This is Chapter 2 of my soon-to-be-published book, The New Covenant Answer to Western Christianity:
Chapter 2: Who and What are Christians?
The second most important category of misunderstandings among western Christians has to do with our identity and nature in Christ. Most of us will at least agree that Christians are followers of Jesus who are entrusting their lives and souls to His redeeming lordship, through His death, resurrection, and ascension. But most of those who have turned from their sinfulness, and put their trust in Christ as Lord and Savior in the western world, have a poor understanding of who they’ve become, and what they’ve become.
The two specific errors I want to address in this chapter are the errors of individualistic Christianity, and of organizational Christianity. In western Christianity, both of these errors are about as common. Individualistic Christianity is the view that Christians are mainly individual followers of Christ, and that salvation is mainly a personal matter, and not integrally linked to all Christians on earth. Organizational Christianity is the view that being a part of a church is merely or mainly being part of a human organization with an established structure, elected officers, official documents, and/or government recognition.
Since individualistic Christianity is more prevalent in the western world, let’s see what Scripture has to say on this topic first through its teaching on the essential unity of the church.
The Unity of the Church
Before examining Scripture’s teaching on the corporate or community nature of salvation, let’s think about this problem of western individualism. It mainly stems from a false belief that we are able to live life on our own, to blaze our own trails, and to remain essentially disconnected from close relationships with the Christians outside of our households. To put it simply, it’s an attitude of either ignorant or proud self-sufficiency – that we have most of the resources within our own households to live faithful Christian lives.
How does this attitude of self-sufficiency manifest itself in our Christian practice? One major example is how we conduct our church gatherings. For one, seating is individualized in rows, so that your interaction with the “service” is primarily confined to yourself and whichever speaker is at the front. Secondly, a great number of praise songs have most lyrics written in the first- person singular form, with just yourself expressing yourself to God. Thirdly, there’s usually very little, if any, time given to social interaction among the congregation, and such interaction is usually very limited or restricted in nature. Last but not least, the Lord’s Supper – which we will see is supposed to be the most unifying Christian practice – is individualized as mostly a personal experience between you and the Lord. As a final example outside of the church gathering, think of how little time is spent having fellow congregants over to one another’s homes, despite the New Testament’s repeated emphasis on hospitality, togetherness, and brotherly affection.
Standing in stark contrast to all this individualism and isolation is the New Testament’s constant teaching on the universal and collective nature of salvation. This teaching is usually called “the unity of the church”.
One of the clearest passages of Scripture on the unity of the church is Paul’s description of the reconciliation of Gentiles and Jews in one body to God in Ephesians 2:11-14, 17-18:
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision [the Jews], which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . [that He] might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
In this passage, Paul highlights the essential corporate element of salvation by describing how Gentiles have been made completely equal partakers with Jews in the blessings of Christ through His death, ascension, and Spirit. He begins by describing the past alienated condition of the Ephesian Christians to whom he’s writing. Before they were “made alive together with Christ”, and were still “dead in trespasses and sins”, they were completely separated from all the blessings of Christ and His people – “the commonwealth of Israel”. However, through His bloody suffering and death, he’s brought these Gentiles “near” to God Himself, and to all the blessings of His people. At the same time, Paul immediately links this reconciliation to the joining together of Jews and Gentiles in one body, since Christ has made them both one through His gift of peace.
How has He done this? By reconciling them “both to God in one body through the cross”. This truth is so significant, but so often overlooked. Jesus doesn’t just reconcile each of us as individuals, but through His suffering on the cross, has already reconciled all of His people to God in anticipation of our realized reconciliation in our own lives. In other words, when Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, all of those who would ever be saved in the future had their reconciliation secured and assured already. Paul’s words are clear here – Jesus reconciled all of His people in one body through His death. Hence, our salvation isn’t just an individual event in each of our Christian lives, but is an event that has already happened to all of Christ’s people through His death.
And what is the result of the reconciliation to God that Jesus has secured for all of His chosen people? Paul says that “through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”. When we learn the gospel, repent, and trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, we receive the same Holy Spirit who lives inside of every believer. And He’s the One who gives us the power to know God as our Father. Therefore, from the moment we’re saved, we are indwelt by the same God who lives inside of every believer.
