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.
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.
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.