Last week I argued that culture is essentially the behavior of a people. Here is the second peg to the argument I am developing over these several weeks: The cultivation of culture should be a concern for conservative Christians because the formation of certain kinds of behaviors falls squarely in the nature, purpose, and mission of churches.
What is a Disciple?
Christ’s great commission to churches was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19–20). Churches accomplish this mission through (implicitly) proclaiming the gospel, through “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and through “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”1
What Does a Disciple Look Like?
If the mission of churches is to make disciples, then what will this look like? Very simply, a disciple will observe all that Christ commanded. In other words, a disciple of Jesus Christ will be characterized by a certain collection of behaviors.
This is why culture is of such concern to a conservative Christian. Christians are a new people of God whose behavior should emerge from and reflect their biblical beliefs and values. This is why Scripture gives such attention to the behavior of Christians; the culture of Christians should be holy as God is holy. Although Christians are new creatures (2 Cor 5:17) with new hearts of obedience to Christ (Rom 6:17–18), holy behavior is not something that comes automatically. Observing Christ’s commands, as the Great Commission explicitly states, is something that must be taught.
How Is a Disciple Made?
So how is this accomplished? How do we go about teaching others to observe all that Christ commanded in such a way that their behavior—their culture—changes to better reflect biblical values? Certainly much of what is involved with such teaching is the transmission of doctrine. Without a proper set of beliefs, one will not behave in a manner worthy of Christ. However, data transmission is not all there is to such teaching for at least three reasons. First, Christian behavior is more than simply a collection of right beliefs. Jesus didn’t just say, “teaching them all that I have commanded”; he said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.” Christian behavior is a collection of skills, and development of a skillset requires more than a certain amount of knowledge. Reading a book about golf may be helpful in learning to play the sport, but it is going to take more than that. The same is true with learning to play an instrument or fly an airplane. A certain amount of book knowledge is necessary, but these skills require something more. And so “teaching” in Matthew 28 involves more than just instructing the mind, it also concerns imparting a skillset.
Second, making disciples is more than data transmission because the reality is that much of our actions are not the result of deliberate, rational reflection upon our beliefs. Some are, but most of how we act on a daily basis is due to ingrained habits. We do what we do because it is what we have always done. And so we may proclaim the gospel to someone, and then we may begin to diligently teach them biblical doctrines, but that will not necessarily make a disciple who is characterized by behavior that reflects biblical values, especially if a new convert has a whole lot of habitual behavior that conflicts with biblical living. A drug addict will still have to deal with his addiction, a petty thief may find himself unintentionally slipping things off the shelf into his pocket, and a lazy husband will have difficulty finding the energy necessary to help with the kids. Old habits die hard, even for a Christian.
Third, whether or not we are acting on the basis of a deliberate decision or a habitual response, we ultimately will act not primarily based on the knowledge in our minds, but rather on the inclinations of our hearts. A child who is terrified of dogs will not pet one no matter how many statistics you give her about the docile nature of domesticated canines. A man whose heart is captivated by pornography will sin continually no matter how much he knows it is wrong. Another way of saying this is that people act more based on their feelings than on their knowledge. The way many evangelicals try to combat this reality is to urge people to live according to their beliefs rather than their hearts, but it is not quite that simple. The problem is not that we have replaced what drives our actions with our hearts instead of our minds. We cannot help but be driven by the inclinations of our hearts, and philosophers from Plato to Augustine to Edwards to Lewis all recognized this. If the intellect and the heart conflict, we will always do what we want to do rather than what we know we should do; this is the nature of humanity.
Thus the third key peg to my argument is that in order to cultivate holy living—in order to accomplish the mission of the church and make disciples—conservative Christians must concern themselves with the inclinations of hearts.
Next week we’ll look at what it takes to shape the heart’s inclinations.
- For a thorough argument for this understanding of the church’s mission, see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011); David M. Doran, For the Sake of His Name: Challenging a New Generation for World Missions (Allen Park, MI: Student Global Impact, 2002); as well as my forthcoming book. [↩]