16. The Way of Wise Living

I want to begin with a Merry Christmas. This week, we celebrate the  birth of the Word or Reason of God made Flesh, who came to share our human limitations and show us the way of love. I will not be publishing a blog next week, but will finish this series after the first of the year. Once again, Merry Christmas!

16. The Way of Wise Living

One discouraging reality of contemporary discipleship has to do with the foolishness demonstrated by a number of Christians and their leaders. It is just a guess, but I think that it traces its roots back to the extreme division between faith and works, gospel and law inherent in the Reformation. Studies show that Christians have affairs, divorce, use recreational drugs, cheat on their taxes and engage in a host of unwise behaviors as often or almost as often as anyone else. Christian leaders, especially youth leaders, sometimes exacerbate the situation by giving advice that appeals to the young but which a bit of life experience indicates is foolish. The prosperity gospel is only the most notorious of these. The result is a generation of Christians who believe in Jesus and then simply fit into the surrounding culture. If we are to overcome the crisis of discipleship in the West, we must do better.

There are questions and decisions people cannot avoid in life. Sooner or later everyone must ask and answer questions such as: “What kind of life will bring me true happiness and fulfillment?” “How will I respond to failure?” “What kind of person should I marry?” “How shall I make a living?” “How will I respond to temptation?” “Of the many opportunities of life, which ones will I take advantage of and which ones will I ignore?” “Why am I suffering?” “Why don’t my achievements bring me happiness?” “What does the future hold?” No one, Christian or secular can ignore these and similar questions. They are part of the human condition. Fortunately, in Christ the wisdom of God was made manifest, so that disciples can find the kind of wise guidance they need for living as a result of their relationship with him.

Each of us has choices to make in life – to commit ourselves to Christ in faith and follow the Way of Christ as a disciple, or to follow some other path. Where we end up depends on the path we chose to take. Wisdom literature divided these choices into following the Path of Life or the Path of Death. The Christian tradition holds that it is by following Christ that we conform ourselves to the deepest reality of the universe, the reality of the God of Light and Love revealed in Holy Scripture. Over time, disciples learn what it is to follow Christ in the many, sometimes difficult decisions we must make in life. In so doing, we follow the Path of Life.

Old Testament Foundation

The wisdom writers of the Old Testament passed on principles of wise living that summarize the life lessons learned by countless generations of people. The later writers of the Old and New Testament knew that life is unfair. Good people suffer. Wise people sometimes make bad decisions and suffer as a result. Success does not provide meaning and purpose for life. In the end, life is a puzzle, but living wisely is the best course whatever the consequences (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18); 12:13-14).

Christians believe that God is the source of all wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). In fact, the Bible says that creation constantly reveals the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-35; Romans 1:20). Proverbs teaches us that wisdom is evident to all who will listen:

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her (Proverbs 8:1-11).

This text begins with wisdom crying aloud, pleading with human beings to live wisely. The image is of lady wisdom standing on a high place outside a Jewish village, or sitting where two roads meet, or standing at the gates of the village, crying out, urging human beings, so prone to foolishness, to take the path of wisdom. The part of today’s text that has lady wisdom standing at the cross roads connect with another fundamental insight of the ancient Jewish wise men: each of us has choices to make during the course of our lives. Many people follow paths of foolishness. Wise people follow the path of wisdom.

Wisdom in Human Form

The writers of the New Testament saw in the Crucified and Risen Christ the answer to the quandaries and limitations they saw so clearly in the teachings of the wise men and scholars. This, however, does not mean the writers of the Old Testament were wrong. It just means that there was more to know. The “more to know” was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

John begins his gospel by identifying Jesus with the very Logos or wisdom and word of God (John1:1). At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish builders.  In it, he describes two different ways of life that may be chosen:

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Paul speaks of the Risen Christ as the image of the invisible God, in whom at the wisdom of God dwelt bodily, revealed for all the world to see (Colossians1:19). This revelation was surprising and impossible for the wise of this world to accept because quite unexpectedly God revealed himself in Christ as a God of Love, who is present in the suffering and sin of the world to redeem it through a terrible unexpected death on the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18-29).

Too often, contemporary Christians ignore the fact that our relationship with Christ involves more than forgiveness of sins and a new eternal life. That new eternal life that grows within us is the life of God, the All Wise Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Part of becoming Christ Followers they are meant to be is learning to make good choices and life wisely in our day-to-day Christian lives.

Our first objective as parents and as church leaders is to help people take the first step of faith in God and a personal commitment to follow the Wisdom of God and listen to the voice of God speaking through Jesus Christ. Once again, the New Testament is full of references to Christ as the very embodiment of the wisdom of God. The author of Hebrews tells us that God once spoke through the prophets and writers of the Old Testament Scriptures, but now God has spoken in the person of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). Studying wisdom and learning and growing in our intellectual understanding of Christian faith is important, but of even more importance is our personal trustful following Christ as the wisdom of God (I Cor. 2:23-24).

If Christ reflects God’s character, then our commitment to Christ involves becoming wise as God is wise. Part of a commitment to Christ is a commitment to listen to the voice of Word of God and follow the example and teachings of Christ. This means all of us need to be in some kind of regular Bible Study, however short. Each of us needs to take time daily to listen quietly for the voice of Jesus the Christ as he is rendered in Scripture. We need to listen carefully to the voices of those Christians who have gone before us, the voices of Christians of the past. As we do this, and as our souls are formed by the voice of Christ, we become better able to judge wisely and live well.

A Society that Encourages Foolishness

Some while ago, I heard several news commentators talking about a new program called, “Kid Nation.”  This show features forty children ages 8 to 15 that were taken to the New Mexico desert to a ghost town for forty days, with the goal of creating a new society. Each child was paid $5,000 for their time at Kid Nation. The show first hit the news when a parent complained and an investigation was launched by the New Mexico Attorney General concerning whether or not child labor laws were violated by having these children work such long days without the kind of breaks and protections professional actors, even child actors, enjoy. [1]

Some commentators looked at the kinds of releases the parents signed, and began to ask questions. One critic who has seen previews summed up another criticism when she exclaimed during the private screening, “What kind of parent would let their child participate in this kind of thing?” [2] This was answered on a blog I read, “The kind of stage parent who wants to ride the tail of their child’s stardom.” Michael Medved, a television critic, gave one of the most penetrating comments when he pointed out that the entire premise was flawed because these children were not alone in the desert creating a new society. They were surrounded by producers, directors, cameramen, and all the other adults who make up a television production team. In fact, these children were being used to create a program that the producers hoped would sell and which would reflect the social theories of those adults. [3]

The point is pretty simple. In our society adults and children are subject to pressures to conform to all kinds of foolish expectations. Even when adults say they are letting children develop their own standards and values systems, they are still teaching their children something and trying to get some result. Furthermore, adults and child are often manipulated to adopt value systems which are silly or simply won’t work or, worst of all, are harmful. There is no such thing as a value free education or child-raising. Adults do influence children and should influence children wisely.

