Being a Talmid (Disciple) in Today’s World
This is a response to an original blog post by Allan Stanglin, the preacher at Legacy Church of Christ, the church I grew up going to. He also took a bit of flack from a commenter when he mentioned the post again, here. It is partially to both Allan’s post and this commenter’s comments that I wish to respond to.
The question at hand, and one I have wrestled with is one I know all Christians deal with which is typified in the question: is it “okay” to skip a church service for something like the Super Bowl? This is a tricky question to answer and I know I won’t do it justice, but…here goes.
I struggled with this all throughout college and especially after I started dating Erin who took the stance that you had to be there any time the church doors were open. Period. Nothing was more important, because this is your life, it’s who you are. I had grown up going to church on Sunday mornings, maybe on Wednesday nights, and then doing stuff with the youth group when it got together. My family hardly ever went to Sunday evening services, Super Bowl or not. From the time I was old enough to join until I was 18, I was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts, and we went camping once a month, every month, sometimes more than once if there was a troop, district, and council camping events all in the same month. I remember one month I went camping 4 weekends in a row. That of course meant that I missed church that Sundy morning. Oh, we had a “chaplain’s service” on Sundays, but it wasn’t “Church of Christ” services with communion. So when I went camping I’d go on Sunday evening explicitly to take communion, that was my entire purpose for going that evening. It was, like I think it is for most Christians today (because I’ve been there), something to check off my list. I still see it today in people who sneak out after communion on Sunday mornings. They’ve done their duty, now to get on with life. My thoughts about church attendance have significantly shifted from those days, partly affected by my wife’s attitude, partly affected by my own study, and partly affected by my desire to be like Jesus. So that’s where I come from.
The idea that our committment to God is more important than anything else is spot on. It’s exactly right. Nothing else should be placed above God in our lives, else we fall prey to modern idolitry (and to some, the NFL is their idol). That being said, we should examine exactly why it is said that going to church is more important than watching the Super Bowl. But before we do that, I’d like to examine the first century church and how they handled this kind of situation.
Just like the Rabbi
Jesus was a first century Jewish Rabbi. 100%, he was a Jew, and a Rabbi. Without getting too much into the details of the culture, we say that Rabbis were in the business of making disciples. Disciple is the English word for the Hebrew word talmid. A talmid is not a student. A student wants to know what the teacher knows so they can pass the class, get the good grade, etc. A talmid, on the other hand, wants to be what the Rabbi is. I know this fairly well since I’m a student in grad school. I don’t want to be what my teachers are, I just want to know what they know. A disciple follows Jesus not to know stuff, but to become what he was/is – that’s their entire goal in life. But how can you become what the teacher is, just by studying in the classroom? You can’t. And so Rabbis would live life and take their students with them, traveling around and teaching them in life’s situations. Their students could watch how they handled each situation; how he dealt with this man, how he dealt with that woman, how he did this or that business dealing, etc. A Rabbi couldn’t comprehend teaching the 10 Commandments in a classroom just to list them off on a test, but rather, he would let the situations come up in real life and then use that as an example to his talmidim (pl. of talmid).
So now the question we come to is this: how do you be like the Rabbi today? We can’t literally follow him around and listen to him teach. So now the only two ways are this: (1) to read the scriptures and learn how he taught, and (2) to put yourself around other people who also want more than anything else to be just like Jesus (aka: the church). That’s it, those are your two choices today. And if I am truly a talmid of Jesus, then my passion to be just like him will be greater than anything else in the whole world. Greater than work, greater than my hobbies, greater than even the Super Bowl. It was out of this mentality that the first century church grew, because it was founded directly by the talmidim of Jesus.
