When Jesus calls us to be His disciples, He calls us to learn (Matthew 11:29). When Jesus trained and sent His disciples out, He appointed them as teachers (Matthew 28:16-20). Because the first disciples went out and taught all nations and discipled them according to Jesus’s command, including the command to go and teach all nations, the gospel has been passed down to us today “by word and by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Christianity is ultimately a pedagogical faith.
I believe that the Bible teaches us many fundamental truths about education and learning. When we are grounded in the Scriptures, something about the process of education, the transfer of knowledge and experience and growth and maturity, comes alive with meaning for us. As an education graduate and practitioner, I have always felt everything I practiced in the field to be an expression of my faith.
One foundational passage for the concept of discipleship is Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It captures God’s heart and intention in a very “New Covenant” way.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
The first part of the passage defines for us what it means to be a disciple: to be sold out completely for God. This expresses Jesus’s command to “take up your cross and follow me” – discipleship is really just adherence to Jesus and allowing nothing to come between us and devoted love.
The second part of the passage means so much more in the light of Jesus, for He is God’s word become flesh (John 1:1-14). It is He who should dwell in our hearts, as the Word (singular). Consequently, His “words” (plural) dwell in our hearts too. This is also a prophetic passage pointing to the New Covenant in which God writes His words on our hearts, when we will need no one to “teach” us.
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Finally, God tells us what He wants us to do with truth, with His commands, with His words. He wants us to imbibe it in our hearts, meditate upon it with our minds, speak about them to one another with our lips, and practice them with our “hands”. He wants our lives to stem from and be “drenched”, “soaked” and utterly infused with Him. He wants education, learning and discipleship to be part of our lives from morning until night, when we are at home and when we leave home. Our comings and goings, our waking and sleeping – all of these are His.
What is discipleship?
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
The first thing we can learn about “discipleship” as a form of education is that it is for all of us. We are all and always will be Jesus’s disciples, even when we “graduate” and are sent out into the harvest fields of the world. Jesus calls us to follow Him and to imitate Him and the apostles lived their lives as a constant effort to point men and women towards Jesus.
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
Secondly, we discover from the life of Jesus that teaching is not found in words and sermons alone but in incarnation – in real and present living and loving. A disciple-maker is someone who lives and breathes the reality that he/she wishes to impart. We should look first to Jesus’s life and the way He walked with His disciples for three years, and how in that close-knit community He spoke and demonstrated many things to them. You cannot aspire to make disciples and to be aloof, to separate life and living from teaching and training.
Christian discipleship is not a mind-to-mind transference but a heart-to-heart and life-to-life impartation. If we want people to live out and abide in Jesus’s way, we must be willing to open our lives to them. This is what we see in Deuteronomy 6, and what Jesus demonstrated as well. Community is the necessary context for disciple-making.
Life together should be our first priority when constructing a “pedagogy” of Christian discipleship. Perhaps you can consider this “social constructivism”, a theory which emphasises how others can help us learn and accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own.
One of the first questions we should ask is, “How did Jesus live with His disciples? How do we walk and live and grow together to be disciples in the same way?”
I say “we”, because while we have differing levels of maturity, at the end of the day, we are all Jesus’s students. Some may be gifted as teachers, but all Christians are to make disciples and to engage in teaching and admonishing one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16). Even the oldest believers may be humbly challenged by the first love, sincere faith, and testimonies of new believers, because there’s something about the humility we’re all called to, to see Christ in one another and not judge an individual’s ability to bless us by their accomplishments or status, whether they are the “least” or “greatest”.
As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: (1 Peter 2:2)
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)
Thirdly, discipleship means growth and maturation, and thus transformation. Peter (and Paul in 1 Corinthians 3) compares new believers to infants receiving milk. Mature believers ingest “solid food” (Hebrews 5:14).
Let’s consider child development for a moment. A child’s DNA contains the blueprint for his/her natural growth and development, but in order for a child to grow according to his/her potential, nurturing is needed. Milk provides nutrients for growth. Love and security provide for emotional development and interaction with others fosters language and social development. Opportunities for physical activity help develop motor skills. Meanwhile, as a child grows, he/she interacts with people, environments and objects. These interactions add to his/her knowledge of say, cause and effect, right and wrong. The inner child interacts with the world and grows in understanding. The knowledge he/she adds becomes built into a “schema” in the brain that helps a child interpret new information and experiences through the lens of his/her own mind and emotion (this is known as the constructivist theory).
All this is to say: “development is a combination of growth and learning”. It is a transformative process. The purpose of nurture and training, of parenting, is to work yourself out of a job. From the moment a baby is born, he or she begins to need his/her mother less and less. Before birth, the baby receives oxygen through his/her mother but upon his/her entry into the world, the baby begins to begin and take in air. The baby goes from being nursed and fed to feeding himself or herself, and one day contributing to his/her own sustenance as an adult. The goal of education is always complete maturity: the child grows up to walk and live and survive, no longer dependent on one’s parents but as a contributing member of a human community.
