Spheres and Stages of Discipleship

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INTRODUCTION

In order to go anywhere, you must first know two things: your current location and your intended destination; only then can you implement steps and directions needed to reach your objective. This paper will begin by recognizing how lost and dead individuals are before coming to faith in Christ, but also how after coming to faith, a new destination has been programmed in which also comes with a new mission as a disciple of Christ. Through our death we find life and by applying Jim Putnam’s five stages of discipleship and four spheres of life as directions, this paper will show the path to reaching one’s God-given purpose and calling in life. In addition, this this paper will stress the centrality of Christ referring to the call to the cross while emphasizing the importance of complete submission to Christ in all areas of one’s life.

FIVE STAGES OF DISCIPLESHIP

Anyone who has attempted to learn something new can attest that discipline without direction is nothing more than drudgery. This is an important principle to understand because most believers do not have a clear picture of what their true God-given potential could be if they simply applied themselves to growing closer to the Lord. This writer firmly believes if God were to teleport someone twenty, thirty, or forty years in the future to show what reading His word daily would accomplish, more people would start reading the word. By reading the Bible, one comes to understand the Lord. As one comes to understand the Lord, they learn to trust Him. Finally, once you learn to trust the Lord, you will have the confidence to stand upon the promises of God as well as living your life as a testament and living sacrifice to the Lord.

Before coming to faith, everyone was dead in his or her transgressions, but through the atoning sacrifice Jesus suffered and died for on the cross, He made a way for everyone to have restored communion with God. Donald Whitney points out that as a Christian, “We must understand what we shall become as God’s elect [because] God’s eternal plan ensures that every Christian will ultimately conform to Christlikeness.” Knowing and truly understanding this means as followers of Christ, God intends for us to grow and pursue holiness. While no one besides Christ is or ever was perfect, we are forgiven and when Christ is the priority, the Holy Spirit will generate an unquenchable hunger for more of God in every area of one’s life.

For a new believer, it can be very overwhelming to explain everything God has done as well as what He expects out of them. One of the best ways to start the discipleship process is to explain how coming to faith is just the beginning of the journey and as Jim Putnam suggests, “[Realize] the responsibility for spiritual growth never rests on the disciple maker alone.” Putnam identifies three major components in the process: your part, their part, and God’s part. The only part you are responsible for is yours because you cannot do their part and you certainly cannot do God’s part. The rate of spiritual growth is different for every individual, so Putnam encourages disciple makers to focus more on the path of progress and the direction, which leads to development.

The first stage of an individual is level one: Spiritually Dead. This may sound harsh, but as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “You were dead in your transgressions and sin.” This stage refers to people who have not accepted Christ and as F.F. Bruce highlights, “It was necessary that the readers should be raised to life, because they were spiritually dead, severed and alienated from God, the source of true life. Their spiritual death was the result of their trespasses and sins.”

Putnam suggests several excuses for remaining in this stage: “They may reject God, they may be seeking God, they may call themselves spiritual, the may even claim to know God or call themselves Christians, but there is no true fruit in their lives.” Believing in God is not enough; even the devil and demons believe in God. Followers of Christ are expected to bear fruit because that is evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside. Putnam poses a very real question: “What would you expect from a dead person?” As anyone would conclude: not much… Because of this, one should not be surprised by the way those who are spiritually dead act. You should be focused on introducing them to who they are in Christ instead of being concerned about their behavior. Unbelief and even rebellion are common characteristics of someone who is spiritually dead because without Jesus living within them, they will always be empty. Disciple makers should focus on sharing what Jesus has done in their life and what He would like to do in theirs. Putnam also emphasizes they need, “Love through honest friendships and relationships with believers, …they need to be introduced to Jesus and to see the life of the gospel lived out, …and they need a clear explanation of the gospel and an invitation to trust and follow Jesus.”

The second stage of an individual is level two: Infant. In this stage you commonly find new believers, but unfortunately you may also find longtime believers who just never matured in their faith. I Peter 2:2-3 illustrates newborn babies craving pure spiritual milk so they can grow in their salvation. While people in this stage are considered to be spiritually alive, the problem arises when one is content with just milk. Hebrews addresses these individuals stating, “By this time you ought to be teachers, yet you still need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” It is here, Putnam reminds the disciple maker, “They are not unintelligent; they are simply uninformed and in need of truth [and they] are often the product of the culture they live in.” If the spiritually dead act according to their dead nature, then an infant is going to be messy and in need of constant care. This is to be expected and one should not be surprised how much energy and time they require; the problem presents itself when they choose not to continue to grow spiritually. The goal is to eventually teach them how to feed themselves on the word of God while guiding them through this vulnerable stage. The habits they form during this stage will form their entire life as a follower of Christ, so it is crucial to teach them truth while also walking in humility.

