Family History Series

4 Lessons for Making Disciples from Jan Hus

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

Yesterday I meandered through Prague with my friend Nuno. Nuno used to be a student of my father’s in Lisbon, Portugal, and we now oddly find ourselves sharing a few days together in Prague, his adopted city. Prague is everything I thought it would be: craftsmanship in every detail of the city—the rails, the sewer caps, the windows, the roofs, the palaces, and the cathedrals. We walked through cramped cathedrals with thousands of others who could barely get enough space to take photos. We walked over the Charles Bridge, passed snake handlers, beggars, artists, and tourists rubbing statues for good luck and blessings. We escaped the crowds when we went to the cemetery of the Jews and the oldest standing synagogue in Europe. It was preserved, unlike the jewish people in Prague, during world War II because Hitler wanted it to be a museum or monument to the extinct race. On our walk, I learned the mixed history of this city. It was central in trading, the arts, and religion. Now it’s central in human sex trading, the arts, and atheism—the brand of atheism that refuses to even think about God.

Then we stepped into a nondescript building donated and built by a shopkeeper where the Bible was to be preached in Czech. I found this fact both inspiring and disappointing, what were all the other cathedrals for?

An old Czech woman walked us into the vast silent chapel where, 700 years ago commoners, business owners, nobleman, and university students pilled in by the thousands to hear the gospel in their language, many for the first time. They say it seats 3,000 people. Historians note it was normal for upwards of 5,000 to gather there. To the side of the pulpit where Jan Hus preached the gospel is a deep, ancient well. Literally. On the walls you can see slight remnants of hymns etched in stone where people sang the gospel in their language. The room itself was powerful. More powerful than the massive gothic cathedrals crammed with tourists, because of the significance of what happened in that space and in the souls of thousands hundreds of years ago.

My friend Nuno and I, who hope to give our lives to seeing everyone in our cities experience the deep well and life found in Christ, sat quietly meditating on the reality that we wouldn't be where we are in life without the ministry and discipleship of Jan Hus.

Jan Hus was a Czech priest and a professor at the Prague University which was established by Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. Hus was given the privilege of being the preacher of the Chapel of Bethlehem where he was charged with delivering sermons in the language of the people. This is what Jan Hus did and the impact was astounding. It’s amazing how such a simple act can have massive global, historical implications and how at the time it was seen as a small charitable work of an entrepreneur.

As Hus preached the gospel, people responded. As he declared the gift and mercy of Christ, his convictions hardened against the system which kept people from receiving that. Jan Hus stood as a sign post in one of the Church’s major forks in the road. Would the church be given to the lives of everyday people? Would she include them or would she be kept exclusively for the ruling class? Hus, emboldened by the fruit of the gospel, knew instinctively that it should be given to the people. He worked to have the Bible and his works published into Czech and allowed every believer to take part in communion—to drink the cup and eat the bread for themselves.

Jan Hus came into the reformation movement after Wycliff and before Luther and Calvin. On my tour through his small apartment attached to the chapel, I saw a piece of art that depicted Wycliff lighting a spark with stones, Hus lighting a candle, and Luther carrying a torch. Hus stands firmly as a major player in our family history. Luther would say later that he was Hus’ “disciple” despite the time and place that separated them.

In the fall of 1414, Hus was called to attend the counsel of Constance and speak before the rulers of Europe and the Catholic Church about his beliefs and teachings. He was granted safe passage, but once he arrived and shared his beliefs they demanded he recant his teachings and his reformation ways. Hus was soon put into prison to await a trial. At the trial, he refused to recant unless they could prove his error through the Scriptures. In the summer of 1415, he was condemned a heretic and sentenced to death. He was burned publicly at the stake in the center of town and in the shadow of the cathedral. Dying, he sang hymns to God as worship before breathing his last as flames blew in his face.

Here are just four lessons on gospel-centered discipleship I learned from Jan Hus in the old city of Prague:

1. Unleash the Artists to worship God through their work in the Cities

“I entreat all artisans faithfully to follow their craft and take delight in it.”

This is so evident through out the city. The wealth that flowed through Prague and the vision of Charles IV attracted  hundreds of artists to build temples, bridges, theaters, clocks, statues, and palaces. Jan Hus continued to press the creative tradition and took it further. Ultimately God commissions the artisans to create beauty in the world, notnobility or bishops .

2. We want to be pastors for respect and admiration, but instead we lose our lives and it is sweet

“I was anxious to take the holy orders to have a life of comfort and the admiration of the people.” 

Hus’ desire to become a priest was rooted in his desire for comfort and respect. He saw the life of a priest accurately in that time. Instead of the life he envisioned, he found the gospel to be everything his heart desired. As a pastor, his life models mine. Honestly, my heart often seeks admiration from people through my vocation. I don’t simply just want to be liked but revered. Hus’ life and writing teach me to be honest about that while pursuing the greater calling which is to give your life away and find the deepest life possible in the gospel.

Hus stood in front of kings, emperors, and a pope knowing he could have their affection by recanting his beliefs. Yet, he sang hymns to God amidst flames in death. He found God to be more worthy of worship than himself. Then, he found God more worthy of worship than his peers.

3. The Gospel is For Everyone

During Hus’ lifetime, many church leaders were separating people into categories—who is important and who is not. For them, the church existed for the wealthy and powerful more than the people. The church played the role of power broker and power keeper more than a place for everyone to know the love of God and to love one-another.

This is our family history, too. We cozy up to the influential and use the uneducated, the burdened, the insignificant as collateral damage in kingdom building. Many times we are more like the Catholic church of 700 years ago than we would like to admit. We prefer to imagine ourselves and our family history beginning with Jan Hus; however, all of it is our history. And some of it ought to be a caution to us as we build kingdoms, seek the influential, and disregard the un-cool. This problem isn’t new—Jesus critiqued the Pharisees, Paul fought Jewish leaders to include Gentiles, and James rebuked the church for keeping special seats for the “important.”

Jan Hus teaches us that the gospel is for everyone and for every aspect of life. The gospel is grace, mercy, and faith—not power, money, and control.

4. Proclaim and Die for the the Gospel alone 

“I hope, by God's grace, that I am truly a Christian, not deviating from the faith, and that I would rather suffer the penalty of a terrible death than wish to affirm anything outside of the faith or transgress the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I love how Hus describes his reasons for persevering to death. He would not let go of what he knew and believed to be central to his faith. He died for refusing to give up anything central. He didn’t die for the fringe, he didn’t stir up conflict, and he didn't try to start a revolution.

