The Syntax of Discipleship

Matt 28:19

The pendulum swings to and fro in the field of (higher, including theological) education from extreme to extreme, returning briefly to the center only to pass through it again. Early in my teaching career, the watchword was “transformational education.” The primary object of education, according to proponents of the philosophy, involves changing students’ lives, forming healthy personalities, addressing the totality of the person including affect and not just intellect. Content, as the argument goes, serves largely as a medium for touching and transforming lives. Lectures become suspect, for example, because they draw attention to the lecturer. Proponents held that the notion that teachers/professors should expect students to know things that the teacher/professor deemed important implies the importance of the teacher/professor instead of the potential of the student and stifles inquiry and discovery. It was the era of self-esteem.

Nowadays, the focus has shifted almost 180 degrees to learner-driven acquisition of context. Educational theorists describe asynchronous online instruction or more traditional formats and every alternative between as “content delivery systems.” The new objective is the convenient, (cost) efficient, and accessible conveyance of information.

I hope that I am not a contrarian for the sake of being so, but I have not been comfortable with either of these trends. While a quality education – acquired in a community of learners, and involving a balanced curriculum designed to prepare a student not only for a career but also for a rich life as a contributing citizen (and in my context, a responsible member of the body of Christ) – will almost inevitably transform a student, it does so necessarily by presenting the student with material to be learned.  Conversely, pure content conveyed apart from interpersonal interaction and contextualization can hardly affect the person of the student in the ways that a vibrant classroom on a vital campus with a vigorous community can.

The very syntax of the English language testifies to the fact that teaching ideally balances the inculcation of information and the cultivation of the learner. The verb “to teach” belongs to a category of verbs in English that take two objects: a direct object denoting the discipline or content of the instruction and an indirect object denoting the students, the persons learning. In fact, even when not explicitly stated, the verb implies both. The statement “I teach” is grammatically correct, but it is logically incomplete. One can only teach if one teaches something; one can only teach something to someone. A good teacher masters a discipline, because the teacher considers it important and because the teacher loves the discipline; a good teacher passionately seeks not just to impart the information, but also to share the sense of its importance and his or her passion for it with students.

The verb “to teach” has another syntactical peculiarity. It is formally transitive like “to hit” or “to drive”; it is not, however, transitive to the same degree or in the same manner.  In the statements, “I hit the ball,” or “I drove my car,” the verb designates an action performed on the direct object. The actor affects the object. The statement, “I teach Hebrew,” differs.  It does not describe an action performed on the Hebrew language. In the fact, the indirect object – always student/students – actually expresses the element acted upon. Furthermore, the statement “I hit the ball” declares that I took a swing and succeeded in making contact.  Even the best teachers can teach well and strike out. Students must engage in learning; they must cooperate in order to learn.  All of this implies the interpersonal, cooperative, relational nature of the enterprise.  Good teaching is not simply conveying information. Good teaching is engaging students eager to learn.

Few church members will be unfamiliar with the “Great Commission” (Matt 28:19).  Many of them may not know, however, that English translation of it often miss the emphasis of the Greek, which employs two participles describing actions (“having gone” and “baptizing) that accompany the main verb in the sentence: the imperative “make disciples,” “teach.” The activity Jesus had in mind in this command reflects the observations above concerning the syntax of teaching. Making disciples cannot be limited to conveying information. It must involve intimate relationship with the Master and his under-teachers. In his earthly ministry, Jesus commonly issued the call, not to confess belief in him, but to follow him, to go where he went, to do what he did, to learn of him. Nonetheless, making disciples involves much more that inviting one to set out on a journey. It involves content. Disciples spend lifetimes learning to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ, come to redeem through his death and resurrection, but also come to teach us to be human beings as God meant for us to be.

Jesus commands all members of the body of Christ to be teachers: to know him (and, thus, to know scripture) and to teach him…to people.  This endeavor is “transformation education” par excellence.