Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment

This is the fourth article in our series answering questions, comments, concerns, and critique of the four principles of discipleship that His Words His Ways Fellowship has adopted over the last year.
 
Those principles are:

 

  1. The Image of God as the Basis of Discipleship. The ultimate goal of the Gospel is that men bring glory to God by being re-conformed to the image of God that they were originally created to be.[1]

 

  1. The Purpose of Imitating Jesus as His Disciple. The goal of men being re-conformed to the image of God is accomplished by men imitating Jesus (who is the perfect image of God) as His disciple; through the empowerment and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.[2]

 

  1. The First Century, Biblical Understanding of Discipleship. Imitating Jesus as His disciple begins (but does not end) with specifically learning and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry. It is simply impossible to imitate someone without knowing what they said and did.[3]

 

  1. Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment (Relational Discipleship). Being conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple is not a passive process, but an active/interactive process that occurs within a relational environment; which was established and demonstrated by Jesus during His earthly ministry.[4]

 

When I was a kid, every Wednesday I went to RAs (Royal Ambassadors for Christ, a Southern Baptist program that was supposed to be like Boy Scouts, before there was Awanna; I even still know the pledge). And every Wednesday, we would rush through the lesson so that we could go outside and play softball. If you asked me what we did on Wednesdays, I would tell you that we played softball.

 

Except, we didn’t actually play softball. We normally didn’t have enough people to play a game of softball, so usually we played a game called money-ball. You would get an imaginary dime for catching a groundball, a quarter for a one-hop, and a half-dollar for a fly-ball. Whoever got to an imaginary dollar first, got to go to bat next.

 

If you drove by the church softball field, you would think we were playing softball. And if you asked us, we would tell you we were playing softball. But we were not doing the most important thing you do when playing softball; trying to score runs.

 

The point of softball is to score runs. Everything else centers around that one goal. Everything else is either done to accomplish, or prevent that one goal. If you are not trying to score runs, you are not playing softball; you are just doing something that looks like playing softball.

 

As churches, we are often doing the equivalent of playing money-ball. We are doing everything but the most important thing we are supposed to be doing; making disciples of Jesus who know and keep all of His words, teachings, commands, and example in relational environments.

 

We say we are making disciples of Jesus, and to the outside world it might look like we are making disciples of Jesus; but when you look closely at the life of those disciples, they are not imitating Jesus as His disciple by knowing and keeping all of the commands given by Jesus.

 

One of the most confusing things that we do as churches is that we actually engage in Biblical Discipleship in Relational Environments (Relational Discipleship), but we use it to make disciples of something other than Jesus. Those Wednesday night sessions were Relational Discipleship; they just didn’t use them to teach us to be disciples of Jesus.
 
Some of those guys I played money-ball with are still some of my best friends 30 years later. One of them is helping me plant His Words His Ways Fellowship. If someone had wanted to use those Wednesday nights to teach us to be disciples of Jesus, we would have still been there and eager to learn how to be disciples of Jesus.

 

And not only were we there on Wednesday nights, we were usually there for Sunday School, the Sunday morning worship service, Sunday night youth group, and then sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights for youth gatherings. We literally “did life together.” And in everyone of those meetings, the Bible was taught.

 

But even though we “did life together” and studied the Bible while doing so, we were not being taught to be disciples of Jesus. We were being taught to be disciples of our traditions, our denomination, our culture, our worship style, et cetera.

 

The point being, you can do “Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment” (“Relational Discipleship” for short), and still not be making disciples of Jesus. This is why it is important to establish the first three principles of discipleship that we have argued for (here, here, and here) when you gather together for Relational Discipleship.

 

Because, Relational Discipleship can clearly be used to make disciples of something or someone other than Jesus. In the first century, the Pharisees made disciples of themselves, their traditions, and their theology in relational environments using Scripture just as Jesus did (Matthew 23:15, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33, Acts 22:3).
 
Cults (such as JWs and the Mormons) make disciples in relational environments using Scripture (they probably do a better job of making disciples than most Evangelical churches do). Even churches that generally hold to orthodox Christian theology can make disciples of something other than Jesus in relational environments using Scripture (just like my church did).

 

And then (as stated multiple times before) we employ the logical fallacy of semantics/equivocation to call the disciples we are making, “disciples of Jesus” even though they do not imitate Jesus by knowing and keeping all of the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry.

 

You can play a game with a softball and a bat on a softball field and not actually play a game of softball. And by the same token, you can have Biblical Discipleship in a Relational Environment and teach Scripture, and still not make disciples of Jesus.

 

But at the same time, the only place you can play a real game of softball, is on a softball field. And thus again, by the same token, the only place you can actually make disciples of Jesus is in Biblical Discipleship within a Relational Environment.

 

Now that we have argued the danger of Relational Discipleship being misused, we would also like to emphasize its importance. Because, being a disciple of Jesus at the core means imitating Him, and Jesus made disciples in relational environments:

 

“[Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything” (Mark 4:34).

 

“Then [Jesus] looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34-35).

 

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:38-39).

 

Thus, because Jesus made disciples in relational environments, as His disciples who imitate Him, we must make disciples in relational environments. Ultimately, Relational Discipleship is the environment in which God ordained that conformity to the image of Jesus would occur.
 
Only in extreme cases such as solitary imprisonment would it possibly occur otherwise. For the rest of us, there is no being conformed to the image of Jesus outside of Relational Discipleship. Either we engage in Relational Discipleship, or we do not follow and imitate Jesus as His disciple.

 

At His Words His Ways Fellowship, we have committed to Relational Discipleship. We have committed to being involved in one another’s lives, and to holding one another accountable. When we gather together in small groups, we know that we are doing more than just studying the Bible. We know that we are there to be conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple.

 

If we invite someone to follow Jesus as His disciple, we all know that doing so must include being involved in a discipleship small group and being held accountable by a more mature disciple-maker; and we communicate that to the person we are inviting.

 

But, we do not gather together and “do life together” without the clear understanding that we are there to encourage one another to be further conformed to the image of Jesus by imitating Him as His disciple (by knowing and then keeping the words, teachings, commands, and example that He gave during His earthly ministry).
 
 
[1] Genesis 1:27, 1 Corinthians 11:7, Matthew 5:48, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 4:22-24, 5:1, Colossians 3:9-10, 2 Peter 1:4.
 
[2] Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 15:49, 2 Corinthians 4:4, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 2:1-5, 3:7-11, Colossians 1:15, 1:28-29, 2:2-3, 2:9-10, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2 Timothy 3:12,Titus 3:4-6, Hebrews 1:3, 6:1, 12:1-3, James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:1-4, 2-21, 2 Peter 3:18, 1 John 2:6, 3:3, 4:17.
 
[3] Matthew 7:24-29, 10:24-25, 11:25-30, 12:41-42, 13:16-17, 13:34-35, 17:5, 24:35; Mark 4:24-25, 4:33-34, 6:34, 8:38, 9:7, 13:31; Luke 6:46-49, 9:35, 10:24, 10:38-42, 11:31-32, 17:10, 19:47-48,  John 3:31-36, 4:25-26, 4:40-42, 5:24, 5:38-39, 5:46-47, 6:28-29, 6:63, 6:66-69, 8:31-32, 8:51, 9:26, 10:27, 12:48, 13:34-35, 14:12, 14:15, 14:23-26, 15:7-17, 15:20-24, 16:6-8.
 
[4] Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 14:40, 2 Timothy 2:2.