SERIES: Christ is the Answer When the Church Is in Crisis
Marks of a Good Discipler
Note: This sermon was preached at First Free in Wichita in 1985.
Introduction: Last words are important words. I don’t care if it’s the last words a coach says to his team before they take the field in the championship game, or the last words a President says before he leaves office, or the last words a loved one whispers before he dies. No words are considered more important than last words.
Is it any surprise, then, that the last words Jesus Christ spoke here on earth should be treasured, memorized and immortalized by His followers? And is it too much to expect that they also be obeyed? His last words to His disciples and to us, His church, were these: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I’m sure that many of you are aware that these final words of Jesus contain only one imperative verb in the original Greek. All the other verbs are subordinate participles. The imperative is, “make disciples.” The means of doing so are by going, baptizing and teaching. As far as I know, the exhortation to make disciples is still a responsibility of the church today, almost two thousand years after it was first given.
I, for one, am encouraged by the increased emphasis being given to discipleship in the church today, as compared to 25 years ago. You can go to any Christian bookstore and find dozens of titles on discipleship. You can attend any number of seminars, taught by some of the real heavyweights of evangelicalism, which train people how to do discipleship. There are parachurch organizations that have come into being with the sole purpose of doing discipleship. A person can get a graduate degree, including a doctorate at some seminaries in the field of discipleship. And many churches are hiring ministers of discipleship. All of this is encouraging—the church is finally getting back to basics.
However, with every new positive emphasis there seems to come with it some disconcerting trends. I wonder if many Christian people, who haven’t been to seminary, who haven’t attended the seminars, or who don’t belong to a discipling organization, have concluded that discipleship is for the professionals. Perhaps they feel inadequate, or worse yet, perhaps they excuse themselves from the responsibility to make disciples.
Let me try to make one thing perfectly clear. Discipleship is a ministry that Christ expected every Christian to do. It doesn’t take a degree, a special program, or unique brilliance. It’s not complex and doesn’t require a high I.Q. There are no good excuses for not doing it. Making disciples is simply leading a lost sinner to Christ and helping that person grow from spiritual infancy into adulthood so that he, too, is able to reproduce himself. Sure, some people are more skilled at the task than others, but none of us are exempt from the task.
Now it is my opinion that before reading any books on discipleship or attending any seminars or enrolling in any degree programs, we ought first to look at what the Word says about making disciples. I would be the first to admit that the Scripture text for today’s message, I Cor. 4:14-21, does not have as its principal purpose the teaching of discipleship. But perhaps that makes this passage even more useful to us. Even when he wasn’t teaching on discipleship, Paul was demonstrating it in a beautiful and simple fashion.
The last eight verses of 1 Cor. 4 are really an extension of last week’s message on how to purge pride from the church. But since we dealt with that subject in some detail last week, I would like to use this passage to simply point out six marks of a good discipler. I found John MacArthur’s commentary on 1 Corinthians to be very helpful on some of these points. My comments will be relatively brief because I want us to have plenty of time for the Lord’s Table today.
He is a spiritual father. (15)
In verse 15 he writes, “For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” Some of the Corinthian hotheads were disparaging Paul and his ministry, opting instead for some of the younger teachers who were more skilled in oratory or had more charismatic personalities. Paul knows that this is a dangerous tendency, for some of these other teachers did not care for their souls the way he did, so he appeals to the fact that he was the one who had fathered them in the faith. No child can have more than one natural father. In the spiritual realm as well, the Corinthians had countless tutors in Christ, but only one spiritual father. Paul’s point is not that he was the source of their spiritual life, but he was the tool God had used to develop their faith.
A father, by definition, is a man who has children. A man can be a man without having children. He can even be a husband without having children. But he cannot be a father without having children. Unfortunately, many Christians have never become spiritual fathers, because they have never produced any spiritual offspring.
In the natural world infertility is considered to be abnormal, and people who suffer from it go to great lengths to correct the problem. But in the spiritual realm infertility is too often considered normal and acceptable. Too many Christians, if interested in spiritual parenting at all, would rather adopt than have their own. By that I mean they would rather find a person who was led to Christ by someone else and then help that person grow to maturity. They sometimes excuse themselves by saying that they don’t have the “gift” of evangelism.
Now I don’t have anything against adoption, either on the physical level or the spiritual. It’s a beautiful thing. But it should never be considered the norm. If we find a spiritual infant who needs parenting we should provide it, but we should also be producing our own.
You know, in many ways discipling someone you personally led to Christ is easier than discipling someone else’s spiritual progeny. You don’t have to un-teach a lot of things. People who have adopted children who are older often say that the hardest task they have is to reprogram the child, to help him unlearn habits and responses he picked up in foster homes. When you start from scratch you’ve got a relatively clean slate to work with and have only yourself to blame if you fail. This is true in the spiritual realm too.
I believe God is calling us to a renewed effort to reproduce ourselves as the first step in making disciples.
He lovingly warns his spiritual children of doctrinal error and personal sin. (14)
Backing up one verse, we read in v. 14: “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children.” The “these things” refers back to the rebukes of the preceding passage, which focused on the pride that was obvious in the Corinthian church. They were proudly charting their own path, carelessly going beyond what the Scripture said, and bragging about their gifts, their position, and their wealth. They were assuming that their wealth was an indication of their spirituality.
As a good discipler the Apostle admonishes them regarding these doctrinal and practical errors. His goal is not to shame them, but to reclaim them. That’s why he calls them his “beloved children.” You don’t talk that way to someone you’re angry with and feel revengeful toward. While they were not obedient, morally upright, doctrinally sound, or mature, they were loved. In fact, the word “beloved” comes from the Greek word for divine love, agape, not the word for brotherly love or fondness. Agape love is a love of the will, a love which seeks the other’s highest good, irrespective of what is received in return. The love he felt for those he had led to Christ caused him to nurture them and admonish them whenever they strayed from the truth.