We live in a “romantic age,” which is to say that we frequently act as if we believed that we can make good decisions simply by following our feelings. [4] This particular characteristic was exemplified in the movie, “Star Wars,” when Obi Wan Kenobi, tells Luke to “trust his feelings” as he attacks the Death Star. Most young people didn’t question this at all. Those who, for example, flew bombers in World War II, or jets during Viet Nam, have no memory of trainers telling them to trust their feelings. What you were supposed to do is learn to use the targeting mechanism and do it well according to instructions. Trusting instruments is one of the most important parts of flying. The aviator who does not is doomed.

This line from Star Wars exemplifies a huge problem in our culture – the idea that major life-time decisions are to be made on the basis of feelings not reason. This flies in the face of all human experience throughout most of human history, where wise people have urged humans not to follow their feelings but to develop good judgment and become wise.

Throughout most of human history people did not think that children naturally became competent adults or ladies and gentlemen without discipline, knowledge and training. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, from ancient times, it was taken for granted that children would not naturally develop life skills, they would not naturally learn wisdom, and they had to be trained. To become an adult, and especially a virtuous adult, required training in the skill of the virtuous life. [5]

This is why over and over again, Proverbs contains admonitions like, “Train up a child in the way he or she should go and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:5-7).   This is why in Deuteronomy we hear the voice of Moses urging “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). In order to learn to live wise, Christ-like lives, we need to be discipled into a life of wisdom.

People do not “naturally’ develop life-skills, they have to be trained. Similarly, we Christians do not naturally develop Christ-like habits, the capacity for wise decision-making, and the virtues of Christ by nature. It takes training. This is why Jesus says in the Great Commission, “Go ye therefore into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matthew 28:16, emphasis added). We all need help to learn the things that we need to know to live wisely.

Children and new believers need training to be equipped for life. Teens need to be trained for the challenges of school, college, and early career decisions. Young adults need equipping for the challenges of adulthood. Parents need equipping for the demands of child-raising. New Christians need to spend time learning to be wise and make good decisions in their Christian and day-to-day lives. New Christians need opportunities to explore Christian faith more deeply. Becoming a good disciple of Jesus does not just happen; it requires work, study and self-discipline.

Choices Depend on the Voices to Which We Listen

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul urges the Romans to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds”. The word Paul uses for “mind” is not a word that means simply our brains. When the Greek used this word, “mind” they meant the whole person’s mental intellect as well as our, moral and emotional reasoning, the place inside each of us where decisions are made. [6] We all make decisions based upon the deepest orientation of our personhood. Our personhood is defined over time by the voices we listen to and by the words and images we hear, see and internalize. Over time we become as we think and act. [7] This is why parenting, good parenting and life time learning is so important.

Some time ago, I had a conversation with one of the people who have been helping us put together the new church directory. She was telling me about a ministry she is involved in with her church – helping people overcome the negative self-images many people carry into adulthood. She told me the story of a young man whose father made a hasty, bitter, belittling comment to the effect that he was a “loser” when he was six years old. This comment followed this man for many, many years, until in midlife he finally overcome the memory and the internal voice that memory had created telling him over and over again that he was a loser and would fail at life.

The Goal: Wiser and Better Christians

In 1967, the movie Bonnie and Clyde was released. [8] The movie glorified the career of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, bank robbers who terrorized Texas and parts of the Midwest during the 1930’s. They had a hideout in Joplin, Missouri, near our family’s home in Springfield. Clyde Barrow was a sociopath and a murderer. Eventually, law enforcement officers, led by famous Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, ambushed and killed them. Bonnie Parker was twenty-four when she died; Clyde Barrow was twenty-five. To young moviegoers, the wild life of Bonnie and Clyde seemed exciting. The truth is they lived short, violent, unhappy, unhealthy, unbalanced, and ultimately futile lives. In the end, they were ambushed and killed. In truth, they ambushed themselves by the way they lived. Bonnie and Clyde were both evil and foolish—and so are all those who ignore the voice of wisdom speaking in Creation and Scripture.

One reason for Christians to understand the perspective of the writers of wisdom literature is that our culture desperately needs to recover a sense that there is a moral order to the universe into which our life-stories fit. Contemporary people are often physically, morally, and spiritually rootless. Rootlessness leads to a shallow life lived in a series of unconnected choices based on the impulses of the moment. Without a sustained vision of life, and without the wisdom of past generations, contemporary people are like all those who distain history: condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past and reap the consequences. [9] We need what wisdom literature offers.

As early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. The eternal, secret wisdom of God—a wisdom we can only imagine—came to us in a way we human beings can see and understand. When we have questions about how we can live the life of wisdom, we have a concrete, historical person we can look to for the answers. Jesus came to us, filled with the wisdom and love of God. Into the darkness of our world and into the darkness of our lives, the light of God shines in the person of Jesus the Christ.

The Most Important Gift

Over the years, my wife and I have given our children a lot of gifts. I don’t know how many pairs of expensive tennis shoes we’ve bought four children, but it involves thousands of dollars. We’ve bought running shoes, basketball shoes, soccer shoes, tennis shoes, and the like. We’ve bought enough “Air Jordan’s” and similar products to support a large number of famous persons in retirement. You know what? Not one pair of those shoes is still in existence.

We’ve bought hundreds, maybe thousands of toys over the years. We’ve bought Transformers, He-Men, She-Woman, Spider Men, Power Rangers, Ken and Barbie, and a host of other famous and not so famous toys. You know what, except for a very few toys and dolls stored in our attic for grandchildren, they have all long since broken and been thrown away.

The fact is that most of the things we buy ourselves and our children wear out, are outgrown, or break within months, days, weeks, even moments after the time we purchase them; then they are gone and forgotten. Advertisers tell us that we and our children cannot live without a host of things that for all of human history children lived without, and we believe them or at least we live as if we believed them. But when they are worn out or superseded by the next big thing, we soon forget them entirely. In the meantime, we can slowly but surely forget to be sure they actually get the things they really need.

One of my friends in the pastoral ministry made a comment that has kept me going through the delays and disappointments that are involved in any attempt to write something. He said, “So often, it seems as if we are telling Christians and potential Christians, ‘Behave this way because the Bible says so, or the church says so, or the denomination says so.’ What you are saying in this book is, ‘Behave this way because it is the way to true happiness and fulfillment.’”

Until my friend said this, I had not focused on that fact, but the truth is that is exactly the point of helping new Christians live wisely. In the end, if there is a creator God, and if the wisdom of that creator God is embedded in creation, then we ignore this wisdom at our peril – and so do our children and loved ones. If Christ is the very image of the invisible God, then by listening to his voice and learning to think and make decisions as Jesus thought and made decisions is the most important thing we can do, for in doing this we become like God and act wisely in accordance with the way God intends. This ability is the most important thing we can give new believers and those we love.

Copyright 20009, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Maureen Ryan, “How CBS Went Wrong with ‘Kid Nation’” Chicago Tribune.com www. Chicago Tribune.com/Entertainment, (September 5, 2007).

