John Wesley lived in a time when the church had grown weak and inept, and the faith of many had grown cold. We find ourselves in a similar situation today. We live in a pluralistic culture in which attitudes about Christianity range from mild interest to indifference to outright rejection. Our culture still contains Christian ideas, such as going the “second mile” or being a “good Samaritan,” but Christianity is no longer the dominant voice shaping our culture.
Wesley’s solution in his organization of Methodism was to look to the primitive church. He saw the church of the first 300 years as the prototype of a vibrant expression of the faith that would turn the world upside down once again, creating committed and passionate disciples. We also look back to our past — to Wesley or the primitive church —for our model.
One of the key foundational texts for early Christian discipleship was 2 Peter 1:3–4: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (ESV). The theological term for this process is “theosis”: being renewed in the image and likeness of Christ. Wesley called this process of discipleship “sanctification.”
Discipleship is not a nebulous endeavor. It is something with an end result: a disciple. If we are talking about making disciples of Jesus, there is only one entity that has been empowered to do that: the church. A strong church is an underlying assumption in all of the early church writings and practices. In the first three centuries of the church, the overriding concern in discipleship was to ensure that it was within the framework of true Christianity. There were myriad versions of Christianity during that time, and most of those alternate versions of Christianity were very individualistic in their approach to the spiritual life. Everyone was on their own personal journey. A church was an optional add-on for them. True Christianity, however, saw the necessity of the church in Christian growth and discipleship.
Jesus said all authority in heaven and earth was given to Him, and then He immediately told the church to make disciples. Today, we tend toward the alternate view of individualism when it comes to faith: We are all on our own journeys, and — while we may like a particular congregation for its music, teaching, preaching or fellowship — church itself is not really necessary for our salvation, let alone our spirituality or discipleship.
To talk about disciples, we have to talk about the church and its place in our lives. Otherwise, we will end up with ancient church practices in a framework of
individualized spirituality and a personal journey that is not entirely Christian.
Within Church Life
Discipleship was always within the life of the church. It was together that Christians encouraged one another through persecution and in the mundaneness of normal life. Christians were different, and they were intentionally different. Their spiritual lives as faithful disciples brought them into tension with the culture around them. They lived as members of the Roman Empire, obeying its laws and participating in its civil life so long as that life did not conflict with their Christian identity. They were expatriates of the kingdom of God in the empire of Rome.
When people became Christians, their lives became oriented around life in Christ together. The church and its members became the center of the convert’s world, and their faith became the measure by which they lived. There was no protest against the prevailing laws of the empire that were in conflict with the gospel message. The Christians simply did not do what was legal but against the gospel. They understood that their status as a new people held them to a higher standard of living in the world.
This group identification held the early Christians together and encouraged them to continue in the faith. No one was ever alone in the faith or on an exclusively personal journey. Every Christian together was a part of the kingdom of God and the new, redeemed creation. By intentionally being unique and different, by intentionally creating a new people in the world, Christians reminded themselves that they were not only purchased at a great price; they also endured and supported one another at a great price — because no one else would do it.
Rather than striving to blend in to the world around them, Christians strove to be disciples together. Their distinct identity shaped that discipleship because it reminded them that they had a higher allegiance than to any one ethnic group, language or empire. The Christians of those first three centuries saw themselves as a set-apart group that used certain discipleship tools — corporate worship, prayer, Scripture and the Eucharist — to receive more and more of God’s presence in their lives and ultimately experience theosis/sanctification collectively.
Means of Grace
Wesley’s study of the primitive church led him to consider prayer, Scripture, worship, the Lord’s Supper and Christian community as the means of grace by which we grow. Wesley’s emphasis on holiness (theosis/sanctification) was the motivating factor in all of these. As Wesleyan Christians who are committed to sanctification, we need to ensure that is the focus and the definition of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ in the world and utilize the means of grace. By doing this, we will not only be good Wesleyans, but we will be in good company with the primitive church.
The early church taught its people prayers and how to pray. It was one of the ways the church discipled its people and encouraged them in their spiritual life and growth. Correct prayer, taught by Christians to new Christians, was among the most important means of ensuring the correct “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 ESV). Since prayer is vitally important for a relationship with God, the early church wanted to ensure that its members were addressing the correct God and using correct theology when they did speak to that God. This was modeled in the worship services as Christians together prayed and listened to prayers said on their behalf, for which they responded in agreement, “Amen. So be it.”
