Discipleship? Community? What’s that? It’s time to clarify great confusion regarding what practicing faith is for those who claim allegiance to Jesus. In a culture of independence and personal entitlement, there’s a tendency for us to interpret many things from a perception of self that were never intended for Christians. One of the most common complaints in Christian churches today is how people feel isolated despite being surrounded by others. “They just don’t feel connected.” So, let’s take a look at discipleship and community.
If you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, lets first agree that’s it Jesus who sets the standards of what that means, not us. This reflection may introduce some new things you haven’t considered about the issue of discipleship, or perhaps you chose to ignore them? Let’s start with one of the most well-known “discipleship” statements made by Jesus in John the eight chapter which goes “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples, then you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” What does this say about community? For one when Jesus was training disciples they not only hung on his words, they were called to follow his behavioral example by how they lived their lives. Jesus and his disciples, existed, ministered, grew, and were commissioned in community.
Just how quickly did Jesus set up a discipleship atmosphere of community? Shortly after he commenced his ministry, Jesus began building this little community, by calling four disciples, Andrew, Peter, Phillip and Nathaniel (see John 1) in one day. It grew as Jesus picked up others along the way. Jesus intent was to train 12 men who would not only learn his teachings they would be called “his friends” (John 15:15) there was no “solo” calling or appointments with Jesus. Luke tells us on more than one occasion, there was a significant group that followed Jesus in addition to the 12. We know there were seventy Jesus felt confident enough to commission them to “preach” the good news of the kingdom. (Luke 10). We know there were women following him and “many others” who supported him out of their private means. (Luke 8) As the 70 is probably a distinct sending in addition to the 12’s commission it’s safe to say the following. Jesus worked operated, taught and directed the Kingdom of God from a community, that’s right a community, not from the comfort of his own home or in some subterranean bunker. It’s safe to gather from these descriptions in the Gospels of Jesus followers Jesus travelled in a community varying around 100 individuals who included the 12, the 70, the women who ministered in the entourage, and those supporting him. It’s customary to think of the birth of the church as coinciding with Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah later in the Gospels, yet it’s clear there’s a viable community thriving together well before that! Men and women functioning inter-relationally to perform the work of the Kingdom. They listened to Jesus, watched him minister, watched him confront the institutions of his time and learned how to respond to the problems of life with the right perspective.
Consider this as well as it’s essential to understanding how a church, as an administrative entity functions to carry out the work of the Kingdom in the present. Once Jesus had established a following he does something very intentional. He goes off one evening to a mountainside to pray by himself all night. The reason for this is remarkably clear in Luke’s gospel. The next morning, he returns and selects twelve individuals specifically for special assignment, they will be the inner circle and three of them will become the most intimate apprentices of the master, James, John and Simon Peter. Again, this theme of inter-relational discipleship as community is reinforced, it’s not one individual designated to carry the torch, it’s twelve, a community, four tradesmen, a revolutionary, a public official and six others representing everyman and everywoman. Even some of the mothers of the 12 are along for the ride in the community of the Kingdom.
Kingdom discipleship is a community with no solo operators. When the disciples are sent out to preach and to heal it’s always in groups of two, (Luke 10; Matt 10) when they perform miracles or attempt to, its in groups (Matt 17) when they ask Jesus questions its always, always in groups, In the Synagogue (the Jewish equivalent of a church) they are there in groups. The community of disciples was so obvious to the people of his day when they were accused by the religious hypocrites it’s in groups (Matt 12) you get the point. By the end of the Gospels when we might suspect they would be ready to go “solo” after being trained by Jesus himself, being designated “his friends” (John 15:15) and ready to being commissioned (Matt 28:20) just so they don’t get some hairbrained notion of going off on the own, Jesus tells them as a group “I’m going to send you (as a group) what my Father has promised, but stay here until you have been clothed on high” referring to the Holy Spirit. (Luke 24:49).
When the promised Holy Spirit came, in Acts chapter two it came you guessed it, upon an assembled group of disciples not separately as individuals. Acts chapter one tells us something quite significant about what Jesus community of disciples learned about community After Jesus left, the believers about 120 of them, (there’s that number near 100) were gathered together, all disciples, and it’s this group the Spirit descends on. The inaugural event of the Holy Spirit’s ministry under the new covenant which John alludes to as coming in his Gospel (John 7:39) which launches the Spirit filled church into the future is a communal event. An event mind you (Acts 2) that immediately by nature of God’s intent draws a crowd resulting in an outdoor service that brings 3000 new members into a community of 120.
