DISCIPLESHIP—THE COMMON BOND
T hose who practice Ekklesia Living never tire of talking about the wonderful blessing they have found. They love to extol the manifold mercies of God that make it possible. They bask in the warmth of true fellowship and rejoice together with those of the same mind. In the evenings they enjoy the peaceful rest of those who labor hard in the will of God. Nothing the world has to offer can match Ekklesia Living. Naturally they want to share the treasure they have discovered, yet unfortunately, those who have not yet met Jesus are often hard of hearing. Besides, they don't really want to hear about something that means the death of their so-called "freedom and independence."
Nevertheless, the Ekklesian moves through life trusting God that He will bring across his path those that have ears to hear. And there are those that hear, however few and far between they may be, and they bring great joy to the ekklesia as they lay down their lives and fit themselves into God's pattern. Thus the ekklesia grows slowly but surely. To gather large numbers of people is not the goal of the ekklesia, for it soon becomes apparent to those living in community that uncommitted, unsubmitted people are more trouble than they are worth. The Ekklesian's desire is that God would bring those whom He has called to join them. Church systems strive after numbers. The ekklesia looks for the marks of true discipleship and courageous, self-sacrificing commitment. Those that do decide to join soon find out that they have stumbled upon something far more demanding than a church. Yet as they submit to the ekklesia order, their lives soon begin to shine with the many rewards and blessings Ekklesia Living has to offer.
DISCIPLESHIP—THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT
Because it is such an important part of Ekklesia Living, we must look more closely at discipleship: how can you identify a disciple of Jesus and what sets them apart from the average church member. Understanding the practice of true discipleship is essential if we are to gain a clear and complete picture of Ekklesia Living, for discipleship is the common denominator of all those living the ekklesia way. It is the one, sure identifying mark you will find upon each and every member of the ekklesia world-wide. Without it you cannot claim membership, for you will not be grafted into the Living Vine, the Lord Jesus Christ, the source and strength of ekklesia life. In contrast, the church is full of dead branches, religious idolaters upholding and animating man-made systems. The ekklesia doesn't work that way. In fact, it can't work that way, for the One who has established it is careful to cut off dead branches. Every member of the ekklesia must have an active, living relationship with the giver of Life. They must be connected to the life flow. They must be plugged into Jesus. Unless they are, they won't be able to endure the stress, survive the warfare, or make the sacrifices that Ekklesia Living demands.
In Matt. 16:24 Jesus clearly gave us three of the primary requirements for true discipleship. "Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." So simple that even a child can understand, yet so profound that only a handful of people ever attempt it. To put it plainly, unless Jesus is your first and only love you'll never meet these requirements. Every disciple will have grasped, at least in small measure, the depth and passion of the love that endured the horror of Calvary that we could be free from sin. In turn, they will have a flame of love burning in their hearts that no hardship, disappointment, or discouragement can ever extinguish. It is this love, flowing between true disciples and their Lord, that enables people to meet the requirements Jesus laid down.
1 "...deny himself," Why? Because unless you are denied Jesus will never attain the place of rulership in your life that He desires. When the ultimate rulership of Jesus is established in your life, then you, and everything concerning you, takes second place. John tells us, "I must decrease that He may increase" (John 3:30). Decrease, deny, DIE: Hard words for the proud, the puffed-up, the dedicated self-worshiper. The aspiring disciple soon faces the fact that a death sentence has been passed against their carnality. Yet at the same time God guarantees eternal life to those that endure to the end, not to mention the peace and joy that pass all understanding which the disciple enjoys while walking with His Lord. Holding tightly to the promise of eternal life, the disciple willingly endures the death of himself and all that he is. When you sign up for discipleship training be prepared to draw up your last will and testament, and then get ready to have your entire life rearranged according to God's plan.
Undoubtedly God remembers mercy as the sword of the Spirit slays our carnality, ties down our independence, and deflates our self-esteem. Yet He pushes ahead with determination, ignoring our complaints, for He knows that unless these spiritual operations take place we will never make it. Of course He understands our weaknesses. Never forget He walked among us in a human body like ours and was tempted in all points. He knows what we go through like someone who has already been through it, and He offers us His strong, steady hand to support and pull us through each test and trial.
