Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden

Greg Ogden is a well-known pastor, ministry leader, seminary professor, author, and seminar leader. In my Doctor of Ministry program, we read one of Greg Ogden’s books, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God. [1] Unfinished Business focuses on lay empowerment. It was very well received by the group. Over the years, Unfinished Business made it into a few sermons, became foundational for our small group and spiritual gifts ministries, and was often reflected upon. In my experience, the longer I was in ministry, the more life was dominated by the duties of ministry and the less time I spent empowering individual laypersons.

Despite our failures, Kathy and I were always in one or more small discipleship groups during our years leading congregations. Eventually, I wrote a year-long study for our church members known as “Salt & Light.” More recently, I published Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking to hopefully convey what we learned over the years to a new generation. [2]

As part of revising Crisis of Discipleship, I recently read Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. [3]  In this book, Ogden champions a relational way of making disciples that emphasizes “Triads,” groups of three or four individuals, one of whom is a mentor, who embark upon a journey of discipleship together. Because discipleship is an inherently relational process, Ogden believes that fundamental transformation best occurs in small, transformational mentoring relationships. In developing his thesis, the examples of Jesus and Paul loom large in Ogden’s mind. I very much enjoyed this section of the book.

Part One: The Problem

Why Be Concerned?

Why should we pay attention to Ogden’s ideas? The answer is simple: All the evidence supports the conclusion that American churches are doing a poor job of discipleship. As Chuck Colson reportedly said, “American discipleship is 3000 miles wide and an inch deep.” Colson voiced this view at a time when the evangelical movement had succeeded in drawing a new generation into its churches. Today, we are experiencing the limitations of focusing on church growth, programs that attract people, and entertainment-centered worship. Nearly all Christian groups, including those with the name “Evangelical,” are stable or shrinking.

In Transforming Discipleship, Ogden sets out several indicators that American congregations are failing at discipleship:

  1. American Churches are not creating proactive disciples who independently reach out to others.
  2. American Christians are not taught and do not display a “Way of Life” different from the way of life secular people enjoy.
  3. American Christians too easily divide their personal and business lives from their faith, resulting in cultural conformity.
  4. American Christians often reflect the values of a materialistic American culture instead of the importance of Christ.
  5. American Christianity is excessively individualistic as opposed to communal. [4]

It is hard to argue with any of these conclusions.

American evangelicalism, the branch of Christianity most enthusiastic about the Great Commission, often reduces the Great Commission to “salvation” by “accepting Christ.” This divorces evangelism from the Biblical call to “make disciples who obey.” This diminished view of salvation and discipleship is without support in Scripture but has become a common form in many churches. Worse, in many congregations, “joining the church” has become the goal of evangelism, with discipleship relegated to voluntary participation in Sunday School.

American church leadership cannot escape responsibility for the situation. Church leaders like myself, who concentrate on worship, preaching, and maintaining the institutional structure, have not placed disciple-making at the center of their vocation. As Ogden puts it, “In spite of Jesus’ strategy of calling people from crowds and focusing on a few, we continue to rely upon preaching and programs as a means to make disciples.” [5] Many church leaders, and thus many congregations, either have no clear idea of how to create vibrant self-actuating disciples or deliberately rely on preaching and programming because this is within their area of comfort. “We rely upon programs because we do not want to make the personal investment that discipleship requires. [6]

Pushing the Great Commission to the Margins

Pastors have become so invested in preparation for worship and being a part of the busyness of the programs and activities of the church that they have forgotten their primary calling to make disciples. Underlying all these factors is one fundamental fact: The American church, indeed the churches of Western Culture generally, have failed to make disciple-making central to the mission and ministry of the local congregation and modeled by its leaders. Yet where the church operates as intended, there is proactive disciple-making, a distinct difference in the values of Christians and the surrounding society, a unity of church and secular life among believers, a rejection of a materialistic lifestyle, and a life-transforming community. These churches are spiritually healthy, whatever their size.

The Problem with Programs.

For most of my pastoral career, I led larger program-centered congregations. Most such congregations were impacted directly or indirectly by the “Seven Day a Week” model that placed programming at the center of their essentially institutional vision. [7] The problem program-based discipleship are several:

  1. Programs tend to focus on conveying information or knowledge. As a result, they rarely result in deeper personal relationships with God, other Christians, or a suffering world.
  2. Programs focus on a leader preparing to convey the information or knowledge to the participants.
  3. Programs focus on structure, regimentation, and standardized results.
  4. Programs typically require little accountability from participants who “attend.” [8]

For all these reasons, programs are unlikely to produce transformed disciples who can share their faith with others and disciple them effectively. I began my ministry in a small congregation, where my motto was “People before Programs.” Unfortunately, the pressure of leading larger congregations made me forget the truth in that epigram. In recent years, I have come to believe that our excessive focus on church growth, size, and programming was mistaken.

Part Two: The Solution

Jesus and Paul: Our Prime Examples.

