by Robert Brow
disciples of all nations ...
teaching them to observe all
that I have commanded you
FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS I HAVE BEEN COMPELLED by a passion to obey the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. The words "go," "make disciples," "teach" have again and again governed my best motives, though with many failures of vision in between. The Great Commission took me first into theological training, then overseas for eleven years as a field missionary. Finally it forced me into writing and rewriting this book in the context of the busy pastoral work of three Canadian parishes. Gradually the work of making disciples, and teaching them, has crystallized into a model, which gives me a clear picture of who is to be baptized, and why, and what should follow. This way of picturing my task seems to make sense of the many, often confusing, references to baptism in the New Testament, and to my mind it solves many difficulties in the current discussions of baptism, church membership, discipline, and church growth.
In this Discipleship model, the key concept is that of "making disciples" which is the meaning of the Greek verb matheteusate used in the Great Commission. Jesus Christ taught his own disciples for three years. Before leaving them he told the apostles to go and make other disciples among the nations. The main work of the Church is, therefore, to make disciples, and then to teach them all that Jesus would want them to learn. That may seem very obvious, even simplistic, but it has profound implications which have generally been ignored.
The word "disciple" means a learner, someone who is learning to do something, or to be something, with the help of a teacher. In this sense, Christians are people who are learning with the help of Jesus Christ, or, we may say, learning from the Holy Spirit.
Another way of looking at learning is to think of God as our Father, and ourselves as his children. Why should Jesus tell us to pray to "our Father" and to be like children in his family? One reason is that every loving father wants and helps his children to learn. He encourages crawling, talking, walking, the three Rs, music, art, sports, and other skills, and the general attitudes towards people and things that the child may need for a full and happy life. This task in a human family is facilitated because normal children are incredibly teachable. They have the genetic equipment to begin learning from their earliest days. They exercise their muscles, look at anything new, touch whatever moves or attracts their attention. They love stories and play, and they are wonderful mimics. In an area where several languages are spoken they can master all of them with ease, using the dialect, tone, and facial expressions appropriate for each.
Thus, whether we think of being disciples or of being children of God, the ideas of learning and of being teachable are prominent. Childlike curiosity and eagerness to learn are the qualities most needed for Christian discipleship. Or, to put it another way, churches are meant to be places where ordinary people can have their curiosity about God, and their eagerness to learn the things of the Spirit, easily satisfied. It should be as easy to learn from Jesus Christ in a church as it is for children in a loving family to learn. That was how the first disciples began their learning.
In the Gospels we find Jesus preaching and healing the crowds because he had compassion on them. But his main work before the resurrection was to make disciples and to instruct them. His invitation was for people to come, "take my yoke upon you, and learn of me." After being empowered by the Holy Spirit the disciples were, in turn, to make disciples in all nations.
It is easy to see that the book of Acts provides us with a picture of the Holy Spirit continuing the work of making and training disciples, a work which Jesus had begun. One of the principles for determining the purpose of an ancient book is to see how the book begins and how it ends. Luke begins his first chapter by stressing the continuance of the teaching work of Jesus. "In the first book, 0 Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach." The last chapter similarly emphasizes the preaching and teaching of Jesus: "[Paul] lived there two whole years... preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus quite openly and unhindered."
If we trace Luke's use of the words didaskein, didache, didaskalia it becomes obvious that the emphasis on teaching, which occurs in the first and last verses of Acts, is of very great interest to the writer. For example:
2:42 "... they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching...."
4:2 "... annoyed because they were teaching the people.....
4:18 "they... charged them not to speak or teach....'
5:21 "... they entered the temple at daybreak and taught."
5:25 "The men whom you put in prison are ... teaching the people."
5:28 "...you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching...."
5:42 "... every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."
Luke describes how the world-wide spread of Jesus' teaching began after the day of Pentecost, when three thousand new learners were baptized and thus added to the previous disciples whom Jesus had taught. Immediately after their baptism they "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Luke 2:42).
It was this large-scale teaching activity that so upset the religious authorities. "The priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, annoyed because they were teaching the people" (Acts 4:1, 2).
"They set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching" (Acts 5:27, 28). In spite of threats, imprisonment, and beatings, the instruction of disciples continued. Throughout the book of Acts we see the work of discipling, which started in Jerusalem, continuing exactly according to Jesus' command given at the end of Matthew's gospel.
In Antioch, for example, there were so many people wanting to be taught that Barnabas went to look for Saul, who was then living in Tarsus, to come and help in the work of instruction. Then we read that "for a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were, for the first time, called Christians" (Acts 11-25-27). If we translate this as "in Antioch the learners were for the first time called Christians' we will realize that the first definition of the word `Christian is someone who is learning about Jesus Christ. Too often we have given the word a quite different meaning. We have managed to suggest that a Christian is someone who has attained certain standards of goodness, or had special mystical experiences, or made some great decisions, or understands a particular set of doctrines. But we must emphasize that a Christian church is first of all a group of learners. Christians are not saints who have arrived, but children who are learning.
