I received a number of requests after last week’s post on the ‘Yeah-But defence’ to say more about the little hobbyhorse I mentioned in the PS—regarding how we think and talk about church and worship. I’ve already written quite a bit about these issues over the years (see some references below in the PS), and am not super-keen to trawl through that material again here (much to the relief of some, I am sure).
However, there is something important and (I think) fresh to say that relates not only to that hobbyhorse topic, but to nearly every other topic we grapple with in biblical interpretation and application.
It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past three years or so, not only in relation to discipleship and disciple-making (in various ‘Trellis and Vine’ seminars and conversations), but in the methodological phase of the PhD work I’ve recently completed. It comes in two parts (this week’s post and next week’s), and those of you keen to think further about church and worship will have to wait patiently for the end of next week’s post before we get back to that topic.
The subject is apprenticeship.
It’s funny how words shift and slip.
‘Myself’, for example, now apparently means the same thing as ‘me’—as in ‘If you’d like to know more, please come and see myself after the meeting’.
And my kids were aghast when they discovered recently that I didn’t know that ‘beard’ means ‘a woman who marries or accompanies a gay man, in order to conceal his homosexuality’—although I may have just discovered this word-meaning in time for it to become redundant (because no-one seems very interested in concealing their homosexuality these days).
There’s nothing wrong with the constantly morphing nature of words and language. It’s how language does its thing.
But it does occasionally mislead us, or get in the way of clear communication. We know this well enough when we’re trying to communicate some aspect of the gospel to completely unchurched people, and discover to our frustration that what we mean by words like ‘sin’ or ‘faith’ or ‘God’ bears little relation to what our hearers think these words signify.
Imagine how annoying, then, it must be for the Bible—because the Bible is mostly a simple, plain-speaking communicator. It enjoys using normal everyday words that, in their original context, were as about as religious or technical as words like ‘dog’ or ‘rock’ or ‘washing machine’.
But over time, words shift and slip. They gather connotations and associations. And so to the Bible’s frustration (well it would annoy me, if I was the Bible), many of its everyday words have become specialized, inhouse religious words with a raft of extra meanings and associations. The ordinary Bible-words that mean ‘ask-for-something’, ‘assembly’ and ‘honour-or-serve-someone’ are for us the rich, tradition-laden, Christian words ‘pray’, ‘church’ and ‘worship’.
The English word ‘disciple’ is a fascinating case in point. Along with its related forms ‘discipling’, ‘disciple-making’ and ‘discipleship’, this word has become a specialized Christian word with a large range of connotations: ‘a follower of Jesus’, ‘to mentor a younger believer’, ‘evangelism, especially on an individual level’, ‘one-to-one Bible reading’, ‘the daily practical side of Christian belief’, ‘a kind of pastor or department in large churches’, and so on.
However, in the Bible, the word we translate as ‘disciple’ or ‘to make disciples’ is one of those ordinary, straightforward words (Gk mathetes or matheteuo). It pops up a couple of hundred times in the Gospels and Acts, and according to the standard Greek dictionary (known in the trade as ‘BDAG’), the word refers to someone who:
‘engages in learning through instruction from another’
‘is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views’ (BDAG, 3rd Edn, 609-610).
If we were using corresponding English words, we would call that sort of person a ‘student’ or a ‘learner’ or a ‘pupil’ or, even better, an ‘apprentice’—because an apprentice is a particular kind of learner. Apprentices associate themselves with a specific teacher over a period of time (often a master craftsman) in order to be instructed by them and to learn from them. An apprentice carpenter binds himself to a master tradesman for a period of some years, and learns from him not only the key knowledge that he requires but the practical wisdom that puts that knowledge to effective use in different circumstances. He learns not only what a hammer is and does in theory, but how to use one, and when to use one.
This is the kind of student a mathetes (or ‘disciple’) was in the NT. They were not so much classroom students seeking to master a body of knowledge, as people who left their nets to be devoted to a particular Teacher, and to learn the knowledge-based practice that the Master knew and taught and exemplified.
The Christian life is this kind of apprenticeship.
We commit ourselves in faith to the one who is now Lord and Master of heaven and earth, repenting of our sinful former allegiances, and beginning a whole new life as his forgiven, redeemed apprentices. What follows after that is a lifetime of learning his words, and learning to obey those words in every facet of our lives. This (as you may have spotted) is a restatement of Jesus’ great commission to make ‘apprentices’ of the nations by initiating them into a new life under his lordship (in baptism) and teaching them to keep all his commandments until the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
This idea of the Christian life as an apprenticeship has many rich overtones and implications, and in next week’s post I will explore one in particular—how we read and apply the Bible as apprentices.
But at this point it’s worth noting how helpful the concept of ‘apprenticeship’ is for clarifying some of the confusing connotations that have arisen around the English word ‘disciple’. To take just three examples:
An apprenticeship is more than an intellectual education but it is never less. We tend to think of ‘discipling’ and ‘discipleship’ as more practical kinds of things, but apprenticeship to Jesus is as much about knowledge, theology and conviction as it is about everyday life. ‘Apprenticeship’ nicely holds together what we often separate—a deep knowledge of the truth of God’s revelation in Christ in all its multifaceted brilliance, and the life and action that this truth points us to, schools us in, and equips us for. In this sense, Christian theology is always directive (as Kevin Vanhoozer argues at length in The Drama of Doctrine). Biblical knowledge always drives us towards a new life of faith and obedience as God’s people. And correspondingly, Christian action is always principled; it always draws upon a theological understanding of the world that is learned at the feet of Christ. Apprenticeship is a great word in English for this kind of transformative learning.
If Christian ‘apprenticeship’ (or ‘discipleship’) is basically about a kind of learning, then its location or focus cannot be confined to personal mentoring, one-to-one Bible reading or small groups (as it often is in our thinking). Our regular Sunday gatherings are in fact the central, flagship time in which we are apprenticed to Christ as a community of his people—where we hear his word, and lovingly serve one another in multiple ways. In this sense, all Christian ministry is an exercise in making apprentices of Christ, and every pastor (and especially the senior pastor) is an ‘apprenticeship pastor’—they are all seeking to teach Christian apprentices to know the commands of Christ and to keep them.
And finally, the meaning of the English word ‘apprentice’ nicely captures the imitative nature of the Christian life. Apprentices learn, in part, by watching and imitating—not only imitatinng Christ himself as we meet him in the Gospels, but those more mature Christian apprentices who model his ways to us. As Paul puts it: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil 3:17; cf. 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:9; 2 Tim 3:10-11).
Apprenticeship is cognitive, transformative and relational—three aspects of Christian existence that we frequently struggle to hold together.
All that remains, I guess, is to persuade our Bible translators how much clearer it would be for all of us if the Gospels began by Jesus calling the 12 apprentices, and concluded with him sending out his apprentices to make apprentices of all nations.
PS. For those who want to chase up some of my earlier writing on the subject of church and worship, the best place to find it is probably in The Tony Payne Collection, the embarrassingly but descriptively named anthology of essays and articles from The Briefing—available from Matthias Media, 10ofThose, or on Kindle.
PPS. I was very tempted to throw in a Trumpy photo for this week’s random image (The Apprentice!), but that would have been far too distracting and click-baity. And so here instead is a picture of our dog (‘dog’ being one of those very ordinary English words).