The Submissional Life // Matt Tebbe

living in submission, leading from below, loving as mission

The One Thing We Fail to Measure in Discipleship

What’s the thing you look for as the distinguishing mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ?

How do you measure the quality of ones discipleship?


The Case of Calvin

Calvin, one of my small group leaders when I was a Jr. High Youth Pastor, was late for our meeting…really late. Like 45 mintues late. On one hand I was ticked off: I had gone to bat for him a few times before this and he was making it harder for me to stick up for him. On another I was relieved he hadn’t shown up yet because I was anxious about the confrontational nature of our meeting that evening.

Six months prior to this, Calvin had finished a year long internship at a discipleship training institute. The irresponsible and immature Calvin who left returned disciplined and grow up. His mom (with whom Calvin lived) remarked upon his return that the change was striking: the disrespectful boy had come back a polished and polite young man. A year away studying the bible, being around other Christians, and working on discipline and diligence in his personal habits seemed to have paid off.

But now – waiting on the increasingly tardy Calvin – it was clear to me that the polish was rubbing off. He’d promised to get a job once he returned but months and months of listlessness and laziness prompted his mother to kick him out of the house (he knew this would be the consequence; she had been crystal clear about her expectations). He moved in with a friend (single lady #1) and her roommate (single lady #2) and Calvin took a shining to her (SL #2). After a few weeks of the “2 Single Ladies and a Jobless/Homeless Calvin” reality show – you guessed it – Calvin began dating the friend of the friend. So – he’s kicked out of his house, living with the single lady he’s dating – and he’s leading a small group in my Jr. High Ministry.

I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation.

Two phone calls and numerous texts later Calvin finally arrived 60 minutes late to our meeting. He entered my office, and as he swung his hand out his pocket to shake my hand, out tumbled a pack of cigarettes onto the floor.

He looked down at his cigs, then back at me, and giggling muttered, “Oops” as he scooped the pack up and shoved it deeply in his interior jacket pocket.

The cigarettes were the last straw for me. I told him he couldn’t be a youth coach anymore. He said Ok and promptly left my office.

The meeting I’d waited 60 minutes for lasted all of 60 seconds.

I never saw Calvin again. As far as I know he no longer considers himself a Christian.


“The Measure You Use…”

I didn’t have a clear metric to measure the quality of Calvin’s discipleship when I was 25; I did, however, have a vague understanding that dishonoring your parents, living with your girlfriend, and sucking on cancer sticks was usually outside the realm of ‘bible study leader’ protocol. I knew those behaviors weren’t becoming of a disciple. I had the knowledge Calvin didn’t that his behaviors weren’t acceptable.

In my experience these are two primary measurements we use to evaluate disciples:

Knowledge and Behavior.

Some Christian traditions look for an agreed upon knowledge typically referred to as doctrine. In these traditions understanding doctrine is emphasized and rational cognition (i.e. the intellect) serves as the medium through which we mature as disciples. The coursework of the Masters of Divinity degree I received from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School largely focused on the domain of my intellect and understanding. Tests measured my ability to answer questions, defend positions, and argue propositions deemed correct and true.

Other traditions focus more on behavior; morality and even charismatic demonstrations punctuate the journey of growth in discipleship. If knowledge can be characterized as internal, then behavior would be the external realm of the Christian life. For some this is speaking in tongues, for others its evangelistic fervor; for me as a 25 year old Jr. High Youth Pastor it was sex and drugs. Behavior – external conformity to the internal knowledge of God – is evaluated according to the standard laid out in scripture.  

Understanding and Obedience.

Knowledge and Behavior.

Or…to break it down another way…WORD and WORKS.

I’m probing not the necessity of such measures but their sufficiency: Do knowledge and behavior tell us the whole story?

Are they the measurement that Jesus used?


Discipleship Defined: “Faith Working through Love”

Discipleship is the ‘intentional process of becoming more like Jesus. It’s being with Jesus to learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus.’ (Definition proudly borrowed from Dallas Willard)

If we desire to ‘be with…to learn from…how to live like Jesus” then what Jesus knows (WORD) and what he does (WORKS) are vitally important! I’m not sure how we get around the fact that a disciple of Jesus Christ will need knowledge AND obedience, WORD and WORKS.