The third stage of an individual is level three: Child. In this stage the believer has progressed from being an infant or as we will discuss later, has possibly regressed. The goal in this stage is continual growth with God, but a new element is added as believers learn to form not only vertically relations with God, but also horizontally as they develop relationships with other believers. The more they are able to apply the word of God in their daily lives and conclude the world does not revolve around them, the quicker they will mature. As with the infancy stage, someone who reaches the child stage can also be a new believer as well as a person who has been saved for many years. Putnam argues, “It is not the amount of time that passes that marks the difference between the mature and immature; it is what has happened or not happened in a relational discipleship process during that time.” In this stage, they are still dependent on a caregiver or mentor for guidance, so they may do things they are told, either without an understanding why they are doing it or just doing it because it is expected of them. This stage highlights their level of commitment by asking the question: “Will you still serve when the benefits no longer outweigh the cost?” This is a very vocal stage and much can be revealed by the words they speak because what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Putnam illustrates their primary need is a, “Strong relational connection to a mature believer so they can make the transition to a more God and kingdom focused life. They need someone who will help them learn how to make the developmental transition from dependency to learning how to spiritually feed themselves.” This is also a stage where they are very aware of those around them and are highly impressionable to what others are doing instead of learning to trust and be obedient to God, so it is imperative not to cause unmet expectations. The more they continue to make their life about God, the more they will grow spiritually learning to do the right things for the right reasons.

The fourth stage of an individual is level four: Young Adult. It is in this stage the believer has applied the word of God to their life and overcome the Evil One. Putnam identifies, “Spiritually young adults [as people who] are making a shift from being self-centered to being God-centered…[and are becoming] doers of the Word.” It is at this stage where the believer has the realization God has created them with a specific purpose and has given them the giftings and tools to accomplish it. Putnam lists several needs for believers at this stage to thrive: “First, they need a place where they can learn to serve, they need a spiritual mentor, …they need deep ongoing relationships with people who offer encouragement and accountability, and they need help to establish boundaries.” It is important for these believers to have realistic and attainable expectations while also fostering their giftings and callings.

The fifth and final stage for individuals is level five: Parent. In this stage, the believer moves into more of a parental or mentoring role as they start to disciple other new believers. By Putnam’s definition, “If they are not discipling someone, they are still spiritually immature because spiritually mature people make and reproduce new disciples and if they are capable but are not parenting, then they are really just young adults at best.” II Timothy 2:1-2 speaks of disciples who have grown and matured to the point where they are now qualified to teach others what they have learned. It is important to note, just because the believer has arrived at this stage does not make them perfect because everyone is human and subject to their flesh and sinful desires. The difference is at this stage they are intentional about putting Christ first in their relationship. As spiritual parents, the need for relationships with other spiritual parents is crucial, so they can share one another’s burdens and not get burned out.

FOUR SPHERES OF LIFE

Discipleship has a direct correlation to relationships and as Putnam illustrates, “As a disciple abides in Christ, each sphere of his or her life is transformed.” There are four spheres of life a disciple can grow in: their relationship with God, their relationship with God’s family: the church, their personal relationship and home life, and their relationship to the world. In each of these spheres as Putnam highlights, “A disciple understands God’s commands and submits to His authority (head), is transformed by Jesus (heart), and joins Jesus on a kingdom mission (hands) in all these areas of their lives.” In each of these spheres it is important to maintain realistic expectations so the disciple maker can best help the believer grow where they currently are.

The first sphere of an individual is the centrality of a relationship with God. In Ephesians, Paul reminds the readers they are adopted by God and this sphere as Putnam illustrates is, “The hub that unites the other spheres together [and] … our most important sphere is our relationship with Jesus.” If Christ is not the motivating force behind one’s motives and actions they will find bearing fruit impossible because Christ is the vine. Matthew Thomas proposes, “That we have to take the story of Jesus as the starting point for a radically new, revolutionary understanding of the world. With this clue, one should set out, not only to understand the world, but also to change it.”

