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Simplifying Discipleship PDF Print Write e-mail
Sunday, 05 September 2010 00:33

At the heart of simple/organic church life is the lifestyle of discipleship (following Jesus) and discipling others. The difficulty is that we often make discipleship far too difficult. When we see discipleship as primarily about imparting knowledge from one to another, then we need an expert (knowledgeable) who also excels at communicating knowledge to another (teaching gift). Many people do not see themselves as qualified enough (not enough knowledge as compared to professionals or those who have attended seminary) and not gifted enough (again, comparing themselves to those with excellent teaching gifts).

The result is that we have turned discipleship over to the professional teachers (pulpiteers and well-known author/teachers) and the programs that these same people develop. In the process we exclude 90% of the Body of Christ from being active disciplers which is exactly what Jesus asked each of us to do.

Fortunately, simple/organic church planters, and those who have studied or experienced church planting movements, have re-discovered the keys to discipleship and have given those keys back to every-day-believers where they belong.

Here are two of those keys:

1. Discipleship can and should be discovery-based. This means that new believers can actually discover what they need to know about God by opening the Word of God themselves while the Spirit leads and teaches them. In this case, I do not need to be highly knowledgeable nor an effective teacher to come alongside someone who is going directly to the Word to learn from God and to encounter God.

We have put far too much effort into spoon-feeding new Christians by providing milk for them to drink through our pre-digested sermons, notes, teachings, and pre-packaged lessons. The result is that believers do not learn the basics of understanding the Word for themselves, listening to the voice of the Spirit through the Word, and applying it. This latter is the meaning of a disciple: one who hears Jesus speak and follows him.

While teachers can play a helpful supportive role, scripture is abundantly clear that the Holy Spirit is to become the primary teacher in a believer’s life (1 John 2:27). This takes the pressure off of the discipler if we are willing to take on a support role in a disciple’s life rather than the main role.

2. The second key is often called “obedience-based discipleship.” However, since the word “obedience” often conjures up images of legalistic adherence to rules (which is not the same as simply obeying Jesus), I sometimes prefer the term: “active-surrender-based discipleship.” In using this term I will quote Thomas Merton who said: “we must know the truth, we must love the truth we know and we must act according to the measure of our love. Truth is God himself who cannot be known apart from love and cannot be loved apart from surrender to his will.”

Okay, so maybe that’s just a way to say that the way to experientially know and encounter God is to love and obey him. But, here’s the point. A disciple is one who loves and obeys. Period. Therefore obedience-based discipleship (or surrender-based discipleship) focuses on becoming one who follows, one who walks out what God has shown, one who consistently steps into the place of “your will not my will be done.”

Why does this matter? Because, again, knowledge is not the focus here. A new disciple will gain the knowledge that he/she needs over time if he is applying what he is hearing through obedience. Therefore, again, an expert is not needed (nor a great teacher) in order to show the way. Rather, simply a fellow-Jesus-follower is all that is necessary to come alongside other disciples and point the way (through his/her own walk) to an abundant, Spirit-filled, life-filled, adventure-filled, personally-transforming, world-impacting, miracle-walking, Jesus-following lifestyle.

The bottom line here is that a disciple is one who is coming to know God himself through personal experience (followership) NOT merely a bunch of knowledge ABOUT God. The former comes through self-discovery of who God is and walking with him. To disciple someone, then, is nothing more than:

  1. Bringing them to the Scriptures to feed.
  2. Asking how God is speaking to and leading them (through the Scriptures and the Spirit).
  3. Being a friend.

It really IS that simple.

Roger Thoman


Below are comments from the website where this was originally posted. Let’s continue this good discussion on our website.

Ken Eastburn said...
"It really IS that simple."
-Is it? I'm not so sure. I appreciate the simplicity and also the lengths you go to to demonstrate that ALL believers should be actively discipling others and not just the professionals, but there are a couple of issues I see with this.

  1. You consistently dismiss the teacher's role. I agree with you that it is not just the teacher's job to disciple but neither does the teacher not have a role. Be careful not to swing to an unBiblical extreme in your effort to counter the other extreme. Jesus' disciples received a great deal of teaching from him, did they not?
  2. The disciples were commissioned to go and make more disciples only after they had spent time being discipled themselves. To be a disciple-maker is to first know what it means to be a disciple in the first place. Again, I agree that it is everyone's job to make disciples, but not everyone has been adequately equipped to step into that role.
  3. What about heresy?
  4. If someone believes the Spirit told them something unBiblical, how is it tested?
  5. What about behavior? If discipleship was nothing more than the three steps you provide above, Paul was doing something else entirely.

I'm not discounting those three steps, they are important aspects to discipleship, but I don't think I can agree that those are it.
Love to hear your thoughts back!

roger thoman said...
Hey Ken, great push-back. I appreciate it as this is a great topic.
If discipleship is primarily about mastering a body of knowledge, then everything you have written is true. We tend to think, in the west, that all growth comes from knowledge. The problem is that knowledge does not transform people nor is it at the core of being a disciple (follower). If this were true, then Christians in the west, where we have access to information and knowledge like no other time, would be among the most dynamic Christians of all time.
Discipleship, as I understand it (including Jesus’ practice of it) was more of an on-the-job apprenticeship in the context of relationship. In this context of relationship (what I called “friendship”) there is a tremendous guard against problems, errors, and heresy. More importantly, if discipleship is seen primarily as followership (obedience) then what is needed is not a fully body of theology to pass on, rather an obedient heart/spirit. When Jesus told his disciples to go and make disciples, he did not exhort them to teach people everything that he had taught, rather he taught them to teach people to “observe” (obey) his commands. When this is the focal point, it can be caught from one disciple to the next even before the full mastery of the knowledge of the word is passed on. Perhaps this is how Paul could consider a region to be fully evangelized when there was only a small group of churches in that region. These churches were, apparently, able to continue to evangelize and disciple even in the absence of “elders” in some cases.
Does this necessarily discount teachers? I don’t think so. He did not tell only teachers to disciple. But he did tell teachers (and shepherds, and evangelists, and prophets) to EQUIP the body of Christ so that THEY, the body of Christ, could do the work of ministry. So, this equipping of the body is important as it does build up the body to be more effective in ministry. But I do not think this means that discipleship cannot take place unless people in these roles are doing it. We want to disciple people TO Jesus (showing people how to be his followers—hear from him—follow him) and then build them up to be more effective in ministry. But we do not want to disciple people to mediators (teachers, shepherds, etc) nor see discipleship as dependent on particular roles.
I will say that, without a doubt, I do believe that we do not have a good grasp of discipleship if it is not something that every disciple can do.

One more note on heresy is to point to Neil Cole’s article on the subject:


Great discussion! I appreciate it!



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