By Roy Oksnevad
On my bookshelf I have a number of books on discipleship. It is interesting that some of these books talk about discipleship as creating a discipleship-making movement through evangelism. The focus of discipleship is how to sustain a movement to Christ (evangelism) as if that is the goal of discipleship. Other books deal with discipleship as if we need to correct doctrinal misunderstandings. But is the goal of discipleship to correct doctrine? Other books have a chapter or two on discipleship but they are very general guidelines. These books reflect the ministries’ distinctives such as memorizing Scripture, doing Bible studies by answering certain questions, and the like.
Discipleship books and programs are focused in some sense on doing or knowledge, but not on being. These books portray the spiritual life as disciplines to learn, such as assurance of salvation, filling of the Holy Spirit, prayer, daily reading your Bible, the importance of fellowship and church, learning to witness effectively, understanding spiritual warfare, learning time management, and reproducing your life in others or making new disciples. The idea behind much of this literature is God’s truth—read the Bible, be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and live in a community of believers. But is that all that is needed to make good disciples? There is merit to these topics and approaches, but my question is broader, asking where is the life-on-life sharing which takes us deeper than approaches or information? How do you systematically teach this?
I have found that the tendency in life is to reduce things we learn into a list of dos and don’ts. Americans like programs and education. Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) like to imitate what others are doing. The goal of the Christian life is to have our hearts transformed into the likeness of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and not to fill our heads with more information, theology, or behavior modification.
In the Ten Commandments, 1-4 are about loving God and 5-10 are about loving your neighbor as yourself. In keeping with this same biblical message, Jesus put these two commands together (Matt. 22:36-40). John, in this first letter, emphasizes loving one another (1 John 4:7, 11-12). Jesus made loving one another the mark of a truly godly life by which the world can judge us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). The apostle Paul also made this same point when he said, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). He even goes on in the next verse saying, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15). The conclusion is: The way to love God is to learn to love our neighbor. This is a very hard task, for we often do not have the temperament to love others and others can drive us crazy with certain behaviors, emotions, and passions. So God has given us a very concrete measurement of spiritual maturity—loving one another! It is in this area of loving others that we seem to struggle the most and evangelical Christians have trouble with dismissing, judging, and criticizing each other. God’s Word tells us that a sign of our Christian life is loving each other. Yet, there are areas in our lives that prevent us from loving God and our neighbor like ourselves. Was not Jesus’ focus on helping the disciples to love others and God like themselves?
To help us focus our discipleship we should be able to answer these fundamental questions. If we can not answer these questions, we will fail to grow in our new life in Christ.
- What is the goal of the spiritual life?
- What is the path to the goal?
- What motivates us to begin the spiritual life?
- What helps us make progress in the spiritual life?
- What hinders us in making progress in the spiritual life?
- How do we measure progress?
- What are the fruits of the spiritual life?
Discipleship doesn’t happen by osmosis. Learning how to live out the Christian life must be done in community, and this community isn’t just our own defined community. What typically happens in the Christian life is we discover a new Christian fellowship and quickly fall in love with the new believers. But after we get to know them better, we realize that they are not as perfect as we first imagined. They seem to bring out the worst in us and soon we leave the fellowship for another community. The search for a good, mature, loving church seems to be an endless prospect. Some fellowships are just in survival mode and discipleship has not happened. The Scriptures use the terminology of various stages in life to describe where some people are in their spiritual walk in Christ. For instance, the writer of Hebrews calls some believers babies because they have refused to mature in their walk with Christ (Heb. 5:11-13). The definition of a mature believer is, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14; Rom. 12:2; 16:19; 1 Cor. 14:20). Then again, the tendency is for new believers to want to be seen and to be teachers in their churches. In many countries where there is a very small number of Christians, believers who come together are often just baby believers, including the pastor. The result is that all too often, immature believers are put into a leadership position. In our naiveté we assume that Christians are perfect or at least mature. The reality is that on this side of heaven we don’t become mature all at once, and we will always struggle with our sin nature.
Many fellowships might not have the luxury of having mature believers who can disciple. Reality is that even the leaders are struggling with issues in their past and also need the community to help them grow in loving God and their neighbor. This is accomplished through establishing intentional small groups to help us grow in our spiritual walk in Christ. We will never reach perfection in this life. The apostle Paul put it this way,
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)
If discipleship is learning to say NO to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, does our discipleship focus on the fundamental worldly passions that we all struggle with, or is our discipleship doing the right things or adding to our knowledge? Human nature tends toward reductionism and putting things into categories or boxes. Jesus continually confronted this attitude of reductionism and living in boxes. How much of our discipleship is learning to say no to the deadly thoughts, set healthy boundaries, and replace our vices with godly virtues so we can experience greater self-control in the spiritual life?