[2] See, Brian Lowrey, “The kids aren’t all right Kids Nation’ the Latest Show to use Tykes for Profit” Variet.com May 25, 2007)

[3] This was a comment made by Medved on Fox News during an interview September 4, 2007.

[4] Romanticism was literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century involving a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment with a resulting emphasis on the imagination feelings and emotions. One of the features common among Romantic thinkers is a deep respect for nature and a belief that culture often distorts nature. Therefore, Romantics are inclined to dismiss belief in the essential fallenness (original sin) of humans.

[5] Portions of this Chapter are from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014, hereinafter “Path of Life.” This book is a critical realistic introduction to wisdom literature.

[6] See, Bishop of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994). The Greek concept of “nous” is broader than our concept of mind, including the memory, understanding and will, the complete psychosomatic person.

[7] See, James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, (New York: Barnes and Nobel, 1992), for a classic statement of this insight.

[8]  David Newman, Robert Benton, and Robert Towne, wr. Bonnie and Clyde Arthur Penn, dr., starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (1967).

[9] I have written about his both in Path of Life and in the Introduction to Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rv. Ed. (Shiloh, 2016).

15. The Way of Caring for One Another

My parents, who are now both with the Lord, belonged to what was known as the “Builder’s Class” of their church. The Builder’s Class was very close. Of course, they met every Sunday morning upstairs at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, where we attended. The group often had picnics, holiday celebrations, social gatherings, and the like. One of my best memories is of a picnic in a park near the church, where I met my best friend in Jr. High and High School for the first time. We are still friends today.

The class began somewhere around 1960 or about sixty years ago. At some point during my childhood, one of the members left his wife and family. My Dad, who was an FBI agent, found out where the man was, took a day off work, drove 250 miles, and talked the man into returning to his family. Without their close community and fellowship, it would not have been possible. However, because of the close fellowship of the group, the man knew Dad cared enough to take a day off, drive 250 miles, and sit down to talk. He went home, and a marriage was saved. This is one example of the power of Christian community—and I have remembered the importance of my father’s action for more than a half century.

Made for Community

In our culture, most people suppose that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, isolated, individuals. Society, in this view, is made up of autonomous individuals seeking their own self-interest bound together by laws and passing agreements. The Christian worldview is vastly different. We see the world as fundamentally related and relational. Christians suppose that individuals emerge from families into larger communities and remain fundamentally relational creatures as long as they live. As God exists, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so also human beings exist and find deep meaning and purpose in life as they are imbedded in social relationships. Caring social relationships inside the body of Christ are basic to the Christian life and discipleship.

This is an area in which modern psychology supports the ancient insight of Christian faith and practice. People who grow up experiencing loving, healthy, sacrificial human relationships most frequently grow up to be healthy individuals. People who are not the product of such relationships, particularly in their youngest years, often struggle. Human beings are not in fact isolated individuals. Human beings emerge from families and other relationships and are profoundly impacted, for good or evil, by what happens in them. This is why strong, healthy families and friendships are so important.

In the same way, healthy Christians experience healthy Christian relationships in the family of Christ. Christians who grow in healthy Christian relationships become healthy disciples. Christians who experienced unhealthy Christian relationships often become unhealthy disciples. From the time we become a new disciple and are called into a relationship with God until our last day as a disciple, we need to experience the mutual love and fellowship of a healthy group of Christian people with whom we are caring for one another in a caring relationship.

Consequently, time spent in caring is important for every disciple. One important opportunity of ordinary Christians is to step out in the name of Christ and share the love of God with one another. In larger churches, it is impossible for even the largest staffs to minister to all the needs of a congregation. Only if lay people step out and exercise their spiritual gifts can the needs of the congregation be met. [1] Even in smaller congregations, caring relationships are important to the spiritual and emotional health of the people of the church.

The Importance of Loving Community in Scripture

This idea of Christians helping, loving, and encouraging one another is one of the most common ideas in the entire New Testament. A prominent Church consultant and author published some fifty-nine such texts in the New Testament. [2] Here are just a few:

  • “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50).
  • “Love one another…” (John 13:34; John 13:35; John 15:12; John 15:17; I John 3:11; I John 3: 2; Romans 13:83; I John 4:7; I John 4:11; I John 4:12; II John 5; I Thessalonians 4:9’ I Thessalonians 3:12; I Peter 3:8; I Peter 4:8).
  • “Be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Honor one another…” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16; I Peter 3:8).
  • “Accept one another…” (Romans 15:7).
  • “Instruct one another…” (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Peter 5:14)
  • “Have equal concern for one another” (I Corinthians 12:25)
  • Serve one another…” (Galatians 5:13).
  • “Carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Be patient and bear with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Forgive one another…” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).
  • “Encourage one another…” (I Thessalonians 4:18; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 3:13).
  • “Build up one another…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
  • “Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11).
  • “Don’t grumble against one another…” (James 5:9).
  • “Confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:16).
  • “Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
  • “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).
  • “Use whatever gift you have received to serve one another…” (I Peter 4:10).
  • “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…” (I Peter 5:5).

It is clear that God wants us to live in a community of love with each other, not jumping around looking for the perfect church or small group, but sticking with a group and learning the hard lessons of loving people who are fundamentally different.

Reasons for Caring

There are many reasons why Christians should care for one another in every church and in every small discipleship group:

  • First, Christ commanded us to love one another. The Apostle John records Jesus as saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). We show love for one another as we care for one another in deep and profound ways. We should love and care for one another because God has asked us to do so.
  • Second, Christians are committed to experiencing the transformation of our character to that of Jesus Christ. Paul urges the Ephesians to be “imitators of Christ,” when he says: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:12). As we care for others, we experience growth in achieving the character of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Finally, we only experience the fullness of the Christian life as we employ our spiritual gifts for others. In I Corinthians, Paul puts it this way: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7). If someone else does the visiting and the caring in the congregation, then they experience the blessing of using their gift. If we have the gift of caring for others, and we use that gift, then we experience the blessing and so does each person we meet. As we use our spiritual gifts to bless others, we are formed into the image of God—and become the person God intended us to be.

Jesus spoke of himself as the “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Christians become more like the Good Shepherd as we lay down our lives, just a little, taking time to love others in the name of Jesus Christ when they might be doing something else.

When I was a young Christian I became suddenly ill at a time when I lived all alone in a new city, and there was no one to care for me. One of the men in my discipleship group came and visited me. It meant the world to me then, and it has encouraged me to visit others. We are still friends, forty years later.

The best senior pastor I ever knew, though he was the pastor of a large congregation, still often visited people in the hospital and was part of a small group. When we receive care from others, we learn to care, just as a child who is properly cared for as a child learns to care for their children when the proper time comes. More than that, when we care for others as Christ has cared for us, we are slowly transformed into the people Christ wants us to be.

