Discipleship and Development
WCIU Journal: Worldview Topic
February 26, 2018
by Bob Moffitt
“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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20).
A paradigm is the filter through which we see reality. It is shaped by our beliefs and experiences. Our paradigms can blind us from recognizing what is real. Evangelical Christians have been blinded by a paradigm that focuses on making “converts” and overlooks Jesus’ emphasis on making disciples. The biblical understanding of making disciples is a continuous process that often but not always begins with conversion and leads to obeying/submitting to Jesus and therefore reflecting or looking like Him.
To teach people to obey God’s will—not just know about it—is the only path to discipleship. When we begin to live the way he wants—even if we don’t yet know him—our heart begins to supernaturally open to God’s Love. Small groups can learn to follow biblical principles in personal and financial relationships. They may initially be unaware of the source of the principles, but participants will see the positive changes that result from following these principles. Later they will learn that thee source of these principles is God’s Word. Eventually some can be led into a personal relationship with Jesus. (For an example, go to www.mustardseedsshared.org.)
I believe our tendency of getting people to assent to a creed without equipping them to live according to the principles of God’s Word is a major reason, if not the primary reason, that societies have rejected the only path toward true and sustainable human flourishing. God wants people to flourish—to live now and in eternity as God intended. In Scripture we see that human flourishing is a result of obedience, of doing God’s will.
Deuteronomy chapters 28 and 30: If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. 2 All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God. (Deut. 28:1, 2; see the whole chapter, which is titled in the NIV, “Blessings for Obedience”)
2 Chronicles chapter 7: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chron. 7:14).
Isaiah chapter 58: The rebellious people of Israel wondered had forsaken God’s commands by exploiting their workers, by quarreling and fighting. God told them he wanted to see his people humble themselves and give justice to the oppressed, to share their food, clothing, and shelter with those in need. Then, God said, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame” (Isa. 58:8, 9, 11).
These passages show that God’s people need to be engaged in the social arena of society. Some current movements speak of “mission as transformation.” Many social projects come out of this movement. But one problem with this approach is that the projects are presented as a way to bring transformation. This way of thinking risks giving the impression that transformation is something people can accomplish through social initiatives rather than something that God does. Biblically, we understand that the effects of the fall are so profound that even redeemed humans are incapable of understanding, much less healing, their own brokenness. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 God made it clear to Solomon that the healing of our brokenness is something he does in response to our living in obedience to his commands.
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use the gifts he has given us in the process of transformation. He clearly does. We see this multiple times in the lives of Old Testament heroes and in the historic and contemporary Church. But what Scripture does imply is that the best human efforts that are not infused with his supernatural power will fail to bring healing to our broken lives and/or communities. Biblical transformation is the result of God’s supernatural intervention in human affairs. (Again, see Deuteronomy 28 & 30 and Isaiah 58.) Even the best efforts of men do not result in transformation. Our role in transformation is obedience (read “discipleship”). God’s role is healing the brokenness that results from sin.
Another contemporary transformation movement focuses on the spheres of society. These spheres are sometimes spoken of as the Seven Mountains. The idea is that Christians need to be intentional in seeking ways to bring Kingdom principles into these spheres. The sphere/mountain concept is a helpful metaphor for thinking about the transformation of our societies. But unless the people addressing these areas of society are disciples in the biblical sense, their work will have little eternal consequence.
Healing/transformation that begins at the personal level and eventually leads to community and national levels is relatively straightforward. How? God transforms on the condition of the obedience of his people. When his people obey he heals. This is another reason for the priority of discipleship.
When Jesus knew he was about to leave his closest friends. He wanted to be sure they clearly understood his intentions for how he, their Lord, wanted them to carry out the task for which he had come into the world. What was that task? It was making disciples of nations: The Bible uses the terms “nation” or “nations” over 700 times. That tells us something about God’s heart for the world. He wants to see the nations of the world flourish. Nations, of course, are discipled beginning with individuals and families. Yes, we must disciple individuals, but with the goal of discipling nations so their societies flourish as God intends. As we disciple individuals we need to help them connect the dots between their obedience and the discipling of their nations. A pessimistic eschatology often keeps us from seeing the good news that God intends to fulfill his promise to “heal our land” as his people live out his commands. If it happened in pagan Rome in the first centuries of the church, and in a very corrupt British society in John Wesley’s era, it can happen again.
I believe that a major reason – if not the primary reason – for the lack of revival and increasing shalom in the cultures that have been exposed to biblical teaching is that our focus has been on getting people to agree to a knowledge about God rather than teaching those who are willing to “follow Jesus” to be like Jesus. That means at least two things: First, it means teaching those who decide to follow Jesus to live in obedience to the biblical principles in Scripture. Second, it means preparing followers to be servants after Jesus’ model—willing, humble, sacrificial, and joyful (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 12:2).
Rodney Stark’s study of the early church convinced him that the primary cause of the growth of Christianity during the early part of the Classical period was the lifestyle of the early Christians. In other words, they incarnated Jesus. God created humans in his image, and he uses the abilities he gave us, but human efforts alone do not bring healing/transformation. The healing for which we long is only possible by the supernatural intervention of God in human affairs. Only God can heal our individual and corporate brokenness.
I saw a hint of this revealed truth in a couple of instances when I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo a few years ago. The first instance was driving from the airport to the city. My first visit to Kinshasa almost 10 years earlier was to a city whose main streets looked and smelled like garbage dumps. This time the main street was clean and workers were actually sweeping not only the gutters but the streets. Amazed, I commented about the change to our country leader. He casually said, “We started that.” Thinking this was hyperbole I just as casually asked what he meant. He reminded me that in our training we encourage the churches we train to pick up the trash on the street where their church is located as a demonstration of God’s love and care for creation. The churches in the city that his team had trained were doing that, and the government noticed. Not only did they notice, they hired unemployed laborers to keep the main streets as clean as you would find in well-manicured cities.
The pastor of one of these churches, a fourth-generation pastor that our team in the Congo has trained, had a vision for the hundreds of unemployed youth in the community where his church was located. One Sunday he challenged his congregation to provide vocational training for these young people. He reminded his congregation that there were many professions represented in the membership, e.g., mechanics, cooks, hair dressers, computer technicians, drivers, dress makers, etc. He challenged them to hold training sessions for community youth—for free. He said the church would provide the space in their spacious building for the classrooms. Two years before I arrived the classes started. This was the graduation. I will never forget the cheers from the graduates as their particular vocational class graduated. The cheers were not for themselves but for the teachers who had sacrificially given themselves to provide vocational training to kids who otherwise would not have had this opportunity.
Each of these examples is a taste of what can happen when people of God allow the Christ who dwells within to live out his life through them. Imagine the healing and transformation that could happen if all the churches in Kinshasa—or of any other city—would do the same.
When God’s people live as Christ calls them to live, only then does the church fulfill Paul’s prophetic vision, that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph. 3:10). The Church is the administration of God’s “manifold wisdom and power” of reconciliation and restoration displayed to the observing principalities and powers (Eph. 3:9-10). It is thus that the fullness of Christ—which is incomprehensible love—is seen and felt by a broken world (Eph. 1:23; 4:13; 4:17-19). I believe this Scripture teaches that the priority task of the church is making disciples—equipping those who have come to Christ to imitate him as servants who, as we have seen above, are willing, humble, sacrificial (Phil. 2:5-8), and joyful (Heb. 12:2).
Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.