Indeed Paul assumes their importance, but insufficiency in a oft quoted text:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels (WORD), but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers (WORD/WORKS) and understand all mysteries and all knowledge (WORD), and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains (WORKS! Shout out to James, the brother of Jesus, who gives a hearty ‘AMEN!’ to calling faith a WORK), but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have (WORKS), and If I deliver up my body to be burned (WORKS), but have not love I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13.1-3)

Knowledge (WORD) and behavior (WORKS) are vital, but woefully insufficient. In fact if left animated by something other than love, Paul says miraculous displays and revelatory insights are nothing.

So, we need knowledge of Jesus (WORD) and the behavior of Jesus (WORKS) – as Dallas and St. Paul affirm – but we also need the love of Jesus, what we could call his WAY.

The WAY (love) is the manner in which he knows, the animator of what he does.

The WAY (love) describes:

  1. the condition of ‘being with Jesus’ and
  2. the how of ‘living like Jesus’ that Dallas describes above.

We’re ready to put this all together:

Discipleship is growing in what Jesus knows (WORD of Christ), what Jesus does (WORKS of Christ) animated and held together by how Jesus is (the WAY of Christ).

Here’s a graphic illustration I first learned from my friend Dave that helps me keep these three dynamics in relationship:


Word corresponds to the UP dimension, revelation and knowledge from God.

Way corresponds to the IN dimension, presence and posture (love) from God

Works corresponds to the OUT dimension, behavior and power from God.


Love at the Center

If we desire to produce people who live like Jesus – who consistently grow in what he knows and what he does – we need to develop a means to measure our love. Permit the scriptures to speak again on the centrality and primacy of love in our discipleship:

  • Love is the WAY on which all of the law and prophets hang (Matthew 22.34-40)
  • Love summarizes (Galatians 5.14) and fulfills (Romans 13.8-10) the entire law
  • Love is the aim of all instruction and training (1 Timothy 1.5)
  • Love is the WAY that enables all knowledge (WORDS) and obedience (WORKS) to be something rather than nothing (1 Corinthians 13.1-3)
  • Love is the only thing that counts (Galatians 5.6)
  • Love is the WAY we know we’ve passed from death to life (1 John 3.14)
  • Love is the WAY that everyone around us will know we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13.35)
  • Love is the WAY we are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19)
  • Love is who God is; our love is evidence we are becoming more like him (1 John 4.8)


I contend- and feel free to pushback on this- that we have largely assumed and/or ignored the WAY of Jesus and focused primarily on the WORD and WORKS in our discipleship. I did this with Calvin; I noticed (rightly so, I think) his behavior didn’t comport with the authority I’d given him as a leader in our youth ministry. But, because I didn’t handle the situation in love, I failed to bring the Word of God to bear faithfully in that situation. And I’ve done this countless times since.

I think I come by this honestly. Historically, Christians have been much more adept at measuring knowledge and behavior. Take a look at human history and note how many people were excommunicated/put under church discipline or burned at the stake for their beliefs (heresy, or simply being a Quaker in a Puritan Boston in the 1660’s) or behavior (I.e. Witchcraft)? We seldom (if ever?) burned a heretic – or even proclaimed anyone a heretic and excommunicated them – for their lack of love.

Now, I’m no advocate for heretic burning. FAR from it. Nor am I in an ecclesial position to excommunicate anyone (not that I would have a list even if I was!). I simply want to point out that Christians have paid much closer attention to the WORD and WORKS of disciples and less attention to their WAY and this has had crippling consequences on the quality of disciple we produce in most churches.

We get what we measure, and since we’ve largely evaluated discipleship on WORD and WORKS metrics, what we’re left with are people who know the right things, sometimes do the right things, but know them and do them apart from the love of Jesus. 


Next week we’ll talk more about why it’s so tempting to measure our knowledge (WORD) and behaviors (WORKS) apart from the WAY of Jesus. And- I’ll delve in a bit more about how all 3 are needed and how they’re all interrelated. But first:


  1. Am I alone in seeing this phenomenon or do you see this tendency in Christian discipleship: To assume or sideline love in favor of knowledge and behavior? Why do you think that is?
  2. If love is so important and crucial to Christian discipleship, how do we measure and quantify it? How do we honestly assess if we are, indeed, more loving today than we were last week?
  3. What are some of your thoughts about how WORDS, WORKS, and WAY interact and inform one another?

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