The Attitudes We Need

In order to grow to be more like Christ, Christians develop certain attitudes that characterize our relations with others:

  • Peace and Harmony With One Another: The Apostle Paul wrote the Romans saying, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. …If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:16-18). Avoiding endless arguments maintaining peaceful relations, and avoiding pride are some most important ways we love one another. This is hard to accomplish, but with the help of God we can.
  • Respect and Accept One Another: Paul goes on to say, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). We give care to one another as we accept the abilities and limitations that each person brings to the group. Each member of a group brings unique strengths and weaknesses to the community. We need to respect the strengths and the weaknesses of one another. No one member of a small group has all the answers—and people who think they do are often trouble. Humbly respecting others is essential if we are to develop the character of Christ. We don’t have to agree with or admire all the characteristics of our fellow Christians to love, serve, and befriend them.
  • Concern About One Another. In First Corinthians, Paul says “God has combined the members of the body and has given great honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is part of it” (I Cor. 12:24-27). Those of us who are emotionally, mentally or physically stronger than others need to put out care to those who are As we develop these attitudes of Christian love, we are transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ and become more like him. This means that we should not seek to be with only those who are as mentally, emotionally, spiritually or otherwise as mature as we are.

There are many, many other qualities that Christians need to develop. These are just a few of the caring characteristics we need to grow in Christ.

The Need for Loving One Another

We live in a society in which there is an enormous need for Christians to reach out to others with the unconditional love of God. Many societal developments of the 20th and 21st centuries have left people with deep spiritual and emotional needs. These developments are familiar to many of us and include:

  • The Decline of the Extended Family. Children no longer live in proximity to their parents with the result that older people often are lonely with no one to share their final years. Younger people are deprived of the wisdom of older people, and the aged are deprived of the love and respect they Everyone loses.
  • The Single Parent Family. Divorce has increased to the point that a great many children in our nation will grow up for at least a part of their childhood in families where there is only one parent. In the single parent family, the parent who is raising the children is put under increased pressure, and the children lack a role model from the parent of the opposite sex. This can result in a family where exhaustion and uncertainty are a constant factor in the family system. This has an emotional impact on children and parents alike.
  • The Two-Income Household. In America today, both parents work in many households. Unlike prior generations, much of the time parents work all or part of the time away from home where they cannot have constant contact with children or each other. Such families often face time pressures and little time for relaxation and family activities. The church can help by providing wholesome opportunities for family fellowship.
  • Economic Uncertainty. The rapidly changing nature of our economy has resulted in increased economic uncertainty for many people who formerly had relatively secure careers. Layoffs, downsizing, mergers, and divestitures have resulted in many middle-aged managers having to find new positions—or even new careers in midlife. The rise of global competition means that managers work longer and longer hours with less and less security for the future. All these factors create uncertainty and instability in relationships.
  • Decline of Institutions. Many people in our culture have a sense of self that is extremely dependent upon their participation in just a few institutions, primarily work. Family, church, neighborhood, clubs, ethnic associations and other groups that fostered identity and supported families and individuals are not present in the lives of many people. The modern subdivision normally consists of isolated and fenced homes with people who have little or no relationship with one another living side by side.
  • Unclear Role Expectations. In the past, our society had stable expectations for men, women, parents, children, leaders, etc. The increasing fragmentation and individualism of our culture has resulted in a loss of a consensus concerning the behavior appropriate to certain roles. People are forced to make choices under circumstances that, in prior generations, the appropriate role behavior would have been obvious. People feel lost, anxious and alone.
  • Churches in which there is Dysfunctional Care. There is one other factor that must be mentioned—perhaps the saddest of all. Some people have experienced dysfunctional care within the Christian community. Where a pastor or leader uses his or her position to create dependency, dominate, gain power, or otherwise control disciples, there is dysfunctional care. It can result in injury or a failure to mature as disciples.

These and other factors make creating community both challenging and more important in our society. One of the most important things that churches, small groups and other Christian organizations do is establish, nurture, and maintain healthy small and larger communities in which people can grow in Christ and flourish personally and as families.

Actions of Christian Love

Many years ago, my wife and I were teaching a long Bible study for a group of adults. One of the members of our group was a young couple experiencing problems with a pregnancy. The couple was overwhelmed, as they already had small children. The group started bringing them meals a few times a week. This couple were an active part of our church until the husband was transferred and remain strong Christ-Followers to this day. The love they experienced has been passed along many times by now.

In our former church, we had a number of single parent families. Some of the leadership would, from time to time, “adopt” children from our children and youth ministries and show them special attention as they navigated difficult times. Some of these young people still reach out to their mentors in hard times, although they are now self-sufficient adults.

Years ago, we went on a mission trip with a couple in our small group and their daughters. We went as couples and brought along our children. Each day for five days we ate and worked together building a home in Mexico. It was an important time in the discipleship of our children and theirs, and we remained friends until career changes took us apart. The wife became a leader of our church in a hard time. The love shared over almost a decade was important to both couples, and we still communicate from time to time.

When I practiced law, I almost always had a Bible study either in the firm or at a restaurant at least one day a week. This was an important time of growth for me as well as the other participants. One of these groups had no other Christians involved for the entire time we met.

Our former congregation sponsored a small group for displaced workers beginning during the Great Recession of 2008. This ministry helped many of the people of our community find work and survive a stressful period. Men and women were able to share their grief at career displacement, help one another, and celebrate new careers. Some of the members later on became leaders.

Christians always need to remember that the attitudes we have toward one another are reflected in the actions we take toward one another. Here are some other kinds of actions we can take as we show God’s love to others:

  • We can pray for one another and confess our sins to one another: In James we read, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16). One way that we show concern for one another is as we pray with and for one another.
  • We can serve one another: As Jesus was training leaders, he called the Twelve together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:24-28; see also Gal. 5:13). If we desire to show proper Christian care for one another we must be willing to serve the needs of one another.
  • We can encourage one another: In Thessalonians, Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (I Thess. 5:11). Sometimes the best care we can give one another is the care of encouraging one another in difficult times.

Self-Giving Love: The Vital Element in Witness

This “one-anothering” ministry of the church is vitally important to making disciples and sharing faith. The Early Church Father, Tertullian spoke of the amazement that non-Christians felt because of the love of early Christians towards one another. He put it this way “See, they say, how they love one another.” [3] Just as the love of Christians made an impression on First Century Rome, the love shown by contemporary Christians will touch even our society. Where people deeply care for one another, share life’s burdens, help one another in difficult times, and show selfless regard even for the weak and difficult, the world will always take notice.

The world can ignore our theology, our morals, our worship, and our public witness. It cannot ignore the love it sees worked out in the Christian community and towards the world. The greatest witness we can make to unbelievers and new believers is the unconditional love of Christ.

There is a great truth embedded in the Christian praise tune, “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love”:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love [4]

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved 

[1] See, Gareth W. Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 1994).

[2] Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991), 129-131. I have not included the entire list here, but eliminated similar and negative “one-another’s”. Others have made similar lists of varying sizes. I have shortened George’s for this essay.

[3] Tertullian, Apology Chapter 39 in Volume 3 The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 10 vols. 1885–1887. (Repr., Peabody, MA, MI: Hendrickson, 1994), 46.

