Discipleship made simple.
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV)
What does it really mean to be a disciple of Jesus? When I say, “I follow Jesus,” am I simply claiming Christianity as my religion, or am I saying something deeper about the way I view my life? Discipleship is supposed to be our central mission, so we need to be able to answer these questions confidently. This is basic, vital, everyday stuff. But the concept of being a follower of Jesus is so easily lost in religious jargon that I, for one, have struggled to understand how it works in practice.
“If you want to be good at something, find someone who is a true master in that area, and follow their lead.”
Here’s how it was explained to me: Being a disciple means recognizing that there is someone in front of you who knows more than you do, and choosing to imitate them. It means doing what they say and copying what they do, rather than doing things your own way. It means making someone else boss. The easiest example is probably an apprentice learning a trade from a journeyman. You don’t learn how to be a good plumber or contractor by plumbing or building how you imagine will work out best. You learn by following the instructions of someone else with many years’ experience. If you want to be good at something, find someone who is a true master in that area, and follow their lead.
“You honestly can’t follow God unless you can follow a man or woman.”
I think most of us would agree that Jesus knows more than we do, and that He is well worth following. What’s a good deal harder to swallow is that submitting to Jesus primarily looks like submitting to the leaders He has placed over us. That’s where discipleship moves from a woolly concept to a lived-out reality. It’s an unpopular truth in today’s society, especially as many of us have been hurt by leaders we have trusted in the past, but when Jesus called us to make disciples, He also caused us to be disciples of others. You honestly can’t follow God unless you can follow a man or woman. Just like an apprentice learning a trade, a Christian is called to seek out people who have mastered this life with God, those who are trustworthy and have the good fruit of a genuine, long-time believer, and to follow them as they follow Jesus.
If this is a new (or scary!) idea to you, have a look at the way Paul talks to those he is responsible for. He famously tells the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Earlier in this letter he urges the church to imitate him, and in fact, he has a plan to help them do so: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17 NIV) Paul had taught Timothy how to live as a disciple of Jesus, and now Timothy was to demonstrate this life so that the Corinthians could copy him. Paul says the same to the Philippians: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” (Philippians 3:17 NIV) And again: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” (Philippians 4:9 NIV)
“Submitting to someone further ahead in the journey can and will save your life.”
I have spent the past two years at the Father’s House Church in Northern California, a close-knit community of family and friends who work together to help people with lives destroyed by drug and alcohol addiction find hope and transformation by following Jesus. I think every single person on my team would instantly agree that this concept of submitting to someone further ahead in the journey can and will save your life. Even in my short experience I’ve seen genuine discipleship completely turn lives around, and also, sadly, a lack of submission destroy many others. Let me share a story that I have had the privilege of witnessing first hand.
Melissa was facing a crossroads in her life. Her application to the Father’s House intern program has been denied, and she was being asked to repeat the six-month School of Ministry she had already completed. She was living in crowded accommodation with seven other women. Her weight had skyrocketed since she broke free of her addiction, and she felt that pull back to her old life. She had lost her three children to the system five years previously and had no hope she would ever see them again. She desperately needed money to pay medical bills, and now she was being told that $700 of her $800 social security check would have to go on school fees. The final straw? She was being asked to tithe $80 of the $100 she had left. Melissa had a stark choice. To get offended, leave and go back to looking out for herself, or to trust her leaders, submit to what she was being asked to do, and believe God would take care of her.
I’m really not sure what I would have done in her shoes! But Melissa chose to follow her leaders, and she has never looked back. I remember we made a ‘faith board’ at our house with all the things we wanted to see God do in our lives, and it was as if God began making His way systematically through Melissa’s list. She started tithing, and almost instantly money started pouring in to pay her medical expenses. Her second time at School of Ministry was life-changing. She moved on to the internship and was given responsibility she had never dreamed of. She even started losing weight. Best of all, after having told her she would never have contact with her children again, CPS called to say they were considering allowing her to send letters. As I am writing this, Melissa is a vital member of a team of people working to provide Christmas gifts for 1,100 poor children in our community. She has just received the unbelievable news that she has permission to visit two of her children for the first time this Christmas.
“True submission is being obedient when it isn’t convenient, when you don’t agree, and when it costs.”
What is it that allows some people to “get it” and speed ahead in their walk with God while others just seem to be stuck? The ability to submit to someone further ahead in the journey. The alternative is independence. Have you heard the phrase, “I follow God, not man.” It may sound harsh, but the practical reality of trying to follow Jesus without walking with a community of believers and making yourself accountable to trustworthy leaders is this: you are following yourself. That is, after all, what the world teaches us to do. When all is said and done, you have to follow your heart. Or so they say. In reality, if you want to get lost really fast, you might consider following your heart. If not, follow your leaders!
So, am I a disciple of Jesus? Do I do what He says and copy what He does? Is He the Master at life that I am imitating? Do I follow Him by following fruit-bearing believers that I can trust? If I really want to know for sure, I have to look at how I behave when life gets tough. It’s easy to follow someone when they are asking you to do something you don’t mind doing. It’s also easy to claim to follow someone when that claim isn’t being tested. But true submission is being obedient when it isn’t convenient, when you don’t agree, and when it costs.
If you are serious about becoming a disciple, then start looking for someone you can follow. Is there someone further ahead of you who has the life you dream of one day having? Is the fruit of their life—the outcome of their choices, their relationships, their character—something you want to replicate? Can you trust them?
Pray about who you should choose, and let your submission to that person be the outward expression of your trust in Jesus. Above all, figure out who you are truly following, and make sure it’s Him.