Discipleship (part 1)

December 10, 2007

Having read Chris Moncus‘ excellent blog on Volunteers Reproducing Themselves, I was inspired to post an edited version of an essay I wrote in 2005 on Small Group Ministry and Discipleship, as I think it captures the heart of what Chris was talking about. May this continue to happen at our church!


“Three men digging a ditch on a scorching summer afternoon were approached by a friend who asked, ‘What are you guys doing?’ The first, already weary from exertion, responded impatiently, ‘What does it look like? We’re digging a hole!’

The second, sensing that the question was not meant to be rhetorical, added, ‘We’re laying a foundation pad. It’s going to be filled with concrete.’

The third man, who had been whistling happily while he labored, laid his shovel aside, wiped his forehead, and began to describe in great detail how this particular hole was strategic for the placement of one of the massive ‘flying buttresses’ that would support an entire wall of stained glass windows for a new cathedral. After describing in great detail the plans and procedures for completion Christmas Eve five years from now, my family and I will worship together at the altar where that rubbish pile is now located.’”

– from Bob DukesA Model for Strategic Disciple Building

Discipleship is the most important ministry in the church – in fact, it IS the ministry of the Church It’s a radical thing to say, but I stand behind it. I’m convinced of it from both Scripture and experience. In the Old Testament, according to God himself in Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Discipleship was teaching the faith, practicing the faith, relationships of faith, and day-to-day walking it out in faith – all were to take place. Who would know better than God the best environments and models for discipleship? Then Jesus, in Mark 13:13-15, called the disciples out, challenged them, raised them up, and even appointed them to positions of authority, ultimately sending them out to do likewise. Discipleship is the primary purpose of the Church, and the problem is not that we don’t try to do it – the problem is that we try, but do not have a vision as to what end we do it, and how to get there. This is where our ditch-digger comes in.

What is the difference between these ditch-diggers?

Notice, first; all three men were working at the same task – they were all digging a hole. The significant difference between them was the degree to which they understood their goal. The more they understood, and, as a result, caught the vision, the more intense and focused (and joyful) their work became.

This is a perfect analogy to the work of the church. Ideally every Christian should want to see Jesus-followers made, since that is the heart of the great commission itself – to “make disciples”. The problem often is, too few of us see the bigger picture – too few have captured the vision. Many of us are like the first digger: we are trying to follow Jesus, and invite others to join us, but with no vision as to the end goal, or how to get there, so we find ourselves frustrated, unfocused, with no direction and oft-times not seeing the progress we’d like. Better off, indeed, are those who at least see the next step – where they’re headed immediately (they recognize where they need to grow next), or even better, if they have the correct end in sight – Christ-like-ness. Hebrews 4:11-13 speaks of various giftings God has given, and for what purpose: “to prepare God’s people for works…so the body may be built up…until we reach unity…and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Notice the end in sight; maturity, which is attainment of the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

What is “maturity in Christ”?

Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 talks negatively of some believers still needing “milk”, rather than “solid food”, because of their immaturity. Likewise, Hebrews 5:12-14a lays the complaint, “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature…” Here maturity in Christ is equated with the ability to teach, train, or disciple others – there comes a time when we grow enough into Christ-like-ness that we become teachers ourselves – we are “sent out” to use our gifts “that the body may be built up” so others might become “mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Those of us with the perspective of the 2nd worker have this in mind – we have the end in sight, but we might be disabled in some way, not quite knowing HOW to build up the body – not having a plan for how this pile of rubble, so to say, will actually become a church. We need the perspective of the 3rd worker – the vision of what we are to become, and a construction plan of how to get there.

What are the qualities of the “Mature in Christ”?

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

Hebrews 5:12-6:3

First thing I notice here is this; as I have said already, there is a time by which a believer is no longer in need of discipleship, but should be given responsibility to disciple others – a time where he or she is no longer a student, but a teacher. This does not mean they stop learning just as an adult does not stop eating food. If any of us stopped eating we would die, but an adult does, under normal circumstances, no longer need to be spoon fed like a child. He is equipped to feed himself. A Biblical church model should equip us to feed ourselves – to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)? This doesn’t mean we’re encouraged to separate ourselves from fellowship with other believers (Hebrews 10:25), but only that there is a point at which we should no longer need the spiritual attention of a newborn – when we should then be giving, rather than merely receiving. We need a model of ministry with this end in sight.

Second, since the one still needing milk is “unskilled in the word of righteousness”, the mature believer should be the opposite. What does it mean to be “skilled in the word”? As 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” To “rightly handle” the word is to be “skilled in the word”: treating God’s revealed Word with reverence, and respect, and interpreting and applying to one’s life (AND the life of others) with care and even fear, given how important it is to apply and understand them correctly (see 2 Peter 3:16).

