So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12
SERIES INTRODUCTION: In preparation for a future book project, I have been spending time recently considering the twin ideas of “disciple” and “discipleship.” Over the next few weeks (or months?) I will be posting a series of articles on discipleship – what it is and how we bring the making of disciples into the life of the local church.
WHAT IS A DISCIPLE? WHAT IS DISCIPLESHIP?
What is a “Disciple?” What is “discipleship?” These are surely two of the foundational questions that must be answered before we can have an extensive discussion on discipleship, but these two questions are difficult to answer. Along these lines, some would suggest that discipleship is “an intentional, deliberate effort to do spiritual good in another believer’s life.” While this definition is accurate as far as it goes, in my opinion it is not sufficiently narrow. It does not adequately separate helpful activities of disciples of Jesus from those encounters designed to grow someone in Christlikeness.
What I mean is, with this definition, how do we distinguish ordinary encouragement, fellowship, praying with another believer, Bible studies, and the discussion of sermons or Christian books, from discipleship? Or are all these also discipleship? Are most of us actually deeply involved in discipling others without knowing it? And are the ones we are discipling likewise unaware that they are being discipled? I don’t think so. In my view, if some activity is intentional and deliberate, the participants must be aware of what they are doing. If discipleship is, indeed, a distinct Christian activity, then we need to be able to determine if we are or are not doing that activity.
A TIGHTER DEFINITION OF DISCIPLESHIP
While it is true that there should be spiritual encouragement and even edification and growth from unstructured Christian fellowship, I would suggest that the term “discipleship” necessitates intentionality and structure and energy (or “intensity”). Ordinary Christian fellowship and Christian living are not meant to hold the attention and concentration of believers long enough or intensely enough to affect significant change in believers.
NUCLEAR BOMB ANALOGY
I am not an expert in nuclear devices, but I have been told that, in a nuclear bomb, one slug of enriched uranium must be in very close proximity with another slug of enriched uranium for a definite period of time before the chain reaction of a nuclear explosion can take place. If the uranium slugs are not enriched enough, or if one sufficiently enriched uranium slug is not in close enough proximity with another sufficiently enriched uranium slug, or if the sufficiently enriched uranium slugs are not in close enough proximity for a long enough time, then the conditions are insufficient for a nuclear reaction. In other words, there is a potency requirement, and there is a proximity requirement, and there is a duration requirement, and if any one of these is missing, there is no nuclear explosion.
ENERGY, INTENTIONALITY, AND DURATION
Corresponding to this example, I would suggest that, for meaningful spiritual growth and transformation to take place in the life of a believer, there is an energy requirement, an intentionality requirement, and a duration requirement.
The energy requirement says that, for the disciple to be transformed, the disciple must enthusiastically desire to change and be motivated to change. The disciple must bring his own energy, he must bring his own “heat” to the encounter. Sustained zeal is a needed component of spiritual transformation.
The intentionality requirement means that there is a purpose for the encounter (the encounter is not random or haphazard) that creates movement toward a definite goal. Thus, there is an element of design in each encounter whose goal is to move the disciple toward greater Christlikeness in knowledge, in obedience, in holiness, or in usefulness.
The duration requirement acknowledges that transformation into greater Christlikeness requires spending significant time in that activity. Time must be expended, both in individual encounters (think sixty to ninety minutes rather than fifteen minutes) and in all the collective encounters over a lifetime. In discipleship, we adopt “the long view.” Having committed to the path, we likewise commit to spending the necessary time to follow the path to the end. This means that, while no single encounter is transformational by itself, each individual encounter is a necessary link in the transformational chain that is “producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Hopefully that gets us started into this exploration of discipleship. Next time, we will dig a little deeper and find out what activities make up discipleship encounters.
SDG rmb 11/12/2021 #453