He was fixated on making the gospel clear, understood, and experiential. He wouldn’t recant that. He couldn’t stop preaching the gospel. Because to stop proclaiming the gospel andto stop inviting people to the communion table would make his life in Christ void.

The gospel of free salvation and mercy in Jesus was controversial and it still is. As we make disciples this has to be our focus, too. We have to put all our efforts into making the gospel central and clear.  As we make disciples in community and in our cities, we need to create a space for the gospel itself to be controversial. Step into conflicts about those things that without you would not be a Christian.

Conclusion

We are in the midst of many conflicts, disagreements, and issues in our culture. I pray that we are fighting with the gospel in mind and for the gospel. I pray our hope in talking about sexuality is rooted in the gift of God’s love in Jesus. I pray that our discussions about racial reconciliation are directly sourced in the reconciliation of God to man in Christ. I pray that our motivations in government are founded on God’s love for all men and women. Above all, I pray that we are motivated and empowered by the Spirit of God to make the gospel plain and clear to everyone around us.

Brad Watson (@bradawatson) serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities where he develops and teaches leaders how to form communities that love God and serve the city. Brad is the author of Raised?Called Together: A Guide to Forming Missional Communities, and Sent Together: How the Gospel Sends Leaders to Start Missional Communities. He lives in southeast Portland with his wife and their two daughters. You can read more from Brad at www.bradawatson.com.

4 Gifts to the Church from Mechthild of Magdeburg

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

A week after I started reading Mechthild of Magdeburg[1], my wife asked jokingly (I think) whether she should be worried about my new 13th-century girlfriend. It was an understandable question: I’d never read anything quite like Mechthild’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead and I was eager to tell anyone who would (pretend to) listen about this fascinating writer. Mechthild (her name looks complicated, but it’s closely related to “Matilda”; the ch is hard, like in character, and the th is more like a t) lived most of her life as a beguine[2]—a member of a lay sisterhood, living in chastity, poverty, and community—before entering a convent in later life. She and her book became inspirational models for contemplative prayer; but soon after her death, Mechthild’s work was known only in bits and pieces, often anonymously. So if you haven’t heard of her, that’s not surprising. As I’ve continued to study Mechthild’s life and work, I’ve found four significant gifts that she gave to the church—gifts that I’ve experienced personally, and that I think can be profoundly helpful for discipleship today.

1. The gift of creativity in prayer and writing.

Mechthild’s book is a mixture of visionary journeys, images of courtly love drawn from her medieval world, conversations between her soul and the Lord, sympathetic observations on characters from Scripture, and other meditations. But later, she asks God to let her stop writing: she feels “just as weak and unworthy, and more so, than . . . when I was required to begin.” God responds by showing her “a spiritual convent” of personified virtues. For example, the “abbess is sincere love”; the choir mistress, hope; the schoolmistress, wisdom; and the “mistress of the sick is toiling mercy.”[3] In these personifications, perhaps Mechthild’s prayerful imagination is rising to the challenge of relying on (and identifying with) her new sisters, even in the frustrations of writing. It’s as if she’s looking at the flawed, flesh-and-blood sisters around her, and seeing, in their actions, reflections of love, hope, mercy, etc. What would happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to use this text to shape our perceptions of others in our churches and communities? Individually and together, how are we embodying such virtues? Where might God be calling us to nurture, complement, and pray for one another in our practices of love, generosity, or peacemaking?

I’ve also found that Mechthild’s book fuels my own reading and writing. In my journaling, her tendency to align her character with those that inspire her in Scripture—not just for their heroics, but for their approach to suffering—has transformed the way I identify with the oh-so-human thoughts and reactions recorded there. Mechthild’s honesty about her failings and weaknesses has changed the way I see the Examen, the prayer in which we take stock of our day and ask for God’s help in remedying the moments that require forgiveness. I’ve even found Mechthild’s work helpful for my own creative writing, as I’m working on a novel that draws significantly from her life experience. Not that I always agree with her theology or her interpretations of Scripture; but when I part company with her, I have to discern what it is that I disagree with and why. Prayerfully cultivating such discernment makes us more sensitive to the voice of God, more faithful in our imagination and discipleship, and that’s never a bad thing.

2. The gift of seeing estrangement and exile as welcome gifts.

One of the most consistent notes in Mechthild’s writing is her yearning for God’s presence. To express this yearning, she often used images of estrangement and exile, as though she were living in another country, separated from her true home and her Lord. These metaphors helped her face challenges in her life, coming to see them as bittersweet blessings from God. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that she found help in identifying her feelings of estrangement and exile with similar experiences of the Bible’s cast members, including Jesus, Mary, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul, and Stephen. In the following short excerpts, Mechthild speaks respectively to Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and Mary, Jesus’ mother:

“I live with you in the desert wilderness, because all things are foreign to me except God alone”;

“To the extent that we live a holy life in exile,” we resemble John the Baptist;

“Ah, Lady, remember all my longings and all my prayers . . . when I leave this deplorable exile.”[4]

Desert wilderness. Foreign. Deplorable exile. With these images, and in solidarity with biblical figures who had undergone similar experiences, Mechthild transforms her feelings of estrangement and exile into heartfelt prayers of hunger for God. Amid the rapid religious, political, and cultural shifts that are re-shaping our world today, the image of exile is receiving a lot of attention: in some instances it’s being used to describe a sense of loss and nostalgia for the Christendom of the past, while in other cases it’s employed as a picture of Christian mission in an uncertain future, and it’s not easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.[5] And in the current Syrian refugee crisis, we should be careful not to use images of exile too easily, as exile is a very real thing for so many. But in all of this, exile and estrangement should never be left as merely abstract concepts. They certainly weren’t just images for Mechthild; they were at the heart of her prayer language, shaping her prayers for herself and for others in their suffering.

3. The gift of following Christ as a pilgrim.

400 years before John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, Mechthild envisioned her life as a pilgrimage, following a path that Jesus had walked as a pilgrim before her. In her younger days, she had observed,

“God guides his chosen children along strange paths . . . that God himself trod: that a human being, though free of sin and guilt, suffer pain. Upon this path the soul that aches for God is joyful.”[6]

Years later, ravaged by age, illness, and blindness, she returns to the exile theme as she laments:

“This is how the tormented body speaks to the lonely soul: ‘When shall you soar with the feathers of your yearning to the blissful heights to Jesus, your eternal Love? Thank him there for me, lady, that, feeble and unworthy though I am, he nevertheless wanted to be mine when he came into this land of exile and took our humanity upon himself.’”[7]

The younger Mechthild understands this path is “strange” not merely because it carries both pain and joy, but because God himself has preceded her on it and is now her guide. Looking back upon the same path, her older self is thankful for the same grace, in a different key: Christ “wanted to be mine when he came into this land of exile and took our humanity upon himself.” Here—and in other places in her book, where she envisions Christ himself as a pilgrim[8]—Mechthild reminds herself, and us, that if the hard moments of our lives feel like estrangement, alienation, and exile, then there is consolation in knowing that God himself knows what it is like to have been estranged, alienated, and exiled. As if that were not enough, God wants to identify so closely with us in our hardships that he belongs to us, and we belong to him.

