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Teachers as Spiritual Leaders and Theologians

By Diana L. Hynson (updated by Scott Hughes, May 2019)

The gifts he gave were that some would be . . . teachers, . . . for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Stock two men talking with bibles

Teachers and small-group leaders are spiritual leaders who seek to live their faith in their daily lives. They are mindful and intentional in growing in their relationship with God and others. When they lead groups, they create healthy settings for people to seek God and respond to God’s grace. They also model lifelong learning.

Becoming a mature spiritual leader is a transformational experience. Like all transformative experiences, this particular one is due to a vital, growing relationship with God. The congregation’s responsibility to the ministry of teaching is to support teachers and group leaders by providing opportunities for spiritual growth, ongoing learning, resources, and other materials needed help leaders make an impact.

This describes the role of teachers and small-group leaders. Teachers:

  • are spiritual leaders.
  • value their relationships with God and other people.
  • experience God’s transforming presence through the ministry of teaching and learning.
  • talk to others about God, God’s character, and God’s love.

To discuss theology, or our understanding about God’s relationship with us and the world, can be overwhelming and even scary for some teachers. What if our teaching reveals our inadequacies or lack of knowledge? What if we lead others astray? How can teaching positively influence others to grow in their relationship with God? These are big topics. Being a spiritual leader is a lifelong endeavor. This resource will aim to ease some of these fears and equip teachers to feel more comfortable in their role as spiritual leaders and theologians.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this resource:

What Is Theology?
Some Basic Theological Beliefs
How Do We Know What Our Theology Is?
A Theology of Grace
A Theology of Discipleship
Theology in Your Curriculum

Take a brief inventory as a self-evaluation tool before exploring Teachers as Spiritual Leaders and Theologians.

Read each statement; then circle the number that best describes your situation.
1 = Not at all; 2 = Somewhat; 3 = Mostly; 4 = Definitely

1 2 3 4 I experience God’s love and grace in my life.
1 2 3 4 I know what theology is and how I am a theologian.
1 2 3 4 I understand the three ways Wesleyans speak about grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
1 2 3 4 I can help others make connections between their experience, the Bible, Christian doctrine, and what they think about God.
1 2 3 4 The way I teach is aligned with my understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church.
1 2 3 4 I understand what Christian discipleship is and how to explain it to others.

What Is Theology?

Me? Know about theology? Forget it! That may be your reaction when you think of yourself as a theologian. If so, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, it is commonly assumed that only professional theologians can speak theologically. The very word theology can transform the most confident teacher into an apprehensive one. Not to worry. As a matter of fact, as a Christian, you are already a theologian. To say, "God bless you" is a basic theological statement because it reveals our assumption and belief that God cares about us and wants us to be whole.

Defining Theology

In simple terms, theology means the study of God (theos is the Greek term for God). Our theology is how we think about God, how we talk about God, and what we believe about God. Over the centuries, Christian theologians have developed technical terms to express our theology. For example, in Christian theology, we speak about who Jesus is and how we understand Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, which is termed Christology. Other important terms include:

  • ecclesiology relates to exploring the nature of the church,
  • soteriology relates to the saving act of Jesus Christ,
  • pneumatology refers to the Holy Spirit, and
  • hagiography pertains to the communion of saints.

These and other terms can be helpful in discussing the church’s thoughts about God.

To be clear, everyone has a theology. We may not feel comfortable talking about what we believe. We may not spend much time consciously thinking about our beliefs. But we do have beliefs, values, and assumptions that have shaped us since our childhood. We respond to the world through the lens of these beliefs, values, and assumptions.

While people have theology, the church and denominations maintain official dogma or doctrines of the church. Part III of The United Methodist Book of Disciple is titled, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task,” which includes Basic Christian Affirmations, The General Rules, The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, and the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The sizeable number of Christian denominations reveals the rich diversity in theological understandings of God, faith, and Christian discipleship. This diversity has existed since the church began. Take a look at the Book of Acts for some of the arguments about whether Gentiles had to be circumcised or whether they had to follow the Jewish law to be Christian. These arguments were not philosophical debates, but practical theological issues of the emerging Christian faith. The outcome of the dispute was important to each person involved.