Yet amazingly enough, God in all His omnipotent strength can do nothing if we are unwilling to die to ourselves. Try as He might, if we refuse to cooperate God can only do so much. Yes, we can stop the hand of God in our lives. The secret is that true disciples look beyond the circumstances, the situations, the sacrifices, keeping their vision fixed on the reward of eternal life that awaits. Don’t get the wrong idea. We need not wait until death to partake of these promised blessings. Life in the Ekklesia is not one long dreary crucifixion. Quite the opposite. Because of their willingness to deny themselves, God makes sure Ekklesians experience a full measure of wonderful abundant life in the Spirit every day. This is God’s way of assuring us, giving us a foretaste of the rewards that await the faithful. Add to this the fact that our Lord walks by our side and you have a people who will endure.
As disciples of Christ, determined to deny ourselves, giving the will of God top priority in our lives, it greatly helps to realize that your self—YOU—are the dedicated enemy of God's plan. In other words, there is a part in each one of us, our sinful carnal nature inherited from Adam, the beast inside, that will inevitably side against God and undermine His working in our lives if allowed to. Paul summed it up when he told us in Romans 8:7 that the carnal mind is enmity against God. This is why YOU must be denied, put down, crucified, so to speak. It is only when we acknowledge the fact that there are forces contrary to the will of God working within us that we will begin to see the need to deny ourselves.
A true disciple of Jesus bases the major decisions of his life on the will of God, not on his own ambitions, priorities, or desires. The key to victory in this area is striving to make your will and God's will the same—united. Make what you desire what God desires. To put it another way, if you can align your will with God's will so they are one and the same you will greatly reduce the pain of denying your self. One bright spot in this seemingly dreadful task of denial is that the only parts of yourself that must be denied are the parts that are in conflict with God's will for your life. Any good habits and characteristics we may have cultivated will usually fit nicely into Ekklesia Living. Yet anything that displeases or offends God must be put down. Unfortunately, your self, or that force in you that opposes God, never completely goes away. The struggle, or warfare, that the disciple engages in never totally ceases. Yes, it may be greatly reduced by our willing obedience, yet it never completely disappears until we pass from this life to be with the Lord. This is why soldiering for the Lord must become more than just a phase we pass through, more than superficial feelings of excitement that wear off. Soldiering must become a way of life!
As the desire for true discipleship intensifies and concrete steps are made in that direction, it becomes obvious that the aspiring disciple must learn to control himself. He must force himself into submission to the will of God. He must surrender and become a captive of Christ, a bondslave so to speak. Yet this is not always as difficult as the enemy makes it out to be. The truth is when we embrace God's will in a spirit of true submission it becomes sweet and delightful. Nevertheless, there are those times in every Christian's walk that God's will seems difficult and painful, embarrassing to our pride, even downright nauseating. It is at these times that the Christian must choose God's will over his own—no matter what. These are the testing grounds of discipleship. What we do at these crucial crossroads determines whether we go and grow upward in the Lord, or sink in the stink of self-idolatry. When we choose to deny ourselves in favor of God's will, that is when the life of God flows into us. It is this life flow, resulting from our denial of self, that carries us onward and upward in our walk with the Lord.
2 "...take up his cross," Ultimately, denying yourself must be more than just refusing something now and then or going on a crazy fad diet for a few days. True self-denial must become an attitude—a way of living. It is a lifetime decision that enables us to move ahead in our discipleship training. When we are willing to deny ourselves then we will pick up our cross and follow. Undoubtedly, denying yourself and taking up your cross are closely connected. The crosses we face as we follow the Lord are actually specific instances throughout our lives that give us opportunity to deny ourselves. The crosses come and go, varying in difficulty, some lasting longer than others. Yet the decision to deny ourselves for the sake of following Jesus is a lifelong commitment, something we carry with us our entire lives.
As the disciple moves ahead in life he will encounter many crosses. Not to be discouraged, he keeps his eye focused upon the blessings and the abundant life that comes as a result of the death process appointed by God. As a member of the ekklesia, the disciple will encounter many crosses that are unique and specific to Ekklesia Living. So far we have mentioned the many blessings and benefits of Ekklesia Living. Yet all these wonderful things have a price tag: death to SELF. It is at this critical point that many turn back and follow Him no more. Those who dare to push past the menacing specter of self-denial find the rewards well worth the effort.
What are some of the crosses you might encounter in Ekklesia Living? To some the thought of not having a pocketful of private spending money is a major cross. While not being able to pick exactly what you would like to wear is a hard one for others. Working together in a team with those who irritate and unnerve you pushes many over the edge. Another almost insurmountable obstacle can be having how much and what kind of food you eat determined by someone else. How about not being able to indulge in your favorite form of entertainment because the Spirit of God has pinpointed it as a waste of time and money, if not downright sinful? This is a cross for many. Having your personal "space" reduced to nearly nothing can be more than some can bear. Not having your own transportation or being unable to take off whenever you please is a bitter pill for the independent minded. Not to mention the ever-present, unbendable principle of submission to spiritual authority. Many people just can't stand being told what to do, not to mention having their life constantly examined by others.
