1. The Disciplers' Model

And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ's fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.

Ephesians 4:12-16

The actual well seen is ideal.

—Thomas Carlyle

Chapter Rationale

The Disciplers' Model provides a biblical and theological framework for the remainder of the text. Chapter One defines the seven elements of the Model and explains how they work together. We conclude the chapter by associating elements of the Model with secular counterparts in Educational Psychology. The goal of the chapter is to provide a Christian teaching context for secular theories of learning and development.

If you have read my earlier books, you are familiar with the Disciplers' Model. There I provided a brief overview of the Model as an organizing tool for the texts. Here you will find a more extensive discussion of the Model's seven elements. These elements define a synergistic answer to the question, "How do I teach so that my learners grow in the Lord?" Understanding these elements will provide you a biblical framework for the study of the secular ideas of educational psychology.

Chapter Overview


In 1971 I began teaching a Sunday school class for deaf college students attending Gallaudet College (where my wife and I worked as dormitory counselors) at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Virginia. There were no books on teaching deaf adults, and so I began to pray: "Lord, how can I teach so that these learners will grow up in You?" In response to this constant prayer, the Lord brought many experiences into the classroom sessions. In 1973 I began formal studies in educational psychology and philosophy at Southwestern Seminary. I was called as minister to the deaf at First Baptist Church, Irving, Texas, where I continued to teach deaf adults (1973-1976). In December 1976 I accepted the call to return to Columbia Baptist as their minister of education. In January 1977 the personal experiences and formal studies coalesced into what I called "The Disciplers' Model." The first publication of the Model appeared in the spring of 1977 as a series of eight articles in the church's weekly newsletter. Over the next two years, materials were added from teacher training meetings and teacher conferences. In 1979 the self-published Disciplers was produced and sold to nearly 1200 churches. In 1981 the text was revised and renamed The Disciplers' Handbook and has served as my basic text for Principles of Teaching classes at Southwestern since then.

The Model has been reinforced through nearly forty years of serving on church staffs as minister of education, teaching seminary students here and in the former Soviet Union, and leading church-based teacher conferences across the nation. I have found the Model to be an excellent bridge between secular psychological theories and a biblical worldview. We begin with the foundation: the left foundation stone is the Bible, God's eternal Word.

The Left Foundation Stone: The Bible

The left foundation stone of the Model represents the Bible, the Word of God. Unless our teaching produces a clearer understanding of the Bible, with its call to personal commitment to Christ and His Church, all our teaching efforts produce little more than "wood, hay, or straw" (1 Cor 3:12). For education to be rightly called "Christian," it must be built upon the sure foundation of God's Word.

How Does the Bible Define Itself?

Theories of inspiration thrive, and conflicting interpretations abound, but God's Word still speaks across the ages to people today. How does Scripture define itself?

Divinely Inspired. Scripture emphasizes that the Lord, not man, speaks through Scripture. "Take a scroll, and write on it all the words I [the Lord] have spoken to you" (Jer 36:2). "The word of the Lord came directly to Ezekiel the priest" (Ezek 1:3). "The Scripture had to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit through the mouth of David spoke in advance" (Acts 1:16). "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). "Because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, moved by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God" (2 Pet 1:21). The Lord spoke, and man recorded the message. The Lord revealed Himself, and man recorded the messages.

Sacred. Scripture warns its readers and teachers not to alter it by adding to or taking away from it. "You must not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, so that you may keep the commands of the Lord your God I am giving you" (Deut 4:2). "Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Don't add to His words, or He will rebuke you, and you will be proved a liar" (Prov 30:6). "And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophetic book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and the holy city, written in this book" (Rev 22:19). Handle Scripture carefully. It is sacred.

Powerful in Its Influence. Scripture is more than words and symbols. God's Word is an extension of God's power: "the gospel ... is God's power for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom 1:16). "Take the ... sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6:17). "For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any two-edged sword...; it is a judge of the ideas and thoughts of the heart" (Heb 4:12). When we teach God's Word, we convey God's power.

