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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My Work on Catechesis as Discipleship (Introduction and Related Matters)

Discipleship is essential to the function and identity of the Church.[1] To make disciples is the essential nature of the Church’s work, and is the demand of the Gospel.  Whereas discipleship has been compartmentalized as a program of the church’s overall ministry[2] recent emphasis has been given to the reclamation of disciple making as the only authentic ministry of the church.[3]
            Such reclamation does not represent the elevation of the intentional discipleship activities of the church over the church’s acts of worship, mercy, counseling, or justice. Rather, the drive is to see that everything the local church does is an act of disciple making. Gary Tyra emphasizes this sentiment, saying, “Churches need to shift from congregations that posses discipleship programs to becoming disciple-making congregations (italics his).”[4]  He continues to argue that the shift in the local congregation should be one that fosters a “disciple-making environment” rather than one that provides “discipleship experiences.”[5] This is a critical distinction for the purposes of this project: to reclaim a holistic, transformative atmosphere of discipleship in the local church the church’s ministries must generate self-reflective disciples.
            To achieve such a posture of ministry it is necessary to examine the nature of discipleship in Scripture and early Church history. This introduction will show that discipleship has been understood as the essential activity of the people of God from the beginning. It will examine the Old Testament understanding of participation in the life of God through fidelity to Torah and the ways of the Covenant; the meaning of discipleship in the New Testament through the ministry of Jesus; and the development of discipleship ministries and goals in the earliest generations of the post-resurrection Church.
“Discipleship” in the Old Testament
            Before an investigation into the nature of discipleship in the Hebrew Scriptures can commence, it is important to nuance the vocabulary of discipleship. The term for disciple and discipleship is all but absent in the OT, but the idea of following after a teacher or master appears frequently.[6] Michael Wilkins points out “the roots of biblical discipleship go deep into the fertile soil of God’s calling. That calling is expressed in the pattern of divine initiative and human response that constitutes the heart of the biblical concept of covenant, and is manifested in the recurrent promise, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”[7]
            To properly address discipleship through an Old Testament lens, then, it is necessary to examine the idea of “following” a teacher or Yahweh. In fact this terminology is much more helpful to the current project than modern, process-oriented understandings of discipleship. Samra describes two examples of this type of OT discipleship.[8] He sees Moses/Joshua and Elijah/Elisha as models of following in the pattern of disciple/student much as would later be demonstrated in the New Testament in Jesus’ relationship with his closest followers. Samra comments, “Elijah, like Joshua, did things similar to what his master had done, thereby confirming that he had become like his master.”[9] Wilkins expands on these unique models of master/disciple relationships by explaining their four unique characteristics, namely, their orientation to service, their mutual calling by God, their calling during specific periods of crisis in Israel, and that the master in the relationship never took the place of God for the disciple.[10]
This pattern of discipleship is an excellent model for our purposes – the disciple follows a master who is also a disciple following after God. What such a model presupposes is the maturing nature of biblical discipleship; the master, who is following God as a disciple, mentors and teaches the disciple following in turn.
            To follow a teacher or master is indeed a common model in ancient near eastern societies, whether in individual relationships or in a group/school setting.[11] What is essential for our purposes is to understand that in ancient Israel it was assumed that wisdom teachings, the Law, and the teachings of the prophets were all intended for the masses of the covenantal people, contrary to the nature of Israel’s surrounding cultures.[12] Crenshaw is not settled on the notion of a broad program of religious education in Israel, but rightly suggests that later in the history of Judah there was enough educational momentum that the author of the Deuteronomistic history assumed at least a partially literate audience.[13] Further, in contrast to other ancient near eastern cultures, education in ancient Israel was not restricted to a specialized class of sages or elite aristocrats.[14] It was the duty of the people of God to learn and to live in the knowledge of God.
            Wilkins locates the essential nature of discipleship in the Old Testament in examples of the master-disciple relationships among various groups in ancient Israel.[15] He says, “in spite of the relative absence of disciple terminology and explicit terminology on discipleship, the nature of the prophetic ministry, the writing prophets, the scribes, and the wisdom tradition speak strongly of the existence of master-disciple relationships in Israel…Indeed, when these master-disciple relationships are viewed in the manner suggested here, they are recognized to be part of various means of communicating to Israel the revelation of Yahweh, and as such, promote a greater depth of discipleship to Yahweh within the national life.”[16] It is important to see discipleship as an environment of learning and growing in relationship with a master and in relationship with God. This is the essence of discipleship in ancient Israel: the education of the young toward their maturity in faith under the oversight of more mature prophets, scribes, wise men, and elders of the community.
