In the Scriptures there are some seemingly disconected ideas. Discipleship1 – which in our 21st Century paradigm includes all the activities by which an individual maintains and deepens their relationship with their Lord, and The Churches2 – which in the same paradigm forms a regular meeting opportunity for the disciples. Our identity is found in Christ. And thus we presume that the majority of the NT is written primarily to inform us about the necessities of my personal discipleship. With this foundation it would be absurd to acknowledge that every New Testament document was written for the benefit of whole churches, not the benefit of individual disciples. That Paul and the Epistle writers were writing to the churches in Ephesus and Rome, etc. even the 4 letters to individuals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon) were also written for the benefit of the churches;3 That Matthew and the gospel writers were leaders of Church movements in Jerusalem or among the gentiles at the time of their writing and these works were written as a part of their leadership of these churches.4 That John wrote Revelation, specifically for the churches.5
Absurd? No. It’s a fundamentally biblical idea that we have covered over with Post Reformation, Modern and Post Modern, Western Evangelical forms, structures and dialogue. With these glasses over our eyes we have shaded out some incredibly simple and central ideas which sat at the base of every believers growth as the NT was being written, and have replaced them with an extra biblical paradigm of discipleship; one that is having dubious success to stabilize and strengthen believing families and churches in the gospel rather than the being sucked into the individualistic philosophies of our culture. For the future health of our families and churches we must remove these glasses and be prepared to alter our thinking to harmonize with the intent of those who wrote the NT. They wrote to churches. We must first acknowledge this before we will ever understand its significance.
The remaining few paragraphs will be dedicated to overview this context of the teaching for first century disciples. This is what I have come to understand as ‘the way of Christ and His Apostles’.6
Among other things Christ reshaped our understanding of family. Family for Christ was, ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven.’7 It wasn’t Israel. It wasn’t the Baptists. His new teaching expounded the reality of one large family for all believers in which all would learn, love and be without need.8 Acts unfolds in this manner with the churches adhering to the family descriptions given by Christ.9 This was the family of the Living God10 with One God and Father for all. 11
The Apostles – particularly Paul12 – grappled with the ideas that Christ had presented them with and essentially came up with the following pattern for discipleship. Paul would go to all the strategic cities along the major Roman highways and preach the gospel. He would gather the believers together into churches and instruct them intensively. He would appoint local leaders over each church and then commend them to the grace of God.13 Paul would then return for visits, send in his key men – train their key men, or write letters to these churches to ensure that the whole community remained on a trajectory of learning and growing in the faith.14 No disciple in the NT was separate from the life of the churches. Discipleship was the process of learning to become vitally involved in a church family who are learning and adhering to the Scriptures and fully invested in the purposes of the wider church network. Adhereing to ‘the way of Christ and His Apostles’ in the first century not only ensured a properly defined pathway of learning for every husband, wife, older man, older woman – for all disciples and families, but it did so with such power and scope that even the opponents of Paul admitted that he had ‘turned the world upside down’15 and 250 years later Emperor Constantine utterly ratified their words!
So, as we struggle with ideas for discipleship, feel helpless about the crazy number of families that are falling apart within our churches, and as up to 85% of evangelical children leave the faith before they are 25, and as we watch as the idea of church fades into the background overshadowed by large para-church institutions, missions committees and seminaries which can ‘do the job better’16, do we have the guts to rediscover an idea that is portrayed as somewhat hopeless in the 21st century but, as we’ve briefly seen, in the first century had all the NT authors vitally and utterly sold out.17 Do I have it in me?
Why should we rediscover the churches? It’s because Christ and His Apostles gave us no alternate blueprint for discipleship – but rather, gave us one single pattern which is intrinsically, inextricably – completely inseparably linked to the churches. This biblical discipleship unleashed the power of God through the gospel to the empire. Rediscover the churches and that same power is right here to mend families, to save future generations and to clarify the gospel for the whole world.18
My discipleship is shaped by the churches as I learn to be vitally involved and fully invested in His family – in this context we learn the Scriptures together to spur one-another on into Christs love.