Sunday, January 13, 2019

You Don't Understand Discipleship

I've been very open about the fact that I believe modern Christianity has almost no understanding of biblical discipleship. The church seems to believe that all it takes is to pray a "sinner's prayer" and poof!- you're a disciple. This pedestrian approach to discipleship is likely one of the reasons we see so little emphasis on training new believers in things like how to study Scripture, what the basic beliefs of the faith actually are, and how to both live and defend that faith in everyday life. Instead, churches plug new converts into programs- and boy does the church specialize in programs! They get tossed into Wednesday night bible studies, Sunday schools, and the occasional prayer meeting and that's pretty much it. New believers are rarely taught the things necessary to survive in the world they live in, which is always challenging their new found faith, always militating against their continued growth in faith. And yet, we are stunned when someone falls away. We look in pity (a sort of self righteous way in which we can feign concern while ignoring our responsibility to the convert) on them, and shake our heads at the "backslider". The truth is, had we simply taken discipleship seriously-as seriously as the disciples of the first two centuries did- we would see far fewer of these stories of shipwrecked faith.

In the 1st century, Jews of Jesus' time took discipleship very seriously. Starting as children they learned to read and write in a school known as Bet Sefer. Along the way they memorized the entirety of the Pentateuch; the first five books of Moses. And think, all of that before the age of 14! Many of us struggle to memorize one verse a month, never mind the entire Pentateuch. If a student did well he was then able to attend Bet Talmud, where they memorized the rest of what we know as the Old Testament, as well as learned principles of interpretation and how to live the faith in practical ways. It was only the most gifted of students who could go beyond this and actually become disciples of an esteemed rabbi. They would approach the rabbi, ask to become  his discipleship, and would then be subject to a rigorous examination period to determine whether they had the intellectual capability, the requisite theological foundation, and the character to become a disciple. If they were accepted they could then follow the rabbi as his disciple. Discipleship was so intense they would imitate the rabbi in every way possible; eating what he ate, following his daily routine, dressing as he dressed, speaking as he spoke. It was total immersion in all that the rabbi taught and did. It wasn't as simple as a sinner's prayer. The Jews of that time had a saying: "May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi." 

Ray Vander Laan put it this way:

"At five years old [one is fit] for the Scripture, at ten years the Mishnah (oral Torah, interpretations) at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen the Talmud (making Rabbinic interpretations), at eighteen the bride-chamber, at twenty pursuing a vocation, at thirty for authority (able to teach others)This clearly describes the exceptional student, for very few would become teachers but indicates the centrality of Scripture in the education in Galilee. It is interesting to compare Jesus' life to this description. Though little is stated about his childhood we know that he "grew in wisdom" as a boy (Luke 2:52) and that he reached the "fulfilling of the commandments" indicated by ones first Passover at age twelve (Luke 2:41). He then learned a trade (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3) and spent time with John the Baptist (Luke 3:21; John 3:22-26) and began his ministry at -about thirty- (Luke 3:23). This parallels the Mishnah description quite closely. It certainly demands a closer look at the education process in Galilee. Schools were associated with the local synagogue in first century Galilee. Apparently each community would hire a teacher (respectfully called "rabbi") for the school. While this teacher was responsible for the education of the village he had no special authority in the synagogue itself. Children began their study at age 4-5 in Beth Sefer (elementary school). Most scholars believe both boys and girls attended the class in the synagogue. The teaching focused primarily on the Torah, emphasizing both reading and writing Scripture. Large portions were memorized and it is likely that many students knew the entire Torah by memory by the time this level of education was finished. At this point most students (and certainly the girls) stayed at home to help with the family and in the case of boys to learn the family trade. It is at this point that a boy would participate in his first Passover in Jerusalem (a ceremony that probably forms the background of today's bar mitzvah in orthodox Jewish families today.) Jesus' excellent questions for the teachers in the temple at his first Passover indicate the study he had done. The best students continued their study (while learning a trade) in Beth Midrash (secondary school) also taught by a rabbi of the community. Here they (along with the adults in the town) studied the prophets and the writings (3) in addition to Torah and began to learn the interpretations of the Oral Torah (4) to learn how to make their own applications and interpretations much like a catechism class might in some Churches today. Memorization continued to be important because most people did not have their own copy of the Scripture so they either had to know it by heart or go to the synagogue to consult the village scroll. Memory was enhanced by reciting aloud, a practice still widely used in Middle Eastern education both Jewish and Muslim. Constant repetition was considered to be an essential element of learning (5). A few (very few) of the most outstanding Beth Midrash students sought permission to study with a famous rabbi often leaving home to travel with him for a lengthy period of time. These students were called talmidim (talmid, s.) in Hebrew, which is translated disciple. There is much more to a talmid than what we call student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows for the grade, to complete the class or the degree or even out of respect for the teacher. A talmid wants to be like the teacher, that is to become what the teacher is. That meant that students were passionately devoted to their rabbi and noted everything he did or said. This meant the rabbi-talmid relationship was a very intense and personal system of education. As the rabbi lived and taught his understanding of the Scripture his students (talmidim) listened and watched and imitated so as to become like him. Eventually they would become teachers passing on a lifestyle to their talmidim."

Does this match anything we see in the church today? I'd say not. We have a very Western European, modernized, production-consumption approach to discipleship. That is, it has to be easy to claim, quick to grasp, and readily available to anyone, even those who simply refuse to do the necessary work it takes to be a disciple. Discipleship, while it is open to everyone who sincerely wants to take it up, isn't the egalitarian free for all the church has been foisting off on us. Perhaps it is a desire for quantity over quality. Perhaps a genuine lack of knowledge on the topic. One thing is for sure; we can say with a clear conscience to the modern church, "You don't understand discipleship."

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