The implications of this truth are massive. If the same God lives in you that lives in me, then we share the same experience and the same divine life. Further, because the Spirit gives each of us access to God as our Father, then we share the same heavenly Father. Obviously, this means that we belong to the same family, and have much the same character that reflects our heavenly Father. Thus, we share the same essential affections, interests, desires, and purposes. And all of these things come from the Holy Spirit changing us, and living inside of us.
But what is the basis of us all receiving the Holy Spirit, and sharing in the blessings of Christ? It’s our “oneness” or “unity” with Christ. This truth is one of the foundations of understanding our unity with other believers. Why? Because as those who are “in” Christ, or “one” with Him, we share the same human status as Him. Notice what Paul says in verse 13 of the passage we just looked at:
“. . . in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near . . .”
Paul makes reference to this concept of believers being in Christ dozens of times in his letters, especially in Ephesians. This is because being “one” with Christ is the basis of our forgiveness from God, our peace with Him, our membership in His family, and our heavenly inheritance. What it means is basically this – Christ is our representative before God, who died in our place on the cross, taking our punishment from God. And now He stands in the presence of God the Father in heaven, giving us access to the Father through His death, resurrection, and ascension. Because God has chosen all who would ever believe before time began, these whom He chose are granted salvation only because of what Christ has done (see Eph. 1:3-7). When a person puts his faith in Christ, God treats him as if he’s suffered the punishment that Jesus suffered, andas if he has risen and gone into heaven to enjoy God’s presence, blessing, and glory, as Jesus has. To be in Christ, then – or united to Him – means that a person receives all the blessings and privileges that Christ deserves, simply on the basis of his faith in Christ. God treats believers as if they share the same human status as Christ.
This means that our identity and nature as Christians isn’t found in our individual personalities, backgrounds, heritage, ethnicity, social status, or any other human, earthly condition. Instead, as Christians we share the same human nature and status as Christ, just as every other believer. When I look at another believer, then, I don’t simply see another unique individual who has totally different experiences from me. Instead, I see another child of God who belongs to Christ, and shares the same divine life of the Holy Spirit as me.
Because all believers share Christ’s life, it follows that His life, purposes, and desires affect all believers. In fact, another aspect of our oneness with Christ is that we’re not only sharers of His blessings, but we’re also under His control as our “Head”, or “Ruler”. Because He’s the source of the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us, transforming our hearts and minds, then He’s also the source of our direction and purpose in our living. In other words, He decides how we’re supposed to live, and He not only does this for us as individuals, but also as parts of Him.
Christ has purposed that, since we share His Spirit, and are fellow children of God, we are to be His representatives on this earth, and even for eternity to reflect who He is. Because of this unity, we are to work together in making Him known, and bringing more people to know Him as Lord and Savior. Paul describes this operation of His people with the picture of a body. Because Christ is the source of our life and instruction, He’s like the head of a body. He’s the head; we’re the body.
Paul directly addresses individualistic Christianity with this “body” metaphor in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 3-5:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
In Romans 12, Paul is beginning to directly give practical instruction in righteous living. After a brief exhortation on righteous thinking, he moves quickly into addressing our treatment of the believers in our lives. He begins by urging the Romans to think humbly, then to think faithfully, and then describes the integrity or simplicity of Christ’s people.
Paul begins this passage by countering the main cause of the individualism that we’ve looked at. This cause is pride – thinking of yourself “more highly than [you] ought to think”. Such thinking leads to seeing yourself as very self-sufficient, and in no need of your brethren in Christ. But Paul calls the Romans to realistic and humble thinking. They are to recognize the reality that they’re no better than any other Christian, and incomplete from other Christians. That’s why Paul reminds them that each of them has a measure of faith, or only a limited and specific amount given for their unique situation.
Then, Paul explains this by picturing the Christian community as a body – Christ’s body. First of all, he says that all Christians are “one body in Christ”. He’s again referencing our union, or oneness, with Christ. Because we are in Christ, we belong to His spiritual body. Because of this, each Christian is a part or member of His body, and plays an essential and specific role in allowing the body to function properly. Paul describes this unity by saying that all Christians are “members one of another”. That is, we belong to one another, and we can’t live faithfully without one another.