[4] Peter Scholtes (1938–2009) “The Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” (© 1966, F.E.L. Publications, assigned to The Lorenz Corp., 1991).

14. God’s Discipleship Community

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship the world was a very different place from what it is today. In the West, Christianity was generally either the dominant or the state religion. Particularly in Europe, there were state churches. Most congregations were small. Both in Europe and in the United States, the years before and around World War II marked the beginning of the end of an era of Christianity that began with the Roman Empire. The late 20thand early 21st centuries also marked the emergence of formerly colonial nations into freedom and increased economic opportunity. The West was no longer culturally and economically dominant. [1] By the end of the Second World War, Europe was well into its march towards secularism, while in America the march did not reach the same level of intensity until the 1960’s.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, the late modern phenomenon of mega-churches in large metropolitan areas and large secular populations was unknown. There was religious and cultural diversity, but that diversity was different and much smaller than today. Some parishes were large, but nothing like the large churches experienced in America. The so-called Mainline denominations: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, American Baptist and the like were in broad decline by the close of the 20th Century, and evangelicalism had emerged as the most quickly growing segment. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th Century even these churches had begun to gradually decline.

Called to Community

In the cultural situation of the early 20th Century, Christian community could almost be taken for granted. Life was simpler. Cities were smaller. More people lived in rural areas. Most Christian congregations were small, and community was a natural result of living and worshiping together. Today, things are very different, and we actually have to intentionally create Christian community.

God’s intention has always been and always will be to create a special people, his family, through which God blesses the entire world. God called Abraham for just this purpose (Genesis 12:1-4). In Genesis, God calls Abraham to bless not just himself, but his family, and even the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). The history of Israel is the history of God’s dealings with this one family. [2] He wanted Israel to be a kind of prototype for what all families and all nations should be like.

Even once Israel became a nation, one of the most common images the Bible uses for them is “The Sons of Israel”—a family. God’s family, however, was called to be different than the other families around them. They were to be holy just as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). The word “holy” means “separated” or “different.” The way in which God’s people were to be different is that they were to show forth the wisdom, goodness, and love of God in a special way, so that the entire world might come into fellowship with the God of Love.

For Christians, the Apostle Peter put it this way:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Those of us who have been called to be disciples have become part of God’s family, and are called to be a special, set apart people, created by Christ through the Spirit to declare to the world the mercy and love of God. The church is God’s chosen vehicle to make disciples, drawing people into a deep, life-transforming relationship with God. The primary purpose of the church is to “go into the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16).

The New Testament Community

The book of Acts begins with Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. The first discipleship group was disbanded when Jesus ascended into heaven. No longer would they be meeting together daily, physically in the presence of the Word Made Flesh. Instead, Jesus was going to be with the disciples as they shared the Good News throughout the world by the invisible, personal presence of the Holy Spirit. He asked his disciples to return to the city and await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).  They went back into the city, met together in the Upper Room as a group, prayed together, and planned for the future until the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-25).

On the day of Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit came upon the little band of Jesus followers, and the disciples were filled with the powerful presence of God (Acts 2:1-4). They began to share the Good News with all those gathered in Jerusalem that day, and by the end of the day, about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:5-41).

What did they do next? They met as a family! The apostles discipled a new group of believers in Jesus just as Jesus discipled them! Here is how Acts describes it:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church was like a family, intimately sharing their life together. They shared meals. They kept a common purse for expenses of the group. They contributed to the needs of the group. They worshiped, learned, and prayed together. The experienced the power and presence of God together as a family. The surrounding society recognized that these people were different and, in the end, saw the beauty of their way of life. We are called to the same way of life.

God calls Christians to be a part of a set-apart community, not removed from the surrounding society, but a different sort of people showing a better way to live in the midst of every culture. This is hard in our society. We are so individualistic and driven that we have difficulty maintaining physical families, much less a church family. We are so busy that it is hard to find time to share our lives with others. We are so consumed emotionally by the needs of our biological family, career, social life, and the like, that making time for deep spiritually-based relationships is not natural or easy. Nevertheless, this is exactly what God has asked us to do. [3]  We won’t grow in Christ unless we devote ourselves to learning about God, fellowshipping with God’s people, praying with other Christians, and experiencing the power of God in our lives.

Often, as we have seen, contemporary people lack community, and tend to find an inadequate community in the workplaces and in political or avocational associations. One signal of the decay of our culture loss of where sometimes called “mediating institutions,” that provide meaning and purpose to life. [4] At the most basic level, the frequency of divorce in our society means that most people do not grow up in stable homes. The most basic unit of society is terribly unstable in our culture.

In the past, schools, preschools, swimming pools, and other public goods were often managed at the level of the neighborhood. Today, for most Americans these are managed at the level of a vast city. State and national governments are by their nature, distant. In larger metropolitan areas, the same things is true: governments are far removed from the day to day lives of people. Often leaders have little or no idea of the needs of local neighborhoods. The vast majority of people do not belong to churches and other institutions that give meaning and purpose to life at a basic level. The result is a pervasive loneliness and alienation.

Discipleship Groups

the Book of Acts provides us with a description of what a Spirit-filled community is like. We need to think about that description, because it tells us what contemporary churches are to be like in order to disciple people in ways that mirror the way Jesus discipled people. In the conditions of today’s Western society, and especially in America, this cannot be accomplished without intentionality. One way of accomplishing the goal of creating life transforming community is forming “Discipleship Groups.” A discipleship group is an intentional, personal, face-to-face, regular gathering of men and women who are committed to grow as disciples of Jesus Chris together in community. [5]

Each aspect of this definition is important considering the scriptural model given to us in Acts 2:42-47:

  • A discipleship group is Intentional: The early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.” The apostles and the new believers intentionally committed themselves to grow as disciples by listening to the apostles teach. We will not grow as disciples unless we are willing to be intentional about it.
  • A discipleship group is Personal: We are told “all the believers were together.” Personal, face-to-face fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is central. God desires us to become part of a community of believers who are sharing their lives and their faith together. God wants us to be in close relationship with others as we grow in faith.
  • A discipleship group is Regular: The early church met “daily.” A discipleship group meets once a week, every other week, twice a month, or on some other regular basis. Frankly, for most of us in our culture, a daily meeting is impossible, except perhaps in our family or with one or two other people we normally see in our daily lives. Groups that meet monthly are normally unable to produce lasting personal change. For most Christians, a weekly group is what is needed.
  • A discipleship group meets to be Taught: When they met, the first disciples listened “to the apostles teaching.” A discipleship group desires to grow in the knowledge of Christ and the Christian life. Discipling groups are not primarily social gatherings. Although the Christian faith is more than learning information, it is impossible to grow as a Christian disciple and be transformed into the image of Christ without learning truths about God and Christian living.
  • A discipleship group experiences Exciting Fellowship: When the early church met, “everyone was filled with awe.” Christian fellowship should be life-giving, exciting and life-changing. If people in our culture are to be filled with awe, then we must show the wisdom and love of God by the lives we lead and by the community of love we create. We must share the day-to-day miracles of life with one another and the world around us.
  • A discipleship group Intends to Grow: “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The purpose of a discipleship group is to grow the kingdom of God by growing disciples. This means intentionally inviting new people into the group. Many small groups in our culture exist primarily for group members. A true discipleship group exists not only for current members but for future disciples of Christ. [6]