The hundreds of references to disciples, learning, teaching, doctrine, and instruction, reinforce the concept of Christian churches as schools. This view obviously permeates the New Testament. Other images of the Church are sometimes presented, metaphors such as a temple of living stones, the body and the bride of Christ, a household, a family, a city, a kingdom, a fellowship, a called-out people. The school model is admittedly not named as such, but its importance seems to outweigh all the others, for it was m this underlying framework of teaching and learning that the Christians viewed their task.
That churches are schools may seem obvious enough, but the idea of comparing a church to a school may evoke very negative reactions. Words like "teaching" and "learning" may suggest hard work, long hours, and boring classes. A school may be thought of as a place where a stern teacher with a rod drums Latin verbs into little boys, or where a medieval professor lectures on propositions from Euclid and Aristotle to his pupils. In fact, Christian teaching is very different. It is no mere cerebral imparting of intellectual knowledge under conditions of rigorous discipline, but is much more akin to the continuous, almost unrecognized education that goes on m a loving family. A child does not learn by memorizing propositions about life. He eats with his parents, plays with them and with his brothers and sisters, gets kissed and cuddled, copies the behavior and manners of the home, shares in decision making, moral judgments, happy times and disasters, chores and kindnesses. Discipline may be involved, but only as one of a number of continuous, shared experiences in the family.
When I began my ministry after three years of theological studies, I pictured my work simply as the imparting of Christian doctrines. It seemed clear that each person needed to be taught about God and man, sin and salvation, faith and repentance, and at every point objections had to be answered, and erroneous tendencies had to be exposed and corrected. Such teaching was very much a theological and cerebral activity. I dread to think of the impression I must have given, and how far I was from the spirit and reality of what the Gospels suggest.
I am not sure when it first dawned on me that Jesus never taught doctrines except by way of answers to questions. And now, instead of propositional truth, I try to teach beginners how to talk to God, how to tell him their doubts and problems, how to thank him. I want to teach them how to forgive and accept forgiveness, how to love their enemies, and how to love their wives or husbands, children or parents. I try to be practical about how each should serve, submit to others, develop personal gifts or talents, cope with strong emotions, use money, and find the way around the Bible for a balanced diet. Doctrine, in the sense of abstract theological statement, comes later.
I was impressed by the portrayal of Jesus in the musical Godspell where he teaches his disciples like children. There was so much singing, and fun, and laughter, and being loved. I like it when people pray as simply as little children talking to their parents. Of course, children have quarrels, and for a moment they may not be on speaking terms, but five minutes later they make up and go on as if nothing had happened. I want Christians to learn to forgive one another as quickly as that. Much of our childhood learning tune is spent in developing language skills, and I view the Bible as designed to teach little children the ways of God in the language of God. The Old and New Testaments are a library with all that we need for every stage of our discipleship.
At the center of our family life is the dining room with its bread and wine. The children and members of a family have a right to come to the family table. Others need to be invited. In a way it is the pattern of regularly eating together that constitutes a loving family, and as a child grows, much of the learning, developing of attitudes, and discussion of moral values takes place at table, at a family meal. That is why Jesus did so much of his teaching at table, and he told his disciples to keep meeting at their communion table. He told them that he would be there, and there the Holy Spirit would lead them into truth. So, around the bread and wine we share in family giving, singing, rich symbols and dramatic acts, the kiss of peace, family love, prayer for our needs and the that concern us. The idea that education at its best around a common table has often been suggested. The Church, in obedience to her Lord, has continued this kind of education for twenty centuries.
A major turning point in my thinking was the realization that in a family children eat and drink, are loved and played with, sing songs, and recite jingles, long before they know cerebrally what these activities signify. Such an insight has tremendous implications for the presence of children at our communion services. We share at the family table, and subconsciously learn from being accepted there, before we understand what a family is. The idea of responsibility and commitment to our family and its ideals comes much later.
Gradually I have come to see that Christ's way of teaching and learning - education in a family atmosphere - is far, far removed from academic theology. And of course our schools for disciples have nothing to do with hard benches, rote learning, wearisome classes, and the trauma of examinations. Although I would like the church to have the atmosphere of a happy kindergarten, I would still insist that, according to the Great Commission for the Church, our gatherings must grow into schools where disciples are to learn all that Jesus taught.
"O God, my Father, help me to be excited about learning like a little child. I would love our church to be a happy place. Bless our Christian family as a home for disciples."