But how do we function as a body, and what are our purposes for living together? The answer to these questions shines light on the error of organizational Christianity.
The Spirituality of the Church
Most western Christians have highly unbiblical views of the nature and work of Christ’s church. Let’s begin with the very word “church” itself. Many Christians tend to think of this word being the name of a human organization with “hired” leaders and/or staff, a doctrinal/policy document, a building, and official government recognition and obligations to said government. But this is nothing like the New Testament’s description of the church. Everywhere in Scripture, the church isn’t described as a human organization, but as a spiritual, divine-human organism or community.
One major problem in most western conceptions of the church is the very word “church” itself. This word does almost nothing in communicating the actual word that the New Testament authors use for Christ’s people. When the King James Version of the Bible was being translated from the Greek (in the early 1600s), this choice of word was a deliberate cover-up of the actual meaning of the Greek word behind it. The Greek word that usually becomes “church” in English translations is ekklesia. It literally means “called out from” (ek = out of, klesia = called). However, in Greek usage of the first century, the word was used to refer to a group of people gathered together for a specific purpose. This can be seen in Stephen the martyr’s speech in Acts 7 mentioning “the church in the wilderness” with reference to the nation of Israel, as well as in Acts 19, where a crowd of rioters in Ephesus is called an “ekklesia”. Hence, better English words for ekklesia would be “gathering” or “assembly”.
Despite this concrete meaning of ekklesia, only in one or two cases in Scripture is it ever used to refer to a specific assembly meeting in one place for the purposes of prayer, praise singing, and Bible study (1 Cor. 16:19). In most cases, “church” is used for all believers in a large area, if not for all believers who will ever be saved. You only need to read the introductions of Paul’s letters to see that this is true. This means that the emphasis of Scripture’s name for the church isn’t on what the church does, but of who they are. As a result, nowhere in Scripture is there any talk of “having church”, or of “going to church”.
Given the spiritual, rather than physical nature of the church, how does Scripture describe it? One of the most detailed passages of Scripture on the nature of the church is Ephesians 4, in which Paul instructs his audience on how to preserve their unity, and promote their growth. He begins in verses 1-6 by explaining how the church is to remain united, and by listing the reasons for doing so:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:1-6)
First of all, Paul bases his exhortation on “the calling to which [they] have been called” (v.1). What is this calling? The calling that he’s described in the first half of his letter. Basically, God has called them to be his holy children and eternal representatives. As such, Paul begins to explain how they are to “walk out” this calling. And how does he begin? By telling them how to treat one another – their brothers and sisters in Christ. Notice that he doesn’t begin with their individualistic behavior in their private lives, but with their interaction with the church. Once again, any notion of rugged individualism is excluded, and the faithful Christian life is described as life in community with other believers.
Second, Paul describes how Christians are to live in a way that’s “worthy” of their calling. As in Romans 12, he begins with “humility”, then calls them to “gentleness” and “patience”. Why? So that they can “bear with [or tolerate] one another in love” (v. 2). And what is the purpose of acting like this toward their brethren in Christ? It’s to “maintain” or “preserve” “the unity of the Spirit” (v. 3).
There are a few important truths to note about this unity. First, it’s not unity from human organization. The church’s unity doesn’t come from human planning or administration, but from the Spirit – from God! Secondly, this unity doesn’t need to be created, but maintained. God is the one who has united believers together in Christ. It’s not our job to do so. Instead, it’s our job to guard and strengthen this unity. Finally, this unity doesn’t come merely from agreement to beliefs, a constitution, or rules, but is “in the bond of peace”. That is, because we have peace with God, and with one another, we are one in Christ.
The last thing Paul does in this passage is to list the essential realities that unify all believers together, and not one of them has anything to do with a human structure, government, policy, constitution, or such like. He lists seven unifiers, beginning with the two most obvious:
- One body: a group of people (again, an “assembly”)
- One Spirit: the Source of our life
- One hope: our sure future that we eagerly anticipate
- One Lord: our Ruler who leads us
- One faith: our shared beliefs and law that guides us
- One baptism (literally, “immersion”, which is the entry into Christ): the way we become Christians
- One God and Father: the Source of all we are and have, and the One whom we worship
Once again, do you see any hint of a formal organizational structure in this list of what unifies Christians? Clearly not! And yet these shared realities unify all believers nonetheless. But how does the church’s unity grow and yield fruit? Paul describes this outworking of Christ’s body in verses 7-16.
