It's a common phrase in Christian circles. We talk of "discipling" someone, "being" discipled, or going where there is a strong emphasis on discipleship. What's wrong with this picture? More than might meet the eye.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture and hosts Church and Culture.org.
It’s a common phrase in Christian circles. We talk of “discipling” someone, “being” discipled, or going where there is a strong emphasis on discipleship. What’s wrong with this picture? More than might meet the eye.
If you notice, the language itself puts the entire emphasis on someone, or something, “doing” discipleship “to” someone else. The one being discipled is seemingly passive. In other words, discipleship is something “received.” But that is not the idea of discipleship in the Bible. The word “disciple” is from the Greek word “mathetes” and literally means “learner.” Stop there. Re-read.
“Learner.” If I’m not mistaken, that puts the action firmly into the lap of the one doing the learning. The point is that you, as a disciple, are to be actively learning. It is your responsibility to take up the mantle of self-development.
And yes, this suggests a teacher is involved.
And yes, we talk about someone going to college to “receive” an education.
And yes, Jesus seemed to fill the teaching/equipping role by inviting twelve men (and more than a few women) to do life with him for three years.
And yes, they were called “disciples.”
But reflect on those early followers. Theirs was an invitation to learn, not to enter into a passive process of being fed. We certainly know that not all of the twelve went to school on Jesus.
One in particular didn’t seem to learn much of anything. If discipleship was simply something “done” to you, Jesus failed epically with Judas. [I wonder if he ever said he needed to follow another rabbi where he could be better “fed.”]
No, growing in faith is something that can be served by others, but ultimately must be owned personally by ourselves. This is decisive. Too many followers of Christ view discipleship as something that is done to them and for them, akin to a personal enrichment program. Yet the writer of Hebrews made it abundantly clear that people who keep getting “fed” in this way are in arrested development. Once out of infancy, they should no longer need to be fed, but instead be feeding others (Hebrews 4:11-13).
But even more disquieting is how we have missed out on what it is we should focus on learning. The back-half of the Great Commission exhorts us to teach new believers to obey what Christ has commanded. And what has Christ commanded? To live out our lives in mission to the least and the lost.
In other words, what we are to be “learning” is increased love toward others and increased faith for the task of serving them. We are not to be in search for a feeding station that creates a culture of dependency and endless demand for head-knowledge, but a learning environment where an active life of faith is stretched and encouraged.
I know, knowledge is needed. Doctrine matters. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. But only when what is in the mind translates into obedience to the widow and orphan, the hell-bound and skeptic.
So what would that kind of discipleship entail? In his book Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley states the practice of many seasoned spiritual leaders in detailing the five primary ways people experience growth in their faith:
In other words, faith is stretched by being in the game;
…where you are admonished by teachers/leaders, investing in connecting with God through prayer and the Scriptures, putting yourself on the front lines of the cause of Christ, mixing it up with other Christians who sharpen you as iron against iron, and being led by God into unique situations that challenge you at the deepest of spiritual levels.
That’s not passive, but active. It’s something that can be served, but never delivered. It takes a church, but only goes so far as the person is willing to be,
…a true learner.
Sources Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide.
First published on the Church & Culture website on January 21, 2013. Reprint according to policy.