            What was the goal of education in ancient Israel? Crenshaw suggests that the process of learning was a process of faithful obedience to the God who is the source of all knowledge. He identifies four stages in the intellectual process: observation, discussion, establishing hypotheses, and analytic assessment.[17] This cyclic method goes against modern linear understandings of education and introduces a constant, community-driven model of teaching and learning within the people of God. Crenshaw hints at the holistic nature of such education, saying, “the primary responsibility of students was to observe and listen, eye and ear uniting to convey knowledge to the mind for storage in the belly until released through the mouth. Such corporal imagery underlined the belief that the act of cognition involved more than the mental faculty, the heart.[18] The work of the sages and prophets[19] was to find a synthesis of those things that were discoverable to people by reason and to preserve the tradition of learning of generations gone all while remaining open to the divine interjection of information and experience that undergirded all human understanding. They lived and taught from the position that both human and divine energies were involved in the acquisition of knowledge: “by affirming the necessity for a predisposition to knowledge, an openness to mystery, the sages sought to overcome the restraints on reason.”[20] Witherington identifies three ways to gain wisdom according to the Hebrew sages: “the careful scrutiny of nature and human nature; learning from the traditions of one’s elders, the accumulated knowledge of previous generations; and through encounter with God or a special revelation that came to a person through such an encounter.[21]
            The divine/human interaction in the process of learning came to represent the very nature of knowledge in ancient Israel.[22] There is not a necessary bifurcation in ancient Israel between the knowledge of God and that of the world. Witherington sums up sacred/secular interplay, saying, “once one has examined the Wisdom corpus in detail, that by and large true wisdom was thought to come not merely from human experience or the observation of human and animal nature or the material creation but ultimately from God, or in a non-Israelite setting from the gods, even if it came through these other means.[23]
            Discipleship, while absent in the specific use of the term, is at the heart of what the Old Testament sages and prophets lived out in their teaching. Wilkins identifies three levels of the discipleship relationships present in the Old Testament: “on the national level, in the covenant relationships of God and Israel; on the individual to God level, in the relationships of certain individuals who followed God; and on the human relationship level, in relationships found within the national life.”[24] The people of Israel lived their discipleship through their participation in the covenant. Thus their national identity, expressed in social relationships moderated by God’s teachings taught through the sages and prophets, was the manifestation of their identities as disciples. Wilkins explains, “while the nation as a whole was in covenant relation with God, the individual was not lost within the nation. Individual relationship with God were understood within the covenantal relationship…as the individual followed God, it was an expression of living in covenantal relationship with God.”[25] Dumbrell locates a call to discipleship through the covenant in the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17:18-26: “The call to be holy means that the people were to develop in themselves characteristics similar to Yahweh’s. This process is called sanctification.”[26] The people, through the covenant, are to embody the nature of the master they are following, that is, God.
            Essential for our purposes is the presence of discipleship themes beyond the New Testament. Both Wilkins[27] and Wright[28] make strong connections to the Gospel tradition of discipleship, clearly grounding such a tradition on Old Testament themes and practices. The Old Testament model of discipleship as both identity with God’s covenantal people and as individuals seeking to understand their world through reason and through revelation is the foundation upon which we may build a contemporary model of Baptist discipleship.
            This brief Old Testament examination has demonstrated two essential components of a renewed discipleship paradigm: first, that the discipleship of some mature individuals within the community is essential to the continuation of God’s interaction with the people whom God has chosen and, secondly, that discipleship is more than indoctrination or fact-recitation. As we move toward an examination of progressive Baptist discipleship, these Old Testament insights will be a helpful foundation.

Discipleship in the New Testament
The concept of discipleship in the New Testament is much more developed than in the Hebrew Scriptures. The term maqhthvvvvV (disciple) appears in the New Testament most exclusively in the Gospels and in Acts, and the broader term o’i akolouqounteV (those who follow) appears as well to describe the people who followed after Jesus, John the Baptist, and other teachers in the ancient near east, such as the Pharisees.[29] Both of these terms are conspicuously absent from the Letters, leading at least one author to conjecture that “other words were used that were more appropriate to the topics addressed in this literature [the Letters].”[30]
For the purposes of this treatment it will be helpful to examine the use of the concept of disciple through a brief survey of that topic in Matthew and in Philippians. These two selections will be treated more specifically below; they serve here to introduce the concept and development of Christian discipleship in the New Testament corpus.[31]

Discipleship in the Gospels: Being with Jesus
