Being a Slave-of-God is more than being a disciple, a learner.
Over the years, I have participated in a number of disciplining programs from the Navigators, my church(es), Cru, and other ministries. I have a shelf full of disciplining material in my office. I readily admit that my spiritual life has been greatly and positively influenced by the old DFD (Design for Discipleship) Series put out by the Navigators, and has been augmented by all of the other programs that I participated in over the years.
Today One-on-One Disciplining is very popular. Especially since the Church has discovered the word, mentor. To get one-on-one disciplining with a mentor without using all of those pre-printed one-size-fits-all disciplining sets of material would seem to be the Cadillac of disciplining at the present time. Did I have a mentor? Yes, I suppose I did, but in those days we never used the term.
But I also confess, I never took a course on how to be a slave. So we should ask, is a Slave-of-God the same thing as a disciple?
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes. It means learner. The key word is learning as a scholar, student, or apprentice learns a subject of study or a new skill. Surely mathetes includes more than “book learning,” but learning is the operative word. In the New Testament, the word mathetes is only used in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. The term disciple is never used in the remainder of the New Testament. I was surprised as I learned that neither Paul nor the other writers of the New Testament, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, refer to themselves or to other believers, Followers-of-Jesus, as disciples. No they are referred to as brothers, believers, or slaves (doulos), but they are never referred to as disciples.
In Acts as a young man new to faith and ministry, Timothy is called a disciple, a learner. Acts 16:1. Years later after Timothy has been taught by Paul and has grown in the faith, Paul describes Timothy to the Christians in Philippi as a servant (doulos) of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:1. Later in his letter, Philippines 2:19-24, Paul tells the Philippines that he has no one working with him like Timothy and that they know Timothy’s “proven worth” because Timothy has “served” with Paul in the gospel. This would seem to be the trend in the New Testament from disciple or learner to servant/slave of God.
We find this idea of a disciple as one who is learning and not yet fully accepted as an integral part of the early church. During the first few centuries after the resurrection, people interested in becoming Christians entered into a three-year process referred to as Catechumenal Training through the local church. In their first year, participants were referred to by the Greek word, akromeni, which means: hearers, inquirers, and seekers. In the second year, they were referred to as cathechumens, which means kneelers, learners. In the third year as they prepared for baptism and full acceptance in to the church, they were called photizomenoi, the elect, candidates.
It would be easy, but unwise, to make too much of this point, but I note that those who are young or new in their faith are more likely to be described as disciples, because a majority of their time and efforts are involved in learning, and that those who have walked with and followed Jesus for a longer period of time are more properly called servants (Slaves-of-Christ), those who obey and do the will of their master. We are all learning, and we continue to learn about our faith throughout our lives. So it would be correct to say that all Followers-of-Jesus are and will be learners, that is disciples. But it is also true to say that those who are mature in their walk with Christ are called to be “more than” disciples; they are also called to be servants, slaves (duolos), of God, those who do the will of their master.
What makes for a Slave-of-God? I knew a man in my first church, who was fond of saying that he had been a Christian for 25 years. Yes, that is true, he had been a Christian for 25 years, but he did not have 25 years of experience. No, he had one year of experience 25 times. He was at best a disciple of Christ. He was constantly learning but never actually practicing or doing.
Paul addresses such brothers in Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 3. Paul calls them out. He says that he can’t call them “spiritual” people because like babies they are still taking milk and not solid food. He admonishes them to grow up, move on, and quit acting like babies, children. Children are cared for. They are full time learning. Adults, on the other hand, take care of and teach the children although no doubt continuing to learn more themselves.
The writer of Hebrews makes an important point to his readers in Chapter 6. He says that recipients of his letter need to leave the elementary doctrine and instructions of Christ and move on to maturity. This is not to suggest or imply that there is deeper or higher wisdom to learn or that we can disregard the elementary doctrine and instructions. No, this is a strong call that with our feet firmly planted on the elementary doctrine and instructions, we need to start serving.