“But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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, 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. 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.” (Eph. 4:7, 11-16)
In this beautiful passage, Paul describes the Lord’s marvelous design for how the church is to grow in maturity. In the first verse, he explains that “each one of us” has been given “grace”, or “favor”, “according to the measure of Christ’s gift”. Having just described what all believers have in common, Paul is now explaining how every believer’s different gifting is essential to the whole body’s growth. So, he begins by stating that every believer has a specific gift of “grace” from Christ.
Skipping over the next few verses for the sake of brevity, Paul moves into verse 11 by listing the several teaching gifts that Christ has given to His people. At the time that Paul wrote, these were “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers”.
And what is the purpose of these teachers? To “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). In other words, the teaching of these gifted Christians is meant to “equip”, “furnish”, or “ready”, other saints (or holy ones) to do the work of ministry. The Greek word translated “ministry” comes from the root from which we get “deacon” (diakonos). It literally means “service”. So, Paul’s not talking about this unbiblical idea of “the Ministry” of the so-called “Minister” or “Pastor”, but the service of every average believer! And the purpose of Christians’ service for which they’re equipped by teachers is to “build up” the body of Christ.
In verse 13, Paul describes the end goal of the “building up” of Christ’s body. The equipping and service is to be done “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”. Hence, the goal of the church’s teaching and service among itself isn’t the addition of converts, but the Christlikeness of believers. There are two aspects of this maturity found in verse 13. First, Paul names “the unity of the faith”. This means that all believers on earth are to be striving to be united in their beliefs based on Scripture. The second goal of the church’s service is the unity “of the knowledge of the Son of God”. This isn’t knowledge about the Son of God, but knowledge of Him in our experience. We’re to all be striving to experience all that He is, and what He’s provided for us. Paul then sums up these two goals of unity for the church by describing it as “mature manhood” and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. To put it another way, he’s saying that the end goal of all of believers’ service of one another is to become as much like Christ as possible, so that they manifest all of His character, displaying His glory through their earthly lives.
In verse 14, Paul describes the results of such spiritual maturity. If the church comes to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Christ, then they’ll no longer be “tossed” as if by waves, and “carried about” by “every wind of doctrine”, or teaching. And the means by which this teaching upsets Christians and blows them off course are “human cunning” and “craftiness in deceitful schemes”.
Lastly, Paul elaborates on believers’ service of one another by describing how it works in their everyday lives. First, in verse 15, he says that faithful Christians speak “the truth in love”. Despite this translation, Paul literally takes the Greek word for truth (aletheia), and just turns it into a verb. Thus, he literally says “truthing in love”, or “being truthful in love”. Therefore, we can deduce that he’s not just saying that Christians are to speak the truth, but also that we’re to reflect the truth through our actions. And the result of this truthfulness in love will be believers growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15).
But the second way that Paul elaborates on the church’s service in verse 16 is to specify the necessity of every part of Christ’s body fulfilling his role. He begins by saying that the body is joined together by “every joint”, evidently speaking of the equipping of teachers, and the service of non-teachers through truthfulness. Then, he says that “the body” grows “from Christ” “when each part is working properly”. In normal circumstances, it seems, it’s only then that Christ’s body “builds itself up in love” (v. 16).
Again I ask, where is the vital importance of human organization and structure in all this? Where are the church programs? Where are the official documents? Where is the church liturgy or order of service? Paul makes it clear in this passage that the church – that is, the body of Christ on earth – doesn’t consist of human organizations, but of a spiritual and Spirit-empowered organism that manifests itself in a loving community of teachers and manifesters of the truth.
But in everyday, practical, terms, what does this equipping, service, and truth-telling look like? How do we Christians actually build one another up in order to become more like Christ? The answer is summed up in the word, “discipleship”.
Discipleship: The Biblical Spiritual Growth Model
Moving now from who Christians are – identifiers with Christ, and displayers of Him – we now turn to a clearer description of what Christians are – disciples. When Jesus came to this earth, He began His ministry of preaching and miracles by calling several men to follow Him in discipleship. This activity was quite common in Jewish culture of the day. There were many “rabbis”, or “teachers”, that would attract followers who would not only learn their teaching, but also follow their example of living.
