Why Discipleship Needs the Church

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Many discipleship programs prize individualism and leave out the essential ingredient without which discipleship doesn’t really happen: the church. In today’s article, Steve Bruns shares why we need to leave our Gnostic tendencies behind and recapture a vision for discipleship that happens in and by the church.

As people take a serious look at the world in which Western Christianity finds itself today, many are seeing strong similarities to the world in which the Church was birthed and lived for its first three hundred years.  While it is true we do not face widespread persecution in the West (there were really only a few instances of persecution in the early Church as well), we do live in a pluralistic culture that has attitudes about Christianity that range from mild interest to indifference to outright rejection.  There are still Christian ideas in culture, such as going the “second mile” or of a “good Samaritan,” but Christian faith and life are no longer the dominant voice shaping our culture.

As this similarity with the first three centuries of the Church has been explored, there is a desire to see how the early Church made disciples and enabled them to grow spiritually in their faith and relationship with God.  Because of this, there has been a lot of work over the past decade on early church practices.  There have been studies on the Baptismal liturgy, on recapturing the catechumenate, on mysticism, on the desert fathers, keeping time with the saints, and numerous studies on patristics.

All of these can and do point people to what the early church thought, believed, and practiced.  The inherent problem with all of these studies and works is that they have been done with the intention of bringing “what worked in the past” to the present and, whereas each of these gained traction for a time in limited locations, they have not really caught on in most places.

I believe the reason for this is because there is an underlying assumption in ALL of the early church writings–that of a strong Church.  In the first two centuries of the Church, the overriding concern in discipleship and experiencing the spiritual life was to have it be within the framework of “true” Christianity, and there were myriads of versions of Christianity during that time.  Most of what The Church did was to distinguish itself from Gnostics who used Christian language and called themselves “Christian” or “Church.”  Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning knowledge, believed that our fallen state in this world was from a lack of understanding and salvation was a matter of learning a secret knowledge.  Once you had this secret knowledge, you would be able to escape this evil, material world, and enter into the good and pure spiritual realm when you died.

Beyond a completely different system of belief for what constituted the human condition and salvation from it, as Christianity never considered the material world evil in and of itself and never saw the goal of faith as escaping to a pure spiritual realm, one of the major points of departure between Gnostic Christians and what would become Christianity as we know it was that Gnostics were very individualistic in their approach to the spiritual life.  Everyone was on their own personal journey.  A church was an optional add-on for them.

What we have tended to do in the present is to borrow the Gnostic individualism when it comes to faith.  We are all on our own journeys and, while we may like a particular congregation for its music, teaching, preaching or fellowship, Church as an institution is not really necessary for our salvation, let alone our spirituality or discipleship.

When speaking about discipleship, we have to remember that it is not a nebulous endeavor, but something with an end result: a disciple.  If we are talking about making disciples of Jesus, there is only one entity that has been empowered to do that: The Church.  Jesus said all authority in heaven and earth was given to him, and then immediately told the Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).  So to talk about disciples, we first have to talk about the Church.  Otherwise we will end up with ancient and modern practices in a Gnostic framework of individualized spirituality and a personal journey.

All of the early Church methods of discipleship or spiritual practices will ultimately fail apart from a framework with the necessity of the Church in the equation; there may be instances of success, but it will not be as widespread and universal as the Church was for three hundred years.  Defining the Church and its place in our lives today has to be the first step before we look at early church practices of discipleship and spirituality.

This is part of an on-going series on discipleship and the church. Watch for more coming soon.

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Steven Bruns has been in ministry since 2000. He is a pastor with the Free Methodist Church. He is a graduate of London School of Theology (PhD 2011) and has done post-doctoral work at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Early Christian Discipleship and Spirituality.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with what you say, but individualistic discipleship is not totally the result of our current culture; based on my experience, the church itself can be a contributing factor.

    After being a “good Methodist” for more than a few decades who had developed a strong sense of God, I was stunned when I became so lost and confused I had to distance myself from all things church and go out on my own to get a solid footing in basic orthodox Christianity that helped me to understand who God is and who I am in relation to God. I am back attending worship on a weekly basis, but am unsure how participating further in the life of the church will help me deepen my relationship with God.

    The problem arose with three successive pastors who left me feeling like I had been thrown from here, to yon, to over there–they could not have been more different when it came to what Christianity and church were about and the local church “blew in the wind” with each of them.

    This is not a criticism of the itinerant system–it has its strengths. But an itinerant system in the absence of a single understanding/teaching/doctrine created chaos in a local church and ultimately left me–who was always going to support the church and the assigned pastor–on the outside looking in wondering what the church has to offer. I no longer wonder why people just wander off.

    There can not be discipleship in a community environment until the community and pastor have a basic understanding of who it is and what it has to offer. Without that, it all becomes a loose cannon that can unexpectedly change directions on a dime.

    Tom Lambrecht of Good News gets that:

    “Rather than strengthening United Methodism…doctrinal “diversity” weakens our message and obscures United Methodist identity. No wonder our churches lack an energizing vision for mission and ministry—they are unsure of who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe! And this uncertainty is only made worse by an appointment process that sometimes alternates progressive, moderate, and evangelical pastors in the same local church, until the parishioners get theological
    whiplash. The ideology of inclusiveness has trumped common sense.” –Tom Lambrecht, goodnewsmag.org, “Inclusiveness Run Amok”

    • Thanks for this comment. You are correct in your assessment of the church promoting the very thing which Dr. Bruns eschews. I think this is what he is going to be getting at in this series– what kind of church it will require to make disciples in the tradition of the New Testament. jd walt

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