4. The gift of submitting our gifts to our community and the church.

Having spent her earlier life serving in what today we might call “intentional community,” when Mechthild transitioned to the convent in later life and poor health, she struggled with letting others serve her, as well as with the question of whether to keep working on her book, as we’ve already seen. But her writing shows how she brought these challenges back to God. Even when she struggled most with her longing for God’s presence—confessing, once, that when God “chooses to withdraw,” to temporarily estrange or absent himself from her, “My longing is higher than the stars”[9]—even then, her life points to a submission to Christ and to the church. In continuing to live in community with her new sisters, in submitting to their Cistercian order, and in completing her book as an example of contemplative prayer that would inspire them even after her death, Mechthild’s path of discipleship wasn’t just a “vertical” relationship of disciple and Master, but a “horizontal” relationship with other disciples in her community, too. She might not have put it quite this way, but Mechthild was contributing her gifts to what has been called the maintenance of longing:[10] a mutual support of one another’s hopes for God’s kingdom, when facing a deeply fragmented world.

In all of these gifts—and perhaps in others that I haven’t yet discerned—Mechthild’s discipleship isn’t a new thing. It is a well-worn path, which she followed with faltering but prayerful steps, inviting others to follow along. She was well aware of the company of saints who had preceded her on this path, and of her own frailty and faults that kept her from walking it as confidently as she might have liked. But she allowed Christ to use these challenges to conform her more closely to his image, so that others might meet Christ while following the written “footsteps” she left behind in her book.

[1] Much of this post is adapted and expanded from a longer paper that I hope will be published in an upcoming issue of the Canadian Theological Review.
[2] Yes, as a matter of fact, the word is distantly related to the Cole Porter song, “Begin the Beguine.”
[3] Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, Book 7.36. Quotations in English are from Frank Tobin’s translation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1998).
[4] Ibid., 2.24, 6.32, and 7.20, respectively.
[5] For a helpful study of this image of exile in biblical tradition and the church today, see my friend Lee Beach’s book, The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015).
[6] Ibid., 1.25.
[7] Ibid., 7.65.
[8] Ibid., 6.33, 7.13.
[9] Ibid., 7.8.
[10] Sherrie Steiner and Michelle Harper Brix, “Mark 7: Nurturing Common Life among Members of Intentional Community,” in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, edited by The Rutba House (New Monastic Library 1; Eugene: Cascade, 2005), 97–111, citing 102 here.

Matthew Forrest Lowe is a freelance editor, professor, and writer, specializing in spiritual formation, biblical theology, and imperial contexts. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where he co-directs Lectio House, a retreat house startup, with his wife Karen.

3 Essentials of Discipleship According to Herman Bavinck

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

You probably haven't read much, if anything, by Herman Bavinck. I hadn't either, but after hearing what impact he had on some ministers that I deeply respected, I decided to take the plunge and purchase his seminal masterpiece, Reformed Dogmatics, a four-volume, 3000-page collection that was translated into English only seven years ago. As I finish reading through the last of the four volumes, I now treasure Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics as an essential piece of my library. I have gleaned a wealth of learning from Bavinck and I know I'll return to these again and again throughout my ministry. Even if you are familiar with Bavinck's work, many are tempted to view him as only a systematician, doctrinal explanation without application. My aim is to not merely draw your attention to a man worthy of it, but also to show that we can learn much from Bavinck in terms of how we apply these critical teachings in our lives as we pursue a historically rooted discipleship.

The Preface of Discipleship: God's Revelation

Our quest for discovering the depths of discipleship through Herman Bavinck's eyes starts with a focus on God's revelation. Oftentimes, especially in systematic treatments of theology, revelation is placed at the forefront, serving as a sort of apologetic. After all, if God can or does not reveal himself generally and specially, what argument is there for him? This point certainly should be emphasized, especially for the unbeliever. Yet, in our approach to thinking about God's general and special revelation, we face the temptation of limiting its importance to only the unbeliever. We feel like revelation must be talked about only for the sake of those who need to be convinced of its reality, and it is often treated in such a way that Bible-believing Christians are exempted from the discussion. But "general revelation," Bavinck observes, "has meaning not only for the pagan world but also in and for the Christian religion."1

The primary Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means "a learner." If we can reduce the concept of God's revelation to knowing, we can reduce the concept of Christian discipleship to learning. Bavinck connects the task of discipleship with the function of revelation here:

"Now special revelation has recognized and valued general revelation, has even taken it over and, as it were, assimilated it. And this is also what the Christian does, as do the theologians. They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their father."2

Discipleship starts with revelation, because it is in that moment that we are "equipped with the spectacles of Scripture" and thus "see God in everything and everything in God." Revelation does not only help the Christian "feel at home in the world," but also gives Christians "a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians."3 Revelation is critical to our foundation as disciples of Christ.

One last word from Bavinck on how discipleship finds its origins in revelation:

“The purpose of revelation is not Christ; Christ is the center and the means; the purpose is that God will again dwell in his creatures and reveal his glory in the cosmos...In a sense this, too, is an incarnation of God.”4

While Christ is the ultimate instrument of revelation, the highest purpose of revelation itself is that God may be glorified by dwelling with his people. As we will see, once the revelation of God captivates the heart of the believer, not only can the journey of discipleship begin, but also the horizon of its purpose will come more plainly into view.

The Purpose of Discipleship: Union With Christ

If you went to one hundred Bible-believing, evangelical Christians and asked them to define "discipleship," you'd likely get one hundred unique answers. Because of its broad scope, everyone's definition may look and sound slightly different. As we examined earlier, discipleship at its core is learning. Here's my imperfect stab at a more broad, yet succinct definition: Discipleship is a faithful striving towards the heart of God and the love of man. This idea is summed up well by Luther's famous charge, "Love God and do what you will." Ephesians 4:1-6 is a perennial passage for determining what discipleship looks like. Paul's words in these verses can be rightly narrowed to two: love and unity. Paul is not only helping us to understand the importance of love and unity in the body, but ultimately, love and unity to Christ. This is the entire purpose, the entire hinge on which the door of discipleship opens or closes.

