have great respect for golfers and tennis players, but my experience with athletics has centered on team sports. As part of a team, you understand that your success can be realized only as you fit into a larger whole. The skills and abilities of each team member must complement and even foster the skills of others so that together you achieve what no one member ever could alone. Further, your own training is enhanced by the encouragement of the team, as together you endure the physical and psychological rigors and discipline of working toward a common goal. In this light I contend that Christian discipleship must be seen as a team sport.
I ground this contention, first, in the fundamental mandate given by our Lord—the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”1 A disciple of Jesus is one who follows Him in faith in a relationship that creates solidarity with the Master. This relationship is visibly expressed in baptism—that outward expression of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (see Rom. 6:3–5). But our “vertical” union with Christ also has important “horizontal” implications.
We each come alone to Christ, but in coming to Christ we do not remain alone; we are simultaneously constituted into the corporate body of believers. If in union with Christ, God becomes our Father, then all other believers similarly united to Christ become our brothers and sisters. And if, by virtue of our union with Christ, we are a part of His body, then we are fellow members of that body with every other person who is also in communion with Christ (see 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 12:27). The gospel cannot be separated from the church and becoming a disciple necessarily entails inclusion into this new social reality.
Discipleship must include our loving fellowship with other believers simply because that is a primary goal of the discipleship process. The Great Commission not only calls for baptism, it also demands teaching believers to obey Jesus as Lord—the One in whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Matt. 28:18). Jesus wants us to become like Him—to share His heart and life—and to become like Christ is to love His family: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). You can’t be a disciple if you don’t love other disciples.
But the loving community of the church is not only a goal of discipleship, it is also its means. The apostle Paul speaks of the church as “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21). We are like “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5), “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). The Spirit unites us as one body, and our social distinctions (and even the distinction between Jew and Gentile) no longer divide us (1 Cor. 12:13). But that same Spirit also distributes various gifts which that equip and empower believers to serve one another in the body of Christ and so build up one another in the faith. This is a wonderful body, a body full of variety, with people of all sorts, differing in their interests and skills and gifts, but each playing a vital part in the well-being of the whole.
This suggests that though one-on-one discipling can be extremely important and helpful (just as individual coaching can greatly enhance the performance of a team player), it is not enough, because no one person has all the gifts that are needed to enable us to grow to full maturity in Christ. The body needs ears and eyes and hands and feet if it is to function properly, and no one part of the body can claim that it doesn’t need the others (1 Cor. 12:21).
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