but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Approved by the Elders 12/6/11
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock,
in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,
to care for the church of God,
which he obtained with his own blood.”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
“What you have heard from me
in the presence of many witnesses
entrust to faithful men
who will be able to teach others also.”
(2 Timothy 2:2)
One of the greatest challenges of being a church, and not simply an audience or a club, is the kind of shepherding mentioned in Acts 20:28, and the kind of discipling mentioned in Matthew 28:20, Colossians 1:28, and 2 Timothy 2:2. Watching over all the sheep (married or single) and building disciples is what leaders are accountable for to the Lord (Hebrews 13:17).
1. Clarifying the word “discipleship”
We have just used the word “discipleship.” It has a double meaning. Both can be seen in the Great Commission: “Make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
The two verbs, “observe” and “teaching,” describe two ways that the word “discipleship” has been used.
“Observe” means to actually do the commandments of Jesus.
“Teaching to observe” means that we help others do the commandments.
A disciple of Jesus is a person who believes in Jesus and does what he commands. So discipleship is that life. A life of Christian discipleship is a life of believing and obeying Jesus.
The more recent use of the word “discipleship” is to refer to the process of helping a person be a disciple. This is what “teaching to observe” refers to.
So “discipleship” can mean “being a disciple” (the life of discipleship to Jesus), or it can mean “helping a person become a disciple and grow as a disciple” (a life of disciple building).
We will be using the word in the second sense in this paper. Discipleship is the process of helping people be mature disciples—building disciples, which must always be preceded by the new birth and its fruits in conversion: repentance and faith.
2. Clarifying the word “shepherding”
What we mean by shepherding overlaps with discipling. Shepherds disciple their sheep—that is, they want them to grow into healthy adult disciple-sheep. They feed them, for example, with biblical truth.
But the special note that “shepherding” strikes is “watching over” the sheep with a view to both keeping the sheep from straying doctrinally and morally, and guiding them to walk in truth and holiness. By contrast, in a classroom or from a pulpit, the teacher or preacher may impart valuable truth, but likely has little idea about how the people are applying this in their lives. The people may be walking in disobedience and he might not even know it.
Shepherding aims to know that and to lovingly bring the straying sheep back, as well as prevent them from straying in the first place.
Shepherding also includes practical care at every level of need, spiritual, emotional, and physical. Thus every member of the church should be cared for. All the members should be motivated and equipped and (as needed) organized so that we may seek to meet each other’s needs.
3. Clarifying the word “member”
The leadership of the church does not have the same responsibility to shepherd or build disciples out of non-members as we do members. We are to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Affection and accountability increase with increasingly near and real relationship.
Numerous teachings in the New Testament imply that local churches have accountable constituencies, whom we call members. For example, local churches can discipline a person by putting him out of the church fellowship, which implies a kind of “being in” that we call membership.
Therefore, when we speak of the biblical responsibility of shepherding and discipling, we are referring mainly to our responsibility toward the members of the church.
The reason we say “mainly” is that we realize there are sometimes respectable reasons why a regular attender has not become a covenant member. Historically many of these people are with us in deeply biblical ways. They often serve in various roles open to non-members. Since we have not, in many cases, considered their presence undesirable or sinful, but in fact a significant blessing to the church, it seems wise to us that our shepherding and discipleship commitments include these people as well.
We realize that this commitment creates ambiguity in our responsibility, since the definition for who the flock is that we are responsible for is not clear. How “regular” should an “attender” be, so that we consider him one we are responsible for before the Lord? It seems better to live with this ambiguity than completely neglect the shepherding and discipling of all regular attenders.
4. How then shall we shepherd and disciple the sheep?
Given the definitions we have used, virtually everything we do could be seen as shepherding and discipleship, since Paul said, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14), and love always seeks to care for and to build up.
So we need to ask a more specific question.
One way to ask the question is: What kind of relational groupings will help the leaders accomplish the goals of shepherding the flock and building disciples? We see at least three important groupings related to this process.
- The household—a husband and wife and children, or a single mother or father with children, or a couple without children.
