As Protestants we shout with the reformers, “Sola Scriptura!” We profess to hold to the Bible alone as our only rule of faith and practice, yet in the area of organization of church and ministry we have forsaken Scripture in attempts to appeal to contemporary culture and meet its needs. This essay takes a brief look at the biblical model for ministry and suggests how that model would manifest itself in creating an atmosphere for learning and growth in the contemporary culture.
Proximity to God:
“Ministry demands proximity.”1 This is a main point that Dr. Mitchell drives home numerous times in chapter eleven of Leading, Teaching, and Making Disciples and is an accurate summation of the fundamental principle behind how God organizes people to carry out His plans. This fundamental principle is demonstrated for us in Numbers chapter 2 where God directs Moses on how the nation of Israel is to camp. God gives specific instructions for where each tribe is to set up camp in relation to the Tabernacle. Each camp was within a certain proximity of the place where the presence of God dwelt. Early Jewish life was primarily structured around the tabernacle/temple and ceremonial worship. J. Julius Scott Jr says, “Israel’s religious practice rested on twin foundation blocks: (1) temple and ceremonial worship, and (2) ethics and morals, the application of God’s directives to daily life.”2 He goes on to demonstrate how the ceremonial was central during the kingdom period of Israel’s history, but shifted to an emphasis on moral law upon the nation entering into captivity and losing their initial central mark. God had intentionally established the Israelite camp to be centered on Him and the covenant He made with them. A cursory reading of Deuteronomy would establish that their daily lives also revolved around their covenant making God.
This truth is reiterated for us in the New Testament by Jesus’ appointing of the apostles. Mark 3:14 says, “Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach,” He calls them to Himself. Just as The Father had structured Israel around the tabernacle, so The Son reconstitutes Israel around Himself3 as He is Emanuel, God with us. The Father and the Son both make very clear that proximity is crucial. The results of this proximity is manifested in what those who didn’t follow Jesus said of those who did. Acts 4:13 records that the rulers, elders, and scribes who were examining Peter and John noted by their actions and teaching that they had spent time with Jesus. If we are to be making disciples then we are to be emulating the pattern God has established by ensuring we have Christ centered ministry. Many churches structure themselves around the lost or the wounded and end up developing into a ministry centered on people. Although reaching the lost and binding up the wounded was part of the disciples job description, Jesus called them to be with Him before He sent them out. Another illustration of the absolute necessity of the centrality of Jesus is seen in Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000. (Matthew 14:13-20) Jesus had the crowd sit down in groups, and began to break the bread and gave it to the 12 disciples to distribute. This structure required the disciples to continually be returning to Jesus for more bread with which to feed the masses. The crowd, as well as the disciples, were well reminded that the disciples were mere channels of bread while Christ was the overly abundant source.
Proximity to the teacher:
“Discipleship is enhanced when the mentor is with and among the disciples.”4 If one is to adequately learn the truth of another one must follow closely his teacher. This was the biblical model of the student teacher relationship. In speaking to the church at Thessalonica, Paul makes an appeal to his example of living as well as the doctrine preached to them. Paul did not disciple these people merely through letter, rather he lived among them. This was his common practice as can be seen in his other epistles. This is Paul’s imitating his Master, for Jesus modeled the need for the student and master to be in close proximity in his incarnation for Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14) Jesus made clear that He came not just telling mankind of the Father, but showing the Father to mankind when He said such things as, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8) or “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18) The apostle Peter makes reference to this very thing when he encourages the believers to endure suffering just as Jesus had.