The Commission for Discipleship
In a similar way, Jesus exercised His public service on this earth by calling followers to Himself, who would learn His teaching, and attempt to follow His example. And when He had accomplished His earthly mission through His life, death, and resurrection, He preceded His ascension into heaven by giving 11 of His original disciples a similar mission of making disciples. This mission, or commission, as it’s popularly known, is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, and is recorded in this way:
“And Jesus came and said to them [the eleven disciples], ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (28:18-20)
There are five main elements of this “Great Commission”, as it’s called. Jesus begins by describing the authority behind this commission. Then, He commands His disciples to:
- Impel (v. 19a)
- Immerse (v. 19b)
- Instruct (v. 20a)
- Entrust (v. 20b).
The first element of this Commission is Jesus’s authority to give it, and to see that it’s accomplished. His authority has been “given” to Him by God the Father, and it’s all authority in both main spheres of the universe – “in heaven and on earth”. This means that Jesus is the Ruler of the entire universe. He gets to decide what happens to people. And He’s decided that from “all nations”, He’s going to have His followers make more followers.
But how do they do this? First, by making disciples, or persuading people to become disciples of Jesus and themselves. This clearly requires the preaching of the gospel that Jesus preached – the gospel of God’s kingdom brought through Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. But what is a disciple, again? It means a “student”, or “pupil”. So, becoming a disciple doesn’t end at repenting and believing the gospel by trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but continues in lifelong learning and obedience.
In fact, once the disciples make people into disciples through God’s Word, they are to “baptize” (baptizo), or “immerse” them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. The Greek word for “in” is eis, and literally means “into”, so I see this referring to baptism being a symbol of a person’s immersion into the name of God, or into the life and fellowship of the divine Persons.
Once a person has been baptized, they are to be taught “to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded”. That is, they are to be instructed on how to obey Jesus, and to become more like Him.
At this point, a question could be asked: “how do we know that this commission still applies to Christians today?” The answer is found in Jesus’s last declaration: “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. When Jesus says that “I am with you”, He means that He’ll be with the disciples to empower, motivate, and guide them in their mission to make disciples. So how could He be with them until the end of the age, since all of them died before that time? The answer is that He’s speaking to these disciples as representatives of all disciples that would come after them. Hence, when He says that He’s with “you”, He’s not only speaking to them, but to all Christians in all times. Therefore, Jesus is implying that the first eleven disciples – who were turned into “apostles”, or “sent ones” – need to entrust the completion of the Commission to Jesus. It’s He who will make sure that all the nations have representatives from them who repent and submit to Him as Lord and Savior. And He’s doing that through His followers today.
We’ve seen that this Commission entails both evangelism and the instruction of believers, so how does discipleship work in the church? How do believers teach their brethren “to observe all that [Jesus] commanded”? First of all, we must have the right motives for doing this through our truth-telling.
The Motives of Discipleship
As we’ve already highlighted in the beginning of this chapter, the unity of believers is key to living a faithful Christian life, and fulfilling the calling that God has given to each of us. This applies equally to discipleship in the church. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is partly a manual on discipleship, and before getting into the nuts and bolts of their discipleship of one another, Paul lays down the necessary attitudes that the Philippians need to have in order to grow in Christlikeness:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Php. 2:1-4)
As we saw in Ephesians 3, the church is the family of God, so it’s only natural that Paul should remind the Philippians of a loving attitude toward one another. He starts off by reminding them of the blessings they possess “in Christ” that will enable them to be united and loving. These things are “encouragement”, “comfort”, “participation in the Spirit”, and “affection and sympathy” (v. 1). He’s reminding them that they’re encouraged, that they’re comforted, and that they participate in the indwelling of the Spirit, and have affection and sympathy for other believers. If they have these things, then they’re able to share them with others.
And how do they put these blessings into practice? By thinking the same way, maintaining an equal measure of love for one another, and by having the same purpose or goal (v. 2).
