Discipleship... It Takes a Church: Part 2 of a (probably) 10 part series on Discipleship
Christ desires his followers to be disciples. Actually, that's not entirely right. True followers of Christ ARE disciples. As we discovered in our last post there are not two categories of people who follow Christ - Christians, and disciples. There are only to be disciples. Somehow we have bought into the idea that we can be merely Christians, have public and private convictions that are Christian, without sacrificing what is needed to become disciples of Christ. In this usage of terms, the Christian is someone who assents to Christ and his work, assents to his need for salvation and may even live some parts of his life to that end. But the disciple, the kind of follower that Jesus truly desires, is someone who, as Dallas Willard states,
is intent upon becoming Christ-like and so dwelling in his “faith and practice,” systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end.
The disciple is one who is willing to follow Christ no matter what it costs and is willing to give up everything of this world so that he can get the only treasure that matters in this life or the next - Jesus Christ. Discipleship involves personal commitments, but it is so much more than that. It involves community and relationship as well. Most churches have ministries that are focused on busy work, on having something for everybody so we don't lose anybody. Most Christians think of the church as optional to their spiritual growth. But Jesus wants the church to focus on something much more intimate, much deeper and much more important - we are to make disciples. He also wants each of us individually to focus on the doing the same thing.
True discipleship can only happen within the context of a church. A disciple must receive the true means of grace from his church - the expositional preaching of the Word of God and the sacraments properly administered. He also needs to receive the third means of grace - biblical church discipline which begins with a commitment by the church to discipleship.
A true disciple recognizes that they cannot do it alone, and a true church recognizes they are called by God to make disciples. Discipleship is a community project; it is to be done in the church and by the church. It is to be done within intimate relationships that are grown within the context of the greater body of believers and based upon the public ministries of the church - biblical preaching and the sacraments. Discipleship is not the same as small groups, or accountability partners, or Christian Education (or whatever your church calls it) or Men's and Ladies groups, or whatever else. Discipleship is much more intentional and intimate, and costly, than any of those things.
I like the way Greg Ogden explains discipleship and its relational and communal dimension. Discipleship is,
a process that takes place within accountable relationships over a period of time for the purpose of bringing believers to spiritual maturity in Christ. . . discipling is an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples in order to encourage, equip, and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ. This includes equipping the disciple to teach others as well.
In light of this, we must realize that we need others in our lives. We need the church in our lives. Which means that we will need to sort out our lives to that end. This may mean a change in a great number of things in our lives - a change in relationships or even a change in our church (especially if it does not preach the Word of God faithfully, and by faithfully I mean exegetically).
Let us pause to examine, in light of these things, a few of the things that characterize the true disciple and in doing so illuminate some of the cost of discipleship: (NB: These categories are not all original to me, but I don't know their exact source)
A disciple is committed in heart and mind to do what is needed to deepen his faith - The first step to discipleship is making the personal decision to do what is needed to deepen our faith. This means being willing to rearrange our time and energy and maybe even our money to achieve that end. Discipleship cannot be compartmentalized, we are either all in or not in at all. This encapsulates what Ogden calls the "2 D's" of discipleship - desire (I recognize the need for discipleship and I want to be a part of it) and decision (making the necessary changes in my lifestyle to make discipleship possible)
A disciple is willing to DO what is needed to grow her faith - How many of our intentions have not fallen apart after number 1? Desire and decision are good, but we need to consistently follow through. Discipleship is not something that is received, it is something that is actively sought. We need to turn our commitment into action.
A disciple is biblically grounded - A disciple is first and foremost committed to Scripture. It must be our focus since only God's Word can make us into the disciple we desire to be (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The problem, as one commentator has identified is that most "Christians don’t live like Christians—and that’s partially because they don’t know what they believe and therefore cannot apply appropriate scriptural values to their lives." This can be corrected as the church is committed to actually preaching and teaching the word, and it can be corrected as the individual believer settles for nothing less than this in their church.
A disciple desires relationships within which he can grow his faith - A Christian who thinks he can live on his own as a Christian is a "gross anomaly", as John Stott calls them. That kind of Christian is also completely foreign to the New Testament understanding of the believer and the church. The Church lies at the very center of the eternal purposes of God and we are meant to grow in our spiritual life alongside and with other believers in relationships that are deeply spiritual. Our relationship with Christ should be founded on what happens in the preaching of the Word each Sunday, but it cannot stop there. It must continue throughout the week as we are in relationship with other disciples of Christ.
A disciple seeks to build his faith - A disciple desires to keep building their faith on the solid rock of Christ and the gospel. This means we must have patience and determination and be willing to stick with it through the entirety of our lives.
A disciple is focused on Christ - Our goal is as Colossians 3:5-17 to be Christ-like, not morally or ethically, but formatively, as he, through the Holy Spirit, molds us and shapes us into his image.
This is not going to be easy. There are a lot of things that can get in our way - a lack of commitment or follow-through, the development of merely surface relationships, settling for merely informal or social meetings with others, or we can become focused on a program. But perhaps the worst thing we can do is to view the church and other believers as optional and unimportant for our spiritual development. This is extremely problematic. We must recognize that "[t]he life of Jesus is still being manifest among people, but now no longer through an individual physical body, limited to one place on earth, but through a complex, corporate body called the church." (Stedman)
Or as Greg Ogden has put it,
...the church is not an optional afterthought for those who name Christ as their Lord. The church is central to God’s plan of salvation. God saves people into a new community, which is the vanguard of a new humanity. To be called to Christ is to throw in one’s lot with his people. Many people today like to say, “Jesus, yes; church, no.” To do so is a fundamental misunderstanding of the place that the church has in God’s grand scheme of salvation. To be a follower of Christ is to understand that there is no such thing as solo discipleship.
Given these things I think there is much repenting that we must do, both as individuals and as churches. So many Christians settle for so little in their faith. As a result, they lack peace, and hope. Their faith wavers. They struggle and are discouraged. They feel overwhelmed by sin and feel powerless to overcome it. In short, the unwillingness to commit to true discipleship costs them the abundance that is theirs in Jesus Christ.
At the corporate level, so many pastors are not committed to equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12) substituting the care-giving duties of the deacon for actual discipleship. They preach sermons devoid of biblical weight, and the teaching ministries they oversee are void of the examination of the "whole counsel of God" choosing instead to tickle ears. So many churches are places of mere spiritual busyness, heaping program onto program thinking that this what people truly need. They provide spiritual 'stuff' but not that which truly meets the needs of the soul.
It is time for all of us - individuals, pastors, and churches - to reorient ourselves. To focus on that which Christ has called us, no matter the cost.
Soli Deo Gloria