There are many practical theological issues that continue to be contemplated in today’s church. As individuals and as faith communities, we continue the responsibility to engage in serious study, reflection, and prayer as we clarify, test, and renew our interpretation of the gospel for today’s reality. As The Book of Discipline implores us, “Our theological task is both critical and constructive…individual and communal…contextual and incarnational…[and] is essentially practical.”[1]

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercise

1. What are some of the questions of faith facing the church today? As you think about those issues, what knowledge and experience have the greatest impact on what you believe about the issues?

2. What questions do you have about basic Christian doctrines? With whom can you discuss these questions to receive further insight?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Read Part III, “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task,” and Part V, “Social Principles,” of The Book of Discipline. Underline and highlight areas of insight and questioning. If you do not have a copy of the Book of Discipline, you can also explore “Basics of Our Faith” and the Social Principles at umc.org.

2. For a longer-term reflection, choose one of the theological issues in our church, particularly the divisive ones. Commit to doing a theological study with a group that will take a serious look at all sides and theological viewpoints. Then assess what your theology/our doctrine has to say about the issue, what varying perspectives exist, and how your study has influenced (or not) your original viewpoint and theology.

Some Basic Theological Beliefs

There are many different expressions of Christian theology. However, throughout the centuries, the Christian church has attempted to describe the basic doctrines of our faith. Here is a brief listing.


  • We describe God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are commonly used to refer to the threefold nature of God.


  • We believe in one God, who created the world and all that is in it.
  • We believe that God is sovereign; that is, God is the ruler of the universe.
  • We believe that God is loving. We can experience God’s love and grace.


  • We believe that Jesus was fully human. He lived as a man and died when he was crucified.
  • We believe that Jesus is fully divine. He is the Son of God.
  • We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the risen Christ lives today. (Christ and Messiah mean the same thing—God’s anointed.)
  • We believe that Jesus Christ is our Savior. In Christ, we receive abundant life and forgiveness of sins.
  • We believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and that we are called to pattern our lives after his.

The Holy Spirit

  • We believe that the Holy Spirit is God with us.
  • We believe that the Holy Spirit comforts us when we are in need and convicts us when we stray from God.
  • We believe that the Holy Spirit awakens us to God’s will and empowers us to live obediently.

Human Beings

  • We believe that God created human beings in God’s image.
  • We believe that humans can choose to accept or reject a relationship with God.
  • We believe that all humans need to be in relationship with God in order to be fully human.

The Church

  • We believe that the church is the body of Christ, an extension of Christ’s life and ministry in the world today.
  • We believe that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  • We believe that the church is "the communion of saints," a community made up of all past, present, and future disciples of Christ.
  • We believe that the church is called to worship God and to support those who participate in its life as they grow in faith.

The Bible

  • We believe that the Bible is God’s Word.
  • We believe that the Bible is the primary authority for our faith and practice.
  • We believe that Christians need to know and study the Old Testament and the New Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures).

Talking About God

You may have heard words used to describe God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures contain many words and phrases that people use to name or describe the fullness of God’s nature, Christ’s identity, or the Spirit’s work. The most common Hebrew name for God was Yahweh (meaning I Am Who I Am or I Will Be Who I Will Be). We see numerous images for God in the Psalms, for example, such as rock, shield, king, light, Just One, and so on. In the gospels, Jesus is called Teacher, the Good Shepherd, Son of Man, and Lord. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the Comforter, Teacher, Counselor, and the Advocate.

Affirming Our Faith

Throughout the centuries, as matters of faith were discussed and debated, various church councils created written statements of belief. These statements, or creeds, provided a concise record of church doctrine.

