Regardless of their physical age, the Scripture likens new followers of Jesus to infants who need to be brought to mature stature.
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14)
It isn’t by accident that training disciples is likened to raising children. Disciples and children have many characteristics in common.1 Keep the following in mind as we continue to discuss the process of disciple-making:
- Both are intended to grow and must grow to be effective in life.
- Both have the essential equipment they need to function but need guidance and assistance because their faculties and skills aren’t developed.
- Both have an inborn desire to grow and only stop growing when they fail too often, are hurt too much or lack challenges and encouragement from others who care about them.
- Both need guidance, accountability and support of a family.
- Both must learn things according to an order, starting with easily digested, but nutritious “milk,” graduating to solid food when it can be handled properly.
Let’s briefly address the concept of ordered learning just mentioned by first considering Paul’s words to the Colossian church:
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to [ the elementary principles of ] Christ.”2
The Roman concept behind the word variously translated as basic, elementary, or first in these verses corresponds to our idea of learning the ABCs. We must learn the letters before then words and then complex written communication. You see, this scripture, and others, presume that there are first principles that every Christian should be taught and challenged to work into their lives as soon as possible in order to be equipped to go on to live the Christian life effectively and to be able to reach maturity.3 While there definitely are facts and concepts that must be mastered, we are not simply talking about using the so called “Texas model” of education: sit, git, spit and fergit to try to pass on information as the world does. We are talking about laying a foundation that is part of new personal world view, set of values and behaviors for all arenas of life.
The church leaders living in the first few centuries after the Apostles died can give us some insight into what some of the first principles are. They summarized the Apostles teaching in two parts, the proclamation (the kerygma),4which was the foundation for the later church creeds that summarized key beliefs of the Christian faith, and the “teachings” (the didache) which describe essential Christian values and behaviors. While these form a simplified summary of the Apostle’s teachings which we have in the New Testament they give insight into how they made disciples. In later centuries, other church leaders created their own creeds and catechisms as well as tomes of church doctrine. They too are very valuable for study and reference, but we must realize that these later formulations are influenced by the cultural and church issues of their time as well as an ever growing body of tradition.
In summary any plan for completing the Great Commission should integrate an orderly way of passing on core concepts of a Christian world-view, beliefs and behaviors with life transformation. BILD’s First Principle Series is a set of group discussion based workbooks lays a good foundation for discipleship.
As a side note, I have observed that many conflicts and stresses in the lives of Christians are often due to not having been exposed to some of these core teachings and/or not having been expected to work them into their lives early in their Christian walk. In that regard I can even recommend the First Principle Series for older Christians, especially if you want to disciple others.
To fulfill Jesus’ commission, it’s not good enough to say that it’s Jesus’ life that is to be transferred so let Him do it. Believers need a healthy set of close relationships to grow and to fulfill their role in the body of Christ.
We should not be surprised that a disciple’s relationship with God is described in family language. After all, the concept of family is inherent in the very nature of God.5 The Scripture tells us that God has adopted us, that Jesus is our brother, that God now treats us as full heirs of all that the Father has created as we wait until we are at home in His house. We have changed citizenship to be that of our new father. We are brothers and sisters in one family. A healthy family talks openly, knows each others history, helps one another through times of difficulty and stays in touch. It facilitates the development of each member’s character and its diversity works to build well rounded maturity. So we need to be involved with one another because God has ordained it to be that way
Paul knew this. He was not satisfied with simply gathering a large group of converts but was intent on delivering each Christian to a significant level of maturity through a process of admonition and teaching which he often referred to as fathering and mothering those who came to Christ under his preaching.6 This shepherding of God’s people required intense, committed relationships to be built across racial and cultural boundaries.
“In the wake of Paul’s travels throughout the Mediterranean, Christian communities sprang up, consolidated, and began to multiply. This was the outcome of a deliberate policy on his part. He not only proclaimed the message about Christ and brought people into an intimate relationship with God, but he also explained the consequences of that message for the life of his converts and led them into a personal relationship with one another. As we have seen, for Paul the gospel bound believers to one another as well as to God. Acceptance by Christ necessitated acceptance of those whom he had already welcomed (Romans 15:7); reconciliation with God entailed reconciliation with others who exhibited the character of gospel preaching (Phil 4:2-3); union in the Spirit involved union with one another, for the Spirit was primarily a shared, not individual, experience. The gospel is not a purely personal matter. It has a social dimension. It is a communal affair. To embrace the gospel then is to enter into community. A person cannot have one without the other.”7
The Bible is filled with statements that teach we were designed to experience Christ together. Hebrews 10:23-25:““Let us hold on firmly to the faith we profess, because we can trust God to keep His promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another, to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.”8 In the book Leading Christians to Maturity, Ralph Martin is quoted as saying that Christian community can be described as a family relationship.
“Coming into community means passing from relationships based primarily on my convenience or my need, to relationships that are based on commitment: whether it’s convenient or not, whether I need you or not, I commit myself to be a brother or sister to you. Entering community life involves a conversion from being concerned primarily about my good and the good of my family to taking a concern for our good, the good of the people of God, the good of the body of Christ in our area. We pass from a position of independence and isolation into a relationship of interdependence and into a shared life.”
Passing on a new world-view, beliefs and values effectively involves learning truth in an environment where people teach one another the truth of the God’s word and where people feel safe enough to expose their failures, fears, and weaknesses and help one another process them for the purpose of becoming like Christ and participating in His mission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Large corporate meetings have important, unique aspects of preaching, a sense of acceptance by being part of a large movement of people, a sense of security, and the operation of a variety of gifts, but disciple-making depends on high quality relationships. Building the trust that it takes to transfer a life takes a long time of frequent contact in a relaxed setting.Footnotes
- 1 Cor. 3:1; Heb. 5:12-13 [↩]
- Colossians 2:6-8 [↩]
- Eph. 3:17; Col. 2:8; Heb. 5:12; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:13; Hebrews 5:12; Jude 3; Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 2:8; Heb. 5:12 [↩]
- for additional information on the kerygma see afn.org [↩]
- See Building a Church of Small Groups for a good treatment of this [↩]
- 1 Thess. 2:7,11 [↩]
- Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, pg. 26-27 [↩]
- GNB [↩]