- On-going, relationally oriented, life-on-life small groups, made up of households and/or singles.
- Classes that impart knowledge and skill.
We believe that the task of shepherding and discipling the church will involve an integrated network of all three, with the household being the most biblically explicit group, linked together with singles and other households in different kinds of small groups, and supported by different kinds of classes for equipping leaders, imparting systematic knowledge of the Bible and doctrine, and for a wide range of Christian living. For a fuller explanation of the nature and importance of “classes,” see “A note on the importance of classes” on page 13.
5. Shepherding and Discipling Children
In much discussion concerning shepherding and discipleship we neglect to make clear whether we are talking about children or adults. If we are talking about children in Christian families, it is clear, we believe, that the most basic unit for discipleship is the household—those living together who are biblically responsible to the head of the Christian household (usually a father, but possibly a single mom or some other responsible adult).
This should not go unspoken. For three reasons:
- The Christian head of a household is one of the greatest influences in imparting biblical knowledge, and in shaping a child’s Christian worldview. In an ideal world there would be a father in partnership with a mother who together lead their children toward spiritual maturity. And there are always other valuable influences on the children as well. In a home with no Christian parent, or less mature Christian parents, these other influences are often supremely important. But in the Christian home we should realize, and take into account, that “adult” shepherding and discipleship are happening from birth, in the sense that adult disciples are being shaped from the beginning of their lives.
- Nevertheless, this shepherding and discipling role of the household is often taken for granted. Therefore it is important to be intentional about expecting, encouraging, and equipping heads of households to partner with a spouse in intentionally shepherding and discipling the children responsible to them. Often we tacitly assume that Sunday School or public or private school or other agencies will provide the Bible knowledge and spiritual instruction and personal care and worldview-shaping that belong most essentially to the head of the household.
- It is very easy in this atmosphere (where little thought is given to expecting, encouraging, and equipping husbands and wives in their calling to shepherd and disciple the children) to neglect the focus on the parents (or other heads of households), and treat some other structure as the most essential shapers of children in the church.
Therefore, any vision for shepherding and discipling our children must emphasize the priority of the ministry that happens in households.
Our intent is that this emphasis includes children who do not have Christian parents. There are many such children in our schools and neighborhoods and even in our church. We aim to mobilize households to evangelize these children and bring them to our church through relationships with our young people and households. We want to make healthy Christian households a natural place for discipling children from unbelieving homes. Such households could be a key outreach asset of our church in making disciples in these Twin Cities.
Nor does the emphasis on households exclude the important place of youth classes (Sunday School and Wednesday Connection, etc), or other kinds of youth organizations and groups that supplement and support the ministry of the home (e.g., youth small groups for prayer or study or ministry or life skills and wholesome leisure). All of these are important and should extend and supplement and strengthen the biblically instituted structure of household shepherding and discipleship.
6. Discipling and Shepherding Adults
With regard to adult shepherding and discipleship, the situation is structurally (i.e., organizationally) more complex.
Often the discussion of this matter proceeds as though the households that brought children to the place of responsible maturity are structurally negligible. In other words, discussions of small group structures for shepherding and discipling adults often omit any reference to households.
But if we look at the core of most households, namely the relationship of husband and wife (always aware that this core is not everywhere intact or healthy), the biblical portrait shows both of them having significant influence on each other spiritually and serving each other with a view to helping each other be more faithful disciples of Jesus. In this shepherding and discipling relationship, the husband bears the primary responsibility for spiritual leadership, but both husband and wife care deeply about each other’s spiritual condition, and are invested in helping each other grow in Christ.
Many husbands do not think of themselves as “teachers”, “pastors”, “shepherds” or “disciplers” of their wives. In some cases it can seem threatening and utterly unrealistic given where a husband and wife are in their level of spiritual maturity. Furthermore the idea of husband as “pastor” or “shepherd” seems odd or offensive because of the immediate images these roles bring to our minds such as baptizing or presiding over weddings, funerals, and the Lord’s table. It would be inappropriate or artificial for a husband to perform these functions in his home.