            The ministry of Jesus went far beyond the professional relationships of ancient Israel, and beyond even the life-forming relationship of the covenant people to their God. Jesus’ model of discipleship was deeper, more personal, more life-changing even than those who lived with their scribal or prophetic masters. Wilkins rightly explains this: “During Jesus’ earthly ministry his disciples were to “follow” him, an allegiance to his person that is regarded as the decisive act. Later rabbinic disciples would follow a master around, often physically imitating the master’s teaching of Torah…The goal of Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves, and to have their own disciples who would follow them. But Jesus’ disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and Teacher, Jesus, and to follow him only…the disciples were committed to his person; they were not simply committed to his teaching as in the rabbinic form of discipleship.”[32] Most discipleship in the ancient near east was essentially economic, therefore, and served to protect ideas and teachings within a sect. Jesus’ model, though, was lifelong and all-consuming. Wilkins continues, “Discipleship was not simply a program through which Jesus ran the disciples. Discipleship was life. That life began in relationship with the Master and moved into all areas of life. Discipleship was not just development of the religious or spiritual dimension, discipleship was directed toward the whole person.”[33]
            If Jesus’ model of discipleship was not the career-oriented training that other sects practiced, then what was its nature? It is not the transmission of secret teachings or knowledge; it is not the participation in esoteric rituals; it is not the following of master in an apprenticeship model that will one day culminate in self-mastership. Instead, discipleship in Jesus’ model is the living out of love and forgiveness. James Dunn concludes an analysis of Jesus’ methods of discipleship by saying, “…Jesus recognizes the closeknit relationship of love, forgiveness, and service. For love is forgiveness, the genuine acceptance of the other who has hurt or offended, wronged, or sleighted. And forgiveness is enabled by the security which comes from the sense of being loved and accepted, not just because of what one is, but in spite of it. And love is readiness to serve, not as a means of gaining favor, of building up a store of credit, but without thought of return. And the readiness to serve stems from and is sustained by the same sense of having received far more than was ever deserved in the first place (italics his).”[34] This is a new model of following a master – it is about the continuing relationship between the disciple and the Master, a relationship based upon what the disciple has already received rather than what the disciple hopes to receive from the Master at some future time.
            As the disciples live and grow with Jesus they are expected to become more like him. The gospels themselves demonstrate this shift from outsiders who are learning about Jesus to believers who are becoming more like their Master. Samra describes this transition, saying, “at times the focus is on the entrance into the process (evangelism), but most often the focus is on growing in the process (maturity); it includes both teaching and life transformation. It is a general call for everyone and also an intense process for a select few. Therefore it is best to think of discipleship as the process of becoming like Christ.”[35] This emphasis on maturity in the Gospels is important: more than simply learning the same traditions that a different master had himself learned when he was a disciple, Jesus invites his followers to become something new, something that transcends discipleship as it was then understood.
            The example of discipleship in the Gospels was one of being with Jesus. The transformational nature of Jesus’ ministry could not be accomplished through the occasional seminar in righteousness on a hillside. Discipleship in the Gospels was accomplished by physically being with Jesus.[36] Many passages reference this practice of proximity, highlighting the whole-life commitment that Jesus’ followers made.[37] A theme of the Gospels is that while the disciples are with Jesus, things go well, when they are apart from him, they experience failure.[38]
            There are several levels of discipleship demonstrated in the Gospels.[39] Wilkins allows for the faceless crowds (ocloi) to be considered the most basic level of disciple of Jesus.[40] Dunn allows for even the non-believers to be considered disciples.[41] Modern readers would categorize these groups as the “interested” or “seekers;” their inclusion has the potential to render this most basic level of discipleship in the Gospels meaningless by making no demands upon the lives of those considered disciples when Jesus’ own words make harsh demands on heart and life. It is useful, however, to see that there is a broad continuum of discipleship ranging from the casual observer to the intimate apostles who were constantly with Jesus. There is insider/outsider language, to be sure, but the transition from one to the other was more fluid than the binary categories suggest.[42]
            The continuum of discipleship demonstrated in the Gospels suggests movement in both a positive and negative direction. At times the Gospels present the disciples as positive representatives of Jesus’ “people” and at others demonstrates their utter failure in their faithfulness to Jesus.[43] Jesus does not allow the disciples to be static in their learning and following after him, nor does Jesus present all of his demands on the disciples up front. His call to “follow me”[44] is just that – an invitation to a journey that will undoubtedly have its successes and its failures as those who follow learn of the Master’s demands.[45] These demands bring the promise of both the struggles that Jesus himself encountered as well as success in proclaiming to the world what they had only learned in secret.[46]

[1] Shirley, “It Takes a Church to Make a Disciple: An Integrative Model of Discipleship for the Local Church,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 50 no. 2 (2008), 207-224.
[2] See Jack D. Terry, Jr., “Equipping Believers Through Discipleship Training,” Baptist History and Heritage, 28 no. 1 (1993), 22-30; Wilkins, Following the Master, 20.
[3] Tyra, Defeating Pharisaism, 197.
[4] Ibid., 203.
[5] Ibid., 220.
[6] Wilkins notes that Samuel (1 Sam. 19:20-24), Elisha (2 Kings 4:1, 38; 9:1), Isaiah (Isa. 8:16; 50:4), Jeremiah (Jer. 36:32), and Ezra (Ezra 7:6, 11) each had their followers. See Michael J. Wilkins, "Discipleship," in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL: Inter- Varsity, 1992), 176.
