Why Balance in Discipleship Matters

by

We teach our children this principle of balance even if we don’t know we’re doing so from a very early age. The most well-known version of the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” tells of a young girl who wanders into a forest and happens upon a house. Having knocked and discovered no one home, she enters the house and sees three bowls of porridge. One bowl is too hot, the second too cold but the third was ‘just right’ and she gobbles it up. Similarly, she finds in the house chairs and beds, and in each case, indulges in the one whose dimensions are mid-way between extremes.

The Importance Of Balance In Life

In the Biblical tradition, a similar trend is detectable in a number of passages. 

“Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself”. (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

“Give me neither poverty nor riches’ (Proverbs 30:8). 

For where in life do we not seek balance? We often speak of the work-life balance (speak of it – we rarely actually achieve it) balancing budgets (equally elusive) and seeking balance within ourselves. There are few areas of human experience where a sense balance is not rigorously sought after.

I want to consider how the pursuit of balance may help us be more proficient students of Jesus.

Balance In Church Leadership First

In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul paints a picture of what a balanced Christian community ought to look like; by comparing the members to the component parts of a human body (12:12). Not everyone is an eye and neither is everyone an ear (12:16-17). The different parts of the body, work in symbiosis, so the church’s work is most fully and beautifully expressed, both within the community and without.

The pursuit of balance is equally evident in how the community is led. The Apostle writes in Ephesians 4 that Jesus gave some to be Apostles, some to be Prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and some pastors so that the community would be equipped for works of service, edifying the faithful to the extent of mutual unity and maturity.

One could scarcely ask for a more rational, beautiful, succinct and balanced vision of purpose and personnel in church governance. If all were Apostles or all were evangelists, or all were teachers, a woefully imbalanced and lopsided leadership would emerge and the church’s discipleship would surely be compromised.

Build Towards Healthy Gifting In Leadership

The unity and maturity Paul promises when community leadership reflects the full range of leadership gifts God has given His people, would be lost in translation if certain key gifts were absent. If churches lack a healthy unity, and Christ-believers lack resilience, maturity, the ability to think critically and independently, one may have to ask, whether there is balance within the leadership.

In a situation, as I myself have experienced, where all early career ministers were expected to develop into evangelists, an imbalanced leadership contributed to a spiritually under-equipped community; there were a wealth of new converts, but the vast majority did not remain within the community.

It seems to me at least very probable that the dearth of teachers, pastors, elders, etc., led to a community lacking in so much of the armoury believers require for training in discipleship. Surely, the presence of the teachers and pastors, as per Eph. 4, within the church would have provided the necessary balance and sustenance, and the unfolding history of our communities have been very different.

Balance In Discipleship

Balance ought not just to be sought in the broader community and its leadership, but even in the lives of individual believers. John Wesley (usually credited) once taught a fourfold framework of ideas to help Christians reflect on their lives and their discipleship. These ideas formed what is often referred to as “Wesley’s quadrilateral”; namely, scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Some kind of balance between the four is undoubtedly necessary and the interplay between the four can help believers be more sensitive to the voice of God.

In my own opinion, more weight ought to be leant to scripture, though, of course, the interplay between the four sets the agenda for reflection. Perhaps one might say that scripture is the index by which the interplay between the four achieves the correct balance. Part of my reason for saying this is how easy it is for tradition to become, in a somewhat covert fashion, the de facto dictator of church life.

When Tradition Overrides

This is seen powerfully when one considers the calling of Paul. At times, I think we limit what God can do through us because we get so nervous about having “the way we’ve always done things” questioned.

In Luke’s second volume, he records an incident which helps clarify for me why God called Paul. Remember in Acts 10 when Peter had the vision and was supposed to kill and eat the four-footed animals.

Peter saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.  In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven” (Acts 10:10-16)

Peter had the vision and was supposed to kill and eat the four-footed animals – his response  “Surely not, Lord, I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”  In other words, Peter held on to the Law so tightly, even God, couldn’t get him to break it.  