Not surprisingly, Ogden’s solution to the problem is to direct the church’s and its leaders’ attention back to the example of Jesus. Although Jesus ministered to “crowds,” he invested most of his time and energy into a core group of disciples with whom he shared his life and communicated the life of God. He called the disciples in pairs and one at a time to follow him in the life of discipleship. As time passed, three of the twelve (Peter, James, and John) received special attention and encouragement to grow in their discipleship. Luke indicates that Jesus chose the disciples due to a season of prayer. If today’s leaders are to follow Jesus, they must pray for a small group of candidates and invest time in them just as Jesus did.

From the beginning, Jesus was preparing his chosen few for the work of the Great Commission. He invested time in teaching and modeling the life of faith for the Twelve. He sent them out two by two to practice what they had internalized (Mark 3:14-15). He coached the twelve and supported them in their growth. He refused to do everything and therefore delegated increasing responsibility to them, knowing that the cross lay ahead.

Like Jesus, Paul invested tremendous energy in the few. Silus, Luke, Timothy, Titus, and others mentioned in the New Testament traveled with Paul, shared his life, and received intimate mentorship and teaching in a transparent and supportive relationship. As a result, they were empowered to continue accomplishing the Great Commission. These leaders were formed in the context of a personal relationship.

Part Three: Multiplying Discipleship

Ogden is not satisfied with merely reciting the Biblical grounds for a change in how pastors, church leaders, and local congregations create more mature believers. He has specific suggestions as to how this can be accomplished. These suggestions do not take the form of a particular program. To develop the method, one begins with the goal: mature disciples. In Ogden’s view, Mature disciples are formed over time through accountable relationships intended to bring believers to a more profound and life-transforming relationship with Christ.[9]

To accomplish this goal, Ogden suggests a particular strategy to assist leaders:

  1. Life-transforming discipleship is not accomplished by programs but by life investment.
  2. Investment in disciples means having close personal relationships with believers growing in their faith.
  3. Life investment and deep relationships take time and develop slowly.
  4. Small groups, what Ogden calls “Triads,” are the most effective means to accomplish the goal of disciple-making. [10]

Conditions for a Discipling Relationship

Naturally, not every relationship can become a disciple-making relationship. There are conditions for an effective disciple-making relationship.

  1. Trust. The disciple must trust that the leader is capable of helping develop a deeper relationship with Christ, and the disciple-maker must believe that the disciple has the character, energy, and drive to grow in Christ. Personal accountability, transparency, confession, and active direction must exist for such a relationship to exist. [11]
  2. God’s Word. At the center of any disciple-making relationship is the Word of God. [12] As Paul said to Timothy:

You know who your teachers were, and you remember you have known the Holy Scriptures since childhood. These Scriptures can give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. God inspires all Scripture and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed. (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

  1. Mutual Accountability. There can be no real growth where there is no accountability. In a discipling relationship, this accountability is mutual. The mentor and the mentee must be accountable to one another for the connection. [13]


Transforming Discipleship is a fine book, well-written and easy to follow. Ogden sets out a strategy and the details of a particular methodology that is important and much needed. In particular, his focus on intimate relationships of trust and accountability is important. There is much more to the book and the strategy Odgen suggests than I can relate here. I would recommend Transforming Discipleship to any pastor or church leader considering adopting a new and better plan for making and growing disciples in our culture.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Greg Ogden, Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990, 2003).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022). This book is currently under revision, and I recommend waiting to purchase it until a new, updated, and expanded version is available.

[3] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). In this review, I will not precisely follow Ogden’s outline.

[4] Id, at 40-46. In creating this list, I have slightly rephrased the argument contained in the book.

[5] Id, at 67.

[6] Id.

[7] This phrase is from the important book authored by church consultant Lyle Schaller, The Seven Day a Week Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992). For many pastors in my generation this book and others by Schaller were instrumental in forming our vision of how to grow a vital church.

[8] Transforming Discipleship, 42-45.

[9] Id, at 129. I have rephrased Ogden’s exact definition.

[10] While I believe that Ogden’s idea of  discipleship in “Triads” is Biblical and important, my own view is that the number is not as important as that the number of disciples mentored by an individual be small enough that the disciple-maker can invest personally and deeply in each person.

[11] Id, at 134-162.

[12] Id, 162-168.

[13] Id, 168-174.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”

There is no way to complete a study of political philosophy and theology without mentioning H Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. [1]   Christ and Culture began as a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in the late 1940s. It was published in 1951 and remains a classic of Christian thinking about the relationship between Christian faith, culture, and politics.

H. R. Niebuhr

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) was trained in philosophy and religion, ordained as a pastor, and served as a professor at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. Niebuhr also served as President of Elmhurst College. Theologically, Niebuhr was an adherent of the theological position commonly known as “neo-Orthodoxy.” Like his brother, Reinhold, Richard Niebuhr was influenced by Kierkegaard, existentialism, and the theological work of Karl Barth and other theologians of crisis. In the preface to Christ and Culture, Niebuhr credits Reinhold and Hulda, his sister (a prominent Christian scholar in her own right), as significant influences in the final form of his thinking on the issues covered by the book. He also credits Earnest Troeltsch and his monumental work, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, as influencing his work. [2]

Christ and Culture emerged from the predicament in which the Christian faith and the Church found themselves after the Second World War. After a brief period of enjoying the success of the Allied cause, the late 1940s were characterized by the beginning of the Cold War, the Fall of China to Maoism, the realization that nuclear weapons made possible the destruction of human civilization, the Korean Conflict, and even concern that a form of National Socialism might reemerge in the West. Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, Christianity in the United States was faced with a militant secularism that believed Christianity was not the solution to the problems of Western culture but the root of the problems of Western civilization. 1 Since these concerns exist today, reading the book is a meaningful way to reflect upon our current cultural situation. Niebuhr wrote Christ & Culture as a response to these challenges.

