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Discipleship in The 21st Century: Is Something Missing?

By J. Davila Ashcraft

While many churches today strive to be seeker oriented, the unfortunate truth is very few churches are equipped to provide ongoing discipleship training. This means new converts stick around for awhile and then drift away, as they have no solid foundation in the faith. Perhaps what we need to do is look at discipleship from the perspective of our ancient past and then use what is effective for modern needs.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”- Matthew 28:19

While we think we understand this command of Christ, we really do not. At least not in its fullest. Jesus was speaking to Jews in the context of Jewish culture, and so they understood this command a bit differently than we do 2,000 years later in a non-Jewish culture. It is helpful for us to take a step back, as it were, from our modern assumptions about these words and understand them in context of time and place. In this way we just might gain some valuable insight into the missing dimension in discipleship today.

In the 1st century, the rabbi held a very important role. In order for a Jew to live a righteous life he had to have a teacher who could guide him in how best to understand Sacred Scripture. The rabbi fulfilled this role. The would-be disciple had to approach a rabbi and ask to become his student. If the rabbi agreed the disciple understood that he was agreeing to submit willingly and completely to the rabbi’s direction. The rabbi would teach him how to interpret the scriptures and to apply them to all areas of his life. This meant dialogue with the rabbi on issues of marriage, sexuality, vocation, children, dating, as well as proper ritual observances. This was not a series of lessons that after which the disciple graduated. Not at all. It was a continual experience in a “master-disciple” relationship.

Discipleship was not just knowledge focused or performance focused, but also focused on the proper motivation for any and all actions in the disciple’s life. This meant the rabbi would question his disciple on why he did (or failed to do) certain things. The ultimate goal of this was not to simply interfere in the disciple’s life, but to help them develop biblical discernment regarding every decision of life, even the seemingly simple and mundane. Disciples often emulated their teacher by speaking as he did, dressing as he dressed and conducting themselves as he did. This was not seen as imitation, but as emulating the righteous conduct of the rabbi.

What must be understood about discipleship in the 1st century is that faith was not just a word, or simply intellectual assent to a given statement of doctrine, but the action of totally surrendering one’s life to the teachings of the master. This discipleship model also required that one be actively involved in the community of disciples that formed around a particular rabbi. You might live with them, see them every day, discuss the teachings with each other, share problems and help with burdens. The “yahad” was essential to living the teachings in a social way and not just as a personal internal exercise.

What can we make of this model today? For starters it tells us that solid discipleship requires that one be willing to abandon any philosophy of life or of spirituality that one held previous to conversion. This requires humility, since the disciple is laying aside any concept of self determination in favor of being taught the proper way to live. They embrace the direction of the rabbi completely and without reservation. Second, it tells us the disciple must be radically committed to biblical literacy, the community of believers, and accountability.

Are we informing new disciples of this commitment in our churches, or are we giving a false impression? Are we being honest that discipleship is demanding, or do we want to “get them saved” so badly that we are willing to hide the cost until later? Jesus was very blunt as to the cost of discipleship.

“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them,“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”- Luke 14:25-34

If Jesus was so clear, so demanding, what makes us think we can be any less if we really represent Him? Discipleship is demanding, it is all encompassing, and it can be scary at times. Jesus laid out the terms, and we have no right to hide them or water them down.



 

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