Beginning Discipleship From the Apostles and Elders

I’ve been reading through the book of Acts recently. There’s so much wisdom in this book to learn from as it relates to evangelism, church planting, and the apostolic church the Lord is looking to build! Throughout the book, we see the early church wrestle with different issues that the apostles probably didn’t anticipate when they began Jesus’ mission. One of those issues was the issue of the Law and circumcision.

As the Gospel spread from the Jewish apostles to mixed race Samaritans and then to “unclean” Gentiles, this issue sprang to the forefront.  Each of these races now had those among them who believed in Jesus, but did they have to become Jews (be circumcised and follow the Law) in order to follow Jesus? We look back at this question and think of it as something only the early church struggled with, but we struggle with similar issues.

How you ask? When a new believer comes to Christ, what standards do you automatically ask them to adhere to? Do you expect people to stop smoking, cut their hair (or grow their hair out), or stop swearing before you’re willing to accept them as a true part of the church? Then you’re still wrestling with the same question the Paul, Peter, James and the Elders were wrestling with in Acts 15.

See, the issue the early church addressed in Acts 15 goes beyond circumcision. It’s really an attempt by the early church to outline basic lifestyle changes we should teach to new believers. The first church council was trying to define what it looks like for Jesus to live in new disciples who aren’t Jews without putting the new disciples under the yolk of legalism. What was their conclusion? They wrote a letter to all the churches with the following conclusion:

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.

Acts 15:28-29

No idolatry. No drinking blood. No sexual immorality. That’s it. This was the line between repentance and a life of sin, between legalism and true religion.

Some today seem to advocate believers can do whatever they want. There is no standard, just the acknowledgement of Jesus as alive and wanting Him to be a part of their lives is enough. Others seem to advocate a long list of do’s and don’ts that seem to make people more of a member of the era a certain denomination was birthed than a follower of Jesus.  Neither of these is the answer. They’re just catering to a certain preference to confront or not confront the culture.

If we were able to invite the first century apostles and elders back in time to discuss this issue, I’d believe they’d give us much the same advice: “Let’s not put heavy burdens on people who are coming to Christ. Let’s not make them live up to a code that we still struggle with to this day. But as a sign of their walk with Jesus, teach them to leave behind whatever dead things they used to worship. Let them walk in purity, forsaking sexual relationships outside of a marriage between a man and woman.” From there, discipleship and the Holy Spirit would gradually over time grow the disciples.

What about you? What requirements do you put on new disciples? Do you err on the side of giving them too little or too much instruction? What can we learn from the apostles and the elders?

Photo Credit: Fabulous Lettering by Caro Wallis

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About traviskolder

Travis Kolder is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father of five, an organic church planter, and a writer. He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he serves as part of the Cedar Rapids House Church Network.

5 responses to “Beginning Discipleship From the Apostles and Elders”

  1. gunnarlarmstrong says :

    Travis – This is a deep and challenging post, hitting on important topics. I agree that we want to give freedom to grow and respond to the Holy Spirit, rather than trying to force-feed rules and expectations. But, on the other hand, the very nature of real discipleship will result on continual challenges to a new believer to think about what he says and watches and listens too and how he lives his life. I know far too many believers who have walked with the Lord for a long time, but have never really been challenged in a real way to really examine their lives. I have four kids, who are approaching, or have recently reached, adulthood. As kids, I told them how they must behave, but I always emphasized that my goal is to give them the tools so that they will be able to think and make their own choices when they are adults. My aim is not that as adults they reach the same conclusions as I have about Harry Potter or World of Warcraft or tattoos or anything. But I want to make sure that they are able to reason clearly and Biblically about these things. It seems to me that is the same goal in discipleship — but we won’t be able to teach them to evaluate their lives Biblically if we are not aggressive, and gentle (depending on the leading of the Spirit), in challenging them to evaluate Biblically the values and presuppositions that they have brought with them into their new lives.

    • traviskolder says :

      Wow, gunnar. Yes, yes, yes! This so perfectly captures everything that I was trying to convey. I think parenting is such a perfect picture of what we’re called to as disciple makers that I often refer to it as spiritual parenting, so much of what you’ve said here has potent truth to it. Thanks for being a faithful traveling companion on this road. 🙂

  2. gunnarlarmstrong says :

    Travis. Thanks. I was thinking about what I wrote, and I wanted to comment on my use of “aggressive”. Discipleship, and parenting, are intensive, life-consuming activities. We need to be pushing on ourselves, and calling those around us, to lay hold of more of Jesus, “forgetting what is behind and pressing on toward the goal.” We are not called to drift through life. But at the same time, the Lord doesn’t ask us to deal with every sin in our lives at one time. With our kids, and with the new and old believers around us, we need to be sensitive to the Spirit to discern where we should be poking and prodding – challenging them to hear the Lord, and where we need to just give them time to grow and hear the Lord themselves.

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