One must read the book to capture its essence. I believe that Niebuhr was a sincere Christian, attempting to open doors to a peaceful and productive Christian engagement with Western Culture.

Christ and Culture

As the title implies, Christ and Culture addresses the relationship between Christ and culture. In his lecture and book, Niebuhr defines and discusses exactly what he means by both. He begins by outlining what he means by Christ. He attempts a definition that applies across denominational and theological divisions. Christ for Niebuhr is the Christ we meet in the New Testament who, for Christians, is the source of the final understanding of what God and human beings are like. [3] Jesus of Nazareth, as rendered in scripture, reveals the God who is love and how love can be incarnated in a specific human life. [4] Niebuhr maintains a careful historical understanding of God in Christ. Christ is God in human form.

Christ is the God/Man. Culture, on the other hand, is a purely human creation.

It is “sum the total of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life, and as an expression of the spiritual and moral life – all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature, and sciences. It is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily, universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.[5]

Although God is the creator of everything, including the human race, God has given freedom and capacity to the human race, made in the image of God to create. What human beings create is human culture, including all its forms, language, art, literature, government, science, social institutions of every kind, churches—everything that we human beings create in our freedom, even our loss of freedom (tyrannical governments), all these are expressions of human culture.

Niebuhr’s Options

An inevitable question is bound to be raised, “How does God in Christ relate to human culture?” How does the eternal Christ relate to the ever-changing reality of human culture? In Christ & Culture, Niebuhr outlines five different models of how culture interacts with the Christian faith: [6]

  1. Christ Against Culture. In the ‘Christ Against Culture’ model, Christianity is inevitably opposed to secular society. In this view, human sin and finitude inevitably and fundamentally compromise human society and culture. Therefore, Christians should avoid, reject, and separate from culture. Ideally, Christians should attempt to create an independent, profoundly different Christian culture easily distinguishable from the surrounding culture. One modern example would be the Mennonite and Amish communities and the work of, among others, John Yoder in his work, The Politics of Jesus. [7] Stanley Hauerwas, whom Yoder influenced, is another potential contemporary example. [8]
  2. Christ of Culture. In the ‘Christ of Culture’ model, culture is seen as fundamentally not conflicting with the Christian faith. Proponents of this view attempt to view Christian truths as reflecting cultural truth. In reality, however, cultural values often come to outweigh the importance of Christianity. Niebuhr believes that the flaw inherent in this view is its tendency towards a superficial reading of the New Testament witness, resulting in distortion of the Biblical witness and Christian faith. [9] Historic Gnosticism, Enlightenment Christianity, and Liberal Protestantism are examples of this view, which inevitably creates a kind of cultural Christianity that baptizes society’s opinions with a Christian veneer. [10]
  3. Christ Above Culture. In the ‘Christ above Culture’ model, culture represents the classical consensus between a Christianity-rejecting culture model and a Christ-affirming culture model. In this view, Culture is a product of human society and human natural capacities; however, Christian revelation perfects cultural expressions. Inherent in this view is the idea that nature and grace are two different things, and grace (faith) is necessary to complete nature. Niebuhr believes that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches and theologians like Thomas Aquinas, who combine reason with revelation, tend towards this view. This model can lead to the institutionalization of Christianity through finite and cultural expressions, as may have been the case during the synthesis of the Middle Ages.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. In the ‘Christ and Culture in Paradox’ model, there is an ever-present tension between the Christians and their interaction with culture. Despite the attempts of those in the Christ above Culture camp to create a workable synthetic consensus, there remains a tension that gives rise to this Christ and Culture in Paradox position. [11] Christians are forced to simultaneously live between the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven, accepting some aspects of culture and rejecting others. Niebuhr believes Martin Luther is an example of this view. [12] Niebuhr observes of Luther:

This is the basis of Luther’s dualism. Christ deals with the fundamental problems of the moral life; he cleanses the springs of action; he creates and re-creates the ultimate community where all action takes place. But by the same token, he does not directly govern the external actions or construct the immediate community in which man carries on his work. [13]

The danger of this view is that it too easily allows human culture and political society to avoid a compelling Christian critique, as the Lutheran response to Nazi Germany often says.

  1. Christ the Transformer of Culture. In Niebuhr’s final model, Christianity is seen as a spiritual force that seeks to transform or covert culture into a greater resemblance to the Kingdom of God as it works within human society for its perfection in Christ. Although this view connects with the Christ against Culture and the Christ in Paradox types, it is distinguished by its belief that human sin does not result in an absolute break between Christ and Culture but is like a disease that warps and misdirects culture. Culture, however, as a creation of human actors made in God’s image, is not entirely fallen but only needs conversion and healing.

