The Cost of Non-Discipleship
By James D. Hernando
Mar. 25, 2012
As I lectured that morning on the transforming effects of the gospel, I noticed Ebi, a brilliant young African student, silently weeping in her seat. Sitting at eye level in the theater classroom and dead center in her row, she was impossible to miss.
After class she remained and made her way to my lectern. With tear-filled eyes she told me of the AIDS pandemic in her country and across much of Africa. Her inner struggle concerned how AIDS was spreading.
Ebi related that many men were forced to leave their rural villages and seek work in the cities. While there, they had sexual relations with prostitutes and brought back the disease to their wives and children. Her anguish was over the fact that many of these men were Christians. Her words were like a punch in the stomach.
Without elaborating, she asked, “Where is the transforming effect of the gospel in this situation?”
I stuttered and stumbled through an answer I cannot now remember, but am sure was less than satisfactory.
Most will understandably ask, “How can this be?” The easy response is to deny that persons capable of such despicable acts are really Christians, but Scripture and history both attest to sinful acts committed by those who profess faith in Christ. Paul’s letters, as a case in point, address idolatry, sexual immorality, incest, dishonesty, greed, homosexuality — and the list goes on.
But herein lies part of the answer: Paul addresses these issues directly. He provides rebuke, instruction and encouragement to those who are on a path of moral and spiritual transformation (Romans 12:2), from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV), but have not yet completed the journey.
God’s goal for these believers is to be fully conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). But they, like Paul, have not yet attained it (Philippians 3:12-14). As most Christians acknowledge, the Great Commission is a command to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), not merely converts.
The process of making fully formed disciples of Jesus may begin at the altar, but it is the work of “applied grace” over a lifetime. The goal of discipleship cannot be met if it is not intentionally and constantly pursued. What are the consequences of failing to make such a pursuit? In other words, “What is the cost of non-discipleship?” The apostle Paul provides some clear answers in his letter to the Ephesians (4:12-16).
The passage in focus comes on the heels of his exhortation to the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling as Christians (4:1). Paul describes the manner of that walk (vv. 2,3) and God’s empowerment of it through the so-called “leadership gifts” given to the Church (v. 11). The purpose of these gifts is for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, with the goal of edification, or the building up of the body of Christ (v. 12).
What Paul is broadly describing is the process of discipleship. However, such “building up” is thwarted if discipleship is neglected. The negative consequences are described in corporate terms (relating to the entire body of Christ), but have individual applications.
Failure to disciple is a sure recipe for spiritual immaturity. The Corinthians were described as “babes [or infants: Greek nepios] in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1), and their carnality or worldliness was proof of their lack of spiritual development. Paul uses the same term (also translated “children”) in Ephesians 4:14.
Such stunted growth means that believers are not growing as they should, not growing in their knowledge of the Son of God, “to a mature [or complete: Greek teleios] man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (v. 13, NASB). They are not growing up “in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (v. 15). Such defective growth means that the whole body lacks the unified and mutual dependence that causes the growth of the body (v. 16).
We immediately note that Christ is the standard or benchmark by which growth is measured (vv. 12,13,15). When Christian conduct, individual or collective, falls far short of the character and teachings of Christ, the Church is subject to censure and even ridicule. The name of Christ and His Church is blasphemed, and its credibility before the world evaporates.
Disunity and ?doctrinal instability
A failure to disciple will inevitably lead to a lack of unity in the Church. That is why Paul earlier exhorts us to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Here in 4:13 he speaks of attaining “the unity of the faith.” In context, these words seem to refer to the common “faith” convictions that belong to Christian doctrine and practice.
Mature disciples in Christ know what they believe regarding essential Christian truth. Spiritual infants do not (see v. 14). Their lives are marked by doctrinal instability that is as erratic and shifting as a turbulent sea, and subject to the deception and manipulation of false teachers.
Implicitly, Paul is advocating doctrinal training in the discipleship process. Such training will not only safeguard the integrity of the Church’s faith, but will promote its growth and edification (v. 16).
Love is lost
Twice Paul mentions love in his description of the discipleship process. Love is an abstract word that loses all meaning without a context. Paul gives us one. Love is the manner and means by which Christian faith moves toward maturity. It is an essential component of the believer’s growth into Him, who is the head (i.e., Christ).
But for Paul, love is foremost a relational term. In Ephesians 4:2 he shows that humility, gentleness, patience and tolerance all flow out of Christian love. In our passage it causes us to speak the truth to one another and grow in Christ (v. 15). Finally, love is vital to the Church’s building up of itself (v. 16).
Discipleship within the church, as relationally defined, is simply teaching believers how to love the Lord supremely and their neighbors as themselves (Matthew 22:37-39). The absence of love has devastating consequences. It not only gives the Church a proverbial “black eye,” but it is a living contradiction of what Jesus himself sets forth as the epitome of Christian discipleship. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
For believers to pursue a course of love, they must know what love looks like. This is why in the Great Commission Jesus commands His disciples to teach others “to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
If we are to avoid scandals like the one mentioned at the outset of this article, we must do more than teach people how to become Christians; we must teach them how to live as followers of Christ. We must not only tell them how to enter the kingdom of God, but teach them to live authentically as its citizens (see Philippians 3:20), submitting to the lordship of Christ in every facet of life’s existence.
JAMES D. HERNANDO is professor of New Testament at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo. He attends King’s Chapel Christian Center (AG) in Springfield.
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