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Apprenticeship: A New Way Forward on an Ancient Path

While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. – Matthew 4:18-22

In his Gospel, Matthew captures this wonderful moment when Rabbi Jesus calls His first disciples to join Him. With so much cultural distance, it is often hard to see the historical event in proper context. A closer look provides us some important information. Here we have young men, fishermen by trade, working alongside their father. Approached by a rabbi, they are offered an opportunity to switch their vocation. With the rabbi being at the top of the social and vocational order in ancient Israel, their response is immediate, and quite probably with the support of their fathers. Who wouldn’t want their son to become a rabbi?

Here is what we miss in the story: Jesus wasn’t just looking for these young people to learn and follow His teaching. No, He was calling them out to be His apprentices. He wanted them to know what He knew, do what He did and become like Him – to become rabbis themselves. The word for “disciple” here in the Greek is mathetes, meaning “apprentice” or “learner,” and in Hebrew the same word is talmid, a masculine noun meaning one who has left the family to study Torah under a rabbi as their apprentice. The plural is tamidim. Jesus is calling out a group of apprentices, His talmidim. They respond to His offer with a sense of urgency – “immediately” they leave their job, their families to engage in the apprenticeship process with their master teacher.

Such mentoring was part and parcel of vocational training in the ancient world. Gordon McDonald addressed this as well, saying, “Mentoring was the chief learning method in the society of artisans where an apprentice spent years at the side of the craftsman learning not only the mechanics of a function, but a ‘way of life’ which surrounded it.[1] Rabbinic mentoring could result in a decade or longer apprenticeship, where the apprentice learned their rabbis “way” or specific interpretation of Torah. What is important to note is that such “interpretation” was how Torah was applied to life. In the Hebraic mind, being and doing comprised believing. Life was integrated, life was one even as God was one, and learning the way of life of a rabbi was integrated as well:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. – Deuteronomy 6:4-7

In the culture which Jesus lived and ministered, learning was integrated into life, and life was the curriculum. Theology was a lived reality, and an apprentice rabbi had to not just know Torah, and understand the meaning within it, but also what YHWH was looking for from the way His people live out Torah in everyday situations. In addition to this educational process for aspiring rabbis, specific vocational training was likewise provided through an apprentice model akin to that of the rabbinical process, as Nathan Drazin notes: “Specialized vocational or industrial training was achieved by the method of apprenticeship. Most of the children followed in the trades and professions of their fathers. These arts and crafts were always regulated in conformity to the Jewish Law."[2] So, as it was, even such skills as training for the work of everyday life was done in concert with Torah, as all life was worship and all life was to be lived toward the fulfillment of the Shema. The ontological reality of the inner spiritual life was the root and source of the vocational life one engaged in, being influenced by the doing of the tasks of everyday life – work, trade, family and civic life. The rabbi, trained in the apprenticeship format, was prepared to bring the application of Torah to all aspects of life, including the market place and work spaces of ancient Jewish society.

Today the theological formation of Christian leaders is far removed from the rabbinic process of whole-life integration, and as such, is, at best, lacking in the application of Scripture to life. Such an approach to theology has allowed it to become a mere philosophy, a neo-Platonic search for meaning, disconnected from how one lives life. Such a disintegrated learning model for our leaders fosters the bifurcation of life so common in the thinking of people in the Western Church – it allows someone to say that they “believe,” but it doesn’t really affect how they live life. It is places their Christianity in the realm of the theoretical, and becomes simply a series of guiding principles some may try to live by. This is totally divorced from the thinking of the rabbis, and from the educational praxis of Jesus. We must return to using an intentional apprenticeship model to form the leaders, with theological formation of the leader inseparably embedded into life. Jesus’ movement and His mission requires His method of leader development.

This is the seminal reason behind The Trivium Institute for Leader Development. With Trivium, we have created a tool for pastors and other leaders to form leaders for Jesus movement and mission. The Trivium platform allows a pastor to invite someone into a whole-life apprenticeship process which includes integrated theological formation. Apprentices learn while actively engaged in ministry, far more than a brief internship, the leader involved in an apprenticeship though trained through the Institute is being educated, practically trained and spiritually formed. Such whole life formation serves to help people become “fishers of men.”

God is One, life is one, learning is one. To find out more about The Trivium Institute, and how it might serve in your own leader development, click here.

[1] Engstrom, Ted W., and Norman B. Rohrer. The Fine Art of Mentoring: Passing On To Others What God Has Given You. Brentwood: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, Inc., 1989.

[2] Drazin, Nathan. History of Jewish Education from 515 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. Baltimore: Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1940.

Rev. Dr. Tom Johnston is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for The Praxis Center for Church Development. He is also the President and Chief Educationist for The Trivium Institute for Leader Development. He serves as the Lead Pastor for Trinity Life Community in Bedford, NH.

Trinity Life Community is the fifth church Tom has pastored with his wife Cathy, having previously planted four churches, with four more having come out of their ministry. Through these churches Tom has raised up 27 people into credentialed pastoral ministry. In addition, Tom has served as a denominational leader for church & leadership development and church multiplication, and is a trained NCD Coach-Consultant. He coaches denominational leaders across the Body of Christ in leadership development, church health and church multiplication systems, as well as providing mentoring, training and coaching for church planters from emerging generations. Tom is the co-author of four books with Mike Chong Perkinson. He holds a PhD in Education. He lives just outside Manchester in Bedford, NH with his wife Cathy and their two dogs, Jessica and Pippa Puppy.

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