This is a topic that I’ve been trying to avoid writing about for a while because of the perceptions that it might raise. I don’t want to appear to be a rebel or look like I’m channeling a spirit of dissension. Neither did I want to appear passive-aggressive about the issue and not speak to the people directly involved. However, after talking to my mom–a full-time church worker–this morning, she encouraged me to write about it, because she actually agreed with me, and that this is an issue that might be beneficial for the whole church to hear.
A brother of mine recently raised a discussion on what discipleship was and what it meant exactly. He was concerned about certain practices that were being undertaken in church which he felt stifling, to say the least. He felt that he had already been pouring so much into ministry and proclaiming the Gospel and yet because the church was requiring certain things, (or at least he felt that he was being required to do certain things) the impression he was getting was that his already heavy ministry burdens were being deemed insufficient and that if he did not have a certain number of disciples under a particular model, it was not enough.
A counter-argument that was raised during the discussion was that the method being used was the model that Jesus had used, and that it was the most efficacious. However, I think there was a miscommunication here: what was not being questioned was the philosophy of discipleship. My friend was all for discipleship. What was being questioned was the formula, the procedure, the prescription.
During the discussion, my heart went out to my brother. Truth be told, I had been feeling the same way.
Firstly, my calling was not to disciple men my age, but teenagers. I have observed that I have a better rapport with them. I don’t think this is a bad thing; I have accepted this as the way things are. Now naturally, when invited to gatherings that involved bringing my downline, I could not. Out of sensitivity for my disciples, it would be better than I did not bring them. This alone made me feel somewhat alienated from the rest of the group. I chose not to let this affect me, however, but instead just did my best to keep doing what I knew the Lord wanted me to do. There was no point in discipling my co-workers (as we were all being discipled at school and at church), but since I had a close relationship with my students, I figured that I should not make excuses and disciple them.
Second, I was not discipling them under a “registered” status–I did not meet them in church, but at school, and I did not enter them into a database (neither did I have any desire to). In such a case, my school-based dgroup was not counted, not seen as intentional, and somewhere along the line, not seen as discipleship at all, to the extent that I was once told to get with the program. I accepted and understood the terms, but now I’m realizing that this issue is not as unique to me as I thought it was.
The Biblical Truth
The following we cannot deny and I wholeheartedly believe that all Christians must agree: We are called to discipleship.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teachingthem to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Jesus states his divine and supreme authority in giving this command; it is one that should be obeyed with all seriousness. The word translated as “make disciples” in English is “μαθητεύω,” which, when used transitively as in this sense, means to “enrol a scholar;” it does not imply an impersonal proclamation of the Gospel (ala televangelist), but rather a committed, intentional, and regular communication. Thus far, I do not see any problems. None should arise at this juncture.
This same attitude can be seen in the way Christ ministered to His disciples: they were close friends who were kept in close fellowship; they did things together, learned together, and ate together. They were given opportunities to minister to others. They did all these. Christ’s discipleship was committed, intentional, and regular.
No problems so far; Christ’s model is clear.
What things did Christ do with His disciples? They traveled a lot. By walking. Does that mean in our own small groups, we have to walk around Metro Manila and learn about things in the streets? I don’t think so.
Jesus and the Twelve walked through wheat fields, picking grains and eating them—something culturally acceptable and prescribed by the Law of Moses—it was not considered theft or trespassing. Can and should we do the same now? Of course not.
Did Jesus and his disciples watch movies together? Play bowling together? Play sports together? Obviously, they didn’t do the first two. The Bible is silent on the last. Does that mean we shouldn’t do them? I think the answer is obvious.
Jesus commanded us to make disciples. He didn’t say how. He gave guiding core values and general attitudes that were implicit in the term “make disciples,” but there is no prescribed formula. Paul planted disciples wherever he planted churches; other men of the faith didn’t travel as much and settled there. Jesus never left his home region. Either way, the relationships were committed, intentional, and regular.
Paul’s extensive discourse in 1 Corinthians 12 is clear—not everyone has the same gifts, nor does everyone have the same work. (v. 4-6) We do, however, have the same Lord, and as such we all have to obey His command. That command is to make disciples. This recognizes the innate diversity in the Church (v.12)–Nobody should feel alienated (v. 15) nor should anyone be actively alienated (v.21) on account of being “different”. There should be unity in diversity in the body of Christ (v. 20, 26). It’s not about uniformity, it’s about unity–and Paul goes on to say what exactly unifies us all in chapter 13: Love.
I cannot speak for my friend, but I meet my students every day. I make every effort to incorporate Biblical truths into my lesson plans. When they need to speak to me in order to ask for advice, I stay up to listen even if it’s late at night. By the standard set by the Lord, I think this should qualify as discipleship, registered or not.
It is human nature to be a creature of habit. Creatures of habit seek the comfort of familiarity, and formulas and patterns provide comfortable arrangements for people to follow. However, do we end up serving the format instead of it serving us?
I know likewise that the church aims to equip each member with the knowledge and skills necessary to obey Christ’s command. Without a doubt, this requires training and study. We should make sure nobody has excuses to not follow the command. However, like worship, like courtship, discipleship seems to have no set formula, but there are core principles that cannot be compromised: Do we teach God’s word? Do we influence our disciples positively?
Ultimately, I think the reason why we are without excuse with regard to discipleship is this: We can do it anywhere.
For most people, it’s their friends or their co-workers whom they can disciple. For almost everyone, there’s family. In my case, there are many students who need to be discipled; teaching in a Christian school helps a lot in that regard.
Whether it’s our own children, or other people’s children in Sunday school, or teenagers at the youth service, or co-workers, or our household helps, we can and should disciple. Whomever we are and wherever we are, we are called to disciple, and we should respect each other’s respective mission fields as the areas that the Lord has given to us to minister in.
The patterns and tools that the church equips us with should remain just that: tools. We only use tools when applicable; one does not drive in nails with a screwdriver; neither does one cut wood with nails. We adapt our methods as the needs demand; we never compromise our central values.
We are instruments in an orchestra. We have one Conductor–Jesus–and play the same song–the Gospel–. We operate in different ways and produce the same sounds, but they all originate from the same piece and lead to the same end. The manner by which a harp is played cannot be used on a violin, and Heaven help us if we think we can play flutes the same way we play cymbals. We are called to unity, not uniformity.