Word-Centered Discipleship

We are inundated with information. More than any other generation we are bombarded with words through email, websites, social media, and an endless supply of blogs and printed material (for those who still use such things). We are not at a loss for words, but to a degree, words are lost on us. In an age of information, words have lost their prominence. Books go unread. Sermons are shortened. Videos have become the preferred means of learning.

In recent years discipleship ministries have rightly emphasized relationship and the power of example, but often at a loss of the ministry of the Word. The heart of disciple-making, however, is teaching. The Great Commission of Jesus, after all, is to make disciples, teaching them to observe everything he commanded. Moreover, the Scriptures present themselves as the means by which God makes his people like him. We need to recapture the power of God’s Word and its centrality in our lives in the lives of those we disciple.

HOW GOD PRESENTS HIS WORD

God created through his Word (Gen 1). God rules through his Word (Heb 1:3). God recreates through his Word (1 Pet 1:23). God saves through his Word (Rom 10:17). And God makes us like him through his Word (2 Tim 3:16-17; Rom 12:1-2).

Discipling is the process of applying the truths of God’s powerful Word to each other’s lives. While discipleship involves more than teaching, it cannot involve less. The Scripture reveals Christ and makes us like him (John 5:39; 17:17).

HOW PAUL PRESENTS HIS MINISTRY

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28 ESV)

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (Colossians 4:3-4 ESV)

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2 ESV)

Paul’s ministry – both in evangelism and discipling – is fundamentally a ministry of preaching, teaching, and proclaiming. God uses the preaching and teaching of his Word as the means by which people come to Christ and are made mature in Christ. But why?

WHAT WE BELIEVE SHAPES US

[11] And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, [12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, [13] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, [14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV)

Paul describes two types of people: spiritual children and adults. Children are immature and easily deceived. Adults are mature and look like Christ. For Paul, it’s not a question of whether or not one believes in doctrine, but which doctrine they believe. Doctrine is the foundation of life and dictates how we live. This is because we both act on what we know to be true and because truth shapes us. In disciple-making, we’re not merely communicating empty words to others. Rather, we’re presenting God’s Word to them – the very means by which God speaks and changes us.

There is a fundamental difference between reading a good book and the Bible. In one I learn (presumably) good ideas or facts; in the other, I lie exposed and naked, a creature before the eyes of God and lie under his gracious scalpel (Heb 4:12-13). God talks to us, allows us to behold him, and makes us like him through his words. When we teach others God’s Word, we’re not simply communicating ideas, God is speaking through us (2 Cor 5:20; 1 Thess 2:13).

The discipler, then, is most fundamentally a teacher. This does not mean disciple-making is not relational. It does mean discipling relationships are only effective as the discipler’s life corresponds to what’s revealed in the Scriptures. It does mean discipleship relationship ought to center around God’s word. The Scriptures provide the substance of discipleship while relationship provides the arena for teaching.

THE WHAT AND THE HOW OF DISCIPLE-MAKING

[15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, [16] from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. […] [25] Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Ephesians 4:15-16, 25 ESV)

Paul provides a remedy for the spiritual child in peril: maturity is possible through hearing truth spoken in love. This is the what and the how of discipling.

The what is “speaking the truth”; this is where we take the truths of the Scriptures and apply them to those we’re discipling.

The how of disciple-making is speaking the truth “in love.” This means we don’t use truth to bludgeon each other. We speak with clarity – not dulling or dumbing down God’s words – and with kindness.

Speaking the truth in love assumes a relationship. Speaking the truth in love properly happens in a body so relational all of its members belong to one body and belong to one another– the Church (Eph 4:16, 25; Rom 12:5). Relationships, and the local church, in particular, provides an arena to teach and model God’s words to one another.

WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE

I want to offer a few different ways we can speak the truth in love to another and in so doing apply God’s Word to one another’s lives.

In Conversation: It takes an entire church taking responsibility for one another for the whole and the individual to grow; this is the thrust of Eph 4:15-16. Because of this shared responsibility for one another we should regularly look for opportunities to speak the truth to each other. It should be natural and commonplace for church members to ask each other, “what did you learn in the sermon today?” “how were you challenged this morning?” “what are you learning in the word this week?” “what is God teaching you lately?” “what are you struggling with?” All of these questions provide opportunities for us to discuss the truth of God’s Word with one another and to bless one another.

In Situation: Other times we will need to take the truths of the Scriptures and directly apply them to someone’s life to teach, rebuke, correct, train, or encourage them based on what we see in their life. If I know my brother is giving himself to habitual drunkenness, I need to in love confront him with the truth of Eph 5:18. If someone confesses sin to me, perhaps sexual immorality, I will still take him to a text, such as 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, for both of us to read and pray over, asking God to give us hearts that hate sin. He needs more than confession, as good as that is; he needs the sword of God to do work on his heart. If my brother is mourning the loss of a loved believer, when it’s appropriate I can encourage him with 1 Thess 4:13-18, reminding him that we have a great hope that we will see them again and the Lord one day. Because we live in a fallen world, we regularly need Scripture to confront our sin, to train us where we are deficient, and to uphold us when we’re weak.

In Bible Study: When we disciple others we should use the Scriptures as our primary curriculum, allowing the Bible to set the discipleship agenda, guide our discussion, and work on our hearts. The Bible alone has the power to create, recreate, and transform us. I’m not suggesting that every one-on-one meeting have to be time spent in the Bible or that you can’t use curriculum or read books. I often spend time with guys I disciple praying, doing accountability, reading extra-biblical books, or merely talking about life. Our time together not in the Word is only as valuable as it is shaped by the Word. The general arc of our time together over a period of time needs to be Word-centered if I want to see the guys I disciple become more like Christ. It’s important to remember. However, we’re not merely to speak the truth; rather, we are to speak the truth in love. The discipler’s life is a rhythm of teaching and modeling. We are to speak the truth in love.