Discipleship Today
by Paul Hazelden


Contents

•   Introduction
•   Discipleship in the Bible
    The Call
    Followers of the Way
•   Discipleship after the Bible
    Christians
    Christendom
    Reformation
    Has God Changed His Mind?
•   The Issues
    Money
    Power and Authority
    A Royal Priesthood
    The World
    The Jesus we Follow

Introduction

As Christians today we tend to think of ourselves in a number of ways: as Church Members, as part of our denomination, part of the Church in our locality, even simply as 'Christians'. We rarely think of ourselves as 'disciples' - the term 'discipleship' has come to have associations with dubious groups and authoritarian leadership. The time has come to re-claim the Biblical term and the Biblical concept.

Discipleship in the Bible

  The Call

Jesus' call came to men busy at work: 'Follow Me'. That is our starting point: we are not called to follow a religion, a way of life or an ethical code - we are called to follow a person. The man Christ Jesus. The followers were called Disciples, the common term for someone who follows - walks with - a Rabbi, and seeks to learn from and become like him.

In Jesus' day, following a Rabbi was a slightly unusual but perfectly valid career choice. There were many competing Rabbinic traditions, so you had to choose your Rabbi carefully - a bit like like the way you need to choose your Bible College carefully today. Which is why Jesus' command 'Follow Me' was so strange, so unusual. Unlike every other Rabbi, we do not follow Jesus because we have chosen Him - we follow Jesus because He has chosen us.

If you follow a Rabbi, you do not just commit yourself to a person. You commit yourself to the Rabbi's teaching, and to his mission. It was not like today where you go to school for a few years, get an education, pass the exams, and then forget all about it. Your choice of Rabbi determined your life's path, and the same was true of those who followed Jesus.

  Followers of the Way

After Jesus died on the cross, an interesting thing happened: the Disciples did not stop being disciples. The Apostles were still disciples - they did not set themselves up as the new authority, because Jesus, in the person of the Holy Spirit, was still with them. They continued to be followers. Jesus was no longer physically with them, so they were referred to as 'Followers of the Way' - God's way, Jesus' way. The Holy Spirit's way.

Discipleship after the Bible

  Christians

After a while, the disciples were given the name of 'Christians'. Through the centuries, followers of Jesus have accepted the names given to ridicule them, and accepted them gladly. The followers of Jesus did so too. Then the followers started to be seen as part of an organisation, a movement, and this was called 'Christianity'. The focus by now has shifted from following a person to belonging to an organisation - an organisation with very good and lofty ideals, but still something abstract and impersonal.

  Christendom

The Emperor Constantine was accepted into the Church, and fused Church and State together in a bond which remained firm for a thousand years, and still influences our understanding today. This fusion of Christianity and the State became known as 'Christendom'. The individual was no longer following a person, not even a voluntary member of a radical organisation, but simply a citizen of the State.

Of course, some people were not wholly comfortable with this new situation. They wanted something different, something more than just being a good citizen, more than just being a member of God's civil service. For them, withdrawal from the state was the only way they could discover a deeper spiritual life, and they became monks or hermits.

Within this new framework, the idea of discipleship survives, but in a very different form. There were two possible routes, depending on whether you wanted to stay in or opt out of the state system.

Within the state system, discipleship came to mean education. Through education you joined the Priesthood. Even today, in England a Vicar is technically a 'Clerk in Holy Orders'.

Outside the state system, discipleship either came to mean solitude as a hermit, or community life with a bunch of people also (in theory!) committed to following Jesus. The various orders of monks and nuns were movements of reform, seeking to challenge the church to return to a simpler and purer faith.

  Reformation

The Reformers picked up on the need of the church to be reformed. But instead of following the route of the monastic movements and challenging the status-quo from outside the state system (that is, from inside a monastery or convent), they chose to reform the church within the Constantinian church-state system.

The Reformers wanted to correct some of the errors of the established church, while retaining the structures and systems. So, in the new Protestant churches, if you wanted to follow Jesus you still had to get educated and become a Priest. As a Protestant Priest, you would be taught slightly different doctrines and know your Bible a bit better than the traditional Roman Catholic Priest of the time, but the process was essentially the same.

  Has God Changed His Mind?

The question can be asked in a number of ways. Did Jesus intend to found a religion? Would He recognise all of the denominations and activities which bear His Name today? Would He recognise any of them?