In verses 3 and 4, Paul instructs them on what they need to avoid, and to do, in order to remain united. First, they must avoid doing anything from “selfish ambition or conceit” (v. 3). Instead, he calls them to being concerned about others by treating one another as more “significant” or “important” than themselves. With this appreciation, or estimation, of others, they can then be others-centered by “looking”, or “aiming at” others interests, as well as their own (v. 4).
This others-centeredness is essential to brotherly discipleship among believers, since teaching other believers to obey the Lord requires you to forget about your needs, and to strive to meet the needs of others. When leading someone else in becoming more like Jesus, you must be focused more on their problems than your own.
A similar passage that outlines the necessary attitudes for effective discipleship is 1 Peter 3:8, in which Peter gives this list of exhortations:
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”
Once again, he begins with “unity”, or “oneness” of mind. The church must think in the same spiritual way, and have the same spiritual interests and goals. And again, Peter calls his audience to have “sympathy”, or “compassion”. They must be able to relate with their brethren’s feelings, so that they have proper motivation for relieving their suffering. The third attitude they must have, and arguably one of the few most important, is “brotherly love”. In order to be motivated rightly, and to think rightly, about teaching their brethren, they must think of them, and treat them, as brothers and sisters in their own family. How severely lacking this attitude is among western Christians! Finally, Peter gives two very similar attitudes to the first two in “tenderness” and “humility”. Having a sensitive heart toward others will allow them to feel sympathy, and seeing themselves rightly will allow them to join their brethren in thinking in the same heavenly direction. In order to help brethren to follow Christ more faithfully, all Christians need these attitudes to be properly motivated.
But can Christians have the assurance that they’re able to teach others to obey Christ? Well, first, all it takes to teach others to do so is the experience and knowledge of having done so yourself. But Paul lists only two essential qualities that believers need in order to help their brethren to solve their problems, and to become more obedient to Jesus, in Romans 15:14:
“I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.”
The first quality that Christians possess to “instruct one another” is “goodness”. This refers to proper concern for others’ well-being, and the desire to meet their needs. Second, Paul says that the Romans are “filled with all knowledge”. This obviously doesn’t mean every piece of knowledge, but the knowledge of the truth that’s necessary for instructing others. Given these two qualifications, as long as a believer has the goodness of Christ within him, and has adequate knowledge of the truth, he’s able to help others to follow Christ more faithfully.
The Imitation of Discipleship
But teaching other believers isn’t confined to telling them how to obey Christ, but includes showing them by example. In fact, this is an essential mark of true Christian discipleship. As the old sayings go, we must practice what we preach, and some things are better caught than taught. Paul describes this imitation aspect of discipleship in several places in his letters. One of the clearest ones is his exhortation for the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11:1:
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Here, Paul calls the Corinthians to imitate him. The reason why, and the manner in which, the Corinthians are to do this is due to his imitation, and in the same way that he imitates Christ. Since he imitates Christ, and does so in every way he can think of, then he wants the Corinthians to follow his example of how Christ would live.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul extends this imitation principle to following imitators of him:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” (Php. 3:17)
He again calls the Philippians to imitate him, but he also wants them to “watch” those “who walk according to the example” of Paul and his missionary co-workers. Why would he want them to “watch” them? To learn how to imitate Christ, since they also follow Paul’s example of imitating Christ.
But discipleship by imitation goes even farther. Once someone has reached a certain level of likeness to Christ in obedience to Him, he can then model Christlikeness to others. This was the case for the Christians of Thessalonica. Paul recounts their conversion, imitation of the apostles, and example-setting for others in 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7:
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”
Here, Paul doesn’t urge them to imitate him, but says that they are imitators of him, as well as the other missionaries who went to them with him. And once again, he calls attention to the fact that the ultimate example is the Lord Jesus Himself, since they also imitated Him. But he concludes this chain of imitation by saying that they “became an example” to other believers around them.
This is the proper functioning of discipleship. Unbelievers who become disciples of Jesus are to then imitate their leaders, so that they can set the example for others. And the chain is supposed to continue until the end of the age. But what’s the goal again? As Paul says in Ephesians 4, the goal is for all believers to “grow up in every way” into Christlikeness. So, imitation and teaching is essential for Christians to become more like Christ, but what does this look like in the relationships of the church? How is this put into practice in practical ways?