The temptation when discipling new believers can be to focus primarily on “hard skills” such as how to read and understand Scripture, basic Christian doctrines, pray, share one’s testimony, explain the gospel faithfully and clearly, believer fellowship, and so on. Developing these hard skills is essential for the discipleship process. Thankfully, training and developing them is fairly straightforward, and metrics for assessing progress exist. There are even apps to help improve many of these skills.
When it comes to soft skills like building and maintaining healthy relationships, we have clear challenges. Relationships can be pretty messy, and metrics can be fuzzy. People can be quite resistant when it comes to relating wisely and lovingly to difficult people. Sometimes, even mature Christians may not have been properly discipled in the area of healthy relationships, so we don’t have any idea where to start.
Jesus Modeled Relationships for Us
Let’s start with Jesus, who summarized the whole Law in these words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40 ESV).
It’s interesting that Jesus summarized the Law in terms of our relationships, first to the creator God who made us and then to our fellow human beings, or neighbors. Being and making disciples involves modeling for others and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18–20). Jesus had a great deal to say about relationships as he summarized and intensified the Old Testament teaching about holy living for the people of God.
The Early Church Modeled Christian Relationships
In Acts, the programmatic description of the church (cf. esp. Acts 2:42–47), we read about gospel relationships again and how the early Christ-followers loved God and loved others. When Paul wrote letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Romans, he used the first chapters to outline in indicative sentences what the Father has done for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. He explained the gospel, namely how it’s that God grants us a new life in a restored and reconciled relationship with him by forgiving our sins through Christ’s life, work, death, and resurrection on our behalf.
“The gospel transforms enemies and rebels into God’s friends. It reconciles hostile people to a gracious, kind, loving, and merciful God.”
The gospel transforms enemies and rebels into God’s friends. It reconciles hostile people to a gracious, kind, loving, and merciful God. The gospel creates a healthy relationship with God where there once was alienation, wrath, and separation.
Interestingly, after detailing the gospel and its effects, Paul usually turned to the imperative mood to exhort, invite, and appeal to the disciples to live lives that are pleasing to God by building healthy relationships. Paul’s discipleship process included soft skills. He (and also Peter) taught about and expected healthy relationships in a variety of areas: married life, work, relationships between parents and children, and relationships with outsiders and other Christ-followers. Paul seemed to take an especially hard line when fellow Christ-followers failed in soft skills like kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness.
Ephesians 4:30–32 says, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV).
Early Church Leaders Cultivated Healthy Relationships
Peter and John also encouraged churches toward healthy relationships, and the author of the book of Hebrews expected the gospel to transform them. Hear one exhortation toward healthy relationships: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:10–11 ESV).
Pursuing peace with all men, actively loving the difficult people in our lives, forgiving freely, and returning blessing for cursing are what should characterize all those seeking to obey what Jesus commanded. Relational holiness in a local community also is what makes a church a signpost of heaven, a pointer to the gracious God whose gospel alone is able to bring genuine relational wholeness and health to sinful people—a people who tend toward self-centeredness, strife, and separation apart from the transforming power of the gospel through the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, Christ transforms our relationships.
Our discipleship processes should include the obvious hard skills of following Christ but not to the detriment of soft skills, like developing healthy relationships. Jesus commanded his followers to learn and practice relationship in and out of the church that are pleasing to God. Those sorts of relationships don’t simply occur naturally; they must be encouraged, developed, and practiced. Therefore, they must become a part of the regular rhythms of the church as we make disciples.