Yes, all these things are involved in Ekklesia Living. This is why the Bible tells us to count the cost and see if we are ready to pay the price. Consider the distance before you begin the race. Yet despite the pain and death to self that each cross brings, there is an equally great, if not greater, amount of spiritual growth which includes tremendous joy, peace, and security, as well as an ever-closer fellowship with the One who endured the greatest cross of all. Just the fact of knowing you are in the center of God’s will for your life is worth all the trouble you may face.
We would add a word of encouragement here to balance the weight of the preceding paragraph. Not all ekklesias operate at the same level or by the same standards. The above examples may seem extreme, yet they are only meant to illustrate conditions that you might encounter in any given ekklesia. They are not intended to overwhelm, discourage, or frighten anyone away. Yet the wisdom of experience has taught us that it pays to stare reality full in the face and be at least mentally prepared to make any sacrifice, no matter how extreme, for the sake of pleasing the Lord. Plus, Ekklesians who have been "at it" for any amount of time are usually very understanding about the difficulties new ones go through as they adjust to a revolutionary new way of living. They've been down that road and they are right there with help and wisdom based on experience.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that our will must be conformed to His will—no exceptions. We must die in order to gain His life. But take heart, for when you die to your self you are not alone. The other Ekklesians are sure to bring flowers to the funeral and wish you well as you rise from the dead by the power of God and join with them in experiencing the joy and abundant spirit life that obedience brings.
3 "...and follow me." As we study these requirements we see that they are inextricably connected, relying upon each other in order to be fulfilled. You cannot truly follow Jesus without denying yourself and picking up your cross. Just as importantly, you won't deny yourself or embrace crucifixion unless you have a deep desire to follow the Master. If you love Him you will obey Him, even if it means enduring painful or difficult circumstances. Because of the way that Jesus ordered these requirements it may seem that following Jesus is a result of denying yourself and picking up your cross. On the contrary, denying yourself and embracing your cross come as a result of following Jesus. When we follow Jesus He directs our denials and appoints our crosses. Ultimately, one crucial question looms large in the disciple's vision: how much do you love Him? How deeply do you feel the need to have His hand over your life? The answer manifests itself in the degree to which the disciple is willing to deny himself and take up his cross. Simply put, the more you love Him, the more quickly and completely you will do whatever He asks of you.
GOING TO EXTREMES
In the church-world you will find those who are confused in their ideas about following Jesus. Many claim to be following Jesus, yet if you examine their lives you uncover strange notions at best; glaring hypocrisy at the worst. First you have the carnal Christians—by far the majority. They lay claim to discipleship yet they stubbornly refuse to deny themselves. And the cross? They run from it like a thief escaping the police. Their concept of following Jesus is based on the pleasure principle. Unless it’s "fun" or "entertaining" they are not interested. They want all the joy, the happiness and good feelings that following Jesus brings, yet they adamantly refuse the dying process. They want the goods without paying for them. Modern churches are packed full of these "funsters" who encourage and support each other. They thrive in the warm and fuzzy feelings of fellowship and the pain-free atmosphere they create for themselves. Sadly, Jesus is nowhere around (yet they are convinced Jesus is in their midst and blessing them). They refuse to die to themselves in any real way. Fellowshipping the suffering Savior is not on their agenda. As a result their Christianity remains at a pitifully shallow level.
In another arena of the religious circus you'll find those claiming they are following Jesus in a much more serious manner. These ones actually believe in denying themselves and taking up their cross. So what's the problem? Upon close examination you find that their denials and the crosses they carry are appointed by themselves, not the Lord. Like the Pharisees, they make their denials a public spectacle. When they carry a cross they make sure everyone notices. A life filled with self-appointed religious works is a tragic thing to behold. Striving to reach the goal, yet missing the mark completely, they are tormented by the gnawing fear that what they've done is never enough. They never have the assurance that God is pleased with them. Why? Because God is not in control, they are. Condemnation is their constant companion. Yet at the same time they are so proud of their religious works that they will persecute unto death any that dare to criticize them. They can argue the fine points of theological dissertations, especially those that highlight their great worth, while all the while true holiness eludes them and they sink in the cesspool of self-righteousness. Religious hypocrisy has been the doom of many sincerely misled disciples.