The second sphere deals with relationships with the family of God: the church. Using Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, after he establishes the importance of maintaining one’s relationship with Jesus, he shifts the focus to developing relationships with other believers. Putnam identifies this sphere as, “Where we grow as the body of Christ [and] … if the first sphere of relationships is our relationship with Jesus, it should naturally lead us to living with and loving others in the second sphere.” Susann Liubinskas also illustrates how, “The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ describes a real, although not literal, relationship that exists between Christ and the church. This suggests that this metaphor is not simply illustrating unity and diversity in the Christian community, even though that is part of its meaning. Rather, the church is the body of Christ in the sense that it is constituted by Christ and enlivened by his indwelling.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer elaborates further on the importance of relationships stating, “Formation occurs only by being drawn into the form of Jesus Christ, by being conformed to the unique form of the one who became human, was crucified, and is risen. This does not happen as we strive to become like Jesus, as we customarily say, but as the form of Jesus Christ himself so works on us that it molds us, conforming our form to Christ’s own.” Essentially, he is saying Christians do not form the world with their own mind; instead it is Christ forming us into His image. Craig Nessan adds to this claim portraying, “The church as a community, like other forms of community, consisting of diverse individuals who nevertheless together come to constitute a collective person. This collective person displays its own unique pattern of distinguishing characteristics, [but] in the case of the church this community is not entirely of human origin but also of divine origin.”

The third sphere deals with relationships at home and the family. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians continues to explain what the biblical model of the home should look like. Husbands should love their wives, wives should respect their husband, and children should honor and obey their parents. Putnam points out, “This sphere is important for us to address, because it is possible for people to grasp the concepts of the gospel but fail to apply them in the home.” As disciple makers, it is imperative to make sure your family is not sacrificed on the altar of ministry. The only way this can be assured is when Christ is truly first in your life and the Holy Spirit is allowed to permeate every sphere of your life. Families go through life together, they love together, and they mourn together; what is important in this stage is for individuals to lose their self-centered love and replace it with family-centered love.

In the fourth sphere, the relationship with the world is addressed. This sphere as Putnam suggests is based on, “Our relationship with Jesus affecting how we live and work in the world.” In our relationships it is important to remain humble and transparent even in failure because the world is watching and if one’s lifestyle is counter to their beliefs; they are doing more harm than good in spreading the Gospel. The end goal is to have all these spheres come together under the control of Christ. Only then can one become truly effective and move from just informing people to truly equipping them. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God and the only way real life change is going to happen is by applying God’s word so the transforming power of the Holy Spirit can renew your minds.

CURRENT STAGE

Being completely transparent and honest, I find myself predominantly in the parental stage, but there are times where I find myself regressing to the young adult stage. In the past, this has been the result of disappointment, trials, and unmet expectations. During these seasons I had essentially forgotten God had created me for a specific purpose and as a result my confidence and trust in God was strained. I had failed to remember, “ For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

There have also been times where compassion fatigue has set in making ministry burn out not far off. On my own, I am powerless, but through Christ, I can do all things. Thankfully, these seasons are long since past and I strive to maintain this healthy balance by keeping God as the focal point of my life, followed by my wife, then my children, and then my job. With these priorities established, I can now tell when this hierarchy is out of balance or when life is attempting to attack this pivotal sphere. I hold my complete faith and trust in God alone because, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Areas Needing Submission

One area I must daily remind myself of is in the area of significance. Our worth and value are found in God alone, not in people or things. Salvation was not free; it cost Jesus His life and he endured such suffering and rejection so everyone would have a way to find significance, peace, meaning, purpose, and restored communion with God. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Apart from God we are nothing and our righteousness is compared to filthy rags. I am also guilty of blurring some of these spheres when life gets hectic. Keeping the relationship with God first is the only way to assure all the other relationships are in balance. As a believer, you cannot teach someone something you yourself do not know just as you cannot bring someone along in spiritual maturity to a place you have not yet reached. This is why it is crucial to not only have a teachable spirit, but also to be continually learning and relevant. I do well in this area, but struggle with complete transparency because of past wounds, but by not allowing God to use even our failures we are robbing God of what He may want to do in and through us. His word says He causes all things to work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose. This is a conditional promise, which means it is dependent upon allowing God to use everything, including our failures and the lessons learned along the way to advance the kingdom and bring glory to His name.

