There is a great deal of literature being published on Christian discipleship today. A growing consensus among pastors and church leaders that discipleship is currently at a weak state in the church is becoming more global. Here in Cambodia I have found the state of the church to be in great need of turning converts into true disciples.
But what is discipleship? Is it more doctrinal instruction? Is it more teaching and preaching? Is it holding more bible studies? Those things may be helpful in and of themselves but they all miss the core essence of what discipleship truly is–modeling.
In Titus 2:7 Paul admonishes Titus on a host of things he must share and speak to those under his teaching. But then he states, “Set an example of good works yourself, with integrity and dignity in your teaching.” Notice how Paul ties in demonstrable actions with the integrity of a message. They cannot be divorced. Paul says Titus is to do this… “so that the opponent will be ashamed having nothing bad to say about us” (vs. 8).
Christian discipleship is not principally about being subjected to more instruction, rather it is about following and imitating the examples and life laid down by the teacher–the master.
In its purest kernel form discipleship is all about modeling. Modeling the right way is the only way – the Christ way – to bring about an end to the wrong way in the lives of those who declare themselves to be followers of Christ. It was no different in Christ’s day and with his own twelve disciples. In numerous instances we find Christ correcting wrong beliefs, wrong behavior and wrong attitudes by modeling right beliefs expressed through right behavior.
For example in Lk 9:54-55 the disciples express great prejudice, hatred and violence towards the Samaritans as a whole when the people of Samaria refuse to welcome Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples response is to say, “Lord do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” Jesus quickly rebukes them saying, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy mens lives, but to save them.”
Later in Lk 10:20-37 Jesus further disassociates himself from his disciples racial and cultural discrimination of Samaritans by making a Samaritan man the hero of the parable who best exemplifies the ethic of the Kingdom of God. And then to drive the point home even further in Jn 4 we find Jesus extending generous compassion, truth and grace to a Samaritan prostitute, such that his disciples are left astonished and speechless.
The point is that Jesus didn’t just sit around a campfire verbally instructing his disciples in the Kingdom way–he demonstrated it. Time and again we discover Jesus modeling the way of the Kingdom to his disciples. In one instance they seek to shoo away pesky children deemed not worthy of their time, but Jesus rebukes his disciples, has the children brought near to him and then places his hands on them and blesses them. (Mt. 19:13:15). Jesus is not content to only tell his disciples “the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” he models it in such a way that their little doubt that their way of looking at children was forever changed.
Jesus did not merely speak of the beatitudes as a “pie in the sky” ideal to shoot for, he lived out each and every one of them, modeling their values and revealing their transcendent capacity to reshape human nature and our relations to one another. Culminating with his own unjust persecution Jesus modeled the Kingdom response to “persecution for righteousness sake” by extending mercy and forgiveness to his tormentors and persecutors until his final breadth.
These moments in time when instruction became illustration were not lost on the disciples. Their period of discipleship enabled them to change the world–not because Jesus could articulate the principles the Kingdom with great oratory, but because Jesus stamped the image of the Kingdom into their very souls through his life lived out before them.
It is no wonder that John reminds us in no uncertain terms that being a Christian is not a claim to know something, but to walk something, saying “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus walked” (1 Jn. 2:6).
Most are aware of the succinct passage, “No one can be my disciple unless they pick up their cross and follow me.” But in what way do we pick up the cross and where do we carry it? I believe Jesus elaborated on this further when he said,
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Mt. 25:42-45).
If discipleship is about modeling the way of righteousness, and if discipleship is needed today to the same extent it was needed in the first followers, then it it the duty of our pastors and leaders to pave the way forward–not simply by elaborating verbally on the merits of serving “the least of these” but in actively demonstrating to us all the cost of true discipleship.
Until then discipleship will forever remain an abstract term to be defined but never witnessed. Imagine what our world would be like if Christ contented himself with mere instruction rather than illustration. In the same vein, we do our parishioners, our followers and our families a great disservice when we fail to model the way of the Kingdom of God towards others.