I have heard Exodus 18 taught as the biblical basis for having everyone in the church in a discipling tree. What do you say?

In Exodus 18, Moses' father-in-law gives advice for how to deal with problems among the Israelites. For a refresher, let's look at what the book of Exodus records about this event:

The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people he said "What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?"

Moses answered him, "Because the people come to me to seek God's will. Whenever they have a dispute it is brought to me and I decide between the parties and inform them of God's decrees and laws."

Moses father-in-law replied, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you some advice and may God be with you. You must be the people s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people--men who fear God trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain--and appoint them as officials over thousands hundreds fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands you will be able to stand the strain and all these people will go home satisfied."

Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people officials over thousands hundreds fifties and tens. They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses but the simple ones they decided themselves."

Specifically, Jethro recommended that Moses appoint men to oversee groups of 10, 50, 100 etc. This was good advice, because Moses was wearing himself out in his attempts to resolve all disputes personally. He had become a one-man-show fast approaching the point of physical and nervous exhaustion.

It is a huge leap from the "Jethro principle" to a "discipling tree" for church members. There are too many points of dissimilarity for the "model" of Exodus 18 to be held up as the Spirit-ordained pattern for one-another relationships in the church of Christ.

1. To begin with, the model was initially designed to handle disputes, not to give personal direction to Christian believers eager to grow in Christ. (In fact, Paul begins to recommend a similar system in 1 Corinthians 6, where he suggests appointing men to handle disputes in the church.) The focus is negative, not positive.
2. Next, the model is for the occasional need, not day-by-day relationships. Ideally, the model would be employed rarely.
3. This is more a community model than one suited for the people of God under the new covenant, who tend not to live in closed communities (even if they live in Christian households). Rather, we are spread out among the people of the world. Because of broad cultural differences, the one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work. The more levels between the situation "at the bottom" and the leader advising "at the top," the less likely his information is accurate or complete.
4. Perhaps most important, policies implemented under the old covenant are old covenant policies, unless explicitly repeated in the New Testament. What was appropriate for the church-state of the ancient Commonwealth of Israel is not necessarily valid for the congregations of saints today.

For these reasons, I would advise caution about drawing inferences from Exodus 18 for church organization. We all need one-another relationships, and the N.T. has dozens of passages on this theme. But "ordered" discipling relationships are not found anywhere in the New Testament.

Though I would never discourage anyone from seeking guidance, counsel, input, friendship, and camaraderie, it is up to the individual disciple to seek these. It is not incumbent upon church leaders to transform the Old Testament plan for conflict resolution into a master plan for shepherding the people of God -- regardless of how urgent the need for shepherding is. (And it is urgent.)

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