The culture of the first century put a high priority on learning through apprenticeship. You see hints in this direction as you read the New Testament, particularly in how Jesus spoke of His relationship to the Father. But it’s also likely that in the early Christians’ desire to “make disciples, teaching them to obey all that Christ had commanded them,” their vision of “teaching” was somewhat different than what we mean by the term today.
Teaching and the Delivery of Information: Two Camps
To be clear, teaching involves the transfer of important information. The New Testament authors were steeped in the Old Testament, having probably memorized entire books of the Bible. When I say that making disciples and teaching them involves more than conveying information, I’m not saying that it is ever less.
One of the problems plaguing contemporary evangelicalism today is that pastors and teachers have rightly diagnosed a problem: there is more to teaching than just giving information to people. But the proposed response is often worse than the problem.
Once they recognize the deficiencies of an information-only type of teaching, these leaders begin to downplay the need for verbally teaching people the fundamental doctrines of the faith. The result is a largely atheological ministry that inevitably leans toward a behavior-focused, moralistic message. The good news (powerful, life-transforming information) subtly shifts into good advice (“Just tell me how to live!”). And we wind up with a biblically illiterate mass of well-intentioned Christians being told each week what to do.
In response, other church leaders swing the pendulum back. We must teach people and teach them well. The problem, however, is that “teaching” in these churches is often reduced to conveying important biblical information. The assumption is that once we learn the right things, we will live the right way.
Francis Schaeffer, no lightweight when it came to doctrine, warned against this way of thinking:
Most of the Reformation then let the pendulum swing and thought if only the right doctrines were taught that all would be automatically well. Thus, to a large extent, the Reformation concentrated almost exclusively on the “teaching ministry of the Church.” In other words almost all the emphasis was placed on teaching the right doctrines. In this I feel the fatal error had already been made. It is not for a moment that we can begin to get anywhere until the right doctrines are taught. But the right doctrines mentally assented to are not an end in themselves, but should only be the vestibule to a personal and loving communion with God…
Teaching right doctrine matters. Discipleship without a strong emphasis on teaching will inevitably be stunted. But there is more than one way to stunt your growth. Just as the first approach reduces discipleship to behavioral modification, the second approach reduces discipleship to information dump.
Teaching and the Modeling of the Christian Life
The biblical vision of teaching, particularly with its emphasis on apprenticeship, opens up new windows as to how “teaching” needs to include both the delivery of Christian truth and the modeling of a Christian lifestyle. Belief and action go together. Schaeffer again:
It seems to me that the real question is what we really believe. It seems to me that we do tend to have two creeds—the one which we believe in our intellectual assent, and then the one which we believe to the extent of acting upon it in faith. More and more it seems to me that the true level of our orthodoxy is measured by this latter standard rather than the former. And more and more it seems to me that there is no such thing as an abstract Christian dogma—that each Christian dogma can be experienced on some level.
So dogma and experience go together. How does that shape our vision of “teaching”? In particular, what does “teaching them” in the Great Commission refer to? Sermons? Bible studies? Lectures? Maybe. But there’s a clue there in the text itself. Teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. This necessarily involves both modeling and verbal teaching.
Without verbal witness we are unable to teach what Christ taught. But teaching to obey, in this context, surely demands more than just telling people what to do. This is the language of apprenticeship – a teaching that takes place through doing life together, as a teacher models what this life is supposed to look like. It’s the kind of “teaching” that takes place implicitly when Christians welcome one another into their homes, when Christians do good works together for the community. It’s the kind of life that is caught, not taught. Or better said, it’s taught through doing life together, inviting people to follow us as we follow Christ.
That’s why in conversations about the mission of the church, making a sharp distinction between representing and proclaiming Christ introduces more problems than it solves. Making disciples is the mission of the church, yes, but the teaching aspect of this process is more than delivering the gospel verbally and teaching the Bible verbally to new Christians. It is certainly never less, which is what the pastors in Camp 2 instinctively and rightly realize. But neither can it be just this.
David Mathis asks:
Does “disciple all nations” not call to mind how Jesus himself “discipled” his men? They were, after all, his “disciples.” And when they heard him say, “disciple all nations,” would they not think this discipleship is what he did with them – investing prolonged, real-life, day-in, day-out, intentional time with younger believers in order to bring them to maturity as well as model for them how to disciple others in the same way?
The answer, of course, is yes! Discipleship and teaching must mean more than conveying true information.
Apprenticeship is serious business. Never downplay the importance of sermons, theological education, and deep Bible study. Just make sure you match all of these with doing life together, modeling a new way of being human, inviting people to come alongside of us and learn what it means to follow Jesus – not merely by what we tell them but also by how we live.