These are realistic responses and they may be based partly on a misunderstanding of what’s intended. The problem of how husbands react to being teachers and disciplers is with the images, not the reality. What we do typically affirm, as biblical complementarians, is that husbands are called to be the “spiritual leaders” in the home. Men are to provide “spiritual leadership” for the family.
And when we pause to think through what such “spiritual leadership” is, it turns out that shepherding and discipling are not so foreign to the relationship after all. In fact, we observe a significant overlap when considering the biblical responsibilities of the spiritual leader of a home and the spiritual leaders of a church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). Just as elders are the spiritual leaders of the church husbands and fathers are the spiritual heads of their homes. They have a God-designed responsibility to lead, love, pray, teach, admonish, instruct, discipline, care for, protect, and serve their families.
7. The ministry of husbands in shepherding and discipling their wives.
In relationship to his wife this leadership would include things like:
- Loving his wife sacrificially and cherishing her as a reflection of the love of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5:25, 29).
- Being alert to and discerning of his wife’s spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical needs, and making the effort to meet those needs—directly or indirectly (Hebrews 3:12–13; 1 Peter 3:7).
- Praying regularly and earnestly for and with his wife (Genesis 25:21; 1 Timothy 2:8; 1 Peter 3:7).
- Seeking to build his wife with biblical knowledge, through his own words, and by his encouragement and help in connecting her with the teaching ministries provided by the church (John 8:32; Ephesians 4:25-30).
- Encouraging and helping his wife engage in ministry at church and in the world (Proverbs 31:20; Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 5:9-10).
- Bringing Christ near in practical and verbal ways (1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6).
- Setting the spiritual tone of the household (Colossians 3:19, 21).
- Forging a family identity (Joshua 24:15).
- Modeling godliness, Christian grace and strength and the fruits of the Spirit in all the spheres of life (Galatians 5:16, 22-23; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Peter 1:3-8).
When we stop to consider it, these dimensions of spiritual leadership are in fact very significant ways of shepherding and discipling—not only the children, but also the wife.
Which means that, since God has explicitly appointed this relationship to function this way (Ephesians 5:22-24), it is essential that this relationship be kept at the center of any shepherding and discipleship structure we create. Small groups are important structures for adult shepherding and discipleship that cannot be replaced by a family structure. Nevertheless, unlike small group leaders, husbands and fathers have a calling on their lives to shepherd and disciple their family whether they want it or not (Psalm 78:5-8; Ephesians 5:22-24, 6:1-3). God has assigned it. The union of husband and wife and the formation of a family were intended by God to be the context for passing his commands (Deuteronomy 6:6-9), his word, (Deuteronomy 11:18-21), his testimony (Psalm 78:5-8) from one generation to the next. Therefore it is fitting that a structure for shepherding and discipleship in the church reflects the importance of the household in the sense that we have just seen.
8. The ministry of wives in supporting and helping their husbands.
Similarly, alongside their husbands, wives have a crucial, though not identical, role in caring for this household “flock.” Not only is she called to join her husband in shepherding and discipling their children; she should also seek to know, and care about, and prayerfully influence her husband toward spiritual maturity.
This ministry by the wife does not contradict the husband’s spiritual leadership. It supports it. We see this from the beginning of Scripture. In the beginning God ordained that wives, created in God’s image with equal worth and dignity, come alongside their husbands as “helpers fit for him.” “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). A man’s leadership is not compromised when he is helped by his wife. And this includes spiritual help as well as physical and emotional.
A wife’s biblical submission does not exclude her ministry of helping her husband for his good. For example, the submissive wife of 1 Peter 3:1-7 is making every appropriate effort to convert her husband. Peter assumes that her influence can be saving, if God opens his heart. He tells us how she might most helpfully use this influence in ways that are in harmony with her husband’s leadership. “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1–2).
