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Understanding The Relational Context of Biblical Discipleship

In the first lecture we defined what it means to be a disciple of Christ. We discovered that the idea of discipleship involves understanding both its theological context as well as its relational context. So, in lecture two, we explored the broad theological and scriptural context for Christ’s mandate to make disciples. We learned that from the very beginning it has been God’s plan to secure a people for himself and recreate them in Christ’s image. According to his covenantal promises, he has done just that and continues to do just that today. As we disciple people we participate in his great plan. But there is another context in which to look at this process of discipleship and disciplemaking. It is the relational context. I want to stress relationships because so often this is neglected in favor of stressing the legitimate demands of discipleship. When we stress the demands of discipleship apart from good relationships we often reduce it to nothing more than human effort and following rules. The theological context gives us a mental picture of God’s work, while the relational context unveils the personal orientation of discipleship. Christianity is not primarily an ethic, but a relationship—a relationship with God and with our fellow man.

IA. The Relational Context: The Greatest Commandments

1B. The Greatest Commandments

Mark 12:28 Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 12:29 Jesus answered, “The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 12:31 The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

2B. Discipleship and Love for God

We have seen in lecture one that Christian discipleship involves the idea of complete and unreserved dedication to Christ, his will, work, and ways. This, of course, is consonant with the Great commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We must put discipleship together with the greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. They are essentially one and the same. Discipleship is a relational affair, from beginning to end. It is not Stoic dedication, or mere commitment to a certain morality—no matter how exalted or sublime. We need to experience Christ firsthand, abide in Him continually, and teach our disciples that this is the essence of the Christian life. In this way they will be somewhat freer to be in a healthier relationship with you—as a discipler; there will be interdependence, not co-dependence. This leads me to the second and closely related commandment.

3B. Discipleship, Different People, and Love for Our Neighbor

The second commandment is related linguistically to the first through the use of the term “love.” Conceptually, however, the first logically gives rise to the second when properly understood and obeyed; those who love God also love their neighbor. You cannot claim to love God and at the same time hate your neighbor. John also relates the two commandments. He says, “For anyone who does not love his brother whom he can see, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (cf. 1 John 4:20). But sometimes it is hard to love people, especially when they’re different in some way from us. What it means to be human has never changed and is the same for all human beings who have ever lived. But, while people are essentially the same, they differ in many ways relating to tastes, habits, ideas, approaches to problems, dispositions, backgrounds, knowledge, etc. The discipler must appreciate this, realizing that God has called him/her to love all men and to allow them sanctified differences.

Therefore, the goal in discipleship is not uniformity, but rather conformity to the image of Christ and harmony in the body of Christ. It involves a lively, redeemed diversity, not a dead, monolithic sameness. The gospel does not confine, per se; it liberates people, to feel, think, and act along Christ-like lines. Just as there is diversity and unity in the Godhead, so there should be diversity and unity among those who claim to belong to this God. Please appreciate this, but do not think, therefore, because people are different in many ways, that some can be discipled and some cannot. All can and must be his disciples.

1C. Relationships with Brothers and Sisters in the Christian Community
1D. Seek Unity—Ephesians 4:1-6

4:1 I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called, 4:2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 4:3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4:4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, 4:5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 4:6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

In the letter to the Ephesians the apostle is thinking, not just about the church in Ephesus, but the worldwide church, or the church universal. He thinks of the churches in Rome, throughout Asia Minor, Palestine, etc. as really comprising one church, not many disparate churches.

A good disciplemaker humbly recognizes that he is part of Christ’s body. He strives to maintain unity in the body and encourages his disciples to that end. He is not off, over in a corner somewhere, “doing his own thing” and criticizing the rest of the body. Rather, he seeks to live out the unity produced by the Spirit. He is trying to develop disciples who contribute to unity, peace, and the growth of the body rather than those who tear it apart. There is no room for evil competition in the process of making disciples (cf. Phil 2:3-4).

2D. Celebrate Diversity—Ephesians 4:7

4:7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ… 4:11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 4:12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ…

In the midst of striving for unity and peace in the body of Christ, comes the corresponding need to recognize the natural and Spirit sponsored differences that exist among the people of God. The Palestinian Christians had a different outlook from the Asian Christians. This is readably discernible from the pages of the New Testament (cf. Acts 15). We must realize that people are different and come to the table with different perspectives. Someone with the gift of mercy discipling another with the gift of administration will need to recognize and appreciate the differences if they are to be successful together. This, of course, does not involve condoning obvious or blatant sin, but people’s gifts, temperaments, and abilities all affect their learning of discipleship. Give them room to grow.