In this view, Christ came to redeem all creation, including human culture. Christians participate in this redemptive work in the present while awaiting his coming Kingdom. “For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and of man’s response to them.” [14] Niebuhr believes that John Calvin and Augustine represent this view. [15] The great Puritan theologian Johnathan Edwards is given as an exponent of the conversionist position. [16] Significant adoption of the conversionist position also characterizes the Wesleyan tradition. [17]

From the Anglican point of view, F. D. Maurice is listed as a profound exemplar of the Christ Transforming Culture view. [18] Maurice builds his theology of Christ and Culture from a Trinitarian base in the interrelations of love among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, his theological starting point is communal and relational. For Maurice, faith in Christ allows human beings to escape their self-centeredness and find restoration of relational wholeness. [19] As human beings enter a divine encounter with Christ, culture must change and evolve in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion and Evaluation

As with any important book, Christ and Culture has been subject to criticism. Niebuhr wondered if the book positively impacted Christian ability to deal with culture. In the book, he was careful to note that the types are merely types and do not occur in an unknown diluted form in the work of actual theologians or churches. He does not view his work as conclusive or the final word on the relationship between Christ and Culture. [20] As I read the book, I wondered if the five types merely represent five ways the church might be called to respond to culture depending on the circumstances in which it finds itself.

Many criticisms focus on whether or not the first four types merely serve to introduce Niebuhr’s preference for Christ as the Transformer of Culture. I think any fair reading of the book concludes that Niebuhr is attempting to be fair to historical models but favors this model. Other criticisms focus on the inadequacy of the models. Niebuhr himself tries to defuse this objection reminding readers that the five models are just that: models for thought. Reality is more complex than any model could be.[21]

As readers of this blog might anticipate, I would like to suggest that the primary relationship between Christ and culture is one of love. That is to say that Christians are called to love the cultures into which they are born and to bring the healing power of Christ to act upon such a culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to oppose the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to support the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to take a position above the culture. Sometimes the faithful response is to live in paradox with the culture. Sometimes the impact of faithful response is to transform the culture.

In the end, Christ and Culture remains a monumental work that every student of the relationship of Christ and Culture should and must study.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1951). There is a newer 50th Anniversary edition available. Citations here are to the original.

[2] Earnst Troeltsche, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992).

[3] Christ and Culture, at 11

[4] Id, at 16-19.

[5] Id, at 17.

[6] This brief explanation is partially based on Hugh Whitehead’s “Christ and Culture” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, at Work and Theology 101 (June 21, 2012) (downloaded July 18, 2023).

[7] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972, 1994).

[8] I intend to cover Hauerwas before this series of blogs is complete. For an introduction to this thinking, see Peaceable Kingdom (London, ENG: Notre Dame Press, 1983), After Christendom (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1991), and his most recent, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), which are his Gifford Lectures in printed form.

[9][9] Christ and Culture, at 108-109.

[10] Whitehead,, note 6 above at 45-82.

[11] Christ and Culture, at 149.

[12] Id, at 170.

[13] Id, at 174.

[14] Id, at 195.

[15] Id, at 206-218.

[16] Id, at 217-218

[17] Id at 218-219.

[18] Id, at 220-229.

[19] Id, at 225.

[20] Id, at 230.

[21] Id, at 43-44.

Adopting a Rule of Life for Healthy Spirituality

In his many books on Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and Leadership, Peter Scazzaro recommends that Christians develop a “rule of life” or order for living that can give them the resources to continue to grow and maintain balance in the Christian life. [1] The word “rule” comes from the Latin “Regulus,” a word used for a trellis upon which grapes are grown. The idea is that a rule of life is like a trellis that allows our life of faith to thrive so that we can bear the fruit that Christ desires us to take (John 15:1-2). [2] It is part of remaining in Christ, constantly receiving the spiritual grace and life we need from God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Just about the time Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and the faith became less important to many people, serious Christians began to develop a monastic lifestyle, and from that lifestyle came various monastic rules. St. Pachomius (died 348) wrote the first rule in the East. St. Augustine (died 430) founded a community and authored a rule about 400 A.D. John Cassian (died 435) also wrote an important rule. Finally, St. Benedict (died 550) founded his order and created a rule about 530 A.D. that has endured throughout the ages as perhaps the greatest of the rules of life created by monastics.

I first became aware of various “monastic rules” in seminary. During an intensive personal study, I read for the first time Augustine’s rule, Benedict’s rule, the Rule of St. Francis, and other rules from the Christian tradition. [3] As a final project for the study, I created a rule that has been meaningful to me through the years. The rule I constructed was a version of the Rule of St. Augustine appropriate for a lay person who was married and had four small children.

This rule has an advantage over rules that are merely human preferences based upon my own life of faith. The historic rules were not for a person but for a community. They were not administered by an individual for his or herself but by a community for the benefit of all. Over the years, I have seen personal rules that I did not think would lead the person into a deeper faith but were designed to give them a good feeling about who they were and the spiritual life they found comfortable. Following a rule, such as the Rule of Augustine and St. Benedict, join a person with a long tradition of faith, stretching back to the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. All in all, it is best to join the great community of saints to create an orderly life of discipleship.

