The Cost of Discipleship in 21st Century America

There has been a political movement lately claiming to protect religious freedom by allowing people of particular faith traditions to withhold professional, secular services from members of the public if doing so would offend their religious sensibilities. By and large, these efforts are driven by conservative Christians who are trying to maintain an ability to keep their secular professional status quo by making members of the public seek services or employment elsewhere. For instance, some employers want to be exempted from providing adequate health care coverage for employees because some of the covered medical services, such as birth control and abortion, offend them.  Bakers in Arizona and Kansas are lobbying to keep their businesses in tact without having to serve homosexual couples because they oppose marriage equality.

In the halls of government and on the Internet, these issues are being debated as a conflict between freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination. One way or the other, the courts will settle the issues and articulate an interpretation of the Constitutions – US and states –that allow all of us to move forward with a somewhat more settled common expectation of what is acceptable and what is not.

As a person of faith, however, my concern is not for the legal ramifications of this struggle, but for the spiritual ones. What impact will it have on our faith communities if we expect the law not only to protect our freedom of religion, but also to have others pay the price for us to exercise it

In 1937, Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, which describes the dangers of “cheap grace,” or the situation in which the church promises believers grace, forgiveness, and sacraments without requiring anything from them. No repentance or discipline or obedience. No discipleship. The epitome of this phenomenon was the sale of indulgencies in Medieval Europe. An indulgence was an exemption from punishment/penance for some types of sin and in late Medieval Europe they could be bought by the wealthy as a type of “sin insurance” or extracted by greedy pardoners or rulers to pay for projects. (Indulgences are not my area of expertise, so pardon me if this definition is a little off. Pun intended.) But Bonheoffer also saw signs of cheap grace in his own day – especially among churches that had been taken over by Nazi sympathizers and conflated political and religious loyalty.

We can see similar examples of cheap grace in our own day. But now, instead of paying for grace out of their own pockets, we see people expecting others to pay that price for them. It is not enough for them to have a personal religious conviction against gay marriage or birth control or a particular government program, they want to ask their customers or patients or other taxpayers to pay the price so that these religious believers don’t have to alter their lives in any way.

Money…or grace?

Now, as a Christian, I can only speak for my own faith tradition, but I have scoured the Bible and can find no instance in which Jesus promised his followers they’d get to keep their job or keep all their money as a benefit of discipleship. In fact, his first followers actually gave up their jobs to follow him. And he famously told a rich man he’d have to give up all he had to gain eternal life. We can argue about how the Constitution balances your right to pursue happiness with your freedom of religion, but there is no argument about how Jesus saw that balance. Discipleship is costly; you will have to give up everything. No one else can take that obligation for you; you must do it yourself.

There have been people throughout the ages who have made these costly sacrifices to honor their faith. Some who object to war on religious grounds will not only avoid military service, but earn low wages to avoid paying taxes that go to the military. People who believe they are obligated to strictly observe the Sabbath don’t ask the NFL to re-schedule games, they simply do not play college or professional sports.

If you are not willing to pay the price of discipleship yourself, it is hypocritical to ask others to make that sacrifice for you – especially since you would almost always be asking it of someone who does not share your particular religious conviction. I am willing to believe that there are people of good will who oppose marriage equality, but Jesus never promised them they’d get to express that belief in a bakery or a photography studio. I know people who don’t think reproductive health coverage should be mandated for businesses, but denying that care is asking others to take the stand for you.

Grace is free – there is nothing you can do to earn it  – but it is not cheap. You can’t buy it and you certainly can’t rack up rewards by charging your beliefs to someone else’s credit card. It requires your own personal effort and sacrifice. Whatever the courts and legislatures decide, the church is in a terrible place if Christians think that the highest demand of their faith is holding others accountable.