In contemporary Western society, Christians must intentionally create discipling communities like the fellowship of the early church. Any social institution emerges from a community of people whose purpose is the maintenance and transmission of the knowledge and skills the group was formed to advance. [7] One of the most important developments in modern philosophy of science is an increased understanding of the communal nature of science. Any scientist becomes and remains a scientist by becoming a part of the community of scientists. It probably begins early in life with a special teacher, who makes a deep impression on the student. Then, as the years go by the student goes on to take more classes, then begins specializing in the particular science in which he or she has an interest. During this period, the young scientist will have many mentors, teachers, role models, and will learn many skills. Over many years of apprenticeship and learning, the novice becomes an accomplished scientist his or her self. It does not happen easily or over-night. The church is God’s community of change.

Large worship services, media teachers, etc. cannot possibly form Christian character in the deep way discipleship groups can. Deep discipleship takes an intentional group of people led by experienced leaders, like the apostles, to take people from a secular-orientation and mold them into fully-equipped disciples as they model the life of Christ and share their own lives in a deep and meaningful way. There is no other way out of the crisis of discipleship in which our society finds itself

Spirit-Filled Community

Discipleship groups are more than a program. These groups, large or small, are a God-given opportunity for disciples to live the kind of life God intended for all human beings. Once we understand this, we understand human ingenuity is not sufficient for true discipling community. Only the Holy Spirit can create a community that models God’s wisdom and love in the midst of a fallen, broken, and diseased world. Only the Holy Spirit can help us live out lives of true agape love toward others. The Holy Spirit transmits to us the love of God in several ways:

  • Knowledge. It is the Holy Spirit that allows disciples to understand who God is and what God is like.
  • It is the Holy Spirit that draws disciples into fellowship with God by faith in Christ.
  • Church. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and draws disciples into relationship with others.
  • Worship, Witness, and Service. It is the Holy Spirit that sustains that relationship and empowers the Body of Christ for worship, community, growth and mission.

Over the years, the churches we have served have had many small discipleship groups. Frankly, some were life-changing and some were not. The difference was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, a member of the congregation stopped me in the hall. His group was struggling. I asked him what they were doing in their meetings. It turned out that their group had become a dinner club. They met, had a glass of wine, ate dinner, and visited. There is nothing wrong with any of this—but it is not the characteristic of a discipleship group. There was no intentional attempt to grow in Christ. As a result of our conversation, they incorporated Bible Study, prayer, sharing, and service into the life of the group. They invited a few new people. Almost over-night, the group was providing a place for Christian growth for its members.

Discipleship Groups as a Means of Grace

In some Christian traditions, there’s much talk about the “ordinary means of grace.” Ordinarily, Bible study, prayer, and other activities are means by which God allows us to grow in grace. In contemporary society I would argue that participation in discipling groups, is one of the most important if not the most important means of grace. It has certainly been true in my own life and in the life of many people I know. Jesus said, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). The spirit this is basically present in those small groups of Christians together in the name of Jesus.

In his little book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” [8]

No Christian and no Christian fellowship should underestimate the importance of intentional Christian community.

Leadership and Discipling Groups

Discipling groups do not occur automatically. Jesus had to call his disciples to come and be with him. Peter had to preach. The apostles had to reach out and form the small Christian discipling communities that constituted the early church. Over centuries, people have call other people into a relationship with Jesus. In contemporary society, this requires getting out of our comfort zone and asking people to gather with us to learn about Jesus and follow him.

This involves leadership. Someone must call the people into the group. Someone has to provide overall guidance for the group. Someone has to teach a small Bible study. Someone has to lead the prayers. Someone has to organize the refreshments, if any. Every discipleship group is a miniature church requiring as many of the spiritual gifts as possible to function. Discipleship Groups do not need a single leader, they need many leaders with as many different spiritual gifts as is possible.

Today, most larger churches have some kind of small group program. Most of the time these programs have three basic problems:

First, the groups tend to become ingrown and not want to multiply and grow. People get accustomed to the deep fellowship of the group and they don’t want to leave that the fellowship and grow the kingdom of God. This is a tremendous leadership challenge. It is important that the leadership of the groups constantly mention the Great Commission, so that people develop a heart to share their faith and invite their friends.

Second, often groups do not intentionally develop new leadership. Most of the time, the existing leaders lead the group until the group no longer exists. Sometimes existing leaders are so invested in leading that they resist turning over leadership to others. While this is normal and human, it’s not the best thing for the kingdom of God. In the early church, Antioch was a wonderful church with great teaching, preaching, prophesying, and worship. Paul and Barnabas were essential and important parts of that fellowship. In Acts, we read that they were sent out on what became the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). If they had not been willing to go, if the church of Antioch of been satisfied to be what it is where it was, we would not be here today. Instead they sent out their two best leaders and developed new leadership.

Third, there is the problem of equipping teachers to share the gospel without distortion. In a church that has a large number of small groups there is always the challenge of creating a teaching consistency faithful to the doctrine and morals of that particular church. This is an ongoing problem that senior leadership must take seriously. If a congregation has enough small groups, someday there will be at least one leader who in doctrine or morals betrays the confidence of leadership. This requires training and fellowship among the leaders of the groups and a structure of accountability.

This means that this discipleship group leaders must meet regularly with senior leadership in the church and be accountable to them. There must be times of sharing what is going on in the small groups, what the basic studies are going to be for the ongoing period of time, and some of the doctrinal challenges that may be faced as lay people talk about the passages and topics. It is also true that discipleship leaders must be mentored and monitored so that their teachings and life continue to grow in grace. [9] Finally, the fact is that some people will have to be removed from leadership. In my experience, this is rarely necessary, but it does happen.

Diversity and Unity in Discipleship Groups

There is not a “one size fits all” way of developing discipleship groups in a local congregation. Discipleship groups will be formed in different ways and for different purposes. People cannot be in ten different groups. It’s inevitable that people are going to attend groups that meet a particular spiritual need they have and the giftedness they sensed God has given them. This means that groups must have different foci, but some common features as they disciple people. [10]

Some groups will concentrate on studying the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be in mission sharing the gospel with others. Some groups will be involved in prayer, but this does not mean that they do not need to and base their prayers on the Bible and be in mission, sharing their faith with others. Some groups (such as a praise band) will be primarily involved in supporting the ministry and mission of the local church, but this does not mean that they don’t need to study the Bible and be prayerful in what they plan and do.

The key is to create a leadership team that is both focused and flexible. The focus needs to be upon making more and better disciples for Christ and the development of loving fellowship among believers. At the same time, the leadership needs to be flexible in allowing groups to accomplish this discipling task in a variety of different ways based upon the specific talents and vision of that group.

