A Biblical Overview of Discipleship

Introduction

In the Great Commission, Jesus told his apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).  Since Jesus has called his church to “make disciples,” much discussion throughout church history has centered around exactly how to fulfill this command so that followers of Christ can deepen their relationship with him.

Much of the preaching of the early church consisted of moral exhortations to imitate the behavior of pious individuals.[1]  As R. Scott Clark summarizes, the fathers made this an emphasis in their preaching “Because Christians were frequently marginalized and criticized as immoral and impious . . .”[2]  In addition, in the Middle Ages those desiring to follow Christ whole heartedly would often give themselves over to ascetic practices for the purpose of identifying themselves with the Savior.  While misinformed, these same individuals often went to great lengths to prove their interest in Christ.  The upshot of this approach was that Christianity became “a moral code or an ascetic routine.”[3]

In the present, Christians seeking to grow spiritually either leave the church completely[4] or become involved in various church programs, believing that following certain steps will help them advance to the next level spiritually.[5]  In contrast to these methods, the Scriptural picture of discipleship reveals that 1) it should take place in the context of the local church, 2) it requires catechesis, and 3) it is fulfilled primarily on the Lord’s Day in corporate worship through the church’s Word and sacrament ministry.  Before considering each of these points, however, one must understand what discipleship is.  In order to bring clarification on this point, looking at OT and NT examples will assist the reader to make sense of the material presented.

Understanding the Nature of Discipleship

At least more than one author has argued that discipleship begins with the call of Jesus on an individual’s life.[6]  Although Jesus did not necessarily force individuals to follow him, his technique for drawing individuals to himself is different from other master/pupil relationships.  For example, the Sophists in the fourth and fifth centuries B. C. did not call male students the way Jesus called his followers.[7]  Those who followed Jesus did so because he called them (Matt. 4:19; 9:9; Mk. 1:17; 2:14), and chose them (Jn. 15:16.  Perhaps this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ.”[8]  Furthermore, Jesus instructed his followers that they could (and, in fact some did) lose their lives (Mk. 8:34-37; Lk. 9:23-25).  This is quite different from great teachers and philosophers of the past, some of whom, despite drawing crowds, did not claim to teach anything![9]  Thus, M. J. Williams observes, “Jesus’ particular form of discipleship still defies classification.”[10]

The term disciple means “learner, adherent, or pupil,” though some have argued that each of these definitions is not strong enough to adequately grasp the strength of the word.[11]  Trakatellis has made a number of poignant observations on how the motif of discipleship is outlined in the gospel of Mark[12] that are worth repeating.  Without listing all of his points, he notes that the concept of discipleship is attached to the theme of diakonia (διάκονος), that is, service.  This can be seen on at least two occasions.

In Mark 9, after predicting his death for the second time (v. 31), the disciples begin to argue about which of them is the greatest (v. 34).  After this, Mark records the following: “And he [Jesus] sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’” (v. 36).  Trakatellis notes that Christ has to explain to his followers “that discipleship is service, not [a] position of ruling power.”[13]  The second occasion where the diakonia theme is present is in the central verse of Mark’s gospel: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve [διακονῆσαι], and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).

Jesus embodied the life of service to which he called his disciples.  Indeed, as Trakatellis notes, “Jesus as the perfect man is the διάκονος , the servant.”[14]  “In the kingdom of God,” Wessel notes, “humble service is the rule, and even the Son of Man is not exempt from it.”[15]  This verse instructs readers that not only is Jesus the servant par excellence, but he is also our substitute (“gave his life as a ransom”).  Such humble submission on the part of the Son of Man requires praise and thanksgiving from those to whom he has given eternal life.

In what I believe is one of the most perceptive points made by an author, Trakatellis notes that discipleship is a “total offering of one’s self with all the implications which such