The Role of Hierarchy in Modern Discipleship

The Role of Hierarchy in Modern Discipleship

Does spiritual growth require a rabbi/disciple relationship?

Note: this article has been excerpted from The Whole Life Offering: Christianity as Philanthropy, by Eric Foley.

How does one grow to fullness in Christ? It is the work of the Holy Spirit to be sure, but does the Spirit, like an artist, make use of a preferred medium?

The gradually rising tide of books, blogs, and sermons on spiritual growth would suggest that personal self-study is the medium most Western Christians would prefer. This is sometimes augmented by the guidance of a spiritual director or the presence of others in an intentional community of individuals earnestly desiring to grow as well.

But the Scripture and Christian history, while in no way denying that the Holy Spirit uses such tools, bear consistent witness to divine employment of a far more prosaic preferred medium—namely, each maturing Christian.

Understanding Discipleship

All Christians disciple whether they intend to or not. That is because, as spiritual formation leaders Keith Anderson and Randy Reese note, Christianity is an "imitative faith"—"a faith taught by one to another." The last chapter described how Christians significantly shape others' understanding of the character of God and the trustworthiness of his mercy by the way they forgive and extend mercy each time they are wronged. This chapter builds on that understanding by introducing two related principles in the area of disciple-making as a Work of Mercy.

The first principle is that the Holy Spirit equips Christians to grow to fullness in Christ primarily by means of discipleship at the hands of the more mature Christians placed around them. This is an extension of the foundational concept of Christianity-as-philanthropy that Christ pours out his fullness on those who receive his mercy, and these ones are called to worship him by pouring out his fullness first on the family of believers and next on the world (see Galatians 6:10).

The second principle is that all Christians are called to dispense the philanthropy of discipleship to the less mature Christians who are placed around them. Discipleship is, in other words, a Work of Mercy of which all Christians are called not only to partake, but also to offer. The Holy Spirit never undertakes any Christian's discipleship as an end in itself. Instead, the Holy Spirit employs each Christian's discipleship as a direct means of furthering the discipleship of the other Christians who are placed around that Christian.

Personal study may be more convenient, less likely to embarrass the subject through the need for painful self-disclosure, and more likely to insulate the subject from the alleged hypocrisy and wounding of other believers. But individual growth is forever constrained by what contemporary John Wesley scholar Gregory S. Clapper calls "the problem of self-deception":

Wesley was not one to recommend lonely mountaintop contemplation, for he knew too well the human hearts' propensity for deceit. Wesley was constantly forming new believers into classes, societies, and bands where the Christians could examine each other and openly and honestly share with each other the course of their spiritual struggles.

Understanding Hierarchy

Today, there is a steadily growing interest in the benefits of intentional and intensive Christian community. That interest is translating into a gradually declining resistance to the collective nature of discipleship, whether that occurs in the format of a small-group gathering or even a new monasticism. There remains, however, staunch resistance, bordering on contempt, for one of the core elements of Christian discipleship; namely, its hierarchical character. Receiving feedback and direction from fellow learners is one thing. Submitting to their oversight is quite another.

As Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg note in their study of the Jewish customs of Jesus, submission of the disciple to a teacher, or Rabbi, launched the discipleship process and was preparatory to everything else that happened within it:

Disciples were supposed to be their rabbi's servants because, as [Jewish historian Shmuel] Safrai points out, "some laws could not just be studied theoretically or merely discussed, but could only be learned by serving the teacher." By learning obedience to his rabbi's directions, a disciple learned reverence for doing God's will. And by putting himself in the position of a servant, he opened himself to correction so that his conduct could be honed and refined. Furthermore, the rabbis believed that humility was an indispensable condition for learning: "Just as water flows away from a high point and gathers at a low point, so the word of God only endures with the learner who is humble in his knowledge."

This raised the rather knotty question of whether discipleship is more a form of personal self-expression along the lines of amateur artwork or whether it is something on the order of a professional craft overseen by a guild of skilled practitioners. Evangelical Protestants have been historically inclined to the former notion and notoriously nervous about the latter.

And yet even in the realm of art, it is rare to gather a group of aspiring guitar players into a room and have them learn to play through the sharing of feedback and direction with each other. Someone has to know how to play—and how to teach others to play—in order for them to learn. Generally, aspiring guitarists will be more inclined to submit (and submit eagerly) to the personal tutelage of one experienced guitar player, even a crabby and eccentric one, than to the equally unskilled but collegial tutelage of peers.

In the same way, only infants play alongside each other but not with each other. Children not only play with each other but also begin to recognize and aspire to skills that they recognize in others but presently lack. As Gerald Schlabach, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, contends, Christianity is this kind of craft, where new learners "play alongside" other learners and see in their advanced companions skills that they desire to acquire:

If one is being formed, then one is not simply making discrete decisions but is developing habits that extend the character of one action into later ones. Habits require training, as one internalizes moral motor skills that one can only clumsily imitate at first, based on the example of others. If those habits are to be good rather than bad, however, practitioners must apprentice with those more advanced in the craft—in this case the craft-like practice of Christian discipleship.

Some are quick to counter this hierarchical notion by remembering Jesus' words about not calling any man "teacher" (see Matthew 23:8, ESV). All are students not of each other but of the master himself, this view contends, and thus hierarchy is unnecessary and repugnant.

Not only, however, does this overlook the Philanthropos' decided preference for pouring out his very real presence and manifold gifts through the philanthropy of human beings, but it also overlooks the rest of Jesus' words a scant paragraph later, when, in Matthew 23:34, Jesus concludes the thought he began in verse 8 by announcing, "Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers."

Making the Connection

The issue, it turns out, is not a flaw in the discipleship model but rather in its execution—in both Jesus' day and in our own. Most particularly at issue is how one understands and carries out the role of teacher, which is Jesus' complaint that the rest of Matthew 23 goes on to detail. It is worth noting that the apostle Paul's classic words commending the hierarchical approach, "Imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1), occur in the context of Paul's broader message, "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor" (1 Corinthians 10:24). This is a hearty corrective not only to the mistaken notion that the teacher-student hierarchy connotes privilege for the teacher, but also to the erroneous idea that one undertakes discipleship primarily for one's own spiritual growth.

Through his ministry Jesus does not seek to overturn the form of training known as discipleship. Instead, he seeks to embody it, fulfill it, and bring it to fruition in and among his disciples—and all those whom they themselves will disciple. Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 says as much: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

As the Great Commission—Jesus' final address before his ascension to heaven—reveals, the discipleship hierarchy of teachers and students is affirmed until his return, as is the specific content to be taught and learned: the eternally unchanging craft of Christianity. As with all of Christianity-as-philanthropy, what undergoes change is not the forms or structures or content of discipleship, but rather the disciples themselves. Through Jesus' self-emptying into all those willing to receive him, Jesus redefines the role that they themselves will go on to undertake in the discipleship relationship—the role of the teacher-as-philanthropist.

—Eric Foley; excerpted with permission from The Whole Life Offering (.W Publishers, 2011).

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