Maybe your proof-text of a lifestyle of discipleship is summed up as "walking in the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). Maybe it's becoming "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). Maybe it's Galatians 2:20, or Ephesians 2:5, or 1 John 4:13, or another. What Bavinck would argue is that all of these verses, among others, have one similar aim or goal: union with Christ. In a section called Becoming Spiritual Persons, Bavinck proves his point from a slew of verses, all of which ironically written by Paul:

"The new life is the life of the Spirit but just as much the life of Christ in us (Rom. 6:8, 23; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4; Phil. 1:21). Believers have been crucified, have died, been buried and raised, set at God's right hand, and glorified with Christ (Rom. 6:4ff.; Gal. 2:20; 6:14; Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12, 20; 3:3; etc.). They have put on Christ, have been formed in his likeness, reveal in their bodies the suffering as well as the life of Christ, and are perfected in him. In a word, "Christ is all and in all" (Rom. 13:14; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24; 2:10; 3:11), and they are "one spirit with him" (1 Cor. 6:17). In Christ, by the Spirit, God himself dwells in them (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19)."5

Bavinck's understanding of Pauline theology is that at the heart of every hint of discipleship is a motivation to be united with Christ. If God is going to accomplish his highest purposes of revelation, dwelling in his creatures and revealing his glory, we must set before ourselves in our journey of discipleship this sole intention of union with Christ.

If union with Christ is a fundamental of discipleship, it cannot be something we achieve by our own volition. "Union with Christ is not the result of human decision, striving, seeking, yielding, or surrendering, but of Christ's."6 This is what Paul meant in Ephesians 2:20 when he calls believers "[God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." We do not walk alone. We do not earn his love through measuring up. His grace has perfectly covered our transgressions, and because we belong to the true vine, we are therefore branches who produce fruit.

Not only this, but being united with Christ means the Spirit is empowering and enabling us for His glory. "The spirit . . . poured out in the church is not only a Spirit of adoption, who assures believers of their status as children, but also the Spirit of renewal and sanctification."7 Oftentimes our view of discipleship is strictly limited to what we do and how we do it. When we think about the journey, all that often comes to mind is our Bible reading habits, our prayer life, our evangelism opportunities . . . all of these are discipleship, but discipleship is more than all these things. Bavinck places a great deal of emphasis on the work of the Triune God in our lives, taking us beyond what we do and onto what God is doing. Dead men cannot raise themselves, but united to the resurrected Jesus, he has no problem restoring what's broken. Unloving attitudes become Spirit-enabled love (1 Cor. 13). Formless groans become Spirit-articulated thoughts (Rom. 8:26-27). Remarkably, after the end of his letter to the church at Thessalonica, after Paul gives them plenty of practical tips and charges for how to grow in sanctification (5:12-22), he says in the following verse, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely" (5:23). Paul and Bavinck both recognize the ultimate purpose of discipleship is not only being united to Christ, but letting him move in and through us.

The Process of Discipleship: Ordinary Obedience

So we've got some principles for discipleship in our pockets now, but how do we actually implement this stuff in our lives? Discipleship is often seen as a tiered system, where those who courageously live in bold, radical situations for the gospel are elevated above simple professions of faith. John Bolt fabulously labors to explore this idea deeper in his new book, Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service. Bolt discusses Bavinck's disapproval of this celebration of only striving for or trying to live out acts of "radical discipleship." The most radical thing we can do, according to Bavinck, is being faithfully obedient to God with ordinary simplicity. This is true "radical discipleship," and arguably, more extreme and "heroic" than a life spent selling all possessions, taking vows of silence, and so forth. Bavinck elaborates in The Certainty of Faith:

"Nowadays we are out to convert the whole world, to conquer all areas of life for Christ. But we often neglect to ask whether we ourselves are truly converted and whether we belong to Christ in life and in death. For this is indeed what life boils down to. We may not banish this question from our personal or church life under the label of pietism or methodism. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, even for Christian principles, if he loses his own soul?"9

If the summary of discipleship is to learn, we have been commissioned by Christ to go and make learners. But in what way will such people learn? Are we going to win souls to the gospel with scientific defenses of God alone? Do we win people with personal and character attacks, or endless banter back-and-forth on social media? Discipleship is first and foremost ordinary obedience. Making disciples, then, is letting others see the ordinary obedience of Jesus in our lives, and showing them how the same can be true of them. Some may think this is an oversimplification; but in a culture warring as hard as ever at Christianity "dying to self and taking up our cross" is becoming a practice less and less about heroism and more about holding fast to him in the small and insignificant. Even Jesus's exceptional acts of death and resurrection are truthfully simple, unflashy acts of obedience to the Father. More from Bavinck:

"All work which man undertakes in order to subdue the earth, whether agriculture, stock breeding, commerce, industry, science, or the rest, is all the fulfillment of a single Divine calling. But if man is really to be and remain such he must proceed in dependence on and in obedience to the Word of God. Religion must be the principle which animates the whole of life and which sanctifies it into a service of God."10

Bavinck makes discipleship simple: By God's revelation, we become true disciples by being united to Christ and thus equipped by the Spirit for the extraordinary life of ordinary obedience.This Dutch Reformed theologian may not be a marquee name (yet) among evangelicals, but if you want to learn the essentials of the Christian life, look no further.

1 Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003. I.320.
2 ibid. I.321
3 ibid.
4 ibid. I.380
5 ibid. IV.89
6 Horton, Michael. "Union With Christ." Accessed September 23, 2015, at http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/questions/horton/union.html
7 Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003. IV.251.
8 Bolt, John. Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service. Crossway, Wheaton, 2015. 44-47.
9 Bavinck, Herman. The Certainty of Faith. Paideia Press, Ontario, 1980. 94.
10 Bavinck, Herman. The Origin, Essence, and Purpose of Man. Accessed September 23 at http://www.the-highway.com/origin_Bavinck.html

Zach Barnhart (@zachbarnhart) currently serves as a church planting intern with Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and is pursuing pastoral ministry. He is a college graduate from Middle Tennessee State University and lives in Knoxville with his wife, Hannah. He is a blogger, contributor to For The Church and Servants of Grace, and manages a devotional/podcast at Cultivated.

2 Principles for Living Free from J. R. R. Tolkien

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Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

Like many during the early twentieth century, John Ronald Ruel Tolkien’s family moved around the globe. His father Arthur was a banker and took a job in South Africa, but tragedy struck the family. After only four years, Arthur Tolkien died. Mabel, his wife, Hillary, his sons, and young John moved back to England where they would stay. Less than ten years later Mabel would die leaving her two sons and daughter to be raised by family and their priest. Early on John showed a unique grasp on linguistics and he even started a literary club the “T. C. B. S.” (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) during his grammar school years.