Imagine that, God says get up Peter, kill and eat and Peter says no – God’s law forbids it. I can almost hear God shouting, “yeah mate I am God, now eat”! God was doing something new amongst His people – bringing in Gentiles – and Peter’s attachment to tradition became a stumbling block. He could never have been the apostle to the Gentiles. That took a whole different, maverick kind of personality – enter Paul.

The Cost Of Holding On To Traditions

Occasionally, people in abusive relationships do not leave the abuser. Their torment may be horrific; but in twisted fashion, it becomes a recognisable routine which to a vulnerable soul, can feel safer than the perils of what might lie outside. It seems bewildering to outsiders, but it becomes what he or she is used to.

It’s is all too human for people to fall back on a default position – one which provides the comfort of familiarity – even in the absence of any terribly good reason to do so. Doing something because ‘it’s the thing we’ve always done’, usually only reflects a reluctance to explore alternatives. Sometimes the tradition can even be destructive, but because it’s familiar, it persists.

As an example, I have seen Christian communities endorse all manner of positive paradigms for church life; small group ministry, specific discipling relationships, church membership lists and so on and so forth. Yet sometimes, the insistence that these paradigms are followed in a strict fashion, according to carefully prescribed guidelines, can have self-destructive effects and end up excluding people whose practice of the faith is best served with alternative paradigms.

Build Towards Emphasising Scripture

In all manner of church contexts, the fear of letting go of widely held beliefs, even those which cannot be defended by scripture, reason or experience, outweighs the prospect of navigating new territory, new beliefs and new possibilities.

Yet, should this imbalance continue to be the framework by which we attempt to build a community of Jesus believers? Should we employ a ‘pentilateral’ – scripture, tradition, reason, experience and fear? Whilst I hear you all loudly saying no, for some, such a paradigm already exists, however subconsciously.

In our experiences of discipleship to Christ, we have developed some good, life-affirming traditions, and some counter-productive ones also. The critical question becomes, what ought we do when such unhelpful traditions are identified? Do we change the community to fit the tradition or change the tradition to fit the community? I think if we do indeed employ a close reading of scripture, reason through it and apply it, the latter option will almost always be correct.

Such a way of seeing things allows Christians to be responsible for their walk with God, to think critically about their faith, to see the importance of connecting Biblical interpretation to everyday life, and most importantly, not to be afraid. As such, the community learns to discern the voice of the Spirit and opens itself up to fresh movements of God, and all the exciting avenues as He leads us down on our journey to eternity.

The Perfect Balance

If one can indeed argue that “A just balance and scales belong to the Lord” (Proverbs 16:11) then peace, well-being and sensible approaches to ministry all take their cue from the divine equilibrium. God instilled the balance we seek in our inner beings and our outward activity. This, of course, should really come as no surprise. After all, the central duality within the Christian worldview is humanity and divinity, and that decisive moment in the great Christian story when the line between them was blurred.

There came a world-changing crescendo when Jesus bridged the gap between the Heavenly realm and the earthly realm, provoking questions about a new reality. Maybe at this point, we might suggest that divinity and perfect humanity were one and the same? Surely Paul meant something to this effect when he wrote that Jesus “lowered himself, obeying God even when that meant death, and death by crucifixion of all things. That’s why God hyper-exalted him and gifted him with that name that outvalues all names” (Phil. 2:8-9).

Jesus is the bridge between the unassailable perfection of the Father and hopelessly sin-soaked nature of being human. If this truth lies at the centre of the Christian narrative, it ought to lie near the centre of our mission. There is strength in balance, balance in the divine work and divine work in any endeavour whose fruit is beauty and truth.

Photo by Xiang Hu

Written By Andy Boakye

Andy is married to Chi Boakye and father to Aaron (16) and Storm (14). He is a New Testament critic, Lecturer in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester and author of the book “Death and Life: Resurrection, Restoration and Rectification in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians’. He is also a reviewer for the Journal of the Study of New Testament.

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