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the most familiar creeds. It was based on similar statements of faith used in baptism rituals as early as the second century. The current form of this creed was written in the eighth century. It is important to note the structure of the creed is Trinitarian: God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The affirmations from this creed reflect the biblical story and provide a framework for Christian belief. It is also worth noting that some creeds use the plural “we,” which gives the church body an opportunity to affirm what the church has believed across time, while some creeds use singular “I” language to allow personal approval.

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises

1. Search the Scriptures for other names and images that refer to God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. Think about which of these words and phrases holds the most meaning for you. How have the words and phrases you use to describe God changed over the years? To what do you attribute the changes?

2. Several Affirmations of Faith are included in The United Methodist Hymnal (880-889). Some of them are taken directly from Scripture; others are based on theological understandings of Scripture. Look at one or more of the Creeds or Affirmations and search out the Scriptures that support the specific statements of faith. Are any of the statements confusing or hard to accept? If so, why? What are the statements that really sustain your faith and sense of discipleship? How can you share them with your class or group members?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Look over whatever curriculum resources you use in your class or group or review the curriculum you have prepared on your own. What images, metaphors, and names do you use for God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit? What might be the effect on your teaching and leading if you used a broader array of characterizations?

2. Look over previously used curriculum resources from your class or group to review which doctrines of the church have been covered and which might need to be covered in the future.

How Do We Know What Our Theology Is?

Our theology is shaped by the Bible, Christian traditions, our experiences, and how we interpret these things. We express the Christian faith in the hymns we sing, the creed we profess, the prayers we utter, and the rituals we participate in. Our context influences how we interpret faith language, rituals, symbols, and practices.

Reading Scripture

The Bible, of course, is a book about God and God’s relationship with human beings. As United Methodist Christians, we believe that Scripture is our primary source for faith and practice. The Bible bears witness to the reality of God in our lives and in our world.

Genesis 1:1 begins the story of God’s self-revelation with the words, "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. . . ." The story continues in verses 26 and 27: "Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’; . . . in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." This ancient narrative of our origins concludes with the awesome testimony: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (1:31). As a Christian people, we proclaim that before there was anything, there was God. The essence of God’s nature is creative and relational. We have been created in God’s image. We reflect God’s image in and through our creative acts and in how we relate to those in our sphere of influence and in how we advocate for others.

The rest of the Bible recounts how often human beings failed to live up to God’s image. We read how they worshiped success, wealth, or power instead of worshiping God and even how often they failed to love their neighbors through devaluing and exploiting others. The Scriptures also witness to God’s steadfast love and forgiveness. Again and again, God reestablishes God’s relationship with humanity through covenants. Again and again, God shows the way to union—or reunion—with God. This witness is most evident in Jesus Christ, who came that we might be reunited with God.

In the church, we use the word sin for actions and attitudes that separate us from God and God’s will. We use the word grace for God’s generosity, unconditional love toward us, and empowerment to live abundantly. And we use the words reconciliation and salvation for God’s action in Jesus Christ. These concepts are basic to the Christian story. Indeed, the story of the church, including today’s church, is the ongoing story of God’s reconciling work through Jesus Christ.

Paying Attention to Jesus

To know what God is like, we can pay attention to the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Take a look at the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel (the Book of Mark). In many ways, this chapter is a microcosm of Jesus’ ministry. The chapter begins with Jesus feeding 4,000 people. It continues with Jesus healing a blind man. Then Jesus has a conversation with his disciples about what people are saying about him, and Peter professes his faith that Jesus is God’s chosen Messiah. The chapter concludes with Jesus calling the disciples to "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (verse 34).

Feeding, healing, teaching, calling—these are the essential elements of Jesus’ ministry announcing God’s coming kingdom. If we agree that we can know God through Jesus, then these actions provide clues to who God is and what God wants from us. God cares about our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs. We continue the ministry of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit as witnesses of God’s kingdom.