He followed his passion for language to Exeter College, Oxford where he would go on to spend the majority of his professional career. The first World War interrupted his studies. Many believe his experience in the War forever altered his worldview and informed his later writings especially The Lord of the Rings. After the War was over, he worked in several positions in his field until finally returning to Oxford as a professor of language.

Before his arrival at Oxford, the world of Middle-earth had already started taking form as he had been in continuous work on The Lost Tales as well as an Elvish language. However, while at Oxford, the story goes, while grading papers, he stopped and jotted on one paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”—one of the most memorable lines in literary history. This started Tolkien’s more conscious journey through Middle-earth.

His writing were also influenced by a second literary club he started while at Oxford called The Inklings which included C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Neville Coghill to name a few.

While The Hobbit sold well, it wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings that his reputation was launched in earnest. A loyal and passionate following gathered around Tolkien which continues to this day. After his rise to fame and following his death (due in part to his plodding writing pace), many of his more “historical” and often unfinished works were gathered and edited by his son Christopher and published.

It should also be noted that he was a loving husband until the end. One of his most passionate stories Beren and Luthien—a man Beren who loved and wed the elf Luthien—was inspired by his own affection for the love of his life Edith. Their shared tombstone carries the inscription “Luthien” under her name and “Beren” under his. His faith played no small role in the world that he built and so many things can be learned from Tolkien’s Middle-earth, although the lessons may take the skill of a Dwarf to unearth.

PROVIDENCE

The theme of sovereignty must not be underestimated in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (TLOR). Sovereignty and providence play major roles in the affairs that we uncover in Tolkien’s major works. Consider the tale of the One Ring. In the second age, the free peoples were laying siege to Mordor and Isildur, the King of Men, cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand. Against the wishes of Elrond and Círdan, the fallen elf lord Gil-galad’s lieutenants, Isildur keeps the Ring as a family heirloom. Evil befalls Isildur on his journey home when a band of orcs waylay him and the One Ring is consider lost in the great river Anduin.

Long after these events, a hobbit-like creature Sméagol (you may know him as Gollum) possessed the Ring by treachery. He was cast out of his community for using the Ring for evil purposes. He kept it hidden and safe for many years until Bilbo encountered him by “chance” during the tale that began in The Hobbit and “found” the Ring. He carried it to the Lonely Mountain and then back home to Hobbiton where it stayed with him for many years. It was finally discovered that this ring was the One Ring and Gandalf the wizard encouraged Biblo to pass it along to his heir Frodo. That it was freely given is a crucial element to the tale because none had done so before Biblo—and one that didn’t happen by chance.

What’s so amazing in all of this (and we will return to this later) is that creatures so homely, unknown, and small are able to possess the Ring for so long without being destroyed. Even gollum as evil as he is has held up well by all accounts and in TLOR shows glimpses of good in the sometimes humorous dialogue when journeying with Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom. This kind of “luck” in the Ring’s lineage is nothing short of miraculous. Tolkien describes the Ring as having a will bent towards Sauron, but there seems to be something else at work ordering even the evil intent of the Ring.

[Gandalf says,] “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”

“‘I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’ ‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past”

This providence draws the Ring into the hands of hobbits who are unexpectedly hardy and good-hearted. They remind me of what man and woman were pre-Fall.

Also, TLOR reads much like Esther in the Old Testament. No explicit mention of God but his hand present in every thing. You have bread crumbs of providence, sovereignty, and governance through out TLOR. Here are a few examples drawn from The Fellowship of the Ring and its major chapter concerning the lore of the One Ring. Especially note how the twisted desires of Gollum are turned to good in the end:

[Gandalf says,] “And he [Gollum] is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 2 “The Shadow of the Past” (also, Gandalf emphasizes this later in chapter 11, “But he may play a part yet that neither he nor Sauron have forseen”)

Early on as the hobbits journey out of the Shire, Tom Bombadil rescues them from their first danger by chance:

“At last Frodo spoke: ‘Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’ Tom stirred like a man shaken out of a pleasant dream. ‘Eh, what?’ said he. ‘Did I hear you calling? Nay, I did not hear: I was busy singing. Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it. It was no plan of mine, though I was waiting for you.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 7 “In the House of Tom Bombadil”

“‘That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.” The Fellowship of the Rings, Chapter 11 “The Council of Elrond”

Every step of the way as the Ring makes its way out of the Shire and into Rivendell something is guiding Frodo. Tolkien masterfully describes what God working all things together for good looks like. If you wish to live like free people in Middle-earth than you must realize everything is orchestrated by God for the good purpose of his will (if you want to see Tolkien flesh this out even more, read The Silmarillion’s opening chapters).

As we navigate this dark world and the “Shadow takes another shape,” we must acknowledge there’s much about the way God orchestrates our lives we don’t understand. We must humbly acknowledge just because we cannot in our finite understanding see any good purpose amidst the pain, suffering, and evil, we mustn’t assume God has none.

FRIENDSHIP, FELLOWSHIP, & FOOD

The Hobbit starts with the unlikely friendship of Biblo and Gandalf. This friendship binds this story together. Without it, you do not have Gandalf’s counsel of Frodo and the Ring may have fallen into the hands of Sauron. To the wise the friendship of the hobbits and Gandalf seems foolish. Saruman didn’t understand the value of hobbits and would not have sullied himself by being friends with those of a lesser station than him unless he was using them for his purposes.

The dwarves are unwelcomed friends at first but soon enjoy table fellowship—feasting, eating, and singing. They rehearse their shared history in Middle-earth. As the story proceeds, you have the lack of hospitality by the goblins in the mountains and the friendship of the eagles. They repeat the slow arrival technique practiced at Bilbo’s at Beorn the shape-shifter’s home as they escape the goblin’s lair. Beorn is dangerous but hospitable.

From there, the party enters Mirkwood and the hand of fellowship is not extended by the wood elves. They capture and imprison the dwarves and later lay siege to the Lonely Mountain asking for a split of the treasure. The dwarves and Biblo are welcomed by men but are not welcomed by Smaug.

After Bard the Bowman kills Smaug, the dwarves now reject friendship of men and elves (maybe justly in the case of the latter). This lack of hospitality brewing in the story comes to a head here and is only relieved by Gandalf and the common enemy of the goblins as they attack the companies of men and elves and the Lonely Mountain. In this battle, Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves dies which brings us to a major passage in The Hobbit:

“Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. “Farewell, King under the Mountain!” he said. “This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.”