Proximity to each other:
Dr. Mitchell states, “The teacher-model ministering in close proximity to students, and treating them as if they were natural offspring, is an intended outcome of an intentional, educational, and relational environment.”5 From this statement he leads into discussing the proper biblical metaphor for ministry and education – the family. Metaphors are vital as they determine the direction and shape of a ministry.6 Once again, turning to Numbers chapters 1-5, we have a biblical example of how God organizes His people. God gave Moses clear instructions to numbered the people of Israel but to do so by families. He commanded Moses to organize them by familial tribes and even to divide temple service responsibilities out according to the family unit. God clearly works under the family metaphor. Jesus exemplified this metaphor by calling Himself our Brother (Matthew 25:40). One of the greatest examples of this is when Jesus was instructing the disciples how to pray, telling them to call God “our Father”, the same title He calls Jehovah God. N.T. Wright touches on the weightiness of this little phrase by comparing the believer who prays it to “a child dressing up in his grown-up brother’s suit, and having the cheek to impersonate him for a whole morning, and just about getting away with it; and learning to his surprise, as he does so, what it must be like to be that older brother.”7 In calling His disciples to pray in such a manner, Jesus was calling them once more to imitate their Big Brother (Heb 2:10-12, 17). Jesus calls us to not just say we are family but to actually act like it. The apostles lived withing the family metaphor, calling the audience of their epistles “brothers” and “sisters”, making reference to their students as “sons in the faith” (I Timothy 1:2), declaring that they labored over their conversion as a mother does in child birth (Gal. 4:19), and even teaching the relationship between Christ and the church as a man to his bride (Eph. 5:25). All of these are familial metaphors and hugely impacted the way Christians related to one another in the early church. Christians took this metaphor to heart so much that they held material possessions as inconsequential and shared them as family (Acts 2:44) and visited their imprisoned brothers and sisters (Heb. 10:32-34). This biblical pattern was vital to the life of the early church as many of them were excommunicated from their natural families upon professing faith in Jesus the Messiah. This persecution received from their physical families reenforced their bond together as a spiritual family. It is astounding how this biblical pattern is overlooked in Christian educational system as well as local churches. In Christian Education, Its Mandate and Mission by BJU Press, an examination is said to be given of Scripture in search for “a pattern of teaching that is spiritually and pedagogically sound” claiming to derive from Scripture both its “principles and its pedagogical model.”8 Yet there is no mention of the family metaphor or how Jesus structured His pupils, rather the emphasis is on whether one should lecture, have Q&A sessions, tell stories, etc. Little was given to dissecting the life of Jesus and imitating His teaching style and way of life, rather ideas were brought to the text and an attempt to justify or condemn the use of various ways of teaching. This is due to the failure to see that truth is not merely inanimate facts, but a living Being. (John 14:6) In Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors, W.A. Criswell give the overarching metaphor for church organization as that of warfare using four New Testament passages about fighting and standing for truth.9 Although it is true that there is a fight that the Christian must enlist in, the primary illustration God gives us as believers is not that of soldiers, but of adopted children. Dr. Mitchel presents a convincing case when he makes note of three instances when God intervened in human history to direct his purposes and how each time was in a familial context: the first intervention resulted in a natural family with a marriage union between Adam and Eve, the second resulted in a national family through the lineage of Jacob, and the third established a spiritual family through Jesus Christ.10 The family metaphor seems to be the theme through which God primarily chooses to organize His people both in the Old, and New, Testaments.
Conclusion: Proximity is of utmost importance in education and being effective for God’s kingdom. One must never stray from the centrality of Jesus and His gospel, always returning to Him for more bread for self-sustenance as well as the sustenance of others. The life of the contemporary disciple of Jesus should be replica of the Old and New Testament structures of the people of God – encamped around Jehovah. This proximity principle applies not only to the personal life of the disciple, but also to how he disciples others. In the teacher-student relationship the teacher should be aware of ways to foster a family environment as this is not only where learning takes place, but also where strength and encouragement are found for the student. The family metaphor is a way of life for the believer.
The biblical model of organizing ministry as a family can take on many different forms, but an example would be a small discipleship group. The primary meeting place could take on a less formal and more familial atmosphere by altering the seating arrangements. The typical style is rows of tables all directed toward the teacher. While this structure is aimed at the delivery of information from the one to the many, it gives the impression of a class instead of family. It is my experience that this formal structure also tends to stunt discussion as the listeners are implicitly told they are there to be taught information instead of interact with God’s Word amongst family. This formal atmosphere also permits the hearers to compartmentalize what is taught without every actually applying it due to the meeting being seen as something outside of normal life and relationships; whereas a more familial environment fosters unity, discussion, and accountability. Dr. Mitchell notes that meetings that assemble in house churches naturally have this familial environment, and that through this environment relationships are encouraged, made, and developed.11 Something as simple as seating arrangements and provision food could alter the atmosphere and create an attitude more conducive to helping each other and fostering a family than just a meeting of people being told more information with little to no interaction with those that comprise the group.
The leader should see himself as a trainer12 not a lecture, and must remember that proximity is a necessity. Even creating a familial atmosphere in the primary meeting place is not sufficiently following the biblical model. Dr. Mitchell reminds the leader to spend “time with and among them [the group], getting to know them, and allowing ourselves [the leader] to be known by them, as we have seen exemplified in the life and ministry of our Master and model.”13 Time must be spent together as a group more than just once a week. Life must be spent together.14 Learning isn’t accomplished when information can be repeated by the disciple, but when information is lived out.
The early church was a community of believes. They met daily, encouraged each other, ate with each other, suffered with each other – they experienced life together. (Acts 2:46) It was in this atmosphere that Christianity exponentially multiplied and believers were strengthened in grace. We must get back to God’s organizational structure for ministry for in doing so more disciples will be made and biblical unity will be more realized.
12The Church at Brookhills, Multiply – Making Disciples Conference, 2011, http://www.brookhills.org/contribute/Handout-BlanksFilledMDC2011.pdf, 10.
14The Church at Brookhills, Multiply – Making Disciples Conference, 2011, http://www.brookhills.org/contribute/Handout-BlanksFilledMDC2011.pdf, 10.