Written by John B. Macdonald
Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission and Frank Viola’s Discipleship in Crisis capture something of the overall malaise in the current state of discipleship.
My suspicion is that discipleship programs over the past fifty years must take some, if not much, of the blame for this malaise.
This article takes a poke at modern discipleship programs and proposes a solution.
Let’s start with a parable.
Once there was a great king who provided a skilled jeweler with many rare and valuable gems. He instructed the jeweler to use all the gems to construct a necklace that portrayed the glory of his Kingdom and the growth of its loyal subjects. In time, the jeweler presented a necklace to the King.
The King examined it carefully. He then asked, “Why did you not include the other gems I gave you?”
“Your majesty, I carefully selected and arranged those gems that I thought would fulfil your instructions. I did not feel that the other gems were necessary, or as important.”
To which the King responded, “All the gems are needed to portray the glory of my Kingdom and what it means to be a faithful subject.”
What does this parable mean?
Constructing a discipleship program is like a jeweler fashioning a necklace. The gems have genuine value, but the selection and arrangement tend to reflect the culture and tastes, training and experiences, preferences and aversions of the jeweler. The gems left on the table are discounted and omitted by the jeweler, and yet they are necessary in the eyes of the King.
This parable suggests discipleship programs are more a human construct than they need to be. They are useful, but not as comprehensive or powerful as intended. Typically, discipleship programs manifest the cultures and tastes, training and experiences, preferences and aversions of their designers.
As an experiment to demonstrate this observation, I took down fifty books on discipleship from my shelves. Here are my findings for three of the missing “gems.” This test is suggestive, not exhaustive.
First, is fasting. Matthew refers to fasting in Matthew 4:1-11; 6:16-18; 9:14-15.
My search of the fifty discipleship programs revealed only one that dealt with it substantively: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. One or two others referred to the word “fasting” in a list of disciplines, nothing more.
Second, is dealing with conflict. Matthew includes numerous instructive scenes in which we observe how Jesus responded to conflict. For example, we have Jesus confronted in the Temple (21:23-27; 22:15-33). Elsewhere Jesus teaches the disciples regarding inter-personal conflict including Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-20.
Among the fifty discipleship resources, only one dealt with conflict: James C. Wilhoit’s Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered.
Third, is teaching eschatology. Eschaton is the Greek word for “last”; eschatology is the study of last things, or last days. Some may refer to this as unfulfilled prophecy.
Jesus’ teaching to the disciples in Matthew 24-25 is full of references to the last days and His future coming. This is not to satisfy curiosity about the future; it is to motivate faithful living in the present. See, for instance, 24:42-44; 25:13.
How many of the fifty discipleship resources included eschatology and its motivation for faithful living in the present?
There are numerous other “gems” discounted and omitted by modern discipleship programs. Those “gems” include sexuality, marriage, and singleness; wealth, finances, and possessions; treatment of the vulnerable and marginalized; value of community; persecution and suffering.
Instead of constructing discipleship programs, why not re-discover and re-engage with the paradigm that has already been given to us as the Gospel of Matthew?
My contention is that Matthew is a paradigm for making disciples of Jesus in all areas of life. All the “gems” are there, in their proper order.
Dr. MacDonald serves with Outreach Canada and can be contacted at [email protected]. As a foretaste of Matthew’s Paradigm, you can download a free copy of “Listening Well to Matthew” by subscribing to his website living theology at www.johnbmacdonald.com.