The early church made full use of every passage of the Old Testament for the purposes of teaching, exhorting and evangelizing. They understood the literal meaning of the Old Testament, but they had no qualms with also reading those scriptures in an allegorical or typological way. We see this in numerous examples in the New Testament already. “Out of Egypt I called my son” from Hosea 11:1 easily gets applied to Jesus rather than Israel in Matthew 2:15. The story of Noah becomes a type for baptism in 1 Peter 3. Paul uses the relationship between Sarah and Hagar to describe the Christians and the non-Christian Jews in Galatians 4. Jesus even uses the bronze serpent from Numbers 21 as a type for Himself in His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
Early Christians completely integrated the Old and New Testaments and created a poetry to the faith. A cursory reading of almost any of the writers of the church’s first 300 years will show a range and depth of meaning and interpretation not found in preaching and teaching today. And for them, Scripture was read at length in the context of worship. There was no individual Bible study because there were no individual Bibles. As scriptures were read, they were seen as a unified voice spanning God’s work in Israel through the life of the church, and they were interpreted together, always pointing to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of every passage. The subject material was Jesus, no matter what book or passage was read and the application was how, therefore, the followers of Jesus were to live with one another and in the world.
The worship service itself was a time when Christians were discipled in a general way. It was a time to encounter the Scriptures. It was a time to be encouraged by one another to keep the faith and persevere through whatever trials they were encountering at the time. It was a time to be reminded that Jesus Christ is God and that the individual members of the church were integrated into His life, His body.
The worship service was not evangelistic in nature. The preaching was not for conversion of the visitors. The focus was on God and how to be faithful disciples. If non-Christians attended a service — and they frequently did, since the church experienced explosive growth for the first three centuries — they had already been intrigued by the lives of the Christians they knew. The reason they came was not to be the center of attention or the focus of the service, but to learn what these people truly believed and why.
For these early Christians, the Eucharist was a main form of discipleship as well. It was the climax of every service they celebrated. For the entire part of the service leading up to the Eucharist, the people were being raised up to the throne of God in heaven. Their prayers focused them on God, petitioning God to create the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The reading of Scripture and expounding on it showed how God had been acting throughout history to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, and how Christ was still present in the world through the church, His body. Finally, in the Eucharist, as the people had been ascending to heaven, heaven came down to earth as the Holy Spirit eucharized the bread and wine so that the people in Christ actually received Christ. In Holy Communion, heaven and earth met.
What this did for the Christians was to give an objective reality to the Christian experience. Not every worship service was an ecstatic journey into the third heaven. Not every presider was skilled at preaching, or even praying, on behalf of the people. Not every Christian felt like they were in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe every week. But in the sacrament, the Christians knew, whether or not they felt it, that Christ was present. They knew they were standing in the presence of the God of all who gave all for them. They knew that, by receiving the sacrament, they were receiving more of God within them for their transformation and empowerment to be the faithful disciples they were called to be.
All of the other means by which the church created and reinforced discipleship were found in the celebration of the sacrament. It was only celebrated when the people gathered together as the church. Because it was only open to Christians, it reinforced the concept that they were different — a new race in the world, one not belonging to any nationality or tribe but to God above all else. Holy Communion was the climax of corporate worship. It was an extensive exercise in prayer — prayer that used numerous scriptural references from both the Old Testament and what would become the New Testament. It was here, in the sacrament, that the church saw fully and completely what the potential cost of discipleship entailed: death. Yet it was literally good news because, despite His death, Jesus Christ was currently present with them in this very act of Holy Communion.
As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we embark on the commandment by Christ to make disciples with the vision ahead of theosis/sanctification. By making regular use of the means of grace Wesley identified from the primitive church, we can make significant strides in that mission as we journey together in the life of the church.
Steven D. Bruns is the pastor of the Newton (Illinois) Free Methodist Church. He adapted this article from a series on ancient discipleship (fmchr.ch/ancientd) he wrote for Asbury Theological Seminary’s seedbed.com.3