But by implication from 1 Peter 3, along with the implications of being “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), and being a “helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18), the ministry of a wife does include “helping” her husband be the best disciple and discipler he can be. She is a new creature in Christ. Jesus is her supreme Lord. She has direct access to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, who dwells in her. She can read and understand the Word of God in Scripture. She probably knows her husband’s spiritual needs better than anyone else. And no one has a greater stake in his maturity than she. Therefore part of her ministry is to know and care about and help her husband toward spiritual maturity in all the ways appropriate to her God-given, Spirit-empowered role.
This will include, at least:
- Being alert to her husband’s spiritual condition and praying earnestly for him (1 Samuel 25:1-35; Hebrews 3:12-13).
- Encouraging her husband by affirming evidences of grace in his life (Romans 15:2; Ephesians 4:29; Hebrews 10:24-25).
- Supporting him in all his leadership efforts, being responsive to every effort he makes to lead spiritually (Ephesians 5:21-24; 1 Peter 3:1-6).
- Sharing from her life and her meditation the things God is teaching her about Christ and his ways (Romans 15:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:18).
- Joining him in serious conversation with respect and wisdom (Proverbs 31:26; Romans 15:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:11).
- Suggesting to him people and resources that may be of help to him (Genesis 2:18; Proverbs 31:12; Acts 20:32).
- Humbly and hopefully helping him be aware of unhelpful habits or sins she may see in his life (Hebrews 3:12-13; James 5:16).
- Modeling godliness, Christian grace and strength and the fruits of the Spirit in all the spheres of life (Proverbs 31:25; Galatians 5:16, 22-23; 1 Peter 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:3-8).
- Praying regularly and earnestly for and with her husband (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; James 5:16).
Again, when we pause to consider it, these dimensions of a woman’s love for her husband are, in fact, very significant ways that a woman ministers to her husband spiritually, and helps him in shepherding and discipling the household.
Which means, again, that, since God has explicitly appointed this relationship of husband and wife to function this way, it is essential that this relationship be kept at the center of any shepherding and discipleship structure we create. “Center” does not mean central in every person’s relationships, since there are many singles in our church, and since the relationship with Jesus is more central, but it means central in our strategies for adult discipleship, since it is clearly ordained by God, and 75% of our adults are already in this relationship.
9. Implications for Shepherding and Discipling at Bethlehem
By one reckoning about 75% of our adult active membership at Bethlehem are married, while 25% are single, divorced, or have a deceased spouse. We realize that this 25% figure is deceptively low since there are probably a higher percentage of regular attenders who are single. In all our thinking and planning about discipling we have this single population in view. When we talk about equipping heads of households, we also have in mind the equipping of single people.
In fact, our emphasis on the biblical role of households is meant to give a deeper, more personal, more satisfying, and more integral place to singles. We have heard over the years that some singles often wonder how the “family dimension” of church relates to them. Our hope is that the household and small group dimensions of discipleship and shepherding at Bethlehem will be seen as structures of inclusion for singles, not exclusion. The church is the family of God. When mother and father are left behind, Jesus said his disciples (including the unmarried) will receive “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” (Mark 10:30). This means, at least, that in a shepherding and discipling vision of the church single people should find themselves in relationships where something like mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters are found.
But consider what the marriage percentages mean for the discipling relationships (functional or dysfunctional) that already exist at Bethlehem. 75% of our people are in a significant, and biblically ordained shepherding and discipling relationship already (not to mention the children, under 18). It seems fitting therefore that in all our structuring and staffing, this reality should never be lost from our attention. In other words, we should structure and staff with a view to making this already-given (by God) shepherding and discipleship structure as effective as possible.
[Note: It should perhaps be said in passing, that since most counseling cases in our church seem to relate to marriage, the effort to encourage and equip husbands and wives to shepherd and disciple each other well would pay dividends in incalculable ways both for their spiritual health, their relational harmony, the good of the children, and their witness in the world.
In the past, we have spoken of adult shepherding and discipling with little or no attention to the biblical reality of the household. That is not owing to our disbelief in it, but to the kind of compartmentalizing that keeps us from seeing connections. We think it would be accurate to say that our focus on small groups, without seeing marriage (households) as essential to a discipleship and shepherding strategy, for those who are married, has communicated things we probably don’t want to say. For example, we do not want to say:
- It is more important that small groups gather together around the Word than that families gather together around the Word.