Sadly, people that practice one or the other of these extremes inevitably cut themselves off from the ekklesia. In contrast, the brand of discipleship practiced in Ekklesia Living strives at all costs to be SPIRIT GOVERNED. This is the key to meaningful discipleship that pleases the Lord. We may have righteous intentions and the zeal to carry them out, but if God is not directing us all our efforts are in vain. When we are in charge we'll surely make a mess. When Jesus is in charge we'll surely be blessed. Due to the nature of Ekklesia Living, self-directed denials and attention-getting crucifixions usually end up causing enough disruption and general irritation that they are quickly corrected. Although this type of activity may be headed in the right direction, it basically amounts to doing your own thing: something that doesn't go over very well with the Lord. Spiritual superstars have no place in the ekklesia. The real stars are those who have enough humility to submit to the chain of command and patiently wait upon God to direct them.
One unique thing about the ekklesia is that when God appoints a denial it is often done in unison. Ekklesians support each other as they die to themselves in order to please the Lord. Even the worst crosses become bearable when shouldered as a team. It's not that we're trying to get out of anything. We have found that there is great wisdom in encouraging each other with the fact that God pours out His goodness and mercy to those that willingly embrace suffering and denial for His sake. We constantly remind each other that it is a privilege to deny ourselves for the Lord. Yes, we need to be reminded, for the flesh has a way of slipping back into old patterns that despise doing anything for God. Truthfully, the flesh, our carnal side, will always complain when denied or put into a harness for God’s Kingdom. God understand this, and out of His great love for His people He has provided the ekklesia system to somewhat lessen the pain for the sake of the obedient. In this way the demands of discipleship become a joy, not a numbing, religious drudgery.
Another important aspect of discipleship in the ekklesia is submission to spiritual authority. Every group, organization, corporation, or team generally has some sort of authority structure. The ekklesia is no different. The Bible abounds with examples of spiritual authority appointed by God. The early church fathers like Ignatius and Polycarp repeatedly stressed submission to the leaders of the individual ekklesias. Truly, discipleship is the common bond that unites the ekklesia, yet it is extremely vital to understand that it is a submitted discipleship. Again, this can constitute a tough challenge for the independent minded. In fact many turn back and follow Him no more over this very issue. When you honestly join yourself to an ekklesia, virtually every aspect of your life comes under the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit through God's anointed leaders. Yet the wise Ekklesian soon realizes that he greatly benefits as God pinpoints problem areas in his life and supplies the wisdom needed to make things right. He understands that it is for his own good, therefore he submits. It is in this context of trust, faith, and submission that he can confidently deny himself and pick up his cross with the full assurance that God is pleased with His efforts.
True, God often demands specific sacrifices of individuals as He works His will in their lives. Nevertheless the approval of the leadership is needed for the sake of the smooth operation of the ekklesia in general. When God does make unique and particular demands of individuals, He gives the leadership understanding and peace. The problem is that even the most sincere, devout, disciple is liable to be deceived. This is why God appoints shepherds He can trust to guard over our souls. No one likes to be tricked and made a fool of by deceiving spirits. It's the job of God's leaders to try and prevent this. Yet even this powerful set of spiritual safeguards won't work if we refuse to submit.
To understand Ekklesia Living you must understand discipleship. The two concepts cannot be separated if either one intends to reach their goal which is to truly please the Lord. Each one provides many elements that enables the other to attain its full potential. Disciples need the ekklesia and the ekklesia needs disciples. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to be a disciple, or a member of the Body of Christ, without the benefit of submitting to an ekklesia. When you are submitted you are connected. When you are connected the life of God flows into you. So, it is the submitted disciple that experiences the life-flow of God's Spirit.
Also, consider that the New Testament is loaded with commands and directives that are virtually meaningless unless viewed in the context of Ekklesia Living. How can we love, encourage, admonish and serve others in the Body of Christ if we only see them for a couple of hours a week? What a mockery of the divine pattern God has given His people. At best the church system causes spiritual retardation, at the worst: spiritual death and decay. The religious rebels and the loose liberals have no choice but to settle for a dead church existence. Because they refuse to die to themselves they will never fully partake of the close fellowship and abundant life that flows between Ekklesians and their Lord. What a shame! Life as an Ekklesian is so beautiful, so meaningful, so filled with the presence of the Lord that nothing else compares with it for spiritual fulfillment and true joy. God is good and He bountifully rewards those willing to pay the price.
HOLY TRIBAL NATION EDUCATION DEPARTMENT
To Be Continued