Praising God Through Singing

Think back to the earliest song you remember singing in Sunday school or church. What was the song? What words did it use to describe God? What clues to the Christian life did it hold?

I remember singing a song that went something like, "God is love. Praise God, praise God. All God’s children praise. God is love." The next verses said, "Love God, love God," and "Serve God, serve God." What a wonderful foundation for theology! From the time I was a small child, I was taught that God is a God of love first and foremost. And what, according to the song, should be my response to God’s abundant love? How could it be anything else but praise, love, and joyful service?

Our worship life is rich with hymns and songs that express our faith in God through Christ. Whether we are singing an old hymn, such as "This Is My Father’s World," or a praise song, such as "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," the words express our understanding of who God is, what God has done for us, and how we respond.

Participating in the Church’s Common Life

Consider a typical Sunday in your congregation. More than likely, there are practices that happen each week. These practices may include

  • lighting candles on the altar;
  • greeting one another and offering the peace of Christ to one another;
  • sharing prayer concerns with the congregation.

Now think about a typical month in your congregation. More than likely, the congregation will observe one or more of the following practices:

  • celebrating Holy Communion;
  • baptizing a child or adult;
  • extending the "hand of fellowship" to a family who desires to take the vows of church membership.

Each of these occasions is marked with familiar words and actions called rituals. From a practical standpoint, rituals help us know what to do because we’ve done them before. From a theological standpoint, rituals express our faith. Lighting candles reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world. When an acolyte carries the light from the altar through the congregation, it is a reminder that we are to be God’s light in the world. Sharing prayer concerns reminds us that we are the body of Christ, and if any member of the body suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26) and that we “rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Gathering around the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion reminds us what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. We also confess our sin, receive words of affirmation and pardon, and trust that Christ is present with us through the sacrament.

Inevitably, the practices of the congregations you have participated in have shaped what you believe about God. Since most of the practices are not explained during a worship service, the purpose of these practices likely goes unrecognized. As a teacher, part of your responsibility is to help those you lead to bring the significance of these practices to a conscious level and to offer times for people reflect on these practices as ways we express our faith.

Understanding Our Context

Each of us is born into a particular family, community, nation, and culture. These units of society include values, customs, language, priorities, standards, and expectations. As we grow up, we discover what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in our family, congregation, community, and culture. We learn the "rules" for success, as well as the boundaries that we should not ignore.

In addition to these overarching societal factors, there are additional variables that define our context. Some of these are:

  • gender
  • education
  • income
  • race/ethnicity
  • location (rural, suburban, urban)

Additionally, individuals may live alone or with a spouse, children, a friend, or other relatives. A family may be living temporarily in a country in which they were not born. A person living alone may have always been single or may be divorced or widowed.

Our cultural context and our personal experiences shape how we view the world. They also influence our theology. We need to understand our context to understand the values we hold dear, the assumptions out of which we operate, and the factors that most often influence our decisions and our behavior.

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises

1. Look at one of the worship bulletins from your congregation. In what ways were you invited to pray? Which of the above rituals were included in the service? What images and actions of God were celebrated? How did any of these practices help you connect with God during worship?

2. What is your favorite Bible story or passage? What does it say about God, about Jesus, about the church? How long has this story been your favorite? Are there particular circumstances that bring it to mind? How have you called upon the story to remind you of your faith, to find comfort, or to seek guidance?

3. Jot down some of the hymns or songs that are frequently sung in worship. Look up their lyrics and ponder, “What do these hymns we sing teach us about God?” Are there any lyrics that are helpful or cause questions to arise?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Consider your community and congregation. What factors most significantly influence life in your community? In your congregation? What are the unspoken rules in your congregation? How would you define the core values of your congregation? What, would you say, is the most prominent image of God in the congregation? Of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? How does your congregation address community issues? Ask these questions of several people in the congregation, with a balance of gender, age, and longevity in the congregation. What insight does that information add to understanding and forming a theology for you?