There are many fine books on the Benedictine way of life and the benefits of following Benedict’s rule. [4] I keep a copy of that rule in my briefcase and backpack, including a modern paraphrase by a lawyer in Memphis. [5] There are also benefits to the Rule of St. Francis, especially for those interested in simplicity of life and harmony with creation as a goal of the Christian life. Other rules can be helpful. Adopting a rule of life does not guarantee success in the Christian life, but it has proved its usefulness over the millennia as a help for Christians in following Christ.

I decided this week to publish my version of the Augustinian Rule created thirty years ago in 1993. It may be helpful to someone else. In any case, here it is for my readers:

Three Biblical Principles

Great Commandment:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Great Commission:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw Jesus, they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:16-20).

Primacy of Grace:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8=9).

The  Rule

The way to live out the Gospel can be found by adopting a Rule or way of life in response to the unmerited grace God has bestowed upon us. As Christians, we can model community for those secular communities we form and serve.

Principle One: Love God

To experience and show the wisdom and love of God, I will be regular in corporate worship, study, private prayer, silence, and other spiritual activities important to the Christian life. Daily prayer, at least three times a day (morning, noon, and evening), is important to maintain a connection with God and stability in the Christian life. I will read and study scripture daily, listening attentively to God speak through the witness of Scripture.

Principle Two: Love Other People

As a follower of Christ, I will love God and others. This love is the self-giving same love God showed in giving his Son to suffer for our sins and that the Son showed when he went to the Cross in obedience to the Father for the love of the world. No matter what else we accomplish, without love, it counts for nothing (I Corinthians 13). In particular, followers of Jesus are called to their neighbors by sharing faith in the wisdom and love of God.

Principle Three: Be a Good Steward of the Gifts of Life

Jesus calls me to be a wise steward of my time, treasure, and talents – material, physical, emotional, and spiritual. I will embrace this way of life through “lifestyle stewardship.” I will use my spiritual gifts for the good of others, returning a share of what I have to God’s work, focusing my life mission on concern for those in need, and sharing my resources with them. I will tithe my income.

Principle Four: Embrace Simplicity

I will focus on loving God and others by, among other things, living simply, rejecting materialism and consumerism. I will embrace moderation and simplicity of life, eating and drinking with restraint, fasting occasionally, and sacrificing consumption for the benefit of others. I will, in moderation, deny myself so far as health and circumstances permit.

Principle Five: Cultivate Humility

God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6). I will remember that there is no possibility of attaining Godly wisdom, love, or healthy relationships without humility. Pride, which lurks even in good works, is the beginning of much sin. In humility, I will remember that I can be self-centered and difficult when confronted with difficulties with others.

Social status, education, possessions, and high achievements do not make me a good Christian; they enable me to do more for others. Jesus emptied himself of his heavenly power to serve others on the cross as a symbol of God’s humility (Philippians 2:2-13). As Christ emptied himself, I will empty myself and guard against pride, which undermines good works and distort motivation.

Principle Six: Live Peacefully with Others

I will attempt to live at peace with others as far as possible (Romans 12:18). I will try to speak words of love and encouragement, even if correction is needed. When I need correction, I will graciously accept help given in love and truth.

Living in a community without some conflict is impossible. I will address differences and disputes maturely, directly, and with compassion. I will model open, forthright, wise, and loving communication and dialogue in pointing out what harms individuals and the community for the welfare of all. If offended, I will be ready to forgive from the heart.

Principle Seven: Seek the Common Good

The measure of my growth in wisdom and love will be found by seeking the common good and placing the interest of other people, our family, and community equal to or before my interests, whether in church, business, social organizations, neighborhood, the community or wherever I find myself with the opportunity to serve the common good.

Principle Eight: Be a Servant and Servant LeaderI will seek to serve others. If given a leadership position, I am not placed above others but remain a part of the community being served, with special responsibilities. If guiding a community, I will attempt to exemplify wise servant leadership in humility and with the spirit of Christ.

Principle Nine: Ongoing Evaluation

I will periodically look at the Word in Scripture, the teachings of the Church, and this Rule of Life to assess how I am doing along the journey of the life of Christian maturity.

Principle Ten: Freedom under Grace

While striving to live wisely and lovingly guided by this Rule of Life, I will remember that God gives the grace needed to succeed. Grace provides the freedom to choose to love God and one another as Jesus did and reject enslavement to the powers and principalities of this age.

Putting it to Work

To put this Rule of Life to work in a wholesome and life-affirming way, I will engage in the following:

Love God

Daily Devotion and Prayers

Weekly Worship

Times of Silence

Study of the Word

Sacrificial Giving


Love Self

Daily Exercise

Weekly Sabbath

Periodic Vacations

Periodic Retreat

Emotional Self-Care


Love Community 

Service to Marriage

Service to Family

Service to Friends

Service to Church


Love the World 

Honest Labor for Family and Person

Weekly Service to Community

Service to God, Nation, and World

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] See, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Updated Ed.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014); Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003); The Emotionally Healthy Leader Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015); Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022).

[2] Emotionally Healthy Leader, at 135-141.

[3] St. Francis wrote his rule in about the year 1209, though it did not reach its final form until about 1221. Since this is after the split between the Eastern and Western churches, I have not included it above nor have I included other rules after the division of the East and West.