Now we will always be dependent on Jesus, but as disciples we are never intended to remain babies forever. What is the goal, then? Ultimately, humanity continues because children grow up to have children of their own, and the faith continues because disciples become disciple-makers. “Be fruitful and multiply” takes on a new meaning, one that redeems fallen humanity and makes all things new.
Jesus trained His disciples for three years so that He could leave them on earth and send them out with a world-transforming mission.
In education, we believe that the best learner, a lifelong learner, is one who can teach himself or herself as well as others, to share information and skills and experiences. Teaching is the ultimate and most advanced stage of learning. Disciple-making is the most advanced stage of discipleship.
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)
But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.
(1 John 2:20)
But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
(1 John 2:27)
The principle is this: disciple and teach infant believers so that they grow to maturity and can play his/her role in building Jesus’s Kingdom in the hearts of men and women. Those who are born of the spiritual receive spiritual wisdom that they otherwise cannot perceive with their eyes, ears or hearts, as natural men and women who are of this world, but only through the Spirit of God and the mind of Christ having experienced spiritual birth (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). Knowledge, wisdom and discernment are by the Spirit.
A Discipleship Pedagogy
In conclusion, here are some things we can take away from Jesus’ discipleship pedagogy.
- Discipleship can only begin with new spiritual birth and brings about spiritual maturity – knowledge and wisdom.
- Discipleship is life-to-life transformation. Incarnational discipleship or “life together” is a necessary part of bringing new believers to spiritual maturity.
- Discipleship is not “mind-to-mind”. Knowledge and wisdom are necessary, but practical application and inner transformation are also crucial, and in fact the priority.
- Discipleship is not academics, because academics focuses on verbal-linguistic intelligence and the ability to eloquently communicate ideas. The Kingdom of God, however, is not in word and speech but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18). This informs how we should assess growth and transformation. Academic systems that rely on exams, essays and explanations and myopically focus on theoretical knowledge are woefully inadequate..
What then a holistic approach to discipleship? We could imagine it to be based on the following three areas.
We can imagine the “heart” as the personal aspect of discipleship. As the first place we should apply whatever we learn is in our own lives, this aspect should involve prayer, wrestling with God, reading His word, asking questions, searching for answers, reflecting on our being mentored and challenged by others, and sharing one’s thoughts, testimonies and personal journey with fellow disciples.
The “hands” are where we put Jesus’s teachings in practice and deal with difficult questions of obedience. Jesus had His disciples go on “ministry trips”. He had them baptize people (John 4:2) and sent them out two by two. Whatever He did, they imitated. Thus, ministry practice was not just practice or “classroom ministry”, but real ministry.
Two of the biggest practical things Jesus emphasized as sacrificial servanthood and suffering love. Jesus literally washed feet, and any disciple of His should be trained not merely in pews and Sunday School classrooms but in serving the least of these. Even Jesus spent decades of His life humbly working as a carpenter. With so much of Christian ministry today focused on the public and glamourous, we forget that the private and unglamourous should be the backbone of what it means to be a servant in the Kingdom, again, not in theory but in actuality and in the nitty-gritty realities of life. Maybe we need less systematic theology and more washing of cars and bathrooms, more scrubbing of dishes and floors and more loving labor to the “least of these”. Jesus’s disciples also put theory into practice by learning to love one another (gasp! horrors!) in a close-knit, challenging community.
Finally, the “head” or intellectual aspect of discipleship flows from the above. You do need a certain level of wisdom, maturity and understanding to be able to teach and disciple others. The wisdom of this world may be earthly and sensual, but the greatest and most encompassing wisdom is of God. God is all-knowing, and Christians are never against knowledge or for ignorance.
Jesus was quite adept at astounding the wisest and most learned at men while using parables and analogies that the most unschooled could understand. His way of teaching, telling stories, asking inductive questions and chairing discussions provides so much to us by way of example.
Teach One Another
As a disciple-maker, your ultimate measure of success is how well what you’ve “taught” can be transferred on, for your disciple to make new disciples and teach them the same things in new ways, new applications and enriched by lived experience. This implies a level of maturity beyond being able to remember what you taught, answer questions correctly or even living and practicing them. Life is meant to generate life. To encourage this, encourage “your” disciples, like Jesus’s disciples, to ask questions, explain concepts in their own words, discuss them one with another, search, research, analyze deeply, evaluate, discern, tell stories, give examples, communicate, and teach one another.
The New Testament command for the church to “teach one another” (Romans 15:14) can be seen as a way for individuals to really grow and mature by being challenged and placed in gradual positions of responsibility. The person exhorting or prophesying stands to gain from the experience as much or more than the recipients and listeners. Taking an active role, being a participant in the faith, allows for so much more growth and maturity than passive observation.
Your goal is not for the disciples you make to quietly sit there, to retain and repeat what you say. Your goal is to connect them to the ultimate source, Jesus. You serve as an intermediary, a cable. You serve as the “scaffolding” (another educational theory!) that supports a building as it goes up and that ultimately is taken away when the building is strong and secure.