The Future of the Church

After forty years as a disciple of Jesus, and about the same number of years as a Christian leader, including twenty-eight years as a pastor, I’m convinced that the future of American Christianity lies in our ability to recover the ability to love people into the kingdom of God through personal relationships in life-changing community. Western civilization is in a period of decay. Much of the surrounding culture is not only non-Christian but hostile to the Christian faith. In such a cultural situation, we cannot rely upon a mass audience, mass worship, or mass ministry to do the job of sharing God’s love with others as we have experienced it because of our faith in Jesus Christ. This can only be accomplished by individual Christians joining together in small communities of faith within the larger body of Christ and sharing their faith day in and day out.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Although the United States emerged both victorious and economically intact from the Second World War, no other European nation did. As the 20th Century concluded, however, Western Europe, and especially Germany emerged from the devastation of the war. Japan was a major economic power having emerged from the post-war period as an economic powerhouse. China had also recovered from the war and from the economic setback of the cultural revolution. India emerged as an economic powerhouse. The economic dependence of the West on oil as a source of energy enriched and empowered the Muslim world of the Middle East and Asia. Culturally, the religions of the Far East were evident and attractive to many in the formerly Christian West. All of this meant that Western culture and values were no longer dominant. In America there were few major cities not characterized by a fair amount of religious diversity.

[2] One of the easy miss-readings of the Old Testament is a failure to understand that while we think of Israel as a kind of ancient version of the modern nation state, this notion is far from the reality. One of the most common names for the Jewish people and nation is “the sons of Israel.” Their identity was that of members of related tribes who came from a common ancestor and were therefore a family as much as a political body.

[3] This aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought is often ignored. For example, “Everything the disciple does is a part of the common life of the church of which he is a member. That is why the law, which governs the life of the Body of Christ, is where one is the whole body is also. There is no department of life in which the member may withdraw from the Body, nor should he desire to so withdraw.” Cost of Discipleship, at 286.

[4] See, Path of Life, at 162.

[5] Individual congregations have many names for what I call discipleship groups. The term “small group” tells us only one characteristic of what we want these groups to be like. They should be small, but that is not the most important characteristic. They should disciple people. They are and can be called “Life Groups,” “Community Groups,” “Koinonia Groups,” “Circles” and any one of a number of names in different churches. What is important is to remember the purpose: to disciple people.

[6] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People: Discipleship Groups at Advent Presbyterian Church(Unpublished Manuscript, 2000), 6.

[7] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. 1958. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1962. I am reliant on Polanyi and Lesslie Newbigin’s analysis of his work and application to discipleship for this insight. See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, previously cited, at 20.

[9] This regular accountability of small group leaders has always been hard to achieve. It requires both administrative and interpersonal ability. In the best example I have experienced, group leaders huddled with the person in charge of small group ministry and one of the pastoral staff several times a year. In addition, the person charged with administering small groups was constantly on the phone with group leaders. The Senior Pastor was an enthusiastic proponent of small groups. These “huddles” were an essential part of the success of the program.

[10] This was the intention of the A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People, cited at note 6. While groups may differ in focus (Bible Study, Prayer, Ministries and Missions, etc.) there are common features that group leaders within a larger congregation need to understand and implement.

13. A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God so as to have the knowledge base required to grow in likeness to, and fellowship with, the Word Made Flesh. Christians should seek to know the truth, because the truth of God sets us free to be people God wants us to be. Time in the word of God is not alone enough to be a transformed disciple of Christ, but it is essential.

Each morning, I spend the first few minutes of the day reading the Bible and praying. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for most of that time, this practice has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip this sacred time and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave. (I like to say, “I am not who I should be, but thank God I am not who was was!”)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be centered in Scripture so that we can have a life-changing relationship with the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This “knowing about,” however, is of little use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We must be doers and just hearers of the word (James 2:17).

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. The Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. In Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always the most eager to study their Scriptures. We study Scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, our constant need for mercy, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture lifted up for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God to teach us, rebuke us of our sin, correct our errors, and train us in the ways of God. Notice that all this implies that Scripture was given to us so that we might change, grow, and reach out to a lost and broken world.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time, before radio, television, and other forms of media, when reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some basic understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true. The story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christians who were constantly renewing their life in Christ. The elites of most European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith. However, educated people were still part of a culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Colleges and Universities were still formed by the Biblical story even of many people no longer believed.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true in the West. Instead, in Europe and America, as well as the other parts of the world formed by a post-Christian culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders are generally formed by a worldview that excludes a personal God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, the idea that God speaks to certain people with a word for others, and other facets of historic Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview do not intuitively find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change any time soon, and the current crisis of discipleship will continue until a group of people are so deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith that their approach to life and its problems are undeniably changed and different than the approach of the surrounding culture. The formation and growth of such a people cannot be done by mass media, corporate education, or large, music or entertainment driven, worship services. [1] This kind of formation can only be done in small communities of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying, and living out the Christian life together. The situation in our society will not change until there is a completely different approach to discipleship, one that focuses on living the Bible as much or more than teaching or sharing its truths.

A Changed World View

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, knew that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world (with eyes of steadfast, self-giving love), and are transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our live to God and do the things that please God. Christians need to be transformed into bearers of God’s love and truth into their day-to-day world. This transformation will not occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we should use in day-to-day life. All tools require skill to use them properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool, so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of the Bible is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live out its truth over an extended period of time. [2]

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the Biblical story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, do they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3]

The crisis of faith we face is largely due to a lack of understanding and internalizing the story of God’s love affair with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this love affair is contained in the Bible, and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News. Our civilization has lost its unconscious understanding of the nature of God’s love and of its power to guide us in everyday life and in the decisions of everyday life. If we want to be changed by this story and help the world see the difference it makes, we have to take time to be in the word of God and allow it to mold our character and actions.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and the message is revealed through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is in hearing and internalizing the Word of God, so that the word becomes the way in which we understand the meaning of the world, that we are changed into the image of Christ. As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters and dwells within our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

Having a Good Bible Study

There are many ways to grow as a disciple by meditating on Scripture. There was a time when there was a lack of good group Bible Study materials. This is no longer true. There are many good Bible Study guides ranging from Sunday School materials, guides to the study of books of the Bible, and topical study guides in areas such as prayer, marriage, finances, child raising, coming to Christ, etc. All these resources help a group center itself on Holy Scripture. Not only do resources exist in printed form, but there are many ways to use materials to be found on the internet or in electronic media. Some of this material is free. [4]

Discipleship groups are not the place for large, lecture-oriented study. The key to a good discipleship group Bible study is its personal character. So, a study should have these three basic characteristics.