3D. Celebrate Diversity—1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 11

12:4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 12:5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 12:6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 12:7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all… 12:11 It is one and the same Spirit, distributing to each person as he decides, who produces all these things.

We will talk later about the relationship of the gifts to discipleship, but again, suffice it to say here that people and their Spirit given gifts come in all shapes and sizes. But it is important to note that a person’s gift(s) has been given to them by the Spirit for the common good. Whether we appreciate them or not, the Spirit has gifted them for our good. We need to remember that. So, just as there is diversity in the God-head, so there will be diversity in any community he establishes. But this is for the growth of the community.

4D. The Twelve Apostles

Jesus chose twelve very diverse men. I wonder how Matthew and Simon got along? The former was a tax-collector, the latter, probably a zealot. Peter was headstrong and daring, Thomas was probably strong at times, but could be quite reserved and doubting. Some, like James and Thaddaeus, may have frustrated Peter’s compulsive tendencies with their willingness to fade into the background and apparently do little. Then there was Judas, whose cunning deceit allowed his growing greed to go undetected by everyone (except Jesus) until the very end. Further, in Marks’s gospel, the disciples are not pictured in a favorable light, never really understanding what Jesus was about. They were a diverse and difficult lot, to say the least. Yet Jesus could rally them together for ministry. Try that on for size.

2C. Relationships with People in the Larger Non-Christian Community

Jesus called twelve men to come and follow him. He promised that he would make them “fishers of men.” Thus, the call on their lives was lived out in the context of a mission to the lost. Our discipling of other people should also be done in the context of a ministry to the lost. We are to help our people live as light in a dark world—upright and loving in a fallen and ugly world—and as those committed to manifesting the glory of their Father in heaven, by perseverance in works. Generally speaking, and there are exceptions, our disciples are to maintain their relationships with their pre-conversion friends who do not know the Lord (in the hope of loving them and leading them to Christ).

1D. Matthew 4:19

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

2D. Matthew 5:13-16

5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. 5:14 You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 5:15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.

3D. Colossians 4:5-6

4:5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.

4D. Titus 3:8

This saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on such truths, so that those who have placed their faith in God may be intent on engaging in good works. These things are good and beneficial for all people.

IIA. Summary

So discipleship involves being unreservedly committed to Christ. It is lived out in the context of a relationship with God and with our fellow man. Understanding this is key to growing as a disciple and discipling others as well. The process of discipleship is not like making hamburgers at McDonalds; we are not trying to make each person the same. Rather, we value and appreciate the differences people bring to the process and we celebrate God-ordained uniqueness. In saying this, however, we are not encouraging sinful habits which clearly violate the standard of holiness laid out for us in His Word and bring swift division into Christ’s body. But we are, instead, attempting to produce genuine unity in a context of a rich and necessary diversity.

We will try to flesh this principle out in all that remains in this course; we will keep the following material relationally oriented. Relationships are key. They are the ambience in which all the formal training of another disciple takes place. If relationships are strained, your effectiveness as a discipler is minimized.

IIIA. Questions for Thought

1. Why is it important when talking about discipleship and discipling another to keep in mind the primacy of relationships over tasks, no matter how beneficial and necessary the tasks are? At what point do you decide that a task must be done whether another person agrees or not?

2. How will you approach your disciple(s) when they do certain things that irritate you or don’t do certain things the way you taught them or the way you think they should be done (e.g., prayer)?

3. Take some time to meditate on Ephesians 4:1-6 and 1 Cor 12:4-7. What are some principles the Lord has impressed on you as you worked your way through these important passages?

4. When we think about discipleship, we often think primarily of one person helping another person. And this is good. But, according to Ephesians 4:1-6 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, what is the larger context in which we experience discipleship? How important is this larger context? (cf. 2 Tim 2:2)

5. How important do you think it is to consistently have your disciples relate well to the rest of the body of Christ? How will you help them if they are struggling in their relationships with other Christians?

6. Discipleship not only entails relating to Christians in the church, but also Christians relating to those in the world (We will talk about the Christian’s relationship to the world more in later lectures). According to Matthew 5:16 and Titus 3:8 what is key in our relationship to our friends in the world?

7. According to Matthew 5:13-15, what does it mean to be the salt of the earth? The light of the world?

8. In Colossians 4:5-6 Paul talks about relating to those in the world. What do you think it means to conduct yourself with wisdom toward outsiders? To make the most of every opportunity? Why is our speech so important?

Related Topics: Discipleship