Posted in discipleship

Discipleship vs. the Kingdom of God: The Detrimental Divorce

“What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

This somber warning from the traditional wedding ceremony calls us to respect the permanence of marriage. But the warning could also be applied to two key concepts from Matthew’s Gospel that belong together, namely, discipleship and the Kingdom of God. So when did we divorce them, to the detriment of the Gospel?

Discipleship is Christ’s call for us to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he said, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19, NIV). Disciples make disciples, but is spiritual reproduction our sole end or only a means to a greater end? Is the disciple’s only mission to make more disciples? How does the Kingdom of God fit into the picture?

What we got right

To answer this question, let’s begin by looking at the mission statement of The Church of the Nazarene. It reads:

“Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations.”

Much in our mission statement is spot-on. First, it’s relational rather than transactional. It asks not “Are you saved?” but rather “Are you following Jesus?” Scott, a missionary from another denomination, was church planting in Mozambique. He confided: “I don’t talk about ‘getting saved’ anymore. I talk about being a disciple.” He had learned the hard way that too many thought they had arrived once they’d prayed a “sinner’s prayer.” That approach encouraged them to depend upon a past moment rather than cultivating a living and growing faith in the present. Though he didn’t use the term, Scott realized that the language of discipleship dovetails with God’s work of sanctification.

Secondly, the word “Christlike” evokes holiness, our foundational emphasis. Peter was not content to leave holiness language buried in Leviticus 11:44. Speaking of God’s holiness, Peter reiterates the Old Testament command: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). If Jesus is the picture of what God is like, then to be like Jesus is to fulfill the command to be holy.

Finally, our statement lays out the scope of our mission. We are to make Christlike disciples “in the nations.” Perhaps a day will come when we find intelligent life on other planets. At that time, we’ll need to review the scope of our mission, but for now, the Great Commission from Jesus is for Earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The missing Kingdom

But let us return to Matthew’s Gospel and broaden the perspective. It contains more than the Great Commission with its talk about making disciples. It also includes the Lord’s Prayer, which holds this crucial line:

“Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

Jesus introduces the eight so-called “Kingdom parables” of Matthew 13 with the formula: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” But Matthew is not alone in using Kingdom language. In Acts, Luke does so as well, ending the book with a portrait of Paul under house arrest in Rome yet still busy with Kingdom work:

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31, NIV).

In Jesus’ ministry and in Paul’s, there’s a happy marriage between discipleship and the Kingdom of heaven (or Kingdom of God). There is an all-consuming mission for disciples to fulfill that is larger that just enlisting more disciples. Disciples – as we make them – are to be deployed in helping to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the implication in the Sermon on the Mount of images like “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).

I’ve been in the Church of the Nazarene since birth. On the rare occasions that we talk about the Kingdom of God, we tend to use it interchangeably with the church. As for “Making Christlike disciples,” for all practical purposes, this has meant adding members by profession of faith to our church membership rolls. At the annual District Assembly, pastors report on how many new members were added. If we have more members to report, then we are fulfilling the mission. But is this sufficient?

During the American Civil War (1861-65), General George McClellan built up an impressive Army, the Army of the Potomac. He excelled at organizing the men, drilling them, and marching them in rank-and-file. What he never seemed to get around to doing very much was fighting. President Lincoln – tired of waiting for the army to attack the enemy – quipped:

“If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”

Like McClellan, our mission statement builds up a fine “army” and even talks about how to enlarge it, but where it is silent is clarifying any objective larger than growing its own numbers. But how might our mission statement read if we took into account the grander purpose for which we make Christlike disciples? What if that purpose was tied to the second great theme in Matthew’s Gospel, that of the Kingdom, in answer to Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”? What would it take to join together again disciple-making and Kingdom building?

A better mission statement?

A mission statement should be grand in scope and audacious in aspiration. Thankfully, we already have an excellent start by emphasizing discipleship, but it needs more. With the “army” of disciples in-place, what’s the army to do?

Here’s a change that would re-unite discipleship and the kingdom of God:

“Making Christlike Disciples Who Change the World”

Matthew’s Gospel pictures disciples as agents of change. We are the light that disperses darkness (Matt. 5:16); we are the yeast that works its quiet change throughout the batch of dough (Matt. 13:33). Likewise, we are those who water a mustard seed that grows into a tree, allowing a place for the birds to nest (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus portrays the Kingdom of God as the direction history is headed, an outcome inaugurated by his coming into the world but carried forward by his disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Make Disciples? Absolutely, but as we make them, let’s head into the battle, the Kingdom work that is our calling. It’s not a call to build the Church so much as it is to use the Spirit-anointed Church to bring in the Kingdom.

Somewhere along the line, the two ideas that Matthew’s Gospel joins together – discipleship and the Kingdom of God – got a divorce, to the detriment of the Gospel. Isn’t it high time for a reconciliation?

Author:

I'm a health care chaplain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s