“No!” said Thorin. “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!” The Hobbit, “The Return Journey”

This same theme is carried over to TLOR (I’ll be briefer here). The book starts with a farewell party for Biblo. He disappears leaving Frodo everything and lives with Elrond at the last homely house. From the start, Frodo’s journey is uncertain, but is unexpectedly bolstered by the friendship of Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Fatty. They have been spying on him and plan to accompany him from Hobbiton to Rivendell. In another twist, they are adamant about joining the fellowship of the Ring. As the name of first book in TLOR suggests fellowship is central to the ring-bearer’s quest. That quest is almost destroyed by the lust of Boromir, but is saved by his final act of friendship and sacrifice.

In the second book, The Two Towers, friendship is again central. The friendship of Glóin the dwarf and Legolas the elf and also the deep bond between Glóin and the lady of Galadriel (although in book one). Also, the friendship of Aragorn (and the kingdoms of men, in general) and the men of Rohan is essential. The unlikely friendship of Merry and Pippin and the ents. And most importantly the friendship of Frodo and Sam which is contrasted with the twisted relationship of Frodo and Gollom. However, the relationship of Sam and Frodo carries the theme of friendship through out the entire journey. It’s also the reunited friendship of the free peoples of Middle-earth which makes the defeat of Sauron possible.

This truth that friendship is absolutely necessary is one that is also through out Scripture. Not only that, the importance of fellowship around the table and the rehearsal of our common story of the gospel is central to Christian discipleship. That kind of rehearsal of common history is paramount in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It’s the suspicion of friends which causes damage in Middle-earth and friendship’s restored and a remembered save the day.

Tolkien does something that few other writers I’ve encountered do—he makes me long to return to his created world Middle-earth. It’s hard to walk away from that place and not find yourself more concerned with the world around you, more joyful in your fellowship, and more willing to sacrifice for the good of others. Tolkien gives us a glimpse of the good life and does so in a way that’s not preachy or superficial.

 


Mathew B. Sims is the Editor-in-Chief at Exercise.com and has authored, edited, and contributed to several books including A Household GospelWe Believe: Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms for WorshipA Guide for AdventMake, Mature, Multiply, and A Guide for Holy Week. Mathew, LeAnn (his wife), and his daughters Claire, Maddy, and Adele live in Taylors, SC at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains with their Airdale Terrier. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA). Visit MathewBryanSims.com!

3 Counter-Cultural Lessons from Elisabeth Elliot

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series:

I remember embarking on my first attempt to read a book written by Elisabeth Elliot. I figured the best place to start would be her first Through The Gates of Splendor. I sat comfortably on a lawn chair by the pool and a bubbly girl came to sit beside me. I could see her eyeing my book, so I turned towards her with a smile and asked if she’d read it before. To which her smile contorted and she said, “Her husband had a cool story, but it’s just too sad. Their lives were all about being missionaries. After reading some of her book I stopped because I didn’t like the lack of love they shared. Their marriage wasn’t about love, it was all about mission.” I was taken back by the abrasive truth she presented me and spent the next hour reconsidering my interest in her book. If marriage isn’t about love, then why be married?

I came across Elisabeth Elliot’s works several times through the years and passed by them with caution. Even if they were profound, I consistently had the mindset that she lacked the kind of passion I desired for my future marriage. I couldn’t embrace her wisdom because her will was too strong for my liking.

“Sometimes it is absolutely necessary for God to yank out of sight whatever we most prize, to drag us into spiritual traumas of the severest sort, to strip us naked in the winds of His purifying Spirit in order that we should learn to trust.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

I have three constant mentors that I turn to for advice, wisdom, and exhortation. One of which I do life with, one of which knows me deeper than anyone else, and the last knew me at my lowest. In the past four years, each of these highly admired women has quoted Elisabeth Elliot to me in times of need. Ironically, I started noticing something about this strong willed woman. Her words prodded at my spirit in a way that stuck. Her objective devotion to the Lord made me uncomfortable, and though I didn’t like it, it frustrated me in a convicting way.

1. Uniting Marriage and Mission

“From a respectful distance, with no knowledge on his part, I had the opportunity to observe the character of Jim Elliot. He was a man careful with his time. Friendly, and enthusiastic. I knew what kind of student he was. I watched him wrestle. I heard him pray and watched him lead. There was nothing pompous or stuffy about him. Long before I had any reason to think he might be interested in me, I had put him down as the sort of man I hoped to marry.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

“In regards to dating, many times the best thing to do is pray steadily and wait patiently till God makes the way plain.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity

I was discontented when I was told to sit, wait, and pray. I am not a girl content with uncertainty. I covet understanding, value clarity, and seek insight. I cling to the truth in 1 Cor. 14:33 that declares confusion is not of God. In the past, I chose to ignore the patience required to labor in prayer. God has used countless trying relationships to refine me, but deeper than that, he has used those times to speak identity to me. The waiting, the watching, and the praying have been more sanctifying than the actual person and relationship. That is certainly because it’s in those times that God has been the center. God uses his people to sanctify his people, and that happens (most often) when the Church is on mission.

Elisabeth and Jim were not seekers of self but of God’s Great Commission. Their top priority was not to have a pleasing marriage by the world’s standards, but to glorify God through a sacrificial love in marriage. They met in college, then left for Ecuador both following God’s individual plan for their lives, then later got married in the mission field. When the two were not in physical company, they pursued the relationship as one with God’s mission. It was not separate from their call to share God’s gift of life, but a tool to use in the pursuit of his mission. Even afterwards, when Jim was killed and Elisabeth lived alone, she shared God’s glorious story and how her husband served to fulfill it with his life. The mission was never driven by their marriage, but the mission always drove their marriage.

How can we ever expect to go seek a relationship then find God’s will after we find the person? I don’t believe that was God’s initial intent for covenant marriage. The pastor of the church I attend often says, when speaking to singles, “Know who God has called you to be, pursue what he has called you to do, then watch for someone doing the same. Who can you imagine being on mission with you? They will, most likely, be God’s holy match.” Praise God for their example of pure, unbridled affection for the Kingdom of Heaven.

2. Loving Unto Death

In Let Me Be a Woman, one of her most popular books, Elliot paraphrases the biblical design of steadfast love.