- It is more important that we train small group leaders to lead their groups than that we train fathers to lead their families.
- It is more important that we track how many of our people are in small groups than how many of our families are gathering around the Word.
- It is more important that we be actively involved in a small group than that our fathers are actively engaged in leading their households.
We would not have said any of these things. But if structural efforts signify values, these erroneous messages seem to have been there. We should change that message.
10. Households in relation to the wider ministry of shepherding and discipleship
What is plain from the New Testament is that while marriage is God’s design for significant shepherding and discipling of all the married people in the church, marriage does not replace the church! Husbanding does not replace eldering. Some husbands are to shepherd and disciple other husbands and wives (the calling of elders). And women are told to disciple younger women (Titus 2).
All members are to do many “one another” acts of ministry to other members for their practical care and their spiritual upbuilding in faith and holiness. All have spiritual gifts that are to be used for the others in the wider church, not just at home. And every couple has blind spots in regard to their own marriage flaws, and so they are in need of the wider church for growth.
So there is no thought that households are the sum total of the biblical vision for shepherding and discipling. The point so far in this paper is simply that household shepherding and discipling is a God-ordained given, and that it has unique potential for a significant part of the shepherding and discipling about 75% of our members.
But there are 25% of the adult members who are not married. And there are marriages where one spouse is not a believer. And there are marriages that are so dysfunctional that the shepherding and discipling will not happen any time soon.
Not only that, we should not foster the idea that even if every marriage were functioning ideally, there would be no need for the husband and wife to be in a small group. There are many things that wives and husbands need that will not be learned from their spouses but only from others with different gifts and skills and callings and experiences and knowledge. Marriage is not a mini-church that replaces the corporate body of Christ. Husbands and wives shepherd and disciple each other for the sake of wider life and ministry for Christ’s sake, both in the church and in the world.
Therefore, we believe that every member (married or unmarried) of Bethlehem should seek to be in a small group both for the sake of ministering to others and for the sake of being ministered to by others. Household shepherding and discipleship should strengthen small group life, but not replace it.
Another reason we believe that all our members should be in small groups (with some exceptions in unusual circumstances) is that the oversight structure of these groups is the church-wide way the elders have conceived to fulfill their charge to watch over and care for and disciple the flock. Even if it were fitting that households replace small groups (which it isn’t), it would not be feasible for the elders to relate individually to every household. Therefore, small groups are not only essential for all the members because of the internal shepherding and discipling that goes on there, but also because of the accountability it gives to the elders through a structure of oversight. This way the elders can “pay careful attention to all the flock” (Acts 20:28) and seek to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
We do not want to give the impression that the “household” (nuclear family) is more important or more “basic” than the church—the “household of God” (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17). The family of God will eventually replace the earthly family. There is no marriage in the age to come (Luke 20:35). Belonging to God’s eternal household is more important than belonging to an earthly household—which is very good news to the fatherless and the widow.
Therefore, while households are indeed a biblically explicit structure for shepherding and discipling in the church, they are not intended by God to be the only structure. We believe that a system of small groups created in conscious symbiotic connection with households and singles is needed for the good of all our members and for the fulfillment of the mandate God has given to the elders. In fact, all ministries should be created and considered in conscious symbiotic connection with households and singles.
11. What are the staffing implications?
The extent to which this vision needs to be woven into the ministry of the church suggests that mere staff additions cannot accomplish the larger mindset that needs to take hold of the elders and the staff and the people. For example, many married men at Bethlehem do not have the mindset that we are, not by choice, but by divine calling as husbands, part of the discipleship vision of the church. We are called by God, whether we know it or not, to be like shepherds (disciplers) of our children and our wives. Similarly, many wives of the church do not have the mindset that they are also called by God to come alongside their husbands, and to influence them in ways appropriate to their God-given roles, and to help the husbands be the best disciplers they can be, and to partner with them in discipling the children.
