Book Review: Being Disciples by Rowan Williams

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(This is part 2 of book reviews focused on Rowan Williams companion texts, Being Christian and Being Disciples. Thanks to Eerdmans for providing Evan a review copy).

John R.W. Stott, the great evangelical Anglican preacher and author, said that “every Christian should be both conservative and radical. Conservative in preserving the faith, and radical in applying it.” What former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has given us in Being Disciples is a treatise on “essentials of the Christian life,” core fundamentals of Christian discipleship, applied in fresh, new ways that teach us all over again what it means to claim the name of Christ. This review will attempt to highlight some of foundational ways Williams develops Christian discipleship.

Williams identifies several Biblical concepts — faith, hope, love, forgiveness, holiness, life in the Spirit— and spends chapters dedicated to some of these aspects as they relate to discipleship. To begin with, Williams defines discipleship as “about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being (p.1).” He references John 1:36-39, where Jesus extends the invitation to two disciples to “come and see,” and they came and stayed with him. Williams says discipleship has something to do with the “staying” bit. It has to do with learning, with dedicating oneself as a follower.

Perhaps one of his most profoundly beautiful introductory thoughts on discipleship is this:

“…the heart of discipleship is bound up with the life of the Trinity; as we develop our understanding of the trinitarian life of God…so we develop in our understanding of what provides the root and energy of our being disciples here and now. We see and we do, not just because that is the way discipleship or studentship worked in the ancient world; we see and we do because that is what the Father and the Son are involved in for all eternity (p.15).” 

One of the most fundamental aspects of discipleship is forgiveness. Indeed, our Lord taught that we ourselves will forgiven to the extent that we forgive others. He writes that “a willingness to forgive is clearly the mark of a humanity touched by God — free from anxiety about identity and safety, free to reach out into what is other, as God does in Jesus Christ (p. 41).” One of the bits about forgiveness that Williams highlights so poignantly is that forgiveness is not safe. It requires radical trust on our part in the God who has radically forgiven us. But a true disciple must forgive, and do so radically.

Williams writes about another core concept — holiness —as “a matter of Jesus going right into the middle of the mess and the suffering of human nature. For him, being holy is being absolutely involved, not being absolutely separated (p. 49).” Holiness is about engagement with others, with the wider world and culture, rather than retreating into echo-chamber silos of self-congratulatory Pharisaism. Holiness requires disciples going to where the people are and giving them the hope of Christ.

The final chapter focuses on “Life in the Spirit,” using the fruit of the Spirit as elucidated by St. Paul in Galatians 5. To live out these virtues, Williams writes that four things are requisite for the disciple: self-knowledge, stillness, growth, and joy. These allow for the development of a “life of discipleship that can stand up to everything around us, in the Church and the world and in ourselves, that tries to stifle our efforts to stay spiritually healthy (p. 86).” These, Williams writes, are what allow us to continue to follow after, and to stay with, Jesus, as we grow as disciples.

As Drew mentioned in his review, Williams is able to pack so much into 87 pages, and offers something for both the seasoned believer and the new disciple. As with Being Christian, study questions are supplied at the end of each chapter, making this a worthwhile group study. I cannot recommend this little book highly enough. Savor it, and return to it frequently as you seek to become a deeper disciple of Jesus Christ.


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