[4] See, Joan Chitteister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1990).

[5] John B. McQuistan, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1996). I also keep a copy of this more secular rule in my backpack.

James Cone: A Theology of Liberation

James H. Cone (1938-2018) is often called the founder of black theology. What Gustavo Gutierrez is to Latin America, Cone tried to become to North America. The debt that Cone owes to Gutierrez is plain from the first lines of his book, A Black Theology of Liberation. [1] Cone was born in Arkansas, educated at Shorter and Philander Smith Colleges, went to Garrett-Smith Theological Seminary, and then to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the theological anthropology of Karl Barth. He taught theology and religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College, and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he held the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology.

In the Tradition of Liberation Theology

Cone begins A Black Theology of Liberation with a definition of theology that cements his place in the tradition Gutierrez started. “Christian theology is a theology of liberation. It is a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus Christ.” [2] For Cone, as for Gutierrez and others, the central Biblical event which gives rise to their theology is the liberation of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Underlying their theological movement is a particular reading of the events of the Pentateuch.

The Importance of the Exodus Story

Cone begins his analysis by quoting Exodus:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession (Exodus 19-4-5).

His analysis of the passage is revealing of his hermeneutic. “By delivering this people from Egyptian bondage and inaugurating the covenant on the basis of that historical event, God is revealed as the God of the oppressed, involved in their history, involved in liberating them from human bondage. [3]

While others in the movement deal with the Exodus in detail, Cone jumps in at the end of the story defining the meaning of the story as the revelation of the God of Liberation. The story of how the tribes of Israel ended up in Egypt, the divine prophecy of their captivity, and the faithfulness of God to his promise to Israel, all these elements are submerged in the choice of liberation itself as the story’s central feature.

Interestingly, there is very little evidence that Israel had such a foreshortened interpretation of the story. For Israel, it was the story of God’s steadfast love for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their heirs, the story of God’s choice of Israel out of all the nations as his treasured possession, and of God’s liberation of Israel and placement of Israel in the Promised Land despite their unworthiness and disobedience.

The Practical Importance of the Exodus Narrative

This is not to say that the story of God’s liberating power is without its importance in the story itself and to Israel and other people trapped in captivity. One story from my pastoral career may help a reader understand the story’s importance to black Christians. My first pastorate was in a small southern town that was poor and mostly black. The history and consequences of racism were a present reality. A local farmer began a ministry to the High School that was very deliberately integrated. Given the fact that the community and high school were majority black, the ministry itself was as well.

One of the challenges of the ministry was engaging pastors across racial lines to become involved. The ministry was very much like any high school youth group; there was an annual retreat, a weekly meeting, and plenty of food for hungry teenagers. Generally, the farmer and his wife led the Bible study, but that was not always the case. In the community, an older back CME pastor agreed to become involved. Naturally, we became friends. One feature of his leadership in the ministry and community was his always amazing ability to preach on demand and without much notice.

Over five years, I became familiar with his preaching style. We even exchanged pulpits and did Thanksgiving services together. Of all the sermons he preached during those years, the sermons that involved the Exodus were clearly the most memorable. He used the Exodus passages to talk about captivity to sin, drugs, sexual morality, and various social and spiritual evils. He used the Exodus story to discuss racism and God’s power to change our community. He used the story as a warning not to end up down in Egypt in the first place.

Whenever he spoke from Exodus, there was a special power in his preaching, for he was speaking not just from his own experience but also from the experience of his people. Cone’s use of the Exodus story and its use by others in the same theological tradition is unsurprising. It is a deep part of the Black American experience from slavery to today.

The Existential Component

While Cone is careful to speak in Biblical Terms, on the whole, he is critical of the history of theology, which he conceives as a negative factor, and the activities of the churches, which he sees as facilitating racism. In discussing the role of the churches in eliminating slavery, he highlights how faith was used to justify slavery without giving due credit to the fact that the entire anti-slavery movement was powered by Christians who opposed slavery on religious grounds.

Most of his theological discussion is an attempt to bring traditional Christian faith, and especially the faith of oppressed minorities, into dialogue with existential theology as reflected by the so-called “theologians of crisis” Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner, all of whom were impacted by Kierkegaard and Heidegger. He emphasizes revelation’s role in self-understanding, self-awareness, and self-authenticity among the oppressed and those who would help them. [4] Conversely, he is critical of Bultmann’s attempt to release the Christian faith from history. [5] On the whole, Cone wants to prevent the Christian faith from being merely an intellectual endeavor cut off from action to bring justice to society. In so doing, he wants to continue to find a place for history—the history of human liberation by the gospel.

Doing Away with the White God

Cone begins his analysis of language about God with the observation that Black Theology assumes the reality of God. That is to say, Cone’s analysis begins in faith and moves in faith to critique existing “white” theology. [6] In his view, to be certain that black theology achieves its purpose of liberating the black (and white) community from embedded racism, it is important to break with any traditional speech about God that would prevent this movement from achieving its goal. [7] What Cone is after is to remove distorted ideas about the nature of God and the purposes of God, which he believes infects traditional “white” theology.

