Discipleship Defined and Described: Some Preliminary Thoughts
Matthew 28:18-20 gives us the most succinct definition and description of discipleship.
What is discipleship?
Discipleship is what the church does to help people become
1. Faith-filled followers of Jesus, those who have trusted in Christ to the point of baptism
2. Obedient followers of Jesus Christ, those who obey all his commands
Discipleship thus includes
1. Evangelism that leads to baptism in the church (not just a profession of faith or a prayer)
2. Edification, that is, teaching, that leads to full-orbed obedience.
Who does discipleship?
The command to disciple all nations was given to the eleven disciples of Jesus, the apostles, who represent the church of Jesus Christ. Thus
Discipleship is the task of the entire body of believers, not just a select few.
Who is to be discipled?
1. People who have not yet become full followers of Jesus Christ.
a. The pattern for this “evangelistic” phase of discipleship is found in the Gospels and Acts, where Jesus and then the apostles evangelize to the point of baptism.
2. People who have been baptized and who need to be “taught” in a way that leads to obedience.
a. The pattern for this form of discipleship is found mostly in the Epistles.
What does discipleship look like?
The general pattern of discipleship: It
1. Takes place over an extended period of time
2. Is done in a group setting, from very small groups of 2 or three, to mid-sized groups of 10-12, to large crowds.
3. Involves close association of disciplers and discipled, at least in small and mid-sized groups.
4. Includes life-on-life time together, with disciples experiencing community together
5. Includes instruction in essential truths (more below)
6. Includes full-orbed ministry, including healing.
What is the content of the teaching aspect of discipleship?
1. The “facts” of the gospel. These include the entire OT as preparatory to understanding Jesus and the Gospels as descriptive of the person and work of Christ; the nature and character of God; the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the “law” of God, especially the Great Commandment and the second one like it; the nature of sin and the need for repentance; the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ; the teachings of Jesus; the death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus; the nature of true faith in Jesus Christ; the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
2. The meaning of the facts of the gospel and their implications for Christian life and ministry. This includes further teaching about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, the “law of Christ,” that is the full teaching about the Christian life; life in Christian community; family life; work; etc.
What are the goals of discipleship?
1. A living faith that unites us to the risen Lord Jesus as our life.
a. True repentance that involves renunciation and turning from the idols of our heart.
b. Knowledge of, assent to, and confidence in the truths of the gospel
c. Devotion to Jesus Christ alone as our Lord and Savior.
2. A life of communion with the risen Lord Jesus in community with other believers, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
a. Daily repentance
b. Daily reliance of Christ
c. Daily communion with him through reading and meditating upon his word.
e. Loving relationships with family, other believers, and the people around us
f. Active evangelism, beginning at home and extending to the whole world.
g. Good works, especially works of mercy to our neighbors, as well as responsible citizenship.
What are some of the components of discipleship ministry?
1. Frequent fellowship with other believers
2. Worship together
3. Prayer together
4. Learning and teaching together in formal and informal settings
5. Ministry together
What are some other implications of these thoughts?
1. Discipleship is not a program of the church, but the mission of the church.
2. All elders, deacons, and church members should be fully involved in discipleship.
3. Discipleship, as defined and described here, resembles what some have recently called “spiritual formation.” Books, etc., on spiritual formation can be very useful in discipleship.
4. The primary locus and focus of discipleship should be the family as
a. Husbands model the love of Christ to their wives, teach them, and seek their sanctification
b. Fathers and mothers train their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord
5. The secondary locus of discipleship is the church, the entire body of believers, in all their activities.
6. We should not see discipleship as primarily a one-on-one Paul-Timothy relationship. After all, Paul discipled Timothy in community with others. See, for example, 1 Timothy 2:2, “among many witnesses.”
7. Discipleship should go deep. Most churches and Christians do not emphasize deep transformation by God through the Holy Spirit. They communicate the facts of the faith well enough, and teach the necessary doctrines and duties of the Christian life, but fail to address the deep idols of the heart that make us vulnerable to besetting sins, addictions, and despair when real trouble comes. We are short on equipping people to face suffering or adversity or failure. We do not aim for intimate communion with God in Christ, constant worship of him, thanking him at all times for all things, trusting him at all times for all things, loving him at all times more than all other things and persons, and looking forward eagerly to his return as our only true hope in this world.
Thus, believers get angry with God when things don’t go well for them. They fail to accept trials as God’s gift to lead us into a deeper knowledge of his love, character, and plans for our holiness. They do not make sanctification their chief goal in life. They set their hopes on this world – health, success, a happy marriage, healthy and happy children, pleasure, security, affirmation from others, etc.
Marriages fall apart because we do not know that it is more blessed to give than to receive, to love than to be loved. Etc.
We must go deeper than the usual superficial American Christianity!
One final thought: The constant presence of the Risen Lord.
Jesus promised that he would be with his people to the end of the age. All discipleship should be lived, taught, and done in conscious communion with the living Lord Jesus, present in his people individually and corporately through the indwelling Holy Spirit. See Acts 1:8
G. Wright Doyle
June 1, 2020