In biblical culture, as in most cultures still today, people did not live primarily as individuals, but as families, especially extended families. How might this influence our understanding of discipleship?
My wife Pam and I recently quit our full-time jobs so we could spend more of our time, among other things, introducing people to the context of the Bible. Our newly emerging rhythm of life means we are now spending 20% of our time in a Middle Eastern cultural context. One of the key insights this lifestyle shift has given me is this:
Our modern, western lens of individualism distorts the biblical message.
As we spend time here in the Holy Land, we are reminded over and over that in biblical culture, as in most cultures still today, people did not live primarily as individuals, but as families, especially extended families. When we visit places like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Chorazin we see the homes people inhabited in biblical times were designed for multiple nuclear families to live together, sharing a common life and vocation.
The Old Testament word for this kind of extended family life is “beth.” The New Testament word for this is “oikos.” No one in the ancient world would even consider living as an individual or a nuclear family; it was far too difficult and dangerous. The purpose of the biblical beth and oikos was to protect and provide for the extended family.
Oikos is the context of a biblical lifestyle
As we eat meals in neighborhood restaurants, observe cottage industries, and get to know local residents we see the same is still true in the Holy Land today.
Our closest friends here in Jerusalem are a Christian family who trace their ancestry back many centuries in this place. We have been friends for 30 years. Their home is designed almost exactly as the first-century homes we see in archaeological digs: multiple rooms and a kitchen built around a common courtyard where they cook and share life together.
They think of everything in the context of their extended family.
They live in the same buildings or in close proximity to each other. They own a restaurant and everyone in the oikos works as they are able to make it a success. They take their vacations together. They face challenges, mourn losses, and celebrate victories together.
The two brothers we know best married two sisters from another family in Jerusalem. Now the two extended families are deeply connected. Last night we had the privilege of attending the graduation party of one of the sons. Seventy people gathered in an outdoor courtyard for a feast of biblical proportions and spent the night singing, dancing and laughing.
As Pam and I sat back and observed we were struck by the power and blessing of living as an oikos. In our society so many nuclear families are isolated, trying to face the challenges of life and find meaning on their own. There is so much to be gained by relearning what it means to share life and mission with a spiritual family that extends beyond our own nuclear family.
Oikos was the context of Jesus’ life
For most of my Christian life I read the Gospels and assumed Jesus called his disciples to leave their families and go off by themselves with him. While it is true they did travel extensively and this took them away from their families for periods of time, I completely missed the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.
Jesus didn’t call them away from their extended family, he moved into their extended family!
Archaeologists have discovered the actual extended family home of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum. This is where Jesus centered his mission. The Gospel writers repeatedly refer to this as Jesus’ “oikos” and describe him spending time there with a houseful of disciples (Mark 2:1-2). Jesus himself told his estranged biological family that these members of his spiritual oikos were now his mother and brothers and sisters (Mark 3:34-35).
Jesus turned the oikos of Simon and Andrew inside out.
No longer did the oikos exist primarily to provide for and protect the members of the family. As Jesus told them, no longer was the family business going to be catching and selling fish, now they were going to fish for people (Mark 1:17). The door of the house was thrown wide open and everyone was invited in—tax collectors, prostitutes, even the demon-possessed! (Mark 1:32) Jesus was showing them what it looks like to become a family on mission.
Oikos is the context of biblical discipleship
As modern, western people who are profoundly shaped by an individualistic culture, it is natural for us to think of discipleship in individual terms. The personal responsibility of each individual to respond to Jesus’ invitation is critical to becoming a disciple, but it is not the ongoing context of discipleship.
As modern, western people who have come to understand family primarily as the nuclear family, it is also natural for us to think of discipleship as happening only in a small group. Jesus chose twelve disciples into whom he poured his life most directly, so we would do well to follow that same pattern, but we must not miss the wider context of Jesus’ disciple-making.
Jesus trained the twelve disciples in the context of an extended family.
Repeatedly the Gospel writers describe Jesus being in his oikos with the twelve disciples surrounded by a houseful of disciples (Mark 2:15; 3:30). Even as he most intentionally discipled the twelve, there was a large extended family who were benefiting from Jesus’ teaching and modeling. More importantly, the twelve primary disciples were spending time with a wider group of disciples into whom they could begin to pour their lives.
It is interesting that Jesus ended up sending 72 out on mission, which would be the exact number if each of the twelve disciples were to begin discipling five others from the oikos in Capernaum.
Discipleship works best within an extended spiritual family
I have found in my own experience and in the lives of the leaders I have trained, that discipleship is most effective when it happens in a small group (nuclear family) which is functioning as part of a mid-sized missional group (extended family). When people are discipled as part of an extended family they have built-in opportunities to put into practice the things their rabbi is modeling for them and training them to do.
Many leaders I have coached over the years tell me the people they are discipling have trouble finding even six people who are promising candidates for intentional discipleship. The reason for this is almost always that these leaders are discipling people in a small group, but not in the context of an extended family on mission.
The oikos is meant to function as a living laboratory where disciples can learn to multiply!
Discipleship in the context of extended family gives people the opportunity to develop enough capital with others to call them into discipling relationships of their own. Disciples who are part of a missional oikos have lots of opportunities to develop the skill set it takes to effectively disciple others. People who are functioning as part of a family on mission learn how to reach out to others and welcome them into the family of God.
If you want your disciples to be able to make disciples, it is crucial that you not only gather them into a small group as Jesus did, but that you and the people you are discipling share a missional life together with a larger spiritual family as Jesus did with his disciples. If we are going to multiply disciples who can do what Jesus does, we will need to buck the trend of modern, western culture and relearn a new way to be family.
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