To be completely honest, I have been struggling for a long time with awareness of the gap between conventional discipleship beliefs and practices and how the Bible characterizes true discipleship. "If you remain in my word," Jesus says, "then you are truly disciples of mine." "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father," (Matthew 7:21). We might very well tense up reading these verses. How are we to take them?
It helps, I think, to start with exploring the nature of learning, since discipleship and learning refer to the same experience. To understand how learning happens pushes us further back to the need for an adequate understanding of our human nature. Learning always involves our taking the form of our environment. I could illustrate this truth countless ways, but, instead, I'll ask you to imagine how, though you certainly are a moral agent with some degree of freedom to do as you will, you have been shaped by your family, your upbringing, your neighborhood or hometown, your friendships, your cultural background, your education and training, you name it.
We humans are malleable. We quite literally (in physical, psychological, and spiritual ways) bear the marks of our surroundings, including and especially relationships. Experiences of all kinds have molded our souls, giving shape to the way we live. We have been taught and we have learned.
Consider Romans 6:17-18 in this light: "But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness."
"Obedient...to the form of teaching..." The New Testament Greek word for "form" here is tupos, from which get the word "type." It means imprint, impression, mold. Think of a typewriter (kids, a typewriter is BC - before computers) that leaves not only the inked form of letters on the page, but also an impression from the metal type in the paper itself.
Hang on to your seats. In John 20:25, this same word, tupos, appears. Thomas, in response to the other disciples testifying that they had seen the risen Lord Jesus, says, "Unless I see the mark (tupon) of the nails in his hands...I will not believe." Those nails left an indelible imprint on our Lord's hands. This usage of (tupos) adds emphasis to the form of teaching that true Christian discipleship takes and increases the sense of urgency about good teaching and learning in the church. The form of teaching those Roman Christians received - both Jew and Greek - put them on a path entirely different from what they had known before entering into Christ.
At least two implications arise from pondering these scriptures. First, discipleship goes much deeper (literally) than we realize. Ironically, one reason the church's discipleship practices remain so much on the surface is that so many congregations have taught about discipleship in non-scriptural ways. And we have learned the lessons too well. We must ask if the form of teaching our lives have taken has molded us into entrenched ways of thinking resistant to the fullness of the Gospel, though not in ways that we notice as hard-hearted or resistant to Christ. What seems like discipleship is so normal to church life that we see it as normative, as the proper way for Christians to do things.
The second implication, then, is that we need to learn how to learn as followers of Jesus. I realize this statement sounds oxymoronic at first glance, but think about it. Many of us have spent a lifetime of learning that discipleship is more or less the same as "church life." Some worship, some Bible study, some service and the rest of life can go on pretty much as we want. We learned - mainly because we were taught - to approach discipleship as free consumers. How many Bible studies have been introduced and marketed in churches on the basis of the length of time they will take? How often are these opportunities couched in terms to show you that they can fit within busy, highly manicured lifestyles without too much inconvenience? Obviously, people have to manage their calendars, so days and times and durations matter, but think about the cumulative impact of having every church activity marketed to you in this way?
And then look at how the Bible talks about discipleship. The contrast is shocking.
We need to learn how to learn as Christians. We need the form of teaching that the Gospel impresses upon us. We need it. Otherwise we remain in bondage to far inferior gods.