A Theology of Grace

Our United Methodist heritage is rooted in a deep and profound understanding of God’s grace. This incredible grace flows from God’s great love for us. Did you have to memorize John 3:16 when you were a child? There was a good reason. This one verse summarizes the gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." The ability to call to mind God’s love and God’s gift of Jesus Christ is a rich resource for theology and faith.

Grace can be defined as the love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, described God’s grace as threefold:

  • prevenient grace
  • justifying grace
  • sanctifying grace

Prevenient Grace

Wesley understood grace as God’s active presence in our lives—God going before us to prepare us for a life of love of God and neighbor. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift—a gift that is always available, but that can be refused.

God’s grace stirs up within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God’s invitation to be in relationship with God. God’s grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good. In this aspect of God’s grace, we see the initiative that God takes in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God’s love and grace. God actively seeks us!

Justifying Grace

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). And in his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

These verses demonstrate the justifying grace of God. They point to reconciliation, pardon, deliverance, and restoration. Through the work of God in Christ, our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. According to Wesley, the image of God—which has been distorted by sin—is renewed within us through Christ’s death. In justifying grace, the Christian acknowledges his or her human situation, makes a conscious decision to turn toward God, and takes appropriate responsibility in shaping a life of discipleship. As a friend so aptly stated, God’s grace is freely given for our repentance and salvation, but to grow, we have to cooperate!

Again, this dimension of God’s grace is a gift. God’s grace alone brings us into right relationship with God. There are no hoops through which we have to jump to please God and to be loved by God. God has acted in Jesus Christ. We need only to respond in trusting faith.

Sanctifying Grace

Salvation is not a static, one-time event in our lives. It is the ongoing experience of God’s gracious presence transforming us into whom God intends us to be. Wesley described this aspect of God’s grace as sanctification, or holiness.

Through God’s sanctifying grace, we grow and mature in our ability to love as Jesus modeled. As we pray, study the Scriptures, fast, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our love for God and for others. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love neighbor. Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our outer actions and behavior, are aligned with God’s will and testify to our union with God.

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises

1. Think about a time when you experienced God’s love and grace in your life. What was it like? What has been the effect in your life?

2. What does it mean to you to be a follower of Jesus?

3. Think about the group you lead. In what ways does your teaching or other leadership help group members experience God’s grace? What evidence do you see that they are growing and maturing in their faith?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Join with other teachers for a study of Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley by Paul Chilcote (InterVarsity Press) or Formation in Faith: The Congregational Ministry of Making Disciples by Sondra Higgins Matthaei (Abingdon Press) or Keeping in Touch: Christian Formation and Teaching by Carol Krau (Discipleship Resources).

A Theology of Discipleship

Theology is not just about God. It is also about us. We live out of our understanding of who we are in relationship to God, to one another, and to the world. The Christian faith is grounded in the love and grace of God, experienced through Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is our response to God’s love and grace.

The church calls our response to God Christian discipleship. Discipleship focuses on actively following in the footsteps of Jesus. As Christian disciples, we are not passive spectators but energetic participants in God’s activity in the world. Because of what God has done for us, we offer our lives back to God. We order our lives in ways that embody Christ’s ministry in our families, workplaces, communities, and the world.

Loving God

When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, his response was: "‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment" (Matthew 22:37-38; see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28).

Discipleship is foremost about loving God. It is more than an acknowledgment of God’s existence or a statement of belief regarding God. It is total devotion, head-over-heels-in-love-with adoration. It is the deep desire to know God, to be one with God, and to worship God.

There are a variety of ways that we can develop our knowledge of and love for God. These include

  • prayer
  • Bible study
  • worship
  • fasting
  • conversation with other Christians.