[7] Wilkins, Following the Master, 53.
[8] Samra, James G., “A Biblical View of Discipleship,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 160: 219-34.
[9] Ibid., 227.
[10] Wilkins, Following the Master, 63.
[11] See James L. Crenshaw, Education in Ancient Israel, Chapter 2.
[12] See Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 10; Crenshaw, Education in Ancient Israel, 6.
[13] Crenshaw, Education, 99.
[14] Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 11.
[15] See Wilkins, Michael J., The Concept of Disciple in the Gospel of Matthew as Reflected in the use of the term MaqhthvV, 51-91. Wilkins elsewhere makes connections between the covenant relationships of the people of God to their deity that are more general than the prophet/scribe relationships he concentrates on here. See Wilkins, Following the Master.
[16] Ibid, 91.
[17] Crenshaw is here using Job 28:27 as an exemplar of the ancient Jewish intellectual process (Education, 217). He says, “This verse covers four distinct stages in the intellectual process. The first, observation, engages the eyes as they examine an observable phenomenon. It connotes immediate knowledge, firsthand experience, thus intimate knowledge. The second, discussion, involves the organ of speech as the agency through which an individual endeavors to articulate whatever conclusion he has reached in a way that communicates with others. This discussion also entails hearing with discernment. In this way private insights become public commodity, and the collective knowledge of a given community makes its contribution to private knowledge.” Two things come to the fore in this discussion: first, the intellectual process Crenshaw identifies is very much like the modern scientific process that is decried as ant-biblical. Secondly, the emphasis on the communal participation in knowledge must not be understated. One community (the sages, prophets, teachers, etc.) teaches and refines the truth of God by way of its own experience to another individual or community.
[18] Ibid, 209.
[19] Crenshaw argues that these two groups may be synonymous in terms of the educational enterprise. See Crenshaw, Education, 241.
[20] Ibid, 250.
[21] Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 12.
[22] Crenshaw, 259: “Israelites are thought to possess a priceless treasure, the words of divine instruction. Within it in hand, they need not worry about what belongs exclusively to their God’s realm. Indeed, they must not surrender to the human impulse to earn divine favor the old-fashioned way, demonstrating ardor by searching far and near for something that already resides in their minds and on their tongues….A gracious God has given you everything you need to obtain life, and that treasure is not far away but very near.”
[23] Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 11.
[24] Wilkins, Following the Master, 57.
[25] Ibid, 59.
[26] Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 47.
[27] Wilkins, Following the Master, 53.
[28] Witherington, Jesus the Sage, 201.
[29] Longenecker, Richard N. (ed.), Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 4-5.
[30] Wilkins, Following the Master, 289. Wilkins continues, “We should recognize that different historical circumstances from the period of the Gospels to the church will cause us to look differently at our relationship with the Lord and with each other. But this should motivate us to explore the teachings of the Epistles more carefully to see how it was that the apostles communicated the concept of discipleship to believers in their churches.”
[31] ANE context
[32] Wilkins, Following the Master, 124.
[33] Ibid, 124-125.
[34] Dunn, James D. G., Jesus’ Call to Discipleship, 90.
[35] Samra, A Biblical View of Discipleship, 220.
[36] Ibid, 221.
[37] Cf. Mark 1:17, 10:39-40; Matthew 10:24-25, 13:16-17; Luke 6:39-40, 9:23-27, 15:25-33, 18:18-30.
[38] With the glaring exception of the sending of the 72, Luke 10:1-23.
[39] Samra, drawing on Meier, identifies three levels of disciples: those who were occasional, yet dedicated believers in Jesus as the Messiah; those who were engaged in uninterrupted fellowship with Jesus; and the chosen twelve who were the most intimate with Jesus along his ministerial journey. This understanding does not take into appropriate account the use of “disciple” as a term used in the Gospels to represent those who followed after Jesus with or without believing in him as the Jewish Messiah. Such an interpretation is representative of Dunn and Wilkins.
[40] Wilkins, The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, 137ff.
[41] Dunn, Jesus’ Call to Discipleship, 110-112.
[42] Wilkins maintains that the crowds were at worst the neutral participants in the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and at best were at the threshold of discipleship (The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, 139). Further, there are examples in the Gospels of transitional characters coming from the crowd to a closer discipleship with Jesus (cf. Matt. 20:29-34) and of similar characters moving from an implied position of closer discipleship to one farther away from Jesus after the Master makes further demands on their lives (cf. Mark 10:17-27).
[43] Wright, Following Jesus, 49; Wilkins, The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel, 221; Segovia, Discipleship in the New Testament, 52; Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 41.
[44] Cf. Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20.
[45] Cf. Luke 9:37-40, 10:1-23.
[46] Cf. Mark 10:39-40; Matt. 10:24-27.

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