Written for a Purpose. Scripture has a purpose, and that purpose is life in Christ. "But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31). That purpose is hope. "For whatever was written before was written for our instruction, so that through our endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope" (Rom 15:4). That purpose is to warn us. "Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us" (1 Cor 10:11). That purpose was to equip us for ministry. "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). That purpose is assurance of eternal life. "I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Reveals Eternal Truth. Scripture moves us upward from our daily experiences to eternal principles. "Lord, Your word is forever; it is firmly fixed in heaven" (Ps 119:89). "The word of our God remains forever" (Isa 40:8). "My words will never pass away" (Matt 24:35). When we teach Scripture, we engage eternal blessings and consequences.

How Do Teachers Use the Bible?

God's Word is Eternal Truth. While Christians argue over various interpretations of Scripture, few argue about the eternal nature of Scripture. And yet, even among those who are most conservative in their view of Scripture, a significant question remains, "How do we handle Scripture as we teach?" Even with the highest regard for Scripture, we may not help our learners grow in the Lord. What makes the difference?

"Talk about it." A popular way to handle Scripture is to talk about it. I can remember spending hours each week preparing to "teach the lesson" on Sunday. I read the assigned passage, studied the accompanying teaching helps, and wrote out several pages of notes: my "lesson." On Sunday morning I stood behind a podium or at a desk and "taught my lesson." I can remember Sundays when I taught so hard (using sign language with deaf college students) that I sweat through my suits! Yet several days later, members of my class remembered little of what I had worked so hard to teach. How could they become "doers of the Word" if they couldn't remember what the Bible said?! Telling people about the Bible is a good first step, but there is a better way to help people grow as they learn.

"Let the Bible Speak!" A better way to handle Scripture in the classroom—and the approach I have found effective in changing learners—is to let the Bible speak! Teachers do well to ask thoughtful questions and lead learners into God's Word for the answers. Learners remember what they study far better than when we simply give them our own ready-made answers. The Bible, God's eternal Truth, is the sure foundation of discipling Bible study. Let the Word speak, that it may convict and comfort, warn and console, revive and refresh us—so we might become all He intends and do all He commands.

The Right Foundation Stone: The Needs of People

The companion foundation stone in the Model represents the needs of learners. Jesus taught people the meaning of Scripture by focusing it at their point of personal need. Zacchaeus was lonely. Jesus asked to have dinner with him (Luke 19:10). Jairus grieved at the death of his daughter. Jesus raised her to life (Mark 5:21-24,35-43). Nicodemus the Pharisee sought Jesus' words on the kingdom of God. Jesus gave him specific instructions (John 3). Jesus did not dine with everyone, nor raise all dead people, nor give special instructions to all. He met needs in the lives of people—the leper, the lame, the deaf, the blind, the lonely and the religious—and in doing so, taught us in tangible ways how much the Father loves us.

Jesus pointed to soils, light, salt, and sheep. He illustrated eternal truths with basic things that were familiar to those who pressed close to hear Him teach. He had no need of attendance prizes or candy or free trips to manipulate interest or enthusiasm. He spoke the Words of Life most of us hunger for! He shared with learners a caring Father Who wants the best for them. Jesus did not simply teach the truth. He taught truth in such a way that it became "truth that matters to me!"

What the Bible says is unchanging (Left Stone), but how we explain it varies from learner to learner (Right Stone). Why? Because our learners have different needs that are both general and specific.

General Learner Needs

A general need refers to a common characteristic of people in a given group. Age is one such factor. Preschoolers learn differently from children, children differently from youth, and youth differently from adults. Even various groupings of adults—singles, young marrieds, median adults, seniors—learn in distinctly different ways.

Learners within given age categories experience similar situations in life: growing, school, adolescence, marriage, family, home, career, retirement. Similarity of life experiences helps groups focus on the relevancy of Bible teachings.

Life situation is another general need. Children from dysfunctional or broken families learn differently than children in healthy families. Single adults differ from married adults of the same age.

Blue-collar workers see things differently from professional workers. Teachers do well to study the general life needs of their students and apply what they learn to their preparation and instruction.

Specific Learner Needs

A specific need refers to an individual characteristic of a single member of a given group. Specific needs include such experiences as personal failures or successes, past tragedies, present struggles, and times of spiritual drought. In any classroom, one finds emotional aches, pains, and scars. We discover the specific personal needs of our learners as we become better acquainted with them as individuals, persons, friends. Teachers do well to provide opportunities for learners to share themselves with the class—prayer concerns, personal experiences, and personal struggles. How we do this will be discussed a little later. That we do this demonstrates our concern for the needs of our learners and opens the door to deeper learning experiences.

