Nouwen & Ecclesiology pt 3

From Leading to Being Led

In the third and final section of In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen addresses a certain openness that is necessary for all those who wish to follow Jesus; disciples must be willing to be led. Nouwen explains how he entered his time at L’Arche with a strong desire to be in control, but quickly came to the realization that “every hour, day, and month was full of surprises – often surprises I was least prepared for.” In reality, our ideas of control and autonomy are an illusion; they may at times appear to be within our grasp, and this can lead to some destructive abuses of power or the mistaken notion that we ourselves are the source of that which is good around us. However, we must constantly be reminded that God is the one in control, and that all we are and have is a gift from him. This is a reality that quite simply must be embraced by any would-be follower of Jesus.

Jesus was tempted with the opportunity to control all the kingdoms of the world, and instead of exerting his great power over us, he chose to make his home among us. He chose love, plain and simple. This is the choice that faces all those who wish to follow Jesus. Will we align ourselves with the social, political and economic powers of the day, or will we choose to be witnesses to and the embodiment of Jesus’ great love in, to, and for the world?

The reality, as Nouwen sees it, has all too often been the former.

The long, painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.

The task of the church is to hear the words of Jesus spoken to Peter right after he asked him if he truly loved him and commanded him to feed his sheep; “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” For Nouwen, therefore, spiritual maturity is “the ability and willingness to to be led where you would rather not go.

Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be a leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts his with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is led to unknown, undesirable and painful places. The way of (Jesus) is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the downward mobility ending on the cross.

If we are to take seriously the teachings and example of Jesus, then the church is meant not to seek power and control, nor are disciples meant to seek adulation and acclaim; rather, we are to seek “a powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.” Perhaps this kind of language is misunderstood, and rightly so as it does not reflect how we have been conditioned to think and live in the world today. It is not about becoming lifeless and allowing others to walk all over us, but rather truly embracing life and embodying an different way that is modeled after the teachings and example of Jesus. It is “to be so in love with Jesus that (we) are ready to follow him wherever he guides (us), always trusting that, with him, (we) will find life and find it abundantly.” And so, the question remains: will the disciples of Jesus simply abide by the tired the ways of the world, or will we demonstrate to the world that a radically different way of living has been made possible through Christ?

In order to daily make that decision, Nouwen suggests that we adopt the practice of theological reflection. In his book Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, Prof. John Swinton defines practical theology as the following:

Practical theology is critical, theological reflection on the practices of the church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices for the world.


Practical theology is rooted in the scripture and tradition of the Christian faith and takes theology very seriously. However, the theological reflection carried out by the practical theologian is never for its own sake; it is always for the sake of developing practices that faithfully reflect the actions and character of the triune God, as God has revealed God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In Nouwen’s words, this kind of theological reflection allows for the capacity to critically discern where we, as followers of Jesus, are being led.

(The disciple) thinks, speaks and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life. To be (a disciple), it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.

That’s really what it is all about, no? To announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and to enable faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices for the world. It is to hear the living and active voice of the risen Christ in the midst of all the other proclamations competing for our attention and allegiance, and to bear witness to and embody the teachings and example that he left us to follow – teachings that redefine how we are to live in the world, and an example that resisted the pull towards power and into the margins of society, and ultimately to death on a cross.

If, and only if, we choose to follow the Way of Jesus, then “there is hope for the church of the twenty-first century.

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