  • Group Discussion. People remember about ten percent of what they hear and about eighty percent of what they Therefore, lecture is not the best method for Bible Study. The best method for life-transforming Bible study involves personal interaction among people. This means the leader must avoid lecturing too much.
  • Open-ended Questions. It is always best to ask questions that enable group members to answer correctly whatever they say. So, questions like, “What did this passage mean to you” are always better than questions like, “What does John Calvin say about this passage?”
  • Focus on Application. It is important to remember that God is more interested in what Christians put to work in their lives than in how much they abstract knowledge they possess. It is always a good idea to end the study of a passage with a discussion of the question, “How am I going to live differently today now that I have studied this passage?”

If it is true that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into his Triune relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then it is not surprising that God wants us to hear his Word both in relationship to his own person (Christ) and in relationship to the Body of Christ. He wants us to hear this word in our own private Bible study, and corporately as we study the Bible in groups and hear the word of God proclaimed in worship.

A commitment to grow as a disciple is important. God does not want us to be mere hearers of his Word. He wants to transform our lives so that we live out that word in our day-to-day lives. This is why James says in his letter “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:9), we are also saved for the good works we will do in response to what God has done for us in Christ (2:10). The purpose of our Bible study is not merely to improve our minds and understanding, it is to transform us mind, body, heart, and soul. This requires more than an objective study.

Basic Bible Study Rules

Becoming a good leader for people who want to know more about the Bible is not as hard as it might seem. Here are some helpful rules in developing Bible study skills:

  • Use the Bible. If you are studying the Bible privately, you need a Bible! If you are in a Bible study group, everyone needs a Bible or a copy of the text the group is studying. In some Bible study materials, the text will be reprinted. In others, people must have a Bible as well as the guide. It is also helpful if everyone is using the same version of the Bible.
  • Read the Bible. No matter how good a Bible study is, the purpose is to learn the Bible. Much of the Bible began as an orally transmitted message of faith. Therefore, it is always a good idea to begin by reading the selected passage aloud. This allows the modern hearer to experience something of the oral tradition from which Scripture emerged. Stick to the text at hand. Avoid cross-referencing other biblical texts unless it is absolutely necessary. Before reading the text tells the group where it can be found can be found.
  • Opening Question. If you are the lead teacher of a group, think out beforehand the first question you will ask. The first question is always the most important of all. It opens the discussion and often determines the character of the group’s interaction. This kind of question most often can take the form of, “What teaching of this verse made an impression on you?” or “What did you find most interesting about this passage?”
  • Reflective Questions. Whether studying alone or in a group, there is no Bible study unless we engage the text. In reading this passage of Scripture or book, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself about the text:
    • What immediate message do you hear?
    • What feelings are you having in reading this?
    • What was helpful?
    • How I am I going to act differently because I have read this text?
  • Let Questions Guide the Study. Ask questions which are clearly tied to the text and build logically upon one another. If a question is not understood, restate it in different words. Limit initial comments to key information and definition. Focus on the most important aspects of the passage. Try not to answer your own question. If a question does not gain response, move on to another After the first response to a question, ask if anyone has a different or additional response. Don’t exhaust a question before moving to the next verse or question. Let the group set the agenda. Above all, realize that most questions do not have a single answer. Affirm those who respond if at all possible.
  • Involve the Imagination. One of the most important techniques that a teacher or student can use is to the whole person: sight, sound, touch, thought in the study. For example, as the text is read aloud, visualize for yourself or have the group visualize the scene. Ask the group to imagine how they would have reacted if they had been present. This is especially useful when studying a story from the Bible or a parable from Jesus.
  • Share Personal Meaning. Ask yourself the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” In a group Bible study, the most important thing to know is what the text means to the people present. This does not mean ignoring commentaries or historical understanding. It just means that what changes a life is a personal experience of the power of the Word.
  • Don’t Be Afraid. One barrier to some people exercising gifts for leadership in Bible Study is a fear of not knowing the answer. “I really do not know” is always a good answer. If you do not know, offer to study the question and give an answer at the next meeting. Even pastors do not know all there is to know about the Bible. Therefore, you should not be afraid to say you don’t know.
  • Stay in One Passage. One common mistake is to play “Bible Hopscotch.” Most people do not have a ready familiarity with the Bible, and flipping pages makes them nervous. Sometimes to get a clear idea of what Scripture means, we need to study more than one passage. Much of the time, however, this is not necessary. Staying in a passage allows us to memorize and remember that passage and allow that passage to change our lives.
  • Use Various Methods. Any Bible Study style when overused gets old. Variety is the spice of life, and we should use a variety of teaching tools and methods.

The methods that can be used to study Scripture are numerous. Not every technique that works for one person works for another. People in different generations may prefer different forms of Bible study. For example, I am in my 60s. Frankly, I do not enjoy media driven Bible studies as much as younger people in our church. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with the younger people. It means that different generations, with different life experiences, prefer different kinds of Bible studies.


Sometime in the Spring of 1977, I attended a little Bible study in Houston, Texas. It was led by a newly-graduated seminary student and a few laypeople. We sang a few songs, prayed, studied together, prayed, and sang a closing song. This particular Bible Study meant enough to me that our family has always been involved in small, intimate Bible Studies. If I look back on my life and ask the question, “When did I grow the most as a Christian in the least amount of time?” The answer is, “In the Friday Night Bible Study.”

Interestingly, we called our system of study, “Group Grope,” meaning that none of us understood the deepest meaning of most of what we studied. We were beginners. Nevertheless, we studied and allowed God’s word to change our lives. We grew in Christ. We started businesses, families, and shared in the struggles of young adulthood. Almost all the members of the Friday Night Bible study are still Christians are Christian leaders in their churches and communities. At least three of us are pastors.

We did not know it, but we were involved in a transformational Bible study. We were not as interested in becoming Biblical scholars as in becoming better Christians. The crisis of discipleship we face in America will not be overcome primarily by scholarly, critical, information-centered studies. It will be overcome by transformational studies led by thousands and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people allowing the Word of God to change them. [5]

More importantly, people in our society will not be changed by words alone. One of the principal elements of postmodernism is a rejection of truth claims. In other words, postmodernism does not necessarily believe that there is anything called “truth” to be found. In such a society, people must see the gospel lived out in an attractive way before they will ever accept the truth of the gospel and live it out in their own lives. The truth Christians proclaim is not a bid for power over other people. It is an invitation to enter a relationship with the God of infinite love and wisdom who desires to draw the entire human race into one family filled with the joy of the presence of infinite love and infinite wisdom.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large music or entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach.  I have been the pastor of such congregations. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone, however powerful. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 198, 1962), 58-59.

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). See also the work of Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1989) for a theological and missional adaptation of Polanyi’s notion of indwelling.

[4] When downloading materials from the internet it is important to remember that not all the materials found on the internet are sound. Many individuals put up materials that does not reflect either the spirit or the words of Christ or the experience of the Church over the centuries.

[5] I make this point with trepidation. It is a fact that transformational Bible studies should form the core of any discipleship program. However, longer and deeper, more theological Bible studies do have a place in the church. In both my congregations, the Disciple Bible Study Series of year-long encounters with the word of God played a big role in the development of leaders and of disciples.