Rethinking Discipleship – (Part 1)

In Mark’s gospel, there is a brief statement of the Lord’s plan for working with the men He was choosing: “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Here is the essence of discipleship; spending time with the Lord and then heading out to serve. How does this work out in a local assembly today? Is it happening? Is discipleship something the church should be involved in? Some would say “no,” some are hesitant, being unsure of what’s involved. It’s a subject worth considering.

Discipleship is Alive and Well 

In Matthew 28:18-20, the Lord gave what has come to be known as The Great Commission. Not complicated, but profound. He instructed His followers to go everywhere and make disciples who confessed Him publicly in baptism and went on to learn and follow His words. The very fact that He promised to be with all who obeyed this commission “until the end of the age” is sufficient proof that this is still a work in progress today, a fact reinforced by testimony from Christian servants around the world. Every church should be involved in making and sending disciples!

But how can a local church fellowship become active in making disciples? What responsibilities do the elders have to make sure this vital task is not lost in the complexities of church life?

First Things First 

Getting practical about our faith will require attention to many details for certain, but before a church tackles details, it is important to step back and look at the big picture. Two points should be kept in mind. In the first place, Scripture pro- vides foundation truths or principles which simply cannot be ignored. Our passage in Mark 3 is an example. Note the order in true discipleship. Spending time with the Lord precedes being sent out. Relationship and fellowship before service! Peter in his first letter (chapter 2) expands this truth when he writes that believers – as holy priests – offer spiritual sacrifices in the presence of the Lord (verse 5) before going out to show His excellency to those who do not yet know Him (verse 9).

Also note that true discipleship is goal oriented. The text says “…..that he might send them out….” Discipleship must have this outward side too. It is not limited to enjoying the presence of the Lord so that we might have a comfortable life. There is a sensitive balance here that must be preserved.

Secondly, the Lord has given liberty to work out logistics and details not specified in Scripture. Having a plural leadership through elders, the participation of the believers as functioning priests, and the autonomy of each local congregation gathering to study the Scriptures is sufficient to discern the mind and will of the Lord in specific situations.

Sadly, sometimes details in which Christians have liberty become issues over which they divide and break fellowship with one another.

The Danger of Imbalance

It is not the purpose of this article to explore the many problems that can surface when things get out of balance. A brief reminder of what can go wrong will suffice.

Over emphasis on the inward focus of discipleship, i.e., making the gathering around the Lord the end in itself, without anything else is by nature unhealthy for disciples. Meeting around Him for worship, learning His Word, and prayer is indeed precious, but for what purpose? The church is not called simply to establish and maintain an exclusive society of likeminded saints, to ensure that the church meetings continue until “the end.” Rather, the goal of being “with Him” is that they might “be sent out.”

On the other hand, over emphasis on the outward focus, i.e., outreach, can also cause an imbalance. When size of the group and numbers attending become all- important, so that any doctrine or practice standing in the way of expansion needs to be “adjusted” or even dropped, the church sacrifices faithfulness for relevance to society. When new church plants or mission activities are undertaken before the disciples involved are spiritually grounded, disillusionment can easily result.

Thus it is vital for elders to make sure these great truths are kept in balance. A healthy internal focus is the best preparation for facing the needs “out there.” What are some of the contributing factors? The context of our passage (Mark 3:11-15) suggests seven areas that help prepare disciples.

Checklist for Overseers 

A holy life.   In the paragraph just prior to our verses (verses 11 – 12), the Lord rejected the testimony of unclean spirits. What they said concerning Him was true, but the Lord wants to use clean vessels. The local church is a place where true holiness is modeled. Not separation from people based on externals like the false holiness of the Pharisees, but personal holiness shown by a deep love for the Lord that leads away from worldliness and the works of the flesh. This is most helpful when seen in the life of older saints demonstrating godly conduct before young disciples. Sanctification is an important doctrine to teach growing disciples.

Dependence through prayer.   Before selecting His disciples, the Lord retired to a quiet place to pray alone (vs. 13). It is not long, flowery orations in public that mark one as a man or woman of prayer, but a track record of solving personal and assembly problems by faithful private prayer. True, glimpses of the prayer life can be seen in collective prayer times, but these are just “the tip of the iceberg.” Much of the real work is done in private.

The call of God.   In verse 14, the Lord chooses disciples calling them by name. The call of God in the life of servants seems to come in many different ways and is under the sovereign will of the Lord. It can range from a discernment made in retrospect based on years of fruitfulness, all the way to the dramatic call of Saul of Tarsus, and probably everything in between. Regardless of how the Lord works in setting servants apart, it is important that the assembly, especially its leaders, be sensitive to recognize God’s call in obedient disciples (this is pictured so clearly in Acts 13:1-3).

The believer’s identity.  Throughout Scripture and in this section (verses 14 and following), the disciple is related to the Lord through grace, not because of earned personal merit. This is a most important lesson for young disciples. Each must learn who he is in Christ, determined by personal relationship rather than by success in the work. Guiding young believers into a solid grasp of this truth is a major work in the assembly. Unfortunately, multitudes of true believers evaluate their relationship with God based on job performance.

 Fellowship.  The assembly is a place of relationship building. Spending time “with Him” (verse 14), which includes spending time with His people who make up His body, is the key to healthy relation- ships in families and within the church, and is a vital prerequisite to being sent out to serve. John describes relationships as one test of the validity of Christian profession (I John 4:20).

Gift.  In the early days of the disciples’ work, the task was sowing the Word – plain and simple (verse 14). But once the harvest began, and a church gathered, the work would require the equipping of the saints (Eph. 4:12), a significant part of which would be to discern and develop spiritual gift. Here again is a special work of the local assembly which can hardly be Rethinking Discipleship—Part 1 (cont. from page 2) overestimated.

Spiritual authority.  The Lord gives disciples the authority to speak and act in His Name (verse 15). Over time, young disciples learn that the church does not accomplish its work by imitating the world’s system of laws, lawyers and penalties. Spiritual life has an authority that is “not of this world.” The Lord may be absent bodily, but He is still present to faith and will bring to light (or “make manifest”) those who are approved. (I Cor. 11:19).

Disciple making is hard but rewarding work. It begins in earnest when elders take a hard look at the balance between the inward and the outward focus of their own congregation. Healthy disciples sense the need to “go” and make a difference for Christ.

Rethinking Discipleship  –  Part 2

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