There are parts of this endeavor with which any thinking Christian must agree. To the extent that dominant theological groups have distorted the ideas and notions concerning the person of God, it cannot be wrong to point out these distortions. Such attempts do the church a favor by cleansing it of false ideas.

On the other hand, Cone too frequently misses the fact that much of the orthodox consensus of the church was the work of persons of Middle Eastern (The Cappadocian Fathers and many others) and African heritage (Augustine). The ecumenical consensus of the past was not the work of “white Europeans.” In fact, Europe was shaped and formed by non-White, non-Europeans.

Jesus Christ in Black Theology

For Cone, as for most Christian theology, the character and person of Christ are at the center of theology and faith. Once again, though, Cone is not interested in Christ as an abstraction but as a reality that confronts racism and oppression in all its forms. [8] Black theology, says Cone, does not agree with the radical views of Bultmann and those who say we can know nothing about the historical Jesus. Instead, black theology wishes to ground itself in the Biblical revelation of Christ, the Oppressed One who is afflicted and oppressed and identifies himself with the afflicted and oppressed. [9] Cone observes that in this birth, in his life, and in his death, Jesus was constantly in solidarity with the oppressed—and constantly at war with their oppressors.

Since Cone believes that Black Liberation Theology demands a Black God, it will not surprise anyone that a Black Jesus is an essential element for Christology:”

Now, what does this mean for blacks in America today? How are they to interpret the christological significance of the Resurrected One in such a way that this person will be existentially relevant to their oppressed condition? The black community is an oppressed community primarily because of its blackness; hence the christological importance of Jesus, must be found in his blackness. If he is not black as we are, then the resurrection has little significance for our time. Indeed, if he cannot be what we are, we cannot be who he is. Our being with him is dependent on his being with us in the oppressed, black condition, revealing to us what is necessary for our liberation. [10]

A bit of interpretation is needed to understand his point sympathetically.

Cone rejects the view that we can know nothing about Jesus. He rejects a Christ that is not embedded and active in history. On the other hand, Cone has an existentialist view of the importance of Jesus as reflected in the concrete situation of people. For those who are oppressed, this means seeing Jesus as present with them and identifying with people in their oppression. Since it is important for oppressed people to see Christ as their liberator, for the black community, Jesus must be black. I do not think that Cone would indicate that this is a physical thing. It is a spiritual matter that Jesus us black, just as Jesus is present in all cultures.

Some years ago, I was given a series of pictures of Jesus, as various ethnic groups render him. In the Orient, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Oriental. In the Middle East, he is sometimes pictured as Middle Eastern.  In Latin America, Jesus is sometimes pictured as Latin American. From Sunday school, some of us remember a picture in which Jesus that had blue eyes and brownish blonde hair. The historical Jesus probably looked little like any of these renderings. One of the interesting features of the Gospels is that they do not give us any description of the physical Jesus. This may be quite intentional since the Gospels were missionary documents, just like the rest of the New Testament. It was the intention of Christ that he should be available to any ethnic group, for his gospel was to be preached to the entire world (Matthew 28: 16-20).

The Anthropology of Black Liberation

In addition to believing that traditional ideas about God are warped in “white theology,” Cone believes that a true picture of humanity is hidden and obscured, especially in fundamentalist and highly rigid traditionalist circles. [11] This observation leads Cone into what I think is the most suspect part of his analysis, but one that contains some degree of truth. In the context of the suffering and prejudice endured by the black community, Cone believes that this suffering is a kind of “revelation” ignored by fundamentalists, Barthians, and theological liberals alike. [12] For Cone, God in Christ Jesus meets oppressed people with a message of what they must do in order to achieve liberation from oppression. [13]

Cone is suspicious of any attempt to create an idealized humanity separate from the reality of human beings in particular. In a memorable passage, he states:

Secondly, black theology is suspicious of those who appealed to a universal, ideal humanity. Oppressors are ardent lovers of humanity. They can love all persons in general, even black persons, because intellectually they can put blacks in the category called Humanity. With this perspective, they can participate in civil rights and help blacks purely on the premise that they are part of a universal category. But when it comes to dealing with particular blacks, statistics transformed into black encounter, they are at a loss. They remind me of Dostoyevsky’s doctor, who said, “I love humanity, but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity, in general, the less I love men in particular.” [14]

Cone wants us to see is that the love of Christ is not the love of an abstract category called, Humanity. It is the love of concrete human persons whom God places in our lives. When human beings profess their love for humanity but do nothing to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, they are not living in faith, whatever their profession, they are living self-absorbed, irresponsible lives. [15]


Cone is often critiqued for his angry language and tendency to overstate his case. Having lived in the area where Cone was born, I think it is important to remember that he was born and reached maturity long before the Civil Rights Movement made the entry of black Americans into the mainstream of society easy. He lived and experienced the raw edges of racial prejudice and segregation. I think he can be forgiven for his tendency to speak in angry and overstated ways.  His views are part of a broader tendency of late modern, post-Viet Nam critique of American society with its attraction to revolutionary tactics to change perceived unjust social realities. While not agreeing with all of his language, Cone is pleading to see beyond the religion and morals of mid-century, middle-class, white, bourgeoisie American society. His notion of a black God and a black Christ can and should be seen as an attempt to overcome any idolatry by which any racial, ethnic, or cultural group seeks to glorify itself and oppress others. At least, this is what I think Cone meant in his work.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1986, 1990).

