Discipleship in Short Supply?
by Dr. Dennis Dirks
In this issue
- I/I Mentoring
- The Pastor & the Fringes
- Book Reviews
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
It’s not an overstatement to say that discipleship is becoming scarce in the evangelical community. Virtually absent may be an even better description. The biblical priority of teaching disciples to obey may even be in danger of extinction in some quarters. Much is written but little seems to be taught and practiced of genuine following Christ, with all the expectations it involves.
Why so? Why is there widespread failure to give attention to a priority that is prominent in the Scriptures to which allegiance is claimed on websites and official documents? In large measure it’s a consequence of a common malaise. For generations, evangelicals have seemingly sought to make the faith easy and attractive for unbelievers and wayward converts. Entertainment has been a focus while self-help approaches in teaching and programs have proliferated. Expectations have been calibrated to lowest common denominators.
JI Packer makes an astounding observation: “Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered [the] gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing.”1 While the center of reference of the gospel previously was God, in the new gospel it is now man. In the prior gospel, the aim was to teach people to worship God while now it is to help people feel better. The result is that biblical truth has been molded into a focus on helpfulness. Gone are radical claims on the mind, attitudes, convictions, will, and actions of a committed disciple.
How can so little attention be given to something that is both implicit and explicit throughout God’s Word, from the heart of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Great Commission mandate and beyond? In the Old Testament it is implicit in the exclusive calling of Israel from among the nations to be God’s unique possession. The word “disciple,” found in Isaiah 8:16, 50:4, and 54:13, is comes from the Hebrew root for “taught.” It carries the idea of being a learner taught by God Himself.
In the New Testament, the concept of discipleship has roots in Jesus’ relationship with His Heavenly Father (John 5:19). It is this communal relationship between Father and Son that serves as the model for the disciplemaking relationship between Jesus and His followers. The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), emphasizing as it does the discipling and teaching of all nations, not only accentuates the worldwide nature of the task, it underscores a process we are commanded to perpetuate.
Discipleship goes by various titles or terms: growth in Christ, becoming Christ-like, becoming conformed to the image of Christ, spiritual growth, spiritual development, or spiritual formation. Whatever the words used, discipleship has expectations of relational proximity to the Master, of trust, and of responsibilities that are obligatory. These expectations are radical and counter-cultural because they assume a life that is becoming profoundly changed. They assume a life prepared to take up the cross of Christ, another long-neglected topic.
Talbot School of Theology seeks to revitalize discipleship and disciplemaking as a priority among God’s people. It’s expressed in our mission statement:
The mission of Talbot School of Theology is the development of disciples of Jesus Christ whose thought processes, character, and lifestyles reflect those of our Lord, and who are dedicated to disciple making throughout the world.
For us it’s not mere words or marketing strategy. Yet for all who serve Jesus, Talbot included, an essential question must be asked: Are our ministries ordered and shaped in ways that result in authentic discipleship and disciplemaking, in genuine growth in Christ?
1 Packer, J.I., “Saved by His Precious Blood,” In J.I. Packer & Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007, p. 112