A few years ago, it was fashionable to have seminars, books, and classes on “spiritual formation.” Many churches hired a “minister of spiritual formation” — a position that has largely degraded into being the minister over the adult ed program and small groups. The minister of spiritual formation is the guy who picks out this quarter’s video series and makes up five follow up questions to hopefully fill up the time after the DVD is through playing.
The original idea reached higher.
(Gal 4:18-19 ESV) 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
The first mistake we made was using “spiritual formation” to mean “Christ formation.” It’s too easy to fill the word “spiritual” with whatever is easy or fashionable. “Christ” has much more content and so poses a much greater challenge. Forming Christ in someone forces us to ask just what that means. And that requires the fruit of the Spirit. And more. But the fruit of the Spirit would be a decent start if we’d only teach it in community terms rather than how I can be a nicer person.
So what does it mean to be like Christ? If Jesus were to be formed in me, what would I be like? Would I while away my days in lectio divina? I think not. Jesus didn’t.
No, I’d follow the wisdom of John Howard Yoder found in chapter 7 of The Politics of Jesus, pp. 130-131,
[T]here is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament. According to universal tradition, Jesus was not married; yet when the apostle Paul, advocate par excellence of the life “in Christ,” argues at length for celibacy or for a widow’s not remarrying (1 Cor. 7), it never occurs to him to appeal to Jesus’ example, even as one of many arguments. … [T]here have been efforts to imitate his prayer life or his forty days in the desert: but never in the New Testament.
There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus – and only thus – are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”
Got it? We become disciples, not by exercising various imagined “spiritual disciplines.” We become disciples by imitating Jesus — or in the language of the Gospels, by following Jesus. We follow Jesus by developing servant hearts. In service for others, we become like Jesus — and that happens only in community.
Read what the Scriptures say about what it means to truly follow Jesus —
(2Co 4:8-10 ESV) 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
(Phi 3:8b-11 ESV) For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(John 13:14-15 ESV) 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
(1Pe 2:21 ESV) 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
(1Jo 3:16 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
(Rom 6:6-18 ESV) 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves [language of sacrifice!] to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But 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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
(2Co 13:4-6 ESV) 4 For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God. 5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.
(Rom 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
To follow Jesus is to become like him in his service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering.
For the Churches to be “of Christ,” we must be noted for our service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering. In no other way can we be churches of Christ.
To test whether we’re accomplishing this goal we need only ask whether our older, more seasoned members are more submissive, more servant-hearted, more sacrificial, and more willing to suffer than our new members. Maturing in Christ means becoming more like him.
The story we tell is not our superior understanding or knowledge but rather lives committed to Christlikeness. Rather than condemning “the denominations” from the pulpit, we should be calling each other into greater commitment to becoming like Jesus.
One of the best ways to do this is through the Sacraments, which were designed in part for just this purpose. But the Sacraments are also designed to be practiced in community. We baptize and we take communion together. These are church activities that call us toward Jesus over and over.
They tell a story that we enter and live, the story of Jesus.