[2] Id, at 1.

[3] Id, at 2.

[4] Id, at 53.

[5] Id, at 54.

[6] Id, at 55.

[7] Id, at 61.

[8] Id, at 110.

[9] Id, at 113.

[10] Id, at 120.

[11] Id, at 82-83.

[12] Id, at 84-85.

[13] Id.

[14] Id, at 85

[15] Id, at 95

Happy Fourth of July!!

July 4th is Independence Day. I am writing this on July 3, a day Americans seldom remember, but it is when the battle of Gettysburg ended. The action commenced on July 1, 1865, and ended on July 3. When the Confederate Army left the battlefield, they did not know it, but the “High Tide” of the Confederacy had been reached, and the war was now lost. What remained now was the slow march that would end at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865. In the meantime, many fine young men would die.

General Lee, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, knew that the Confederacy could not win a war of attrition, nor could his commanders win battles forever against an increasingly dominant foe by the sheer brilliance of strategy and the energy of commanders in the field. The invasion of Pennsylvania was an attempt to force a negotiated settlement. Gettysburg was not Lee’s chosen site for the battle. It is simply where the two armies met.

The site, however, favored the Army of the Potomac and its new commanding officer, General George Meade. He had replaced General Joseph Hooker, whom Lincoln did not think was aggressive or wise enough to win the battle. (Hooker’s personal and leadership morals gave us the phrase “Hooker” for a certain sort of woman that followed his army.) For three days, the battle raged. Lee was hampered by the death of Stonewall Jackson, his best commander, and J. E. B. Stuart, his cavalry commander, did not arrive as anticipated and left the old warrior blind to the enemy movements until it was too late. Finally, Lee was sick, probably with a mild heart attack. He was not at the top of his game.

During the battle, Lee uncharacteristically made three errors: (1) he over-estimated the capacity of his army, (2) he underestimated the strength and tactical advantages of his opponent, and (3) he fought the battle with insufficient information due to the failure of Stuart to arrive in a timely manner. Lee’s health unquestionably impacted his judgment. He was ill for most of the battle. Nevertheless, his concern for his army and the battle’s fairness was undiminished. He warned his soldiers against bad behavior despite the fact that they were in the enemy’s heartland, not Virginia.

On the other hand, Meade was competent, brave, and not easily rattled, a characteristic too common among Union Generals up to this point in the war. One commentator puts it this way: Meade deployed his forces effectively; relied on capable subordinates to make decisions where and when they were needed; took great advantage of defensive positions; wisely shifted defensive resources on interior lines to parry strong threats; and, unlike some of his predecessors, stood his ground throughout the battle in the face of fierce Confederate attacks [1]

Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle, the costliest single day in our nation’s military history. Reflecting on the battle, Lincoln summed it up in words that should never be forgotten:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[2]

In every war, someone loses, and someone wins. Lincoln’s genius was that he could speak words that applied to the winners and losers, to all that loved their country, which is why after the war was over, both sides could see in his address the profound wisdom and love for all that inspired them.

I have quoted these words in the past on July 4th. This year, I want to take our attention back to the words that preceded them:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. [3]

Most unfortunately, we and our leaders, in the quest for power and for the creation of a nation in the image we feel best, have allowed our country’s dedication to the liberty of all to degenerate into a civil war of a kind. We sometimes call it a “Culture War.” I believe that a good portion of that war is deliberately fought to distract the public from the reality that their freedom and way of life are being taken from them by oligarchs, corrupt politicians, intellectuals, and a host of “opinion makers” left and right.  We are not “met on a battlefield” of a battle past, we are on the battlefield.

It is easy to lose perspective during a battle. It is easy to forget that the folks on the other side are just as dedicated and just as sure that God (or my least favorite term, “history”) is on their side as we are confident of the righteousness of our cause. It is easy to forget that God loves everyone, including those we believe to be fundamentally wrong. It is easy to say and do things we will regret when we lie a few seconds from death.

At such times, it is a good idea to remember the ending of the Gettysburg Address, “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  It is on days like today that we need to renew a certain basic resolve that we who are here today wish to leave to our children and grandchildren, all of them, of whatever race, color, creed, or political view, the benefits of the freedoms and prosperity we enjoy.

We did not create this land. We inherited it. We inherited it as a gift the day we came or were born. Those who lived before us built the nation with their blood, sweat, toil, and tears. They worked in good times and depressions, in peace and war, in plenty, and in want to build the country we inhabit. We are not its owners. We are trustees for those who will come after us.

On October 17, 1863, the Civil War was not over. Another bloody season lay ahead. I am afraid that a different kind of bloody season is ahead for us all. The question boils down to this: Will we fight with the tools of reason, love, mutual forgiveness, forbearing differences, and forgiving mistakes, or will we fight until someone wins and everyone else loses? There lies the question before us.

Happy Independence Day!!

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Murray, Williamson and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh. A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) at 285, found at (downloaded July 3, 2023).

[2] Abraham Lincloln, Gettysburg Address (October 17, 1863).

[3] Id.