The Two Stones Side by Side

Both foundation stones are required for the model to be stable. If either crumbles, the Model falls, reflecting teaching that does not result in spiritual growth, that is, growth "in the Lord."

When we spend too much class time emphasizing Bible content—recounting historical details, providing verse-by-verse explanations, analyzing language nuances, dissecting doctrinal principles—little time remains for connecting Eternal Truth to general or specific learner needs, or to what learners actually experience at home and at work. Learners leave the classroom feeling that they experienced a factual, but irrelevant, history lesson.

When we spend too much time emphasizing learner needs or concerns—allowing them to share personal opinions, tell personal stories, or chase personal rabbits—little time remains for connecting individual needs to Eternal Truths, to the answers found in Scripture. Learners hear each other's problems, but hear little of God's solutions.

Learners leave the classroom feeling that they have experienced little more than a superficial "group therapy" session. We need to connect learners' needs and experiences to Scripture, letting God's Word speak clearly to the discussion.

Neither irrelevant history lessons nor superficial sharing leads to spiritual growth. Teachers do well to intentionally build on both foundation stones to create an environment in which Truth speaks to contemporary need over time. Such an environment produces a personal teaching ministry that is both eternal and relevant.

I say "over time" because the balance between "Bible" and "needs" is not a 50-50 proposition. There are times when the meaning of a passage of Scripture requires more time than its personal application. When studying the prophet Hosea, for example, teachers would do well to provide a solid historical context to God's command that Hosea marry a prostitute (to illustrate Israel's unfaithfulness to God). This is not the time for group work and learner hunches. The Sermon on the Mount and the book of Revelation are other examples of heavy Bible emphasis.

On the other hand, there are times when the meaning of the passage is well-known and more time is required for personal reflection and application. When studying the Good Samaritan story, for example, teachers would do well to refrain from a verse-by-verse exegesis in favor of two sets of affective questions. The first set focuses on those who have been Good Samaritans to them: "Think about people in your life who have been Good Samaritans to you. What did they do for you? How did their help change you?" The second set focuses on their own experiences as Good Samaritans to others: "Think about times you have been a Good Samaritan to others. What did you do for them? How did helping them change you?" Details of the passage can be explained in the process of sharing testimonies. Those without testimonies may well consider doing more for others, becoming more of a Good Samaritan personally.

"Over time," teachers address both eternal truths and personal needs in a relevant, biblical teaching ministry. We clearly see this balance of Word and needs in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' teaching.

The Stacking of Stones?

It might be helpful to consider one other way to look at the relationship between Bible and needs. This particular suggestion was first made by a Russian Baptist pastor in a course taught in Almaty, Kazakhstan, but I've had American students raise the same issue. During my summary of the Stones, the pastor raised his hand and said, "I think your model is inadequate. May I change it?" He was seated on the front row, and I handed him the marker: "Certainly," I said. He stepped to the white board and re-drew the Model.

Satisfied with himself and his changes, he turned, snapped the cap back on the marker, and said "God's Word is fundamental to everything else. It provides us all the answers we need. Even the needs of our lives are drawn from a proper understanding of Scripture. I believe this is a better perspective. How can our changing needs be considered equal to God's eternal Word?"

It was an excellent question, and he was certainly correct in his analysis. But the class was stunned by his audacity and sat in silence waiting to see how the professor would respond to his correction. I began with praise. "I really like the changes you have made here. It emphasizes the eternal nature of God's Word and makes the Bible the basis for discussions of 'real needs' in the lives of learners. But, may I ask you a question?"

"Yes, of course," the student responded, now sitting at his desk, smiling.

"In your version of the Model, if I pull the Bible stone out of the Model altogether, does the Model fall?"

He looked at the whiteboard and slowly shook his head "No." The smile was gone. He was thinking.

"Or the Needs stone? If I completely disregard the needs of the learners in my class, does the Model fall?

More quickly this time, he said, "No."

"That's the problem. We are not equating God's Word with learner Needs. We are saying for spiritual growth to occur, we need to connect God's Truth with the relevant needs of learners. We are saying both Truth and Need are necessary for relevant changes to occur in individual learners.

He looked back at the board, slowly nodded his head, and said, "I agree." He smiled again, more enthusiastically. And the class breathed a sigh of relief.