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disciple-making versus disciple-being

On Sunday we looked at Paul’s strong emphasis on community in the local church. He is quite emphatic, emphasizing we—together—must grow up into Christ. That is, the process of maturation happens in community. It is through the church that God matures his people, with the aim of transforming them into the image of Christ. I made the strong statement,

The very first application of the gospel of Jesus isn’t about your personal piety, your personal, individual holiness, your private walk with the Lord. We want to make following Jesus about our personal performance, but what does the apostle prioritize? Walking in
faith together. Following Jesus is a group effort. It is something the whole church must do.

J-T Richards, “Each Part”

This inevitably raises the question about the importance of the personal pursuit of piety and holiness. If the pursuit of holiness and faithfulness is necessarily a group effort, what, then, is there for the individual believer to do? Does it matter what I do if sanctification happens together?

First, let me explain what I am doing in Ephesians. It’s actually what I do in every sermon series. As I study the text I ask the Lord for ways we, as a church, need to apply the truth found in the text. Our lived experience as Western folk in general and as Americans in particular is one of a highly individualized existence. We’re ruggedly individual in America. We grit our teeth and we work hard. We produce as a people. Think of this: the United States is tenth in the world in Gross Domestic Product Per Capita. There are nine nations that produce more per capita than the US, but each one of them is a tiny country. All of them are smaller than the state of Michigan in population. Many of them are smaller than Kent County. Some are even smaller than the city of Grand Rapids. We get stuff done because we work hard.

This culture of self-reliance makes us highly individualistic. Americans as a whole tend to struggle to ask for help. There are subcultures within the broader American culture where this is less true, but it is true of the majority. This often spills over into the church. So many in our nation experience church as just “Jesus and me”, along with several others who are with Jesus but as individuals, too. Because of this, any emphasis on the corporate aspect of our salvation feels like a massive shift in the other direction. If you spend your entire life with your back out of line, causing you to lean to the right, when a chiropractor is able to adjust you so that you’re standing up straight, you’re going to feel as though the entire world has shifted to the left. It’s like a pendulum that is stuck to one side; even if it gets balanced correctly it will feel as though it’s really far to the other side for no longer being out of balance.

Back to the question. If Paul’s emphasis is so strongly in the direction of a communal walk with the Lord, what is there for me to do as an individual Christian? Does it even matter what I do, if the point is whether the whole church is doing the right thing? My initial response may sound snarky: I’ll preach what you are to do as an individual when Paul himself does. Let me illustrate this. In his letter to the Ephesians there are three commands—“imperatives”—that are second-person singular. Just three times does Paul say “you the individual do this”. All three times occur in quotations. In 5:14 he says, “Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead’”. “Awake” and “arise” are singular commands, but are a quotation. The third is also a quotation from the Law of Moses in chapter 6 verse 2: “Honor your father and your mother”. To this church he quotes three singular imperatives. In contrast, there are 30 second person plural commands—30! “Y’all do this and y’all do that.”

There are, of course, some singular commands found throughout the New Testament, but they mostly seem to be in the context of community. The two that come to mind as I write this that are not in the context of community but are truly personal instructions are Paul’s instruction to Timothy to drink a little wine and his instruction to Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. I could probably come up with a short sermon series on these two texts.

Again, we have long been conditioned to pursue following Christ on our own. We understand, of course, that doing so is in the context of participating in a local church but for many this means showing up Sunday mornings, singing along, putting an offering in the plate, and then going about our own business the rest of the week. So what is the balance?

We must be careful to distinguish between disciple-making and disciple-being. When Paul issues commands to churches, he’s largely instructing them how to make disciples. Implicit in how to make disciples is how to be disciples, for if you must exhort one another, you must also be exhorted. On Sunday we saw that as we “truth in love”—speak the truth in love—and as each part that makes up the whole body of Christ works properly, the body grows up into Christ. Spiritual maturation happens as the body of Christ functions as the body of Christ. This is how disciple-making happens. Discipleship happens as we hold forth the gospel of Jesus in all we say and do, continually pointing one another to the sufficiency of Christ. This is why our philosophy of ministry here at New City is as simple as our mission statement: “Discipleship happens in relationship”. If I were to boil down the application to last Sunday’s sermon it would be this: Discipleship happens in relationship.

The relationship is the community that is the local church. By participating in the life of the church, which necessarily goes beyond mere Sunday morning attendance, discipleship happens. Not only must disciple-making take place, disciple-being must also take place. That is, your personal and individual pursuit of following Christ is a necessary component of disciple-making, while not being the same. If the aim is to make disciples but no one is willing to be a disciple, discipleship is impossible.

Being a disciple is what you, as an individual, must do. You must actively pursue Christ. Whether engaging in spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer and reading Scripture or striving to grow in the knowledge of the Lord or seeking help in your walk with Christ, you must be an active participant. Paul says this in last Sunday’s text:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 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.

Ephesians 4:15–16 ESV

Paul adds an important qualifier. We speak the truth in love and we are to grow up into Christ. Christ then makes the body grow but only when each part is working properly. This is where you, the individual, come in. You must “work properly”. That is, you must embrace the pursuit of holiness. The context for this pursuit is certainly corporate. You must participate in the life of the church. It also means you must be actively pursuing Christ.

In that sermon I shared a quote from Quina Aragon, a spoken word artist and author. She wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition. I wholeheartedly recommend you read that article. In it she wrote this:

When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he invites us into a relationship that is personal but not private (Heb. 10:25).

Quina Aragon, “But I’ve Never Been Discipled!”

You yourself must follow Christ. You must have faith in Christ. You must submit to him and confess that he is Lord. You must believe in your heart God has raised him from the dead. You must hold the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, by all Christians. You yourself must do this. Paul says you cannot do this alone. This is because discipleship happens in relationship. You must be a disciple but you must be discipled by the whole church.

As we as individuals pursue Christ in community we find that the Lord Jesus causes his church to grow in maturity. When each part is working properly, seeking and pursuing the Lord and his glory in all we say and do, we grow up into Christ. The truth is you cannot have the whole without all the parts. Each part must be pursuing Christ and the parts pursue Christ together and the Lord works in and through this personal and shared pursuit to cause us to grow up into him. The outcome of this is we will truly be transformed into the image of Christ.