Why did you start by reading this line?
Well—you may say—because it makes the most sense to start at the beginning.
This is true, but when it comes to disciple making, we often start at the end.
Curious? Good, let’s dive in. Let’s start at the beginning of our story.
“So God created humans in his image,
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…’“
Genesis 1:27-28 (NRSV)
This is the so-called creation or cultural mandate, the moment that humanity got our very first commission from God. Though we often begin at the end—the Great Commission that concluded Jesus’ final words to his disciples—it is important to understand that this commission has its roots in our very creation. In fact, some would argue that we were made for this purpose, to be fruitful and to multiply to fill God’s earth.
Now, why is this important to point out for us in the disciple-making tribe?
Because, while we are called into living out BOTH these mandates, it is easy for us to fall into one or the other: 1) Be fruitful; 2) Multiply and fill the earth.
We are a passionate bunch. We discipleship people have spent much of our lives working for, and praying for, greater movements of disciple making around us. But, whether we notice it or not, most of us fall into one of two camps that misalign these commands. Let’s get realigned here by remembering our first mandate, the call God placed on his image-bearers, by holding both parts of this command together. We are meant to be fruitful AND multiply.
Let’s start by asking: “What happens when we don’t?”
“BEING FRUITFUL” BUT NOT “MULTIPLYING”
This tendency uplifts the calling on our lives to be fruitful, to be healthy trees—in essence, to reflect Jesus in our character. The focus is who we are becoming and how we are behaving. In the discipleship setting, the emphasis within this camp is on the perfect curriculum, the right character-formation results, learning the right things or doing the right things. We want to see the personal effect our disciple-making efforts have on those we are discipling.
The titles thrown around in this world are “Spiritual Formation” or “Spiritual Maturity.”
Now, this makes up a part of the story, of course. The Great Commission expounds on the creation mandate when Jesus calls his disciples to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). We are meant to bear the fruit of repentance, to see our character come more in line with Jesus’. I have spent far too much money (happily) on books from the great gurus of Spiritual Formation, who are focused on how we change and what specific practices or habits can help us do so. My favorite people are those who have undertaken the sacrificial, humble, and quiet work of seeing themselves grow more into the likeness of Jesus through the power of the Spirit.
So what’s the problem? If we focus on the “being fruitful” part without the “multiply” part, we will result in an inward-only journey, focused solely on my own growth. The reality of Augustine’s warning of the “incurvatus in se” (the human tendency of “curving into oneself”), is only too real in this half-true viewpoint. If we are meant to be image-bearers by bearing this mandate, we must turn our focus outward.
Further, since character change is not immediate, when discipleship is all about “being fruitful,” it can often leave a disciple maker feeling ineffective and helpless, seeing those they’re discipling still as spiritual babies. It’s important to remember that Jesus multiplied by giving his Great Commission to 11 (incomplete) believer-doubters (see Matthew 28:17)…and that was after THREE YEARS with God incarnate!
But what if we go too far the other way?
“MULTIPLYING” WITHOUT THE “BEING FRUITFUL”
This tendency uplifts the “movement”—the rapidly growing, self-perpetuating, ever-expanding movement of Jesus in the world. The focus here is growth, scale, and expansion. In the discipleship setting, the emphasis is less on curriculum and impact, but on strategy and structure. When in discussion about mentoring or d-groups or whatever other discipleship vehicle, there will be more focus on the reproduction of said vehicle over the shift it is bringing about in the person.
The titles thrown around in this world are “Church Growth” or “Church Leadership.”
Again, another part of the story. The Great Commission begins with the command to disciple all nations. How can we get to all nations without multiplicative strategies? How can we “multiply and fill the earth” without intentional thinking about growth strategies and the infrastructure for reproduction? No matter how you slice it, we are commissioned by Jesus to grow and expand the Christian community, reaching more and more people for the kingdom.
You can probably guess the problem here. By overemphasizing our call to multiply and fill the earth while underemphasizing our call to being fruitful (focusing on discipling all nations without teaching them to obey everything he has commanded), we all too easily reproduce something that is not of Jesus. We can build exciting movements, large churches, huge conferences, but if they are not helping people grow more into the likeness of Jesus, we’re missing it. The Tower of Babel, Pharoah’s Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon…this is what we do when our image-bearing desire to build loses focus.
Jesus only gave this Great Commission after 30 years of walking with himself, then 3 years faithfully with his twelve, serving them and serving others alongside them. He was quick to quiet down those that wanted to help build buzz and spread the word. He was not quick to multiply, he was laser-focused on WHAT was being multiplied.
So, what are we to do? Who are we to be?
IMAGE-BEARERS: BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY
It is that second question that drives the first. Who we are will drive what we do. It is important to realize that both of these mandates given by God to his image-bearers are baked into who we are. We are made to grow in our character, to mature, to walk in the ways of abundance. As image-bearers, we are made to reflect the loving, wise, humble, faithful character of Jesus in our lives.
At the same time, we are also made to build, to reproduce, to multiply. As image-bearers, we are made to reflect the creative, expansive, reconciling God in the world around us. It is when these natural realities of our identity get skewed—one overemphasized over the other, or worse, misdirected, that things go awry.
Perhaps this is why Jesus, here at the end of this chapter of ministry on earth, gives us a reiteration of the creation mandate. I think this is a deeper reason why the Great Commission still grabs us so powerfully, because we need to remember who we are and what we are called to do.
Now, what will you do with this? Here’s a suggestion.
Start by recognizing which of these two incomplete stories you tend toward. I’d bet that none of us balance these perfectly, naturally. We’ve all got a tendency. Are you more excited about “being fruitful” than “multiplying and filling the earth,” or the other way around?
If you naturally tend towards character change more than multiplying, stop and ask yourself who you are bearing his image to. Who gets to bask in the light you are reflecting? What’s more, who are you helping to better reflect God’s image in them? How can you combat the tendency to curve into yourself, and so reflect your image more than God’s? Being more like Jesus means loving like Jesus, which means more of others.
If your heart races when you think about multiplying movements, but you yawn when thinking about practicing the disciplines or helping someone else do the same, take a moment and wrestle with this question: What, precisely, are you multiplying? Put aside the slogans and mission statements for a moment, what is really motivating this drive? If it is to reach more people for Jesus, once they are reached, do they actually get Jesus? Is more of Jesus really the result?
For both camps, let us come before our maker. Let’s be thankful for this mandate that is baked into our very identity, and let’s be prayerful to better reflect who we are and who we were made to be. Let’s be fruitful, and multiply.
This post originally appeared at: Image-Bearers: Be Fruitful AND Multiply — The Bonhoeffer Project