In the New Testament, the local church is portrayed as a family, as the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15). Through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit we become members of the family of God, which is manifested in the local church. This family consists of spiritual fathers and mothers and spiritual brothers and sisters who care for and shape one another. For Christians, formation happens in the context of a family—both nuclear and ecclesial. We are a part of a family that forms.
The danger of de-emphasizing the role of local church families in our formation is that we communicate that discipleship is pursued through spiritual orphanhood. Discipleship that happens primarily outside of the local church is discipleship that happens primarily outside of the context of the spiritual family. This kind of discipleship means that we tend to act as if we are spiritual orphans, not adopted sons and daughters.
Spiritual orphans do not have spiritual fathers and mothers to care for them, they do not have spiritual siblings to encourage them, they do not have their own spiritual sons and daughters to grow in the faith. In this setting, spiritual orphans learn to only look out for themselves, because they do not have a family to consider. The good of the one is more important than the good of the whole. The growth of the one is more important than the growth of the whole. Spiritual orphans become primarily concerned with their own formation, not the formation of the whole family. They have no need to consider the rest of the family, just themselves. Often, spiritual orphans are interested in growing in a knowledge of God, but not a love of neighbor (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Sons and Daughters
However, when we root deep discipleship in the local church, there are no spiritual orphans. The local church is living out the gospel truth that we are no longer orphans, but we are now sons and daughters, who are growing into spiritual adults. In the local church the formation of the whole person and the whole family matters. Each member of the family is indispensable to the growth of the rest of the family. The family members need each other.
One of the primary characteristics of this family is that they care for one another as much as they care for themselves. This is a key characteristic of holistic discipleship—that we are to pursue, not just our own formation, but the formation of the whole family. What would it look like for you to create a culture where everyone, in love and charity, pursued not just their own formation, but the formation of the household? Holistic disciples are not only seeking their own spiritual health, but the spiritual health of the whole family. They understand that the health of the family is essential to their own wholeness.
Motivated by Love
Jesus alludes to this virtue in Luke 10:27, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Notice what He is saying here. Though He is not speaking specifically of the local church, He is showing us that the faith is inherently communal. Love of God and love of self, by itself is not whole. We are called to love God, self, and neighbor. Our closest neighbors are those in our own house and in our own spiritual house—the local church.
When discipleship is removed from the context of God’s people, it can tend to be characterized by competition or comparison. For example, if your primary formation came in the form of an academic environment, a non-profit, or an online platform, there can tend to be competition among participants. There is competition for grades, feedback, for the attention of teachers, and perhaps for opportunities, like a job, after the course is over. In all likelihood you will not know most of your classmates five-ten years from now, so it is easy to not be invested in their own spiritual growth. Spiritual orphans see other spiritual orphans as competition, not as family. In discipleship environments like this we are implicitly formed into the belief that our formation matters more than the formation of others. This is an intensely individualistic way of thinking about discipleship. We have no invested interest in seeing others growing in holistic formation; our sole investment is in our own growth and anyone who gets in the way of that is seen as a threat to our own development.
The New Testament teaches us that we are supposed to view our church as a family in a special sense, which means that our discipleship is motivated by love for God and one another, not competition. We are to seek each others’ interests, not just our own (Philippians 2:3) The church is marked by a familial type of love, a love that goes deeper than a biological family. The church is to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). The Thessalonians are encouraged in this virtue as well: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:9). The author of Hebrews contends, “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). Peter encourages Christians to continue to pursue “godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:7). Discipleship in the local church is meant to cultivate brotherly and sisterly, fatherly and motherly love among members of the same household. Discipleship that happens in the context of the spiritual family is healthier than discipleship that happens in the context of a spiritual orphanage. When we pursue holistic discipleship in the local church we are as invested in one another’s growth as much as we are invested in our own.
Discipleship is not meant to be characterized by competition, but by charity—the kind of charity that should characterize a healthy family. A lot changes when the people you are learning alongside are not just classmates, online avatars, or Twitter handles, but members of the same body. When we connect discipleship to the local church we are highlighting the theological truths that all of us are adopted sons and daughters, that no son or daughter’s growth is more important than the others, and that we need each other in order to grow as a healthy family.
This post is an excerpt from J.T. English’s new book, Deep Discipleship.