Centrality to the Cross

Bonhoeffer’s call to the cross highlights the centrality of Christ in our daily walk. As believers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer states, “The call to discipleship is connected here with the proclamation of Jesus’ suffering…[and]… when we know only Him, then we also no longer know the pain of our own cross.” It was necessary for Jesus to suffer and be rejected and any attempt even by His own disciples was rebuked. As followers of Christ, each believer must endure the specific amount of suffering and rejection God has preordained for them. Bonhoeffer concludes, “God honors some with great suffering and grants them the grace of martyrdom, while others are not tempted beyond their strength. But in every case, it is the one cross.”

The cross every believer must bear is unique, but is in direct relationship to our allegiance to Christ. After becoming a Christian, you first encounter the cross; for some they are ostracized for their faith, but once you are able to turn your living into dying you will gladly follow Christ as he calls every follower to die to themselves daily. Bonhoeffer suggests, “Christ’s own suffering is the only suffering that brings reconciliation … thus suffering becomes the identifying mark of a follower of Christ.” While Paul does not specifically mention the passion of Christ, as Will O’Brien explains, “Every time he mentions the cross, he as well as his hearers and readers understood the reference: the gruesome torture, the unbridled violence of state terrorism, the perversion of justice that consumed Jesus.” Paul understood the importance as well as the call to the cross and O’Brien shows, “Paul boldly throws the cross back at the executioners, taking Rome’s symbol of ultimate power and using it as a sign of God’s ultimate power. When Paul speaks of Christ’s victory, the unwritten but very clear assumption is that the losers are those who pretentiously claim power.”

Mark Miller suggests, “Imitating Christ on the cross is commonly thought to consist in bearing suffering without complaint or question… as a way of remaining faithful to God, for the pain and hardship are part of God’s plan to punish, to test, or to improve us.” By bearing our cross we are acknowledging as Miller puts it, “The cross [was] punishment that Christ bore so that we would be spared destruction, a kind of payment to God or the devil for our sins. In gratitude and sympathy, we bear our small crosses just as Christ bore the sins of all humanity.”

CONCLUSION/SUBMISSION TO CHRIST

When someone is brought to faith in Jesus Christ, they are saved for a purpose and they are a new person. In this message to the church at Corinth, Paul wanted them to know his mission and calling were the direct result of Christ’s love and Paul Barnett illustrates how, “The evidence of Christ’s love is to be seen in his death and resurrection for all, in consequence of which all “die” [to self-centered living]. The purpose for which Christ died and was raised is that those who live, as by spiritual resurrection, now live for him.” While salvation is wonderful, God does not intend anyone to stay at the first stage of infancy. No one truly knows how lost and dead in his or her transgressions and sin they were before they accepted Christ into their life, but after coming to faith, a new mission as Disciples of Christ should become their driving force.

Through our death to ourselves daily, we find abundant life and by applying Jim Putnam’s five stages of discipleship we move from self-centered living to God-centered living and by applying Putnam’s four spheres of life we understand the importance of oneness with Christ, relationships, encouraging one another, and bearing each other’s burdens. Only then are we able to discover our God-given purpose and calling in life. Christ must always be at the center and focal point of what we say and what we do as we live our lives in humility and transparency giving God all the honor and glory He deserves. Putnam claims, “No one stage of discipleship is more important than any other,” but I would argue moving someone from spiritual death to at the least infancy should be of the utmost importance. Make no mistake about it; there is a spiritual war being raged and Satan hates losing what was once his. The devil is constantly looking for the opportunity to inflict the most damage to the believer and their ability to be a disciple maker. You must always remember natural death is only the beginning as our spirit lives on either in the magnificent presence of our Savior or in the depths of hell surrounded by the gnashing of teeth.

In addition, by understanding the centrality of Christ and recognizing our constant call to the cross we find submission and suffering to be a joy. Putnam brilliantly concludes saying, “It is in our best interest [to be] under His control, as we tend to make a mess out of all we try to be lord over.” Bonhoeffer takes submission one-step further stating, “In the middle of the most terrible torment that the disciples bore for their Lord’s sake, they experienced the greatest joy and blessedness of His community. Bearing the cross proved to be for them the only way to overcome suffering.” Being a disciple of Christ is being bound to the cross and the suffering of Christ, but as James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James understood the battle that raged between good and evil and knew the importance of the centrality of Christ. When suffering and trials present themselves, often it is only through embracing the suffering you will be able to overcome it, and as James Adamson illustrates, “As a goldsmith, who allows the silver in the fire and the gold in the crucible to be purified not longer than necessary, so God purifies the righteous each one according to his rank and his deeds.”

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Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.

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