Part #2: Understanding the Fundamental Nature of Discipleship
Dr. Lance Cole in his dissertation on discipleship seems to extrapolate his definition of discipleship from the text of Matthew 28: 18-20 (the Great Commission). He defines discipleship as follows:
...our working definition of discipleship will be “teaching Christians to understand and follow everything that Jesus commanded.” p 30.
- A disciple is a learner: God’s Word, God’s Way, God’s Will
- A disciple is a follower: Application, Responsibility, Obedience, Accountability (the dirty “A” word) Requires: Change, Transformation, Maturation, & Growth
However, both Lance and I add a third aspect to this discipleship process (which, in fact, grows out of the second aspect above). To discuss this “third aspect”, I often borrow from the “Full-Circle Discipleship” model depicted in Ezra 7:10 which pictures the discipleship paradigm practiced by Ezra:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it, and to teach His statures and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7:10
To synopsize, Ezra’s “three aspect process” of discipleship is as follows:
- Aspect 1: Study the Word (become a learner/student of the Word)
- Aspect 2: Practice the Word (become a follower/doer of the Word)
- Aspect 3: Teach the Word (become a teacher/discipler of the Word)
The truth is that discipleship is not true biblical discipleship until the disciple has matured to the point that she now begins to disciple others.
I believe that Lance agrees with me on this on p.12: The point of discipleship, especially discipleship done in small groups, is to have those disciples multiply and train other disciples. Discipleship is meant to reproduce the fruits that have been seen in the life of Jesus and other believers.
See also Dr. Cole’s comments on pp. 32-33:
The important thing to recognize is the progression from student to teacher-student.... It is the responsibility and the duty of all followers of Christ to take the next step and become the one who disciples other Christians to maturity.
The truth is that most of us know that our basic journey to understanding God’s will and God’s way begins with learning/studying the Word of God itself. This is the 1st aspect of discipleship.
However, when we begin to seek to follow/practice/obey/live the Word, we encounter an entirely different dimension of discipleship maturation when we are forced to face our undeniable need to continue a life of repentance and our deep need to be transformed from within before we can live His Word well. This involves significant transformative work to be done by the Holy Spirit on us from the inside-out. The result is that we are being changed by Him to be different and thus to live differently. This is the 2nd aspect of discipleship.
Finally, once the Holy Spirit has begun to mature us in our sanctification process via the 2nd aspect of discipleship, we move into an even deeper dynamic of discipleship as we begin to prepare to teach these same truths to another believer. Those of you who have taught the truths of scripture to others know well that we actually learn exponentially more when we begin to teach than when we simply study for ourselves. This is the 3rd aspect of discipleship.
I realize that what I am about to write is going to make some of my readers uncomfortable-- maybe even angry. However, I believe that it needs to be said if our more traditional churches are ever going to get healthy.
In many of our churches, we do not have discipleship—at least not biblical discipleship. Instead, what we do have is what is often referred by writers on discipleship as “Momma-Bird-Baby-Bird” (MBBB) instruction on Wednesday and/or Sunday nights. What this usually looks like is the Lead Pastor in the sanctuary with 10-20 members with the Lead Pastor spoon-feeding the attendees a devotion, lesson, or homily of sorts.
Sometimes the members do not even open their bibles. In some cases, there is topical instruction but no direct exegetical tie to the Scriptures itself. Almost always, the members sit in silence—maybe some are taking a few notes. There are few to no questions and answers. There is no interaction. There is a noticeable lack of inquisitiveness on the deeper meanings of the texts. There is little application for how they should go live these principles. There is no discussion of accountability. There is no expectation that the members should now seek to teach these same truths to others.
What occurs in MBBB is a “consumer” approach to the Word of God whereby the members only expect the Pastor to tell them what the Bible says so that they can glean what they want to get out of it. Of course, many of us only want “to get out of it” what continues to keep our lives “safe, warm, and comfortable”. We are not too keen to be changed to become the type of follower of Christ who “turns the world upside-down” (to coin a biblical phrase). Please know that this type of instruction is not discipleship. There is very little if any actual transformation which takes place in such classes.
Early in my pastoral ministry, I tasted of this reality quickly. There was an elderly woman in our church who had attended these Wednesday night MBBB gatherings literally for 50+ years. She never missed one of these MBBB opportunities. She was faithful to attend her church’s provided educational ministry. She was an unbelievable source of biblical knowledge; in fact, she had more biblical stuff in her head than any other woman which I had met up to that point in time.
However, her church had failed her; she had no evidence whatsoever of any spiritual maturity in her life. Apparently, she never experienced any real biblical change over those decades of MBBB. In fact, she was eat up with terrible life habits, horrible relations with other believers, and she was one of the most miserable persons I had ever met. She was bitter, contentious, argumentative, arrogant, irritating-- the list goes on and on.
She was there at the MBBB every Wednesday night, and she was exposed to biblical information. However, there was no maturation and no transformation by the Holy Spirit in her life, because the MBBB is NOT DISCIPLESHIP.
Sadly, in many cases, what goes on in what is often referred to as adult Sunday School is not much better than the MBBB. While this was not so true of the Sunday Schools in past seasons of our churches, it has become the case for many of our churches today.
So where and how is real biblical discipleship being done in our more healthy churches in America? Real discipleship is being done best in small groups—very often being done in homes outside of the church building. In many respects, this return to small groups in America is a recapturing of the intimate discipleship process done in the early church as reflected and captured so well in Acts 2:42.
I will return to small groups in a couple of weeks. But before shifting to the strategy of small groups, I will speak next of the actual process of transformation process which occurs in real biblical discipleship. While I have overviewed this transformational process this week (Aspect #2), I will be writing on it in much greater detail next week.