John Wesley called these practices means of grace. They are means for developing our relationship with God and for experiencing God’s presence in our lives. These practices put us in a position to hear from God and to be transformed into God’s image.

Loving Neighbor

Jesus responded to questions about the most important commandment by quoting the Hebrew Scripture’s admonition to love God with our whole being. (See Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as well as the gospel passages listed above.) Then immediately, he broadened the meaning of this admonition: "The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’" (Mark 12:31).

These verses about loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves are known as the Great Commandment. Again and again, the Bible teaches us that loving God and loving neighbor are two sides of the same coin. We cannot do one without the other. These passages, among others, give us a glimpse of how prevalent this understanding of Christian discipleship is:

  • Matthew 5:43-48
  • Matthew 25:31-46
  • Luke 10:25-37
  • John 15:12-17
  • Romans 12:9-18
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 1 John 4:19-21

From these passages and others, we can draw several conclusions about what it means to love our neighbors. First of all, loving our neighbors means responding to specific needs—hunger, illness, imprisonment, loneliness, and so forth. Love is more than a feeling; it is behavior. It is practical and tangible.

Secondly, our neighbors include many people. Within the context of the Christian community, our neighbors are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Neighbors may also refer to the contemporary understanding of those who live near us. However, from a biblical perspective, neighbors often include people whom we might not normally consider neighbors:

  • strangers
  • prisoners
  • people who mistreat us (who are our enemies)
  • people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds
  • people from different religious traditions
  • people with different political views
  • people who irritate us and push the boundaries of our patience

Therefore, loving our neighbors requires attention, empathy, and sacrifice. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us to see our neighbors and to recognize their needs. We must also consider their needs to be as important as our own to live faithfully. Loving neighbor is more than random acts of kindness. It takes time, intentionality, energy, and commitment. It is a lifestyle carefully cultivated in response to God’s nature and love for all.

Finally, these passages emphasize that loving our neighbors is not optional; it is mandatory. It is what Christians do and who Christians are. Our lives are a testimony to our love—our love for God and our love for neighbor.

Making Disciples

The last verses of the Gospel of Matthew are known as the Great Commission. They read: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).

These words are significant for the church’s understanding of its mission. In this last conversation Jesus has with his disciples (according to Matthew), he sends them into the world to share the good news of God’s love and grace. He calls them to the ministry of proclamation, teaching, baptism, and obedience. He describes their ministry as making disciples.

Back up a few verses to find where and when this conversation takes place. The resurrected Christ meets the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee. (At this point Judas Iscariot has hanged himself.) Now look at Matthew 5-7, which is one of the earliest accounts that Matthew gives of Jesus’ ministry. In this passage, known as the Sermon on the Mount, where do we find Jesus? There he is—up on a mountain. And what is he talking about? Discipleship! Jesus speaks to the crowd: "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

At the beginning of his ministry and at the end of his earthly life and ministry, Jesus is on a mountaintop teaching about discipleship—about loving God and loving neighbor. Matthew frames the life and ministry of Jesus with these stories to emphasize his theological understanding about who Jesus is and Jesus’ message.

Think for a moment about who else in the Bible went up a mountain and came back down with a word from the Lord. (Hint: Look in Exodus 19 and 20.) In obedience to God’s command, Moses met God on Mount Sinai after leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. There in the wilderness, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites through God’s spokesperson, Moses. These commands became the centerpiece of the Jewish law that defined God’s covenant relationship with the people.

Matthew’s Gospel subtly establishes a parallel between Moses and Jesus as prophets, spokespersons for God, and givers of life-giving instruction (commandments). As the Israelites believed that God acted through Moses to free them from slavery and teach them about life in relationship with God, so we believe that God acted through Jesus to free us from the slavery of sin and death and teach us about life in relationship with God. That life, for Christians, is based first on the love of God through Jesus Christ. Discipleship is our response to this great gift and living abundantly as God’s children (1 Timothy 6:19).

