“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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20.)
Before Jesus was taken up into heaven, He left His disciples with His final instructions known as the “great commission.” The instructions He left were clear, to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. This commission is often taken as meaning to make converts to Christianity, and although that is part of the commission, there is so much more to it than simply having people take on the name of Christ. The commission commands us to not merely make converts, but disciples.
A disciple is a follower. To make disciples is to shape people in order that they may be able to follow Jesus, and as Jesus said, the only way that we can follow Him is to lay our lives down. A convert to Christianity may take on the name and the culture of Christianity, they might go to church or even be involved in ministry, but becoming a follower of Him is something far deeper. A convert simply picks up the culture and methodology of the church, whereas a disciple learns to give everything to follow Jesus wherever He is going and whatever the cost. It is easy to learn the language of Christianity, to learn its theology and take on its methods, and there is nothing wrong with this as such, but none of these things are a substitute for knowing and following Him. We can do the works of Jesus without our heart being changed at all. In doing so, we remain as unchanged as we ever were but with the façade of Christianity covering our lives. Discipleship in the church is essential, yet we are not to merely disciple people into church culture, but into Jesus Himself.
The desire to be a disciple must be a desire that comes from our own hearts. We cannot force people to follow Him or to sacrifice before Him. Jesus calls us, but the choice to follow is ours alone. God is not looking for slaves, but servants. Forced, manipulated or coerced obedience, even when done with the right intentions, will only lead to damage in people’s lives and to the church. We must each decide for ourselves to what extent we want to follow Him. The more that we exchange the world for the kingdom, the greater we will experience Him and live in Him, but that decision must come from the heart of the individual.
One of the reasons for the lack of true disciples within the church is a shortage of spiritual parents. If the great commission is to make disciples, then we need people of maturity in Christ given over to the work of raising spiritual children. We can only teach people what we know, and if we only know religious works and church culture, that is all that we can teach. A real spiritual father will not raise people up into the church, but into Christ. Just like when we raise our physical children, this can sometimes be a messy process, and it is certainly a costly one. Such a work may not come with appreciation, and may even come with betrayal and rebellion, yet we cannot let this cloud our hearts or stop us from seeking to do good. Jesus Himself had only 12 disciples, one of whom betrayed Him and the others questioned or denied Him on occasion. Jesus had given his life for the work of the kingdom though, and stayed true to the path of doing good regardless.
I have witnessed many children who have grown up without correct parenting, and the results are disastrous. I once worked as a teacher in a school that was part of a children’s home. The children in that school had all been raised with poor, abusive or absentee parents. By the time they had reached their early teens they had no concept of boundaries. Due to the lack of parenting, they only understood how to do whatever they wanted when they felt like it with no consequences. The resulting behaviour is hard to describe, but it was a level of dysfunction most people would struggle to believe. Having never been guided as they were growing up, and almost always never having known a father or correct and loving discipline, they lived their life acting on whatever thought or emotion came into their head at that time. By the time they came to live in the children’s home they were completely out of control and unable to function positively on any level unless everything was geared up to their desires at all time. Almost without exception, when these children became 16 and had to leave the care of the government their lives became a complete mess, and often ended in death or prison.
There are probably many children who think it must be great to grow up in a world without boundaries, and unfortunately there are also some adults who believe that children should not have them, but the consequences in a person’s life of not being able to control oneself is devastating. Although I have been talking about an extreme example with a care home, there are many people in mainstream society who have also been poorly raised, or lacked good father and mother figures who are unable to function beyond satisfying their own desires.
The family is an essential model, because when done correctly it produces people of both character and love. I have witnessed government schemes that attempt to replace the family at an astronomical financial cost, (20 years ago, to keep one child at the care home that I worked at cost around £250,000 – £500,0000 a year,) and yet none of them come close to replicating the job that the family provides in raising, loving and straightening people. It is true that there are many examples of bad families that have done a great deal of damage, but that does mean that the model of the family is wrong and needs to be abandoned, it merely means that we need to remain close to God’s love. No system that God gives will remain effective if we do not remain in His love, but that does not make the system itself incorrect.
The model of the family is also the model that the church is called to use too. One of God’s titles is “Father,” and Jesus is “Son.” The church is called to be a representation of the order and ways of the kingdom. When Jesus taught us to pray, He told us to pray “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10.) The role of the family is being attacked in our society like never before, especially the role of fathers, and this attack is designed to replace God’s order on the earth with man’s ideas of what is correct. No matter how hard man tries, and no matter how much money is spent, we can never even come close to replacing the perfect system that God ordained.
A family is built upon love and mutual care, but we cannot have true love without being a disciple too, because as we have seen, love without boundaries and correction is not love at all. A good parent teaches and straightens because of their love for children and because they understand the responsibility that comes with having children.
In a physical family, children usually have little choice but to be raised by the parents that they were born to, good or bad, and the consequences of that parenting will bear out in their lives. In the church, everyone has a choice as to whether they want to be discipled or not. I have already stated how important this freedom of choice is and that people should never be compelled to obey God, but this freedom means that it is easy to simply walk away when we are not getting our own way. Most children do not have the option of leaving a family when they are not getting what they want, but spiritual children always have this option. It is very rare in this day and age to find people who are willing to allow themselves to have their hearts changed when that begins to cost their comfort. It is far easier to walk away and to attend a church where we are told that God justifies everything that we do and that we need never change.
We cannot become a true spiritual parent until we have been through this process. We cannot lead until we have learned to serve. Spiritual children who have never subjected themselves to boundaries or to being changed, develop into proud spiritual adults, unteachable and unguidable by God. Such a person will only know their own self-righteousness, and will never be able to follow Jesus. A true disciple however will not care about their own lives or their own feelings, their only desire will be to know and to follow Jesus.
“Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Is 64:8.)
Discipleship is a key part of following Him. It is impossible to go after Jesus and not be changed by Him. God will use spiritual parents in this process, but a real spiritual parent will help us to grow in God for ourselves, where the work of being changed will continue. Discipleship is different from simply learning about Him. When we learn about Him, we take in information, and this can be useful. However, when we are discipled we are changed and moulded into the person God wants us to be, representing all aspects of His character. We cannot be a disciple without following Him, and we cannot follow Him without becoming a disciple.