This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience - it looks for a way of being constructive. Love is not possessive. Love is not anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own ideas. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. Love is not touchy. Love does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails. Love knows no limits to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. It is, in fact, the one thing that stands when all else has fallen. –Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be A Woman

If this is the biblical design for steadfast love, then we can examine it in light of God’s love and the love shared in marriage. I can return to my initial question with a revised question. Can you truly love a person and not be on mission with them? I’m not sure if it’s even possible to devote one’s life to God and neglect a shared mission with a spouse. Consider the depth of love Elisabeth Elliot had when she returned to serve the same tribe that killed her husband. Her love did not lack passion, but had unconditional passion and compassion—because her love for God was ultimate.

This love carries the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. These two lived to tell God’s story and their story challenges because of the drastic measures they took to love the world. They lived counter-cultural lives. The world sees the loss of life and tragedy, whereas Elisabeth and Jim saw gain for the kingdom.

3. Counter-Cultural Manhood and Womanhood

Our culture shouts out their corrupted view of marriage. I contend that because our understanding of womanhood and manhood is fractured the culture has made headway with their own vision for each. I found that my own assumption was similar to that of Betty Elliot’s:

“In a civilization where, in order to be sure of manhood (or, alas even “personhood”), men must box, life weights, play football, jog, rappel or hang-glide, it was startling to realize that there was such a thing as spiritual commitment as robust, as total, and perhaps more demanding than the most fanatical commitment to physical fitness. It was a shock to learn that anybody cared that much about anything, especially if it was invisible.” –Elisabeth Elliot, Through The Gates of Splendor

The power of her words expose the culturally-twisted understanding of manhood/ womanhood. The standards of the world lack commitment, growth, and deep affection. Often, it seems like men do not care to persist or endure with something they can’t see. Yet, Elisabeth watched her husband and his team faithfully and fearlessly seek God’s will. She also risked her life in hopes of bringing life to this same violent tribe. She breaks free of the caricature of the passive, beaten down Christian woman and the aggressive, independent woman of our postmodern culture. She modeled biblical strength, dignity, submission, grace, and love.

Upon first hearing of Betty’s strong willed character, I was rattled and frustrated by her. I couldn’t support the seeming lack of passion found in her mission-fueled marriage. However, the past four years have led me to the truth of God’s intention for covenant marriages, and thus, deconstructed my rose-colored cultural expectation. This woman unknowingly discipled me by her deep devotion to the steadfast pursuit of God’s affectionate call. Her wisdom, life story, and fervent words have refined me to be a better woman, servant, and future wife. Sometimes the things that frustrate you the most, are the very things that your spirit needs to embrace.

Chelsea Vaughn has served a ministry she helped start in the DFW Metroplex since she graduated from college. She received her undergraduate degree at Dallas Baptist University in Communication Theory. She does freelance writing, editing, and speaking for various organizations and non-profits. She hopes to spend her life using her gift for communication to reach culture and communities with the love of Jesus.

4 Lessons from St. Patrick for Making Disciples the Irish Way

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series: 4 Simple Ways Fred Elliot Discipled His Children.

“In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life.” –Thomas Cahill

 When most of us think of Ireland, we think about green rolling hills and country sides covered in grass. What is not as widely known is that over one thousand years ago on this little island, was the birth of one of the most influential movements in the history of the Christian church. In fact, some scholars argue that the Celtic Christians contributed to preservation of western civilization.[1] Celtic Christianity stands out as one of most vibrant and colorful Christian traditions that the world has ever known.

The Life of Saint Patrick

Before you can fully understand Celtic Christianity, it is important to look at the life and ministry of Saint Patrick. His life is surrounded by mystery, superstition, and myth.  We have all heard of him, but few of us know very much about him. There is a holiday that bears his name and he is known as the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland and used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

So who was Saint Patrick? Patrick was the founding leader of the Celtic Christian church and was personally responsible for baptizing over 100,000 people, ordaining hundreds of priests, driving paganism from the shores of Ireland, and starting a movement in Ireland that helped preserve Christianity during the Middle Ages.  As we shall see, the life and ministry of Saint Patrick reveal the great influence that he made upon Christianity and the world.

Patricius, better known as Patrick, was born in 389 a. d. in a Christian home in Britain during a time when England was undefended by the Roman Empire.  Irish raiders captured people in Britain and brought them back to Ireland as slaves.  At the age of sixteen, Irish barbarians demolished Patrick’s village and captured him.  They brought him to the east coast of Ireland and sold him into slavery.  During this time, Patrick would spend many hours in prayer talking with God.

Six years later, he received a message from the Lord saying, “Soon you will return to your homeland. . . . Come, and see your ship is waiting for you.”[2]  He escaped from his master, fled 200 miles, and boarded a ship of traders who set sail for France and eventually made his way back into Britain.  It was at this time that he received his call to evangelize Ireland.  He explained his call in the following way:

“I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The voice of the Irish…We appeal to you holy servant boy, to come home and walk among us.’  I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”[3]

This vision had a profound effect on Patrick and he immediately made plans to return to Ireland, the land of his previous captivity.

Tradition has it that Patrick was appointed bishop and apostle to the Irish in 432.  Patrick traveled the Irish country preaching the gospel. Paganism was the dominant religion when Patrick arrived. He faced most of his opposition from the druids who were highly educated and also practiced magic. They constantly tried to kill Patrick.  He writes, “Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promise of heaven.”[4]

Patrick’s own writings tell a great deal about the man, his ministry, and his love for Ireland.  He mentions several times that his education was disrupted when he was taken captive at the age of sixteen. His writings tell that he was very self-conscious about his lack of education. He said, “I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.”  Although he did not receive the same education as other bishops, he did receive his call directly from the Lord.  Perhaps it was his lack of education that made him so successful in pagan Ireland. His great success demonstrates that he was able to relate to common people in a real and relative way. He had a great love for people and the Lord, which was manifested in every area of his life and ministry.

Part of Patrick’s ministry strategy was focused on Ireland’s tribal kings.  Patrick knew that if a king converted, his people would follow.  When kings would become converted they would often give their sons to Patrick to educate and train in the ways of the Lord. Thus, he persuaded many of them to enter into the ministry. Patrick’s mission was responsible for planting nearly 700 churches throughout Ireland.

As bishop of Ireland, he was instrumental in the conversion of thousands, ordaining hundreds of clergy, and establishing many churches and monasteries. Because of his ministry, Christianity spread through Ireland and into other parts of the British Isles.  Patrick’s mission was responsible for planting nearly 700 churches throughout Ireland.

The churches and monasteries that he was responsible for establishing became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. It was the Irish monasteries that helped preserve the Christian faith during the dark ages.