Community is Personal and Spiritual Growth
The early church continued to follow the words and the example of Jesus, “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching” (Acts 2:42) obeying Jesus words to make disciples and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20); the breaking of bread (the Lord’s supper) was another communal directive of Jesus, (Luke 19:22). Acts 2 wants to make this so clear it emphasizes “they were dedicated to fellowship,” the very thing true disciples do. While the members of this community had special ministry assignments, the church was a community where God worked amongst disciples, through the Spirit coexisting in individuals. This was God’s unique endowment of his disciples with Spiritual gifts for one specific purpose, expansion of the Kingdom of God and the spiritual enabling of this “community of disciples” called the church. This is why the list of spiritual gifts in Romans 12 and 1st Corinthians 12 are described to churches, not individuals, and commissioned to be utilized inter-relationally in community. It is a great misunderstanding for a man or woman to conclude their “faith is personal” really? In near forty years as a follower of Christ, I have yet to meet anyone believing such rubbish that can articulate their own faith or what God is doing in their lives. Often, they are unable to articulate a defense of why they believe what they believe that conveys to the hearer there’s merit in their decision to become a Christian. What I have found is those that express this “personal faith narrative” are usually spiritually immature, divisive, out of fellowship of a local body of people trying to follow Christ and usually wounded or offended and resentful of authority. Their often biblically illiterate and God is regulated to Sundays (with an occasional volunteer excursion), as long as it doesn’t interfere with anything that might be inconvenient! We will be judged for our Kingdom work individually for sure. Scripture tells us this but we will be judged on how our faith is expressed through our lives and impacts inter-personally. You see the fruit Jesus talks about always means fruit as it pertained to our lives impacting others in alignment with God’s purpose in God’s Kingdom. Just how one would demonstrate of the “fruits of the Spirit” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, forbearance, gentleness and self-control “anti-relationally” would be a feat indeed!
Our Greatest Witness
Contrary to what we may think, our Bible knowledge, our churches stand on social justice, or even our “authentically pious lives” isn’t the greatest asset of a disciple of Jesus, at least not in the words of Jesus. Now while all these things are important in themselves they are only parts of something greater; a life which is identified as a disciple of Christ.
Jesus was often asked by religious people, and not so religious people what they must do to get right with God. It reflects a common experience that make up being human, an innate realization we have a responsibility or rather an opportunity for something extraordinary. A relationship with the Creator of the Universe! Disciples of Jesus have concluded Jesus is more than just a man but the Son of God. They know Jesus is the bridge, not one of many but the exclusive bridge that connects us back to God. An individual connected back to God through Christ is what is known as a disciple. Jesus used this term interchangeably. He did not refer to those who were not connected to his Father as disciples. When Jesus used the term “disciple” it meant someone who followed him and was connected spiritually with Himself and His Heavenly Father. Even in it’s simplest form disciples of Jesus are never alone. They exist in community! How you might ask? First, they have fellowship with Jesus, “I am with you always even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Secondly, they have fellowship with God the Father “This is eternal life that they may know You and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Thirdly, they have fellowship with the Spirit “But when He, the Spirit of truth of comes, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The reality of community is the very bedrock of a true disciple of Jesus. It’s no wonder when disenfranchised from a church body of believers we experience a spiritual disconnection and stumble in our faith. There are fewer things more unattractive than a disconnected Christian. Their bitter, often divisive, and suck the joy out of everything they encounter. By the way if you know anyone fitting this description, you as a disciple might ask Jesus what you might do to help reach out and restore one who may not be able to see clearly the enemy convinced them that isolation was acceptable and “picked them off.” Jesus never said being one of his disciples was easy. But he knew how important community was to faith.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. … In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” That really says it doesn’t it? It’s from Jesus himself and assumes the following, just like Jesus we interact with each other. We don’t develop sophisticated excuses for removing ourselves from the community of disciples. We love as Jesus did. “Greater love has no man than this; than to lay down his life for his friends” and “He who is greatest is a servant” are Jesus words. None of these things can be accomplished in isolation. Jesus said these things to the leaders of his entourage. Discipleship equaled the type of love Jesus had for them to be demonstrated towards each other. This visible counter-cultural Jesus accomplished everything in the community of those that followed him. We’d be hard pressed to argue for a “independent faith” or a “personal faith” that you express “in your own way” replaces community for something Jesus avoided at all cost… isolation.
A Word to The Wounded
Perhaps your story is something so egregious, so terrible happened to you at the hands of Christians or the church that you simply can’t picture yourself in community with those who follow Jesus. That may very well be. This could be the reality of a season of your life. This however, doesn’t alleviate the fact some of the most socially broken, discounted individuals are found to be in the company of Jesus in the Gospels. You see Jesus made it a point to emphasize our faith is meant to live in community, and it would be out of his character to leave you isolated in a way that destroyed your faith. Jesus doesn’t destroy faith. However, if there’s a unusual circumstance where you can’t for some reason avail yourself to others, God knows your heart, you do have fellowship whether you know it or not, (if you’re a disciple anyway). You have it in Jesus Himself, his Father and the Spirit. That’s not a debatable point or theological opinion, it’s a spiritual reality you can hang your faith on whether you “feel” it or not!
Discipleship and community, is essential in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. When practiced as Jesus instructed it becomes a powerful tool for countering the loneliness and disappointments in life. It expands our effectiveness with a concentrated prayer base and provides the reinforcing communal experience of Jesus living in the lives of each one of us. To participate, that may mean you have to reach out as opposed to waiting on someone to reach out to you. One thing stands for certain. We’re not going to convince anyone we are a disciple of Jesus alone. That’s accomplished by how you love others which is only accomplished in a community of like-minded disciples.
J.P. Grier is the founder and writer at SentinelforChrist.com – A network of Christians helping each other to press deeper in Christ.