Defeating Discipleship

In an earlier post, I proposed a definition of discipleship based on the truth that we should be hearing and obeying God. A corollary to this was the responsibility of leaders in the church to encourage this among everyone in the fellowship. This led to the concern of how easy it is to take a different path when leadership forgets this and places a singular focus on what they hear from God, resulting in the fellowship becoming spiritually slack. In talking this over with a brother, he pointed out some Scripture passages that developed this idea further.

The concern I raised previously was that, if a key part of discipleship was to learn how to hear God, then we have to take care not to allow anyone else to do that for us. In particular, it’s easy to fall into the trap that the pastor’s job is to hear God for us, and then to tell us what the Lord says. This relieves us from the responsibility of leaning into Him ourselves. By relying on someone else, we can always fall back on our opinion that they got it wrong, so disobeying them is really not the same as disobeying God. Some leaders may even fall in the trap of believing their role is to listen on behalf of the people, in a sense acting in the role of Moses in at Mount Sinai. In the worst case, they can quench a listening spirit in the fellowship, rather than fanning it.

Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.”
Exodus 20:19 (NASB95)

At Mount Sinai, the people were not to approach the mountain, and they became afraid of hearing the Lord directly. Instead, they asked Moses to hear from God, tell them what He said, and then they would obey. The Lord approved this approach, apparently because it included the promise to obey. This led to the model of a single spiritual leader for the people, and was a model for future prophets. But like many other things, this pattern became abused over time. Eventually, we see this when Jesus challenged the Pharisees in Matthew:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” (vv 1-7)

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (vv 8-12)

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (v. 13)
Matthew 23:1–13 (NASB95)

The Pharisees were evidently abusing their position in the “chair of Moses” and while teaching truths, they were not living them. It may be said that they were teaching proper religion, without evidence of a real God-focused relationship. In other words, they were not displaying the characteristics of someone entering the Kingdom, and were not entering themselves. In this sense they paralleled Moses in another way, because he himself did not enter the Promised Land. Even worse, they prevented others from entering. Proper doctrine and religious practice do not bring people into the Kingdom; at best they are evidences of it. Entrance into the Kingdom is through a relationship with God, which is ultimately possible only through the work of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus’ address of the Pharisees also includes instruction for those who would follow them. Jesus had the people focus on their individual relationships with God, rather than relate to Him through others. This foreshadowed the New Covenant truth foretold by Jeremiah:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Jeremiah 31:31–34 (NASB95)

This passage, echoed by the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 8:7-12), describes the shift made at the cross from knowing God through a religious figure, to knowing Him personally.

This highlights the danger of teaching people to listen to their leaders instead of their God: entrance to the Kingdom and the blessings that result are based on one’s personal relationship with the Savior, not their Pastor. Many people faithfully attend church and support the right causes without having this personal relationship. Or perhaps they have been saved at some point, but have no growing relationship. It’s possible to fill a church with such people who attend church happily, but are not disciples. When we recognize that the Lord’s command in the Great Commission was to make disciples, not believers, we can understand why He would find such shallow leadership to be a problem.

Of course, this does not mean that we don’t need teachers or pastors. But it does suggest that the real role is to teach people to learn from the Master. For teachers, this gives new insight into James’ warning that they are held to a high standard. What could be a worse failure than to hold one’s self up as a spiritual leader, only to prevent people from attaining all that God has for them spiritually, or worse, prevent them from entering the Kingdom at all.

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. James 3:1 (NASB95)

Let us take care to recognize the importance of every individual’s relationship with God. Let us pray for and encourage our leaders to teach us to listen with discernment, and help us be faithful to live out our Lord’s commands. Let us pray for each other, that we would each grow in personal experience of the Lord Jesus Christ. And finally, let us pray that His Kingdom would come here and now, in each individual life.

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