Many of our men do not think of the analogy between the home and the church which puts them in an elder-like role in their families. This analogy is implied in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 where Paul says of each potential elder of the church: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” Since leading a household is one of the tests of leading the church, we may assume that Paul sees the role of husband and father as similar (not identical) with the role of elder. This implies that the mindset of our men should be that they are part of the shepherding ministry of the church.
It would seem that one implication of all that has been said above is that staffing roles and additions at Bethlehem should reflect this need to shape the mindset of our church, especially the mindset of both our singles and our heads of households. We should design our staffing to prioritize the mobilization and equipping of elders, small group leaders, and classroom teachers, with a view to implementing the vision of discipleship and shepherding expressed in this paper.
The foundational role of households implies that staff additions be in sync with such a vision and that they be gifted and inclined to focus significant effort on strengthening husbands and wives in their mutual calling to shepherd and disciple 75% of the adult members of Bethlehem, and that they be able to mobilize and integrate unmarried adults into a small group structure (which includes other singles and/or households) that maximizes the fruitfulness of their lives now and prepares them for effective ministry.
A note on the importance of classes.
This vision statement on discipling at Bethlehem is shaped largely by the effort to rethink the importance of households in relation to small groups and classes. We have not felt the same urgency to articulate a rationale for the essential place of preaching, which we believe in with all our hearts (see the sermon, “The Place of Preaching in Worship,” 2-8-98 at www.DesiringGod.org).
Nor have we felt the same urgency to spell out the importance of “classes” in the discipling vision of Bethlehem. Most of us take classes for granted as important. But it may be wise to pause here for a moment and give a glimpse of why we think classes (in distinction from households and life-on-life small groups) are still essential.
“Essential” is a strong word. By it we do not mean that classes are divinely instituted the way households are. And we don’t mean that they have a superior place to small group life. What we mean is that the Bible implies strongly that something like formal teaching in a class-like setting is needed if some biblical teachings are going to be honored.
For example, here are three biblical pointers to the importance of classes.
1. One of the qualifications of elders is that they must be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). And according to Ephesians 4:11-12 Christ has given to the church some “teachers to equip the saints.” These texts suggest that it is the duty of church members to be taught by the elders and to be equipped by teachers. By itself this might not imply a class-like experience, but the following texts suggest that this is at least part of what is implied.
2. Paul felt a burden to transmit to the church a body of doctrine. There seemed to be a sum of teaching that Christians should know for the sake of being stable (Ephesians 4:14) and being useful (Ephesians 4:12). For example,
- Paul says in Romans 6:17, “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.”
- And again in Acts 20:27 he says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
- And in 2 Timothy 1:13–14 Paul says, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”
So it would appear that one of the responsibilities of the elders of the church is that this “standard of teaching” or this “whole counsel of God” or this “pattern of sound words” or “good deposit” should be transmitted to the people. How should this happen? While classes are not the only way, it seems that the extent and depth of this knowledge is such that it naturally fits in a class-like setting, since it is unlikely that any church could transmit this one on one in a mentoring relationship—though that could be a wonderful part of the whole process.
3. Paul’s example confirms the importance of a class-like setting for this kind of teaching. In order to impart the “whole counsel of God” to the Ephesians (Acts 20:27), Paul spent over two years in Ephesus teaching daily in what surely looks like a classroom setting, first in the synagogue, and then in a special hall:
“He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 19:8–10)
These three passages incline us to think that the teaching of systematic Bible and doctrine in class-like structures is essential to the discipleship vision at Bethlehem. Add to this the fact that many of us can testify to the life-transforming value of such classes, and the nature of the knowledge to be gained, it seems to us that classes will remain a staple of what it means to make disciples at Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, two observations may be a helpful clarification. One is that, if one must choose, for some reason (very rarely the case, it seems) between a class and an ongoing participation in a life-on-life small group, the latter should probably be chosen, since, in general, a small group offers a wider range of biblically expected relationships and discipleship benefits than a classroom. We realize that this is not absolute, because, among other reasons, some classes can be so structured that they function virtually as a small group for a season. The other observation is that for many people there are seasons of life when classroom instruction may have predominance (e.g., high school and college years).