In contrast I find that many evangelists today, lay and clergy alike, take great pleasure in the birth of their spiritual progeny, but then leave their growth and nourishment to others. In the natural world we call that desertion and we have nothing but contempt for such parents. We should demonstrate divine love to those whom God has allowed us to parent, whether naturally or by adoption.
You know, it is possible for a parent to correct a child in a way that tears down rather than builds up. In Ephesians Paul warns: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In the name of discipline children can be abused in ways that leave permanent scars. They are often put down with criticism and punishment but seldom lifted up with admonition and encouragement.
To admonish is to warn. Its purpose is to bring about a change—in belief, attitude, habit, lifestyle, or in whatever way is needed. Eli was the high priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh; but he was an irresponsible father. Only after he was very old did he question his sons’ extremely sinful and wicked habits. At that point the sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were grown and beyond his control. They abused the sacrificial offerings and committed fornication with the women who served at the tent of meeting, but it seems Eli was not even aware of what they were doing. Scripture tells us that his own life and that of his sons ended tragically because he had not admonished them as a firm, caring, loving father. He had honored his sons above God, and in doing so he failed God and failed them.
Failure to admonish spiritual children can be just as tragic. If we have spiritual responsibility over another believer, especially if we brought him to the Lord, we must lovingly criticize wrong beliefs or wrong behavior with the purpose of producing correction and change. This does not mean that we should browbeat, humiliate, or judge self-righteously, but we must bring the Word of God to bear upon the problem for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
Paul summarized his ministry to the Thessalonians in his first letter to them, chapter 2, verses 10-12: “You are witnesses and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”
He sets an example for his charges to follow. (16)
Without a good example, a parent’s teaching cannot be effective. A spiritual parent must also set an example for his children, as Paul was careful to do. With confidence, but without bragging, he could say in v. 16, “I exhort you, therefore, be imitators of me.” He not only could say, “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do.”
Discipling is more than teaching. It is also living those principles before the ones being discipled. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul exhorts the young pastor, Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
Often the hardest place to disciple is in the home. When we disciple those outside our families, they often see us only in ideal situations, where it is easy to act spiritual and mature. But our children see us in all of our moods, in all of our attitudes and actions. They know firsthand if we are living up to what we are teaching them, if we really trust God when a trial comes along or go to pieces instead, if we really believe in prayer and Bible study. If they do not see these things as realities in our lives, then most of our instruction and admonition will fall on deaf ears. Even when we sincerely love them, our children are more likely to follow what we do than what we say.
He multiplies his ministry through other disciples. (17)
In v. 17 Paul says, “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.”
Paul was aware that he couldn’t do all the discipling that needed to be done by himself. He discipled Timothy so that Timothy could carry on the ministry while Paul went elsewhere making new disciples. If Paul’s example is to be followed at this point, probably three years is the ideal time to devote to the discipling of one person. That doesn’t mean that your friendship and relationship has to end at that point, but if after three years the person being discipled is not able to reproduce himself, he’s probably beyond your help anyway.
The multiplication principle as practiced by Paul in Timothy’s life is clearly stated in 2 Tim. 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” It should not be our goal simply to teach people the Word of God, but rather to teach them in such a way that they will be able to teach others also. One of the reasons that the cults are growing faster than the evangelical church is that they do a better job preparing their people to reproduce. Unfortunately, they are reproducing heretics.
He teaches sound doctrine. (17b)
The last phrase of v. 17 says, “just as I teach everywhere in every church.” Timothy was to carry on the teaching ministry of the Apostle Paul, a ministry that he conducted without fail everywhere he went. There can be no real, lasting discipleship worthy of the name unless there is the teaching of sound doctrine. When two people get together once a week and talk about the weather or their problems, read a few verses of the Scripture and pray, they are not really doing discipleship. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be doing it, but it doesn’t qualify as discipleship. There must be teaching of basic biblical truth.
He confronts and disciplines when necessary. (18-21)
In the final four verses of our text today the Apostle concludes the entire section on division in the church, which started in chapter 1. One gets the impression that he reluctantly returns to the stern tone he used earlier only because it was necessary. “Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?”
There are times when spiritual fathers, like natural fathers, have to discipline their children. When a young disciple slips into wrong doctrine or wrong behavior or apathy, he needs correction. He needs to be told in love, but with firmness, “Your testimony is not what it ought to be. You are not living by the Bible principles you have learned. You need to change.” Such confrontations are never easy, but are often profitable.
Some of the Corinthians had slipped into sinful habits, but perhaps thinking they would never see Paul again, they felt they could get by with it. But contrary to what they expected, Paul assured them that he planned to see them again, and soon. And he would call the bluff of these arrogant wind-bags. He would soon discover not their words, but their spiritual power. For their own sakes as well as the Gospel’s, he could not fail to discipline them.
In Hebrews 12 we are told, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” Some discipline comes directly from the hand of the Lord, but other discipline comes indirectly from the Lord through the church or through mature believers. Paul is obligated as a minister of the Gospel to be God’s instrument of discipline for these Christians. He much preferred that the Corinthians make amends on their own, but if he needed a stick to shape them up, he would use one. He does not have in mind, of course, a literal stick to beat them with, but an attitude and spirit of strong painful discipline. He would deal sternly with their pride, the sin God hates most.
Perhaps the single most important point I can stress this morning is that there is nothing in the steps we have examined that the average believer cannot do. No special office or gift or degree is needed, just the recognition that this is our responsibility before God. May we take it to heart.
DATE: February 3, 1985