The Christian community is a teaching and learning community. Our learning is lifelong and ongoing. Together we develop knowledge and skills. Together we experience God’s presence and the fellowship of Christian community. Together we learn to listen to God. We discover God’s call to us as individuals and as members of the faith community. Together we discern meaning and purpose for our lives.

As a teacher, you have the extraordinary opportunity to provide settings for these experiences to occur. You can lead your group members as they study together, serve in the community, and reflect on what they are learning. You can develop your ability to ask questions, value differences of opinion, and encourage inquiry and exploration. You can help class members examine their values, identify sources of authority, and test their assumptions. You can learn to listen to the hunger for truth in the people of faith you have been called to teach.

And remember, as you respond to this call, you will be following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was also called Teacher and who promised to be with us always, to the end of the age.

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercises

1. Reflect on how you plan learning experiences for your group. In what ways do these experiences cultivate loving God and loving neighbor? In what ways do you need to deepen these experiences? How might you broaden your concept of neighbor? How can you provide more opportunities for participants to reflect on their life and on theology?

2. Read several of the Scriptures cited throughout this section and reflect upon what they mean for your personal discipleship. How do discipline or religious habits figure in your practice of discipleship? How does your sense of grace and love define and structure your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ? How can you share this with others through your words, actions, and lifestyle?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Join with other church leaders in reading Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations by Junius B. Dotson to develop a discipleship pathway for your congregation. Another resource is A Blueprint for Discipleship by Kevin M. Watson (Discipleship Resources)

2. Join with other church leaders in reading Engaging Your Community: A Guide to Seeing All the People by Junius B. Dotson Find a practical way to explore your notions of "neighbor" by volunteering for a service opportunity in a context with which you are unfamiliar, such as a Habitat build, VIM or other mission trip, local rescue mission, prison ministry, or other. Be sure to do the appropriate preparation so that you are a good neighbor yourself!

3. Join with other teachers and group leaders to look at how other cultures or thinkers shape their theology and the discipleship that springs from it, such as process theology, liberation theology (from base communities in Latin America, for example), womanist Christian theology (from an African/female perspective), Middle East Christian theology, or Asian Christian theology. (Search the internet with the appropriate phrase to find numerous articles and books.)

Theology in Your Curriculum

As a teacher of children, youth, or adults, you select, adapt, and/or write curriculum resources. You choose which learning activities to use with your group. You decide which teaching methods to employ. You build relationships with class members. You consider yourself to be the group’s facilitator, or mentor, or teacher, or coach, or friend, or all of the above.

Each of these decisions and choices reflects a particular theological understanding of what your purpose is, of who you are in relationship to God, and of how you view your class members. If you have purchased curriculum resources, the writers and editors have shaped the material from a particular theological viewpoint. However, the way you use the curriculum resources and design the learning environment reflects your theological viewpoint, consciously or unconsciously.

Each of these decisions and choices also has an impact on your class members’ theology. What you teach and how you teach can reinforce or contradict learners’ own understandings of self, God, the church, and so forth. Our life as a faith community shapes and is shaped by our theology.

Dig Deeper: Personal Exercise

1. Look over two or three lessons from whatever printed or self-developed curriculum you use. What does the material say overtly about the nature and character of God? About God’s grace? About humanity? About our relationship with God? What is implied, but not stated?

For Further Study and Reflection

1. Invite a group of other teachers and small-group leaders who incorporate the Bible in the group session to research and analyze the theological approach stated or implied in the curriculum. How do each of you decide what to include and exclude as you adapt curriculum? What does that say about your theological understandings?

2. Join together with other teachers of adult classes or groups and read and discuss together Start Here: Teaching and Learning with Adults by Barbara Bruce.

3. Join together with other teachers of children and read and discuss What Every Child Should Experience by Melanie Gordon.

Other Resources

[1] “The Nature of Our Theological Task,” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House), 81-82.

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