I think it is clear that Jesus never intended to start a new religion with a few distinct doctrines and rituals, but otherwise very similar to Judaism and various others. So - has God changed His mind? Did Jesus get it wrong? Or, perhaps, have we got it wrong?

Perhaps being a Christian, even to day, is not about believing the right doctrines. Perhaps it is not about engaging in a set of rituals. Perhaps it is not about belonging to a community of people with a lineage they can trace back to Jesus. Perhaps it is still about following Jesus where He leads, believing His words and accepting His mission. Perhaps it means that His life's work has now become mine.

The Issues

  Money

The way we use money says more about us than almost anything else. Jesus talked more about money than He did about sin. A common observation is that the last part of a person to be saved is usually their wallet.

The church is a human organisation as well as a divine institution. As an organisation, it needs money to operate. Too many Christians try to be far too spiritual here for their own good: "God will provide" they say. True. But He generally prvides through the sacrificial giving of His people.

We really only have two things to give - our time and our money. To be a disciple, to follow Jesus, we have to give all our time and all our money to God, and let Him use them the way He chooses. After all, that is what Jesus did. How else can we follow Him?

  Power and Authority

The church will never be what God intends us to be until we get this area right. On the one hand, we need to exercise authority in a Godly way, and on the other hand we must submit to and respect the authority He has put in place while still accepting our individual responsibility for our own actions and decisions.

The church has constantly struggled with leaders who either get carried away by power and pride, or who abdicate their responsibility and fail to exercise the authority they have been given. It has also struggled with leaders who do both.

Church members also fail in the same two ways, rejecting the authority of church leaders or failing to take responsibility for their own Christian growth - or (again) doing both at the same time. It is easy to blame the church leadership for not providing what we want, far harder to understand what we want to see happen and find ways to bring it about.

Personal growth as a Christian requires my own involvement and that of the church. It is as if we are in a car: the church has its foot on the accelerator pedal, and I have my foot on the brake. The church may be completely hopeless and not press on the accelerator at all, but we will still go forwards. But if I choose to press on the brake, no matter how fast the church wants to go, we will slow down and eventually stop.

Church leaders are also church members themselves - a point so obvious that it is hardly ever noticed. Until the leaders are really treated as members and cared for adequately, given support, encouragement, fellowship and correction, we will never have more than a handful of effective leaders.

  A Royal Priesthood

All Christians are part of a 'Royal Priesthood' - that is, we are all Priests, and we all have Royal blood in our veins. Both aspects say that we are important to God, and important in His scheme of things.

It is easy when thinking about discipleship to get fixated on how much I need to learn, how much further I have to go. Which is true, of course. But it is also true that the purpose of discipleship is not only to change my character and make me more like Jesus - it is also to equip me to be effective in God's service.

Jesus did not set up a training college from which the Apostles emerged ready to exercise their ministry. Jesus trained them on the job, and expected them to do the work of the Kingdom before they understood hardly anything. They learned by doing it with Jesus, and there is still no better way to learn.

We do not become disciples so that one day we will graduate and become able to engage in the work of the Kingdom. We will never graduate (except, possibly, until the day we die) and we only learn as disciples by doing the work. We are a Royal Priesthood - it is not something we will one day become if we are good and pass our exams. And as that Royal Priesthood, we must accept our responsibility towards others and exercise our authority while we continue to learn our lessons as disciples.

  The World

All Christians are called to involvement in the world - real involvement. Not only to tinkering about the edges, 'doing good' to people who have been damaged by the system (while leaving the system unchanged), but real involvement in the nasty and difficult areas. Christians are called to be involved in politics, not because there is a Christian party or set of policies, but because the voice of Jesus still needs to be heard, speaking up against poverty and injustice.

The Church exists to bless the world. We are called to be salt and light. So why do we in the Church spend so much of our time on Church activities, and so little on the world we are called to serve?

  The Jesus we Follow

We claim to follow Jesus, but what is He like? Radical, awkward, unconventional. A rebel, standing up against the authorities and bureaucracies of His day. A critic of the establishment. He cared for the individual against the system.

Sadly, so much of the Church today takes the side of the establishment which Jesus stood up against. The Church, as an institution, is seen to be part of the system which crushes individuals. As individual Christians, we have the responsibility to reclaim radical discipleship, and start again to follow a radical Jesus - a person! - rather than a system.

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