What Is Discipleship and How Is It Done?
A new week begins, a sweet week, and a very full one in Minneapolis as we welcome many friends in town for the annual Pastors Conference, the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors & Church Leaders in Partnership with desiringGod.org, once again downtown at the Minneapolis Convention Center. This year’s theme: “Joy Set Before Us: Perseverance and Hope in the Day of Opposition.”
For these first three days of the week, we will be talking about the reality of cultural opposition to the gospel and learning how to spiritually flourish and faithfully minister in the face of cultural persecution, however subtle or severe. It is of course a leaders conference, but I think this one, of all years, will be especially relevant for any attentive Christian who wants to engage our culture thoughtfully and humbly. The speakers include you, Pastor John, of course, I know you are prepared and ready to go. Also Don Carson is in town, Jason Meyer, Léonce Crump, missionary Tim Keesee from the Dispatches from the Front DVDs is in town, along with Os Guinness, and many other speakers.
Well, to the inbox. Many questions have come in this month about discipleship. What is discipleship? What is the aim of discipleship? And how is it done typically? To orient us on discipleship, what would you want to say, Pastor John?
A couple of observations about the word discipleship. The word discipleship never occurs in the Bible. The term is ambiguous in English. It can mean my discipleship, in the sense of my own pattern of following Jesus and trusting him and learning from him. That is my discipleship. It could mean that. Or it can mean my activity of helping others be disciples in that sense of learning from him, growing in him.
“People need to become Christians, and people need to be taught how to think and feel and act as a Christian. That is a disciple.”
The second meaning — helping others — does have a verb in New Testament Greek: mathēteuō, to make disciples. It can mean preach the gospel so that people get converted to Christ and become Christians and, thus, disciples. For example, Acts 14:21 says, “When they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium.” So that “make disciples” is one Greek word there, and it means “get them converted to Jesus.” That is what it means.
Or it can mean the whole process of conversion, baptism, and teaching the ways of Jesus as it is used in Matthew 28:19–20: “Go therefore and make disciples.” And here is what he means. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
That is a very long process. That is like a lifetime of process. So get them converted. Baptize them. And then spend a lifetime teaching them to obey all that Jesus said. That is what the verb “disciple” in the New Testament would include.
The word disciple in the New Testament does not mean a second-stage Christian. There are some ministries that are built around this distinction that is just so unbiblical, as if there were converts, then there are disciples who are little stage-two Christians who learn more, and then there are disciple makers.
Now all those groupings are linguistically foreign to the New Testament. A disciple in the New Testament is simply a Christian: “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Everybody that was converted to Jesus was a disciple. Everybody that was converted to Jesus was a Christian.
Disciple was, it seems, not a favorite term for Christian as time went by. Paul never uses the noun or the verb “disciple.” In fact, neither the noun disciple or the verb make disciples occurs anywhere in the New Testament outside the Gospels and Acts.
So I think what is important is not the terminology, but the reality. People need to become Christians and people need to be taught how to think and feel and act as a Christian. That is, a disciple, a follower of Jesus, one who embraces him as Lord and Savior and Treasure.
Now where and how should that happen? That is what I think all the talk about discipleship is. It’s a fresh concern about how to bring people to Christ and grow them up into being what they ought to be as Christians or as followers of Jesus or as disciples. There is a lot of different words that people are using these days to describe “Christian.”
“What is important is not the terminology, but the reality.”
So how does that happen?
Well, the conversion of people from unbelievers to believers, Christians, disciples, should be happening in any and every situation. There is no single strategy. There is no limit to the ways a person can be told the good news of Jesus. So, “discipling” in that sense is as varied as there are ways of saying the gospel or living the gospel in front of people to draw them in.
As far as training Christians how to think and feel and act as a Christian — that is, discipling in the sense of growing them into more and more maturity — that happens in so many ways in the New Testament. Here is just a grocery list of possibilities:
- Titus 2:4 — Older women are to train younger women.
- Second Timothy 2:2 — Paul trained Timothy to train others to train others.
- Ephesians 6:4 — Fathers are to train their children.
- Matthew 28:20 — Missionaries are to teach the nations everything Jesus commanded.
- Hebrews 3:13 — All Christians are to exhort each other every day to avoid sin and to stir each other up to love and good works (see also Hebrews 10:24–25).
- First Peter 4:10 — All Christians are to use their gifts to serve others.
- Acts 18:24–26 — Priscilla and Aquila, on the spur of the moment it seems, explained the way of God more accurately to Apollos.
And we could go on and on.
Every Christian should be helping unbelievers become believers by showing them Christ. That is making a disciple. And every Christian should be helping other believers grow to more and more maturity. That is making a disciple.
And every Christian should be seeking to get help for themselves from others to keep on growing. And that is also our discipleship. And every church should think through how all of these kinds of biblical disciple-making find expression in their corporate life.