Common Misconceptions Concerning Discipleship

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that knowing a bit of theology is important for Christians now, in a way that it was not in the past:

…In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have got a lot of wrong ones-bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted about as novelties today, are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected… C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity 4.1.4

His advice lines up with that of a clever-silly economist named Keynes when he explained that practical men who have no use for philosophy often find themselves enslaved by the bad ideas of those long dead.

When I was in seminary and reading “the literature,” I discovered several approaches to Christian discipleship that all seemed lacking in one way or another. Here they are:

  1. The Romantic/Internalist Approach
    This particular approach is focused almost totally on the affections or feelings of the individual. It ends up redefining almost every major Biblical word (faith, hope, love, Spirit, and prayer) in terms of internal experiences. There is a Calvinist version of this (think Jonathan Edwards or John Piper) and there is a slightly charismatic version (think phrases such as, “Jesus told me,” “I don’t feel led,” “I wish I was more ‘on fire’ for God”). I find this approach unhelpful because it focuses almost totally on trying to control or aim the passions so that good deeds will happen which is nearly impossible.[see note a bottom] Or, much worse, this approach equates the passions/emotions with God’s will! In the first instance, believers going through a dry spell feel unfaithful to God. In the second instance, the hamster wheel of self-justification is given free reign over the mind and will.
  2. The Externals Approach
    In this approach the idea is that getting people to conform in visible ways to good Christian behavior is synonymous with discipleship. While the Bible is clear that externals will come into line, it must be recognized that a system which focuses on external signs of obedience as the goal is precisely what Jesus criticizes over and over again in the gospels. Many of the ways that this system manifests itself include many good things and some made up things: getting people to dress well, getting people to give to their church, getting people to believe right dogmas, getting people to not say cuss words, speaking in tongues, dancing in church, not dancing in church, getting people to come to church regularly, getting people to vote for and against certain things, and getting people to do all sorts of other things.

    It is not the case that motivating people to do external things is bad, but basing Christianity on a few easily observable external behaviors misses a large portion of what several of the things concrete, but non-obvious things Jesus said to do: love God, love neighbor, pray in secret, give in secret, fast in secret, deny oneself, show hospitality, call God Father, love enemies, over come lust, wash the inside of the cup, forgive those who apologize to you, reconcile with those you hurt, ask God for forgiveness with humility, become servants of all, be wise as serpents, be innocent as doves, and so-on. This approach often, though not always, comes with a simplistic view of salvation by grace alone. It either says, “Salvation is by grace alone, therefore the words of Jesus aren’t as important as simple faith,” or in certain denominations, “Salvation by grace alone is false, you’ve gotta do good works to go to heaven, so conform to our list of good works.”

  3. The Event Approach
    This one is a combination of the first two because it is based on generating feeling and motivation by means of events. The event approach is utilized most often in mega churches and youth ministries. Discipleship, in this case, is defined as occurring whenever people show up to events. Discipleship is really really happening if even more people come. In mega-church situations, discipleship is centered around the pastor’s vision for a larger church. In youth-group situations, discipleship is built around having bigger, better, and more exciting programs to keep the kiddos motivated.

I’ve talked about this before, but I think that the central idea in Christian discipleship is simply learning from Jesus, because he is meek and humble-hearted (Matthew 11:26-30). The Bible refers to this reality in several ways:

  1. Paul calls it “the obedience of faith,” which I take to mean the obedience which comes from trusting God’s self-disclosure in the gospel message of Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-7)
  2. Jesus elsewhere says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…” The idea is coming to inhabit (in the same way that one inhabits a home and comes to know it, tend to it, and reap the benefits of living there) his whole message about himself, God’s kingdom, God, and how humanity should respond and relate to God. (John 8:31-32)
  3. Peter says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, discipleship seems to mean to respond to God’s grace increasingly and learn from gospel teaching and experience what Jesus Christ wants you to know. (2 Peter 3:18)
  4. James says, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” The word, in James is pretty clearly the gospel message about “the faith of our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ.” (James 1:22-2:1)
  5. John says that “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk as he walked.” For John, the claim of Christian religious identity is born out by means of personal adherence to the way of Jesus Christ. (1 John 2:6)

My point, in all of this is that it would seem that the most valid understanding of Christian discipleship is hearing the words of Jesus and trusting him enough to put them into practice. So the approach to discipleship in our churches should probably revolve around teaching:

  1. What Jesus said and did (including what he said to do).
  2. What the gospel authors interpreted that to mean.
  3. What the other New Testament authors interpreted Jesus’ life and message to mean.
  4. What the Old Testament means in relationship to Jesus (see Matthew 7:12 and Luke 24).
  5. How to actually put Jesus’ teachings into practice.

Points one and five are especially important because many people do not actually know what Jesus said. Secondly, when they do know, it can be very daunting to try it out without any guidance from contemporary brothers and sisters or those of times past. Pastors and Sunday school teachers have the unique opportunity to make this information available to the members of their churches. Sadly, I fear, the misunderstandings seem too obviously true to most people.

Note: The more ancient approach to Christian sanctification was the idea that habitual obedience and faithful response to God’s grace is the means that God’s Spirit uses to shape the human heart. One can see this echoed in C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard, but it is explained rather thoroughly in older luminaries like Thomas Aquinas, Richard Baxter, Thomas Brooks, St. Gregory, Horatius Bonar, Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, and so-on.

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