When we approach discipleship, we often approach it from a skewed viewpoint: hands, heart or head… but not all three combined.
The “head only” approach has been popular for many years now. Teach them. Give them knowledge. Instill in them new facts. Discipleship is primarily about knowing the right information, whether that’s the books of the Bible in order, memory verses, or precise theology. The academic model centers on the classroom: we educate toward discipleship.
The assumption underlying the “head only” approach, often unstated, is that if people know enough, they’ll start doing the right things and their hearts will change. But we know from long experience that doesn’t automatically follow. Knowing doesn’t always lead to doing or being. We might get our thinking straight, but then don’t let it get to our heart.
However, there can be an over-correction: what I call the “all hands” approach. Many groups have decided that obedience is the way to go. “Let’s not worry about head-knowledge or an inward focus on one’s own heart. What really matters is just getting on doing what Jesus told us to do- -the Lord’s work.” And certainly, behavior, like knowledge, is important. But when we emphasize right behavior in a way that doesn’t take the heart into account and doesn’t teach people the “why” behind their actions, we end up with Pharisees.
Any discipleship approach based solely on behavior and not taking the condition of the heart into account misses the gospel of grace and falls into works-righteousness. A very dangerous place to be, according to Jesus.
So let’s move away from the checklist of right behaviors and pay attention to the heart. We will call this the “heart only” approach. The emphasis is on the internal world of feelings and experience… to the exclusion of knowledge and behavior. What does the “heart only” approach look like when used as the primary mode of discipleship? It’s like some medieval groups of monks– an emotional retreat into isolation. In this system, people are encouraged to cultivate their heart and their character, but not to take any action based on it.
As James bluntly puts it, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17). Faith is not truly faith when it has been severed from real world experience and relevance.
So we must move toward the integration of head, hands and heart. Each of these alone fails to achieve a healthy, holistic, robust discipleship.
Stop and think: Which of these models do you most naturally default into? Although some people focus on just one of these models to an extreme, more of us tend to prioritize two out of three. That means that virtually all of us have at least one area we neglect. What’s yours?