Third, the mature practice discernment. Notice – they don’t merely HAVE it, they put it into practice, and this discernment is sharpened by being continually put to good use. The discernment spoken of here is no spiritual gift, but simply something every mature believer, by encountering and knowing and growing up into Christ-like-ness, should have. And what does discernment in practice look like? Godly wisdom – nothing less.

Lastly, from this passage, the mature should be beyond the following: 1.) dead works (trying to earn one’s salvation through works rather than by faith), 2.) instruction about washings (the mature should already be baptized and have a clear understanding of the nature of baptism, both physical and spiritual), 3.) laying on of hands (the mature should understand the transference of gifts and authority within the church), 4.) resurrection (Jesus was raised bodily, and we will be too), and 5.) eternal life. Basically, these should no longer be stumbling blocks or issues for the mature – they should be beyond these 5 issues, and if they are not, they should be addressed now, so they may move on to more important matters of discipling and laying these foundational truths and practices in other’s lives.

What are the attitudes of the “Mature in Christ”?

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Philippians 3:7-16

Philippians 3 holds another key to Christian maturity, which I will call “attitude”, or rather the way we think about things. Earlier on in the book of Philippians Paul has already called us to put on the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). Part of becoming more like Jesus and growing in maturity involves humbly learning from Him, and learning from others, like Paul, as they learn from him (1 Corinthians 11:1). Here we are hearing from Paul some of the thoughts and attitudes that Christ would have us to learn. As Paul clearly states, “Let those of us who are mature think THIS way.”

How are we to think? First, like Paul, we are to consider all of the righteous things we do as no more than feces (much closer to the actual word used in the Greek) in comparison to the work Jesus did on the cross on our behalf. We should not believe that anything we could ever do could obligate God to save us. We are to know that we are righteous, but only because we have been given the righteousness of Jesus through faith in Him. The mature think this way: I am desperately dependant on God’s work if I am to ever see God.

Now, as a result Paul confesses in other places that the true Gospel may in fact have a negative reaction among many. Romans 6:15 asks, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is the natural response of the non-believer or the immature, but not the mature believer.

“Let those of us who are mature think THIS way.” Though we realize it is by faith we have been saved, we recognize our need for striving in the area of sanctification. In fact it is only because God already has us tightly gripped in His protecting hand that we find ourselves safe to truly live the Christian life and truly grow. What can be done to separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:35-39) Absolutely nothing! We are safe to strive for Godliness – fear no longer hinders us from a life of risk, for God already holds us secure in his grace. Those who are mature think this way: we have been bought with a price – God now holds our life in His hand – therefore we are free to live a life in response to that safety – a life of striving and pushing and working towards the triumphant goal He has set before us.

The 2 attitudes of a mature believer are;

1.) I recognize that I can do nothing to earn God’s favor, and

2.) I realize that God has already done what needs to be done to secure my salvation, therefore I am free to live a life pleasing to Him in response to that security.

What does the life of the “Mature in Christ” look like?

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”–these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

1 Corinthians 2:6-10

Wisdom is knowledge lived out. The last quality of the mature Christian is this: they walk out the fruit of the Spirit – they put into practice the words of Christ – they practice what Jesus preached. When we know God intimately, meeting Him “in the secret place” – when we have that depth of relationship, the natural outworking of that is wisdom: living the life of Christ in a broken world. The mature Christian looks ever more like Christ – his life is conspicuously like Jesus, who was the Word made flesh – wisdom embodied, and lived.

So, what is the vision – what is the goal? The 10 Qualities of the Mature Summarized

Returning to our parable once more, the third ditch-digger had vision – he understood the goal of his digging. Like him, the church needs to understand the goal we’re working towards – maturity in Christ. Though there will be much cross-over, and there are many ways or arranging these traits, this is essentially the goal of the church.

The Mature in Christ…

  1. …trains others to become more like Jesus.
  2. …is skilled in understanding the Word and able to “feed” himself.
  3. …is discerning.
  4. …recognizes that he can do nothing to earn God’s favor and does not try to earn his salvation.
  5. …has been baptized and understand the nature of baptism.
  6. …understands and respects the transference of gifts and authority within the church.
  7. …believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our future resurrection
  8. …is secure in his hope in eternal life with Christ.
  9. …lives a life pleasing to God in response to his security in Christ.
  10. …lives a life of wisdom and intimacy with God.

Whatever way of “doing church” we pursue – whatever model of ministry we employ – we need to recognize that, even as under-emphasized as these traits may sometimes appear in church history, Jesus’ goal in commissioning the church was, and is, to bring non-believers into the kingdom, disciple them to maturity, then send them out to do the same. How can we do this?

Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3!



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