The Disciple Challenge

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During the reign of the communist government, there was severe Christian persecution in Ethiopia. We had our personal devotions in our own rooms and so were able to survive the communist anti-Christian pressure. Since its fall, there is comparative freedom to exercise faith on an individual or group basis, but there is still persecution from adherents of other faith-groups in the initial stages of church planting. Scripture also affirms that persecution tests discipleship (Mark 4:17); however, in the short term, it hinders the overall growth of the church, its discipleship, and learning. The evangelical churches are targeted when someone converts from adherents of other faith-groups. Church ministers, as well as new converts, are intimidated and new believers may be expelled from their families and from community social benefits. In rural Ethiopia, Muslims harass the church and warn ministers not to evangelize their people. The ongoing persecution, therefore, upsurges the number of backsliders and shrinks the emerging Church.

After the fall of the Communist regime in Ethiopia, churches have been growing exponentially, but there is a lack of effective discipleship. For sixteen years, my work has been with church-planting, training disciples, and church leadership. I have also been on the board of Christian organizations. The reality of church growth is visible everywhere, but, from my observation, effective discipleship is lacking. In the Global South in general, and specifically in Ethiopia, we lack authentic leaders because we have previously lacked effective discipleship. This results in immaturity of believers, problems in leadership, and weak Christian lives. The Church is affected internally, as well as in mission, by issues such as severe ethnocentrism, poverty, famine, and socio-political instability. It is also a challenge to counter the influence of twenty-first century western paradigm-shifts in culture and philosophy, yet the yardstick of effective discipleship for each generation must be the making of Jesus as the center of life. I believe this is what protects the Ethiopian Evangelical Churches from decay.

A disciple of Jesus is one who acknowledges his Master’s teachings in every area of his life, who lives according to his Master’s command, contributes to his Master’s work and impacts the world for his Master. He is willing to serve, thus bearing fruit (John 15:8), for “love is to be the disciple’s way of life.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in relation to his own martyrdom during the Nazi regime in Germany: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Therefore, a disciple is one who is willing to suffer for his Master’s purpose and is obedient to carry his own cross (Luke 9:23).

When Jesus began to minister, His priority was forming disciples—their three-year training enabled them to carry out His future ministry to the whole world. The men He called were not identical or obvious. He called fishermen and a tax collector, but for each, to follow Jesus meant going the way that He went, accepting His plan, and sharing in suffering and missionary authority. Jesus’ disciples were “those who heard his invitation to begin a new kind of life, accepted his call to the new life, and became obedient to it.” A disciple of Jesus is one who follows Him, learns from Him in obedience and grows in his new life to maturity.

Jesus called them to follow Him not out of servile compulsion, but in love and to build intimate relationship with them. His master-disciple relationship was inner fellowship, not just as that of traditional Rabbis and their followers. Bonhoeffer says that “when the Bible speaks of following Jesus, it is proclaiming a discipleship which will liberate mankind from every anxiety and torture which afflicts the conscience.” Jesus’ call to a disciple involves physical and spiritual rest (Matt 11:28). However, a disciple who is following Jesus grows in the unambiguous qualities that are inherent in responding to the call to “follow me.” One must be unconditionally obedient and submissive to Jesus in any assigned task even through challenges. Jesus calls disciples to perseverance knowing that discipleship means following Jesus in a personal and generally costly way. It is also impossible to follow Christ without commitment and the personal discipline that Jesus himself had—a personal discipline of devotion or quiet time.

The main focus of Jesus for His disciples with regard to leadership was His emphasis on developing the servant attitude which He had demonstrated to them during their discipleship. He did not lead them towards domination or to the hierarchical understanding of leadership exercised in their time by the Romans and the Pharisees. Rather, he laid a foundation for servant leadership by humbling himself to the “very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7). An authentic disciple may play a leadership role in the work of the Kingdom of God and in society. The church does not exist in and for itself; rather, it is a vehicle to lead and manage the people of God through effective discipleship. Its aim is to glorify and worship God and to serve His Kingdom. Therefore, discipleship in general and especially for developing servant leadership during times of challenge is essential, because the Church can either blossom or wither without it. ∞

Fikre Norcha is a 1st-year Th.M. student from Addis Ababa City, Ethiopia.

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