Celtic Way of Discipleship

The missionary legacy of Saint Patrick continued long after his death through the Celtic Christian monastic movement. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Celtic Christianity spread throughout the British Isles like wild fire under the gifted leadership of men such as Columba who established monastic communities in Iona and Aidan in Lindsfarne. These monasteries were not places for monastic recluses, rather they became spiritual centers and discipleship training hubs that sent out missionaries throughout Western Europe. On Columba’s influence, early church historian Bede wrote that he, “converted the nation to the faith of Christ by his preaching and example.”

What made the Celtic way of discipleship especially successful was their commitment to making disciples not just converts by infusing evangelism and discipleship. This is an important lesson. Many churches today focus on evangelism at the expense of discipleship by seeking to win converts instead of making disciples.  The goal of evangelism is disciple making.  The Great Commission in Matthew chapter 28 is to make disciples who will follow Christ rather than simply win converts.  When Jesus said, “make disciples” the disciples understood it to mean more than simply getting someone to believe in Jesus and they interpreted it to mean that they should make out of others what Jesus made out of them.  There are four lessons that we can learn from the Celtic way of discipleship which we will look at in the following pages.

 1. Doing Ministry as a Team

The Celtic Christians did ministry as a team instead of individually. This means they didn’t go out and try to win the world by themselves, rather they went out as a team because the understood the power of numbers.  Each member of the Celtic missionary team played an important role in the whole of reaching the community. Author John Finney observes that the Celts believed in, “the importance of the team. A group of people can pray and think together.  They inspire and encourage each other.  The single entrepreneur is too easily prey to self doubt and loss of vision.”[5] The Celtic team approach to ministry and discipleship is an important alternative to the modern “lone ranger” mentality approach that is typical in so many Western churches and desperately needs to be recovered.  George Hunter says:

“In contrast to contemporary Christianity’s well know evangelism approaches of “Lone Ranger” one to one evangelism, or confrontational evangelism, or the public preaching crusade, (and in stark contrast to contemporary Christianity’s more dominant approach of not reaching out at all!), Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry, and witness with the goal of raising up a church in measurable time.”[6]

2. A Holistic Faith

The Celtic Christians developed a holistic approach to discipleship that prepared people to live out their faith through a sense of depth, compassion, and power in mission. The Celtic believers were immersed in a holistic spirituality that had depth and meaning and enabled them to withstand difficult and hardship in their everyday lives. In other words, their faith wasn’t just theoretical, but practical and relevant to everyday life. Celtic Christians were not just hanging out in classroom, but living their faith in real world.

A major problem with much of North American discipleship is that it is one dimensional. Many Christians see themselves as either evangelical, sacramental, charismatic, etc. However, like a diamond the Christian faith has multiple dimensions. The Celtic Christians understood the complex nature of the faith and sought to bring together a faith encounter that encouraged spiritual growth on many levels. George Hunter says that they had a four-fold structure of experiences that deepened their faith.

  1. You experienced voluntary periods of solitary isolation in a remote natural setting, i.e. a grove of trees near a stream where you can be alone with God.
  2. You spent time with your “soul friend,” a peer with whom you were vulnerable and accountable; to whom you made confession; from whom you received absolution and penance; who both supported and challenged you.
  3. You spent time with a small group.
  4. You participated in the common life, meals, work, learning, biblical recitation, prayers and worship of the whole Christian community [7]

3. Missional Community

The Celtic Christians understood that mission takes place within the context of the Christian community. The Celtic Christians entered into the community they were trying to reach with the gospel. They would live, work, and eat among the people they were trying to reach. This is contrary to the way most modern Christians try to reach people. They went to where the people were, we usually expect people to come to us.

They knew that God created man to live in community with others. In the context of Christian community, spiritual seekers were able to explore the faith in real life settings. They were able to see the gospel message lived out before them. In this sense, Christian community is a living sacrament that demonstrates the eternal truths of Word of God.

Upon arrival, a guest would be given a soul friend, a small group, and a place for solitude.  A guest would also learn some Scripture; worship with the community; one or more members of the community would share the ministry of conversation and pray with and for the guest daily.  After some days, weeks, or months the guest would find themselves believing what the Christians in the community believe. They would then invite the seeker to commit their life to Christ and his will for their life, leading the new disciple in continued outreach ministry to other seekers.

4. Biblical Hospitality

The Celtic Christians understood and practiced biblical hospitality. The role of hospitality was central in the Celtic Christian ministry to seekers, visitors, refugees, and other guests who came into their sphere of influence._ Hospitality was an important part of the monastic community life and ministry.  They would invite seekers, pilgrims, refugees and others to be guests of the monastic community. They followed the Benedictine Rule that said, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”

Many Contemporary Christians and churches have lost touch with the Biblical hospitality. It is imperative that we relearn the gift of hospitality, especially in light of its important place in the Scriptures. The word hospitality literally means “love of strangers” and is found several times in the New Testament (Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9). We are all called to offer the love of Christ to our guests and welcome them in such a way that they would be transform from strangers into friends.

Lessons for Today

The Celtic Christian movement offers several extraordinary insights into discipleship for the church of 21st century. We can learn a lot from the man, Saint Patrick. He is an example of how an individual can overcome tremendous obstacles with the Lord’s help. Patrick went back to the very land where he had been a slave to evangelize. It is like the story of Joseph who ended up saving his brothers who had sold him into slavery. What a powerful example of how God can use our past to minister to others. Many times the Lord will give you a burden to help bring salvation and healing to people from your past.

Even though he didn’t have a good education he didn’t let that stop him from letting God use him. We see that he was able to do great things for God despite his lack of worldly education. His calling came from God and that’s all that really mattered. When the Lord is in your life He will make a way for you. Patrick was used mightily by God to deliver the people of Ireland from paganism, slavery, and sin. He helped bring revival to a nation and to a continent. He stands as one of the great men of the Christian faith.

[1] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Doubleday Press, 1995.  See introduction.
[2] Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick's World: The Christian Culture of Ireland's Apostolic Age, Dublin: Four Courts. 1993. 99-100.
[3] Ibid, 100.
[4] Ibid,  97.
[5] Ibid, 53.
[6] George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism. 47.  This section draws heavily from Hunter’s classic work.
[7] Ibid, 48.

Dr. Winfield Bevins is the Director of Asbury Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. He frequently speaks at conferences and retreats on a variety of topics.  He has a doctorate from Southeastern Seminary. He has written several books, including Our Common Prayer: A Field Guide to the Book of Common Prayer. As an author, one of his passions is to help contemporary Christians connect to the historic roots of the Christian faith for spiritual formation. He and his wife Kay, have three girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline. Find out more at www.winfieldbevins.com. Twitter: @winfieldbevins