The next thing we find is that the early church met together daily. That is hard cheese to swallow for any Christian today. Most people like to ignore that verse, especially when it comes to showing up to church events. If you try to plan too many, people start to feel “overwhelmed.” Why is that? (I’m not making fun of anyone, by the way, but rather speaking from personal experience because remember I was most defintely there several years ago and was actually proud of where I was) For some reason, when someone suggests doing what the early church did, everyone freaks out. Why? And then heaven forbid that your preacher challenges you to actually show up to a gathering of the church despite a popular annual event being on TV! (can you hear the sarcasm?) Surely, God doesn’t care if I miss once, right? The answer might surprise you.
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. ” (Isaiah 1:13-14)
In these verses and several others in the prophets, God reveals that he really doesn’t care about all the sacrifices as much as he cares about having your heart (Of course he still cared about the sacrifices, but if the Iraelites were just doing it to check it off the list rather than to genuinely please God, then it becomes meaningless and even detestable to God). We can apply the same lesson to us today: God could honestly not care less about how many times a week we go and warm the pews at church! That’s a hard thing to grasp for most people, especially those that grew up with the notion that because the church doors are open you must be there. There is nothing you can do to earn your salvation, or to make God love you any more than He already does, and that includes never missing a church service. Pew warming is meaningless to God.
But by asking the question “Surely God doesn’t care if I miss just once, right?” you miss the point. At Oklahoma Christian (where I went to undergraduate), you were required to go to chapel Monday – Friday and were given 15 skips per semester for whatever reason. As long as you didn’t skip more than 15 times, they didn’t come down on you. By asking if God cares about if you miss just once, you look at it like OC’s chapel attendance. So long as I’m there most of the time, it doesn’t matter, right? Or, I’m there every Sunday morning, that’s good enough, right? God’s not going to ask you at the pearly gates how many times you went to church, or what your per-week-average was – He doesn’t care about that! If you go 3 times a week, 1 time a week, or 20 times a week (if there was such a thing), the question you should be asking is “why do I go as often as I do?” If you are a talmid, then you will be consumed by a passion to be at any church event as often as humanly possible, but not because “the church doors are open” but because “I want more than anything to be like Jesus.”
So how do we reconcile these two seemingly different statements of mine? On the one hand, I’ve stated unequivocally that God doesn’t care about how many times a week you are at the church building. On the other hand, I’ve stated that to be a true disciple of Jesus you are always studying the Word and placing yourself around other disciples to spur one another on to become just like the Rabbi, and the usual place to go to be around other Christians is at the church building. So where do these two viewpoints meet? Recall how above I mentioned that the Rabbis went out and lived life to teach their talmidim how to become like them. I believe this is the key, for it is what Jesus did. With regard to the question that started this whole post, the question is not: “is it ‘okay’ to skip a church service for something like the Super Bowl?” but rather, “regardless of where you are (church or watching the Super Bowl), what are you doing to become closer to God?” A true talmid is striving in everything they do to be more like the Rabbi. At work, at school, at home, at a resteraunt, in the car wash, at the gas station, and any other place you go. If you’re not showing the world that there is a God by your actions 24/7, then you’re not living like a talmid. The church building is a great place to become closer to God, but it isn’t THE place!
So if you went to church that evening on Superbowl Sunday, did you go because you are consumed by a passion to become more like Jesus? Or did you go because you felt obligated to go, or you knew you’d feel guilty if you didn’t? If you went to church because you felt obligated or would have felt guilty not going, you might as well have just stayed home and watched the game. Similarly, if you watched the Superbowl that Sunday evening instead of going to church, did you do it to become closer to God, or did you do it because you just can’t miss the big game? If you were at a church superbowl party where you had fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ, then I’d say that was a valid opportunity to become more like the Rabbi, living life and loving each other. Of course, if you were at a church Super Bowl party and you came to that instead of staying home by yourself because you’d feel guilty not showing up to a church function, then you might as well have stayed at home too.
Being a talmid is so much more than simply choosing to be at the church building over watching a TV show. Certainly we must put God first in everything we do, and if a person who is trying desperately to be just like Jesus chooses one way of getting closer to that goal over another, we cannot judge. I just pray that said person had the right heart and motives behind it, lest it be a detestable thing to God.
Peace to you,