himself was. After the conspiracy was discovered, thousands were arrested, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the plot. At Bonhoeffer’s trial, he was convicted of draft evasion (which itself would have been a capital offense). That is, the Nazis themselves never claimed Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot.”

      He may or may not have been willing “to pull the trigger” on Hitler. Many Pacifist would struggle with this ethical question. Noone is saying pacifism is easy it is very hard & we ALL fall short.

    • “Clearly any man who was willing to pull the trigger if need be, is quite the opposite of a pacifist.”

      I have to disagree with you on this. I have read some about Bonhoeffer, but not extensively so I don’t know if Bonhoeffer considered himself a pacifist or not. I do know that he tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal to the church in Germany regarding the antics, affects, and possible outcome of Hitler’s regime on society. His own father couldn’t be convinced. I suppose that any of us might let ourselves be deceived if we are promised to be included in the greatest, most perfect regime that will ever be. Germany was going to rule the world, according to Hitler, and many just didn’t want to miss that boat – no matter what the cost to others.

      I believe you could be a pacifist, yet still be willing to pull the trigger on a diabolical human being that needed to be stopped. Certainly Jesus advocated a different way than war and violence. But he also advocated obeying the governing athorities unless they are asking you to sin. Maybe Bonhoeffer’s conscience, prompted by the Holy Spirit, just wouldn’t let him be a pacifist in regards to Hitler? Sin, in this case, might have been doing nothing while millions continued to die. And where was the Church of Germany in all this? I don’t think the act of killing another human being is as black or white as we sometimes make it out to be.

      BTW – what are your thoughts on God being a pacifist? God did not spare his own son on our behalf. He sent Jesus to the cross for the sake of the world. And Jesus went willingly. Didn’t Jesus go to this cross so that evil would not prevail and the enemy would now be his footstool? Bonhoeffer would not have put a sinless man, like Jesus, to death. He would have only stopped a wicked government when there was none, not even in the Church, to stand up to the wickedness. Is this the opposite of a pacifist?

      • When I think of pacifists I think of the 100% committed, such as the Amish and Seventh Day Adventists. IMHO If you are willing to pull the trigger for ANY reason, you are not really a pacifist, although you might abhor violence in principle.

        I was an Army Officer, like my father and husband, and have no issue with stopping evil should it be necessary. I do not handle my weapon without extreme gravity, and I pray I will never need to use it. BUT….I can envision occurances that would lead me to shoot. Like most of us ex-military and law enformancement folks, I will not draw a weapon unless I am willing to kill whoever I am pointing it at.

        Sorry to cause a kerfluffle, but there are very devout followers of Christ on both sides of this issue, and I totally respect those who have come to the opposite conclusion.

      • I have read Bonhoeffer, extensively. I’ve read nearly all his works, and a few biographies to boot. I see little justification to call him a pacifist. But by pacifist I assume that means someone who doesn’t believe in “redemptive violence”. I guess you could argue that Bonhoeffer was a pacifist based on the fact that he alluded to the potential killing of Hitler as a sin, a sin he was willing to commit. So he saw violence as evil yet necessary but seeing violence as a necessary evil would certainly disqualify you as a pacifist.

        Is God a pacifist? I hardly think so based on the Bible. The entire Old Testament argues that God uses and even orchestrates war. Also, seeing how its Advent, Christ himself could not be considered a pacifist since it is He who wages war against the kingdoms of this world on his return. The existence of Hell (no matter how eternal/temporary some people consider it) would also argue that God uses violence…even redemptively

  6. “For a shy introvert who grew up with family and friends in military service”–guess there’s more than one of us here.

    As an officer in the Marines, I came to that “radical attachement” to Jesus. Amazon has this nice “Look Inside” feature where you can read my story, here:

    The epigraph: “To believe the promise of Jesus…and…face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way.”–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  7. I like what you had to say about humor. It’s a forgotten art in a lot of church settings. I say art because that’s what it is. Done badly, it can be offensive and degrading. Done well, it can raise a broken spirit, edify and generally open folks up. In fact, some Buddists will employ a humorous attitude in lieu of novocain when getting root canals. They do this in order to ‘transcend dental medication’. O.K. sorry, that was a poor example.

  8. We may wrestle with various aspects of discipleship, but at least that’s the right topic. What else should preachers be preaching but Christ – and that we should be His disciples. Yet, is this what is being taught by and large in churches today?

    We must move beyond bemoaning the sad state of our churches and abandon them in zealous pursuit of the kingdom which our Lord died to bequeath us.

  9. Speaking of radical discipleship, what ever position one holds in a certain area that is a sacred cow for most evangelicals in America [who worry more about smoking and drinking a beer], here is one classic resource [Free], with which every Chrisian should be familiar if they wish to honestly assess the situation:
    C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War

  10. There is overwhelming evidence that the early church lived and died as pacifist. They did not take up the sword because the sword no longer had any power. It was this teaching that was “rediscovered” by the early Anabaptists. Conrad Grebel wrote: ” ….taking human life has ceased entirely, for we are no longer under the Old Covenant.”
    It is in Jesus death and resurrection that we claim the power and powerlessness of being a pacifist. Death – because the power of death has been broken in resurrection. Death where is thy sting? Where is thy victory? Resurrection – because it is a new Kingdom and as N.T. Wright write that when Paul talks about Jesus (the Messiah) being Lord he is also saying “Caesar is NOT.” Caesar and the might Roman military no longer command death. Death is dead and we no longer need to fear it. The new creation has begun – let’s live in that kingdom with Jesus as our king and see where that takes us.