How do God and man cooperate in sanctification? Do they? If they do, what habits would best facilitate this process of maturation? These are some of the main questions involved at the center of the question of discipleship.
Discipleship is the primary force within spiritual formation that occurs in community. It is augmented through different practices and habits, which constitute the rest of spiritual formation, and ultimately involves the Divine nature molding the human nature. In my journey to understand discipleship, or even to attempt at developing a personal philosophy on the matter I have come through three various stages.
The first stage of my understanding of discipleship was excitement. Directly after converting from atheism to Christianity I was enamored with the faith and sought out any who would be willing to discuss the topics I was encountering. In this time, however, I quickly understood that the other men my age were not interested in the things I was learning. So, as it were, I was forced into books. Charles Spurgeon became to me a dear friend, if it is possible to call a man who died over a hundred years before I came to be his brother in the faith such a title. Through his writings I was shaped and molded, many of the actions I had found to be normal were quickly pruned, my passion for the study of Scripture was fostered and a desire for prayer formed.
The second stage was a much more arrogant stage. I had started moving, due to callousness, toward a sense of theological superiority. The view that others around me didn’t have the same doctrinal understandings as me separated me from other more starkly. What had begun as a genuine lack of comradery was becoming the bastion of my pride. It was in this stage that I began to take a determinists approach to discipleship. To be frank about it, I considered any discipleship that could take place to be enacted by the sovereign God and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop him or, for that matter, start him. While in this realm of thinking I still daily studied Scripture and continued to keep my prayer journal, but the deep sense of growth began to wane.
The third stage of my understanding of discipleship is still growing and still happening. The second stage was broken through the severe mercies of God. Now, though, it seems that I am finally coming to a true philosophy of what being a disciple is all about. Discipleship is the primary driving force within spiritual formation that occurs in community.
There are things, habits, within which we can work cooperatively with God to build our faith. I have never had the privilege of being in what I would consider a mentee type of role. But, discipleship does not require a person to be in a mentor/mentee relationship per se.
Within the Christian community I have seen various forms of discipleship, because there are various forms of learners. Some demanded the mentor/mentee relationship, while others required a softer or more malleable approach to discipleship. This differentiated approach to the understanding of discipleship is an area that seems to be missing in many discipleship models.
Form the books assigned it seemed to be a reoccurring theme that discipleship reached its height at the time of the Jesus Movement in the 1970’s (this does not consider the ideal approach of Jesus during the fist century). However, if all models of discipleship are static and not dynamic, do we, the Church, truly believe that we are approaching discipleship rightly? As each person is made in the image of God, we must, therefore, approach discipleship with the same type of creativity that we see God utilize in the created order.
Still more, the community aspect of the discipleship process requires the involvement of an individual within the body of Christ. What this means, is that each individual who comes to faith, should be able to find an approach to how they are best discipled. A beginning step to working out the best way to bring up a new believer in Christ and disciple them effectively would be to have the individual take a learning type quiz. These types of quizzes break down the learner into their strongest suite of learning, giving the teacher, the discipler, a base from which to move forward.
If this is true, that each disciple is discipled differently, then the main mark of right discipleship is that I am being taught all that Christ commanded and growing to be more like him. When I was in the first stage of my Christian faith, Charles Spurgeon was discipling me. Yes, he was not alive and so the actions of life-on-life discipleship were not there, but nonetheless, the person with the greatest voice in some of the my most formative Christian days was Charles Spurgeon.
At this present stage of my life many of the members of my church small group and professors of Southeastern are discipling me. They are teaching me all that Christ commanded. Indeed, they are showing me that I am not strong, but that I am weak and that God is strong. So it remains that discipleship is not that I have sought out, or been sought out to be mentored, but that I have submitted myself to godly men teaching me how to be a godly man according to the commands of Christ.
But to gain a fuller understanding of this creative discipleship we should look at Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission.
“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 of 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.”
This last command of Christ builds an understanding of discipleship that should be descriptive in our differentiated model of discipleship.
First, we must recognize where the authority for our mission resides and is derived. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” it is not partial authority, but all authority. Therefore, it behooves us to begin discipleship on our knees asking the one with all the authority to provide the means to disciple any individual, or be discipled by any individual. The Church is the person of Christ on the earth, as such she is indwelt with divine power to accomplish this mission and should not fear the schemes of evil.
Second, “Go,” we cannot sit and stay or be impartial in the course of disciple making. It is demanded by the very nature of being a Christian to be a disciple maker. To say it another way, it is in our DNA. This means, that in conversation we go forward with the truth; in friendships we go forward with the gospel. We aim to build relationship that can bear the gospel’s weight.
Third, “Make disciples of all nations,” this is the verb of the subject. The call is not simply to go, it is to make, and we do not make emotionalism or pithy statements, we make disciples. This is the call. This is the life. Additionally, this is not a nationality thing, this is an all nations thing. We go, not to just one ethnicity or socio-economical status, but to all, and of all is who me make disciples.
Forth, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” this is the portion that I fear is far to often left out. The call to belief is not the end, it is the beginning. We are to baptize them; this symbol is a deeply meaningful statement. It is a statement to the watching world – both physical and spiritual – that the person in the baptismal waters is signing their death certificate, for they are dead to self and alive in Christ and that they are making a war declaration on their sin. What is more is it is a statement in the belief in the Triune God of creation within whom resides all power and authority.
Fifth, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This is where the journey begins, and where differentiation is key. We teach all that Christ has commanded. As Christ opened up the Old Testament to his disciples so we aim to do the same to those we are discipleing. Thus, the job of discipleship cannot be accomplished void of the Scriptures. Both the Old and the New Testaments are absolutely necessary in the discipleship process. It is not that we are teaching others to emulate our lives, but we are teaching others to be transformed by God for God’s glory.
Sixth, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This job of discipleship cannot be void of God. He has sent us the Helper. He has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within each Christian. It is by his power, which belongs to him that we proclaim the gospel to those whom he has purchased from death, to teach them what he has taught us, as he is with us through it all to the end of it all.
Discipleship is the primary force within spiritual formation that occurs in community. It is important that discipleship happens within the community of the Church and not in a void. And it is necessary that discipleship take a differentiated approach to learning. Building on the creativity that God has designed within his creation, and recognizing that we are image bearers of God. In so doing we must stay saturated by Scripture for without this we are not making disciples of Christ, but disciples of self. And we stay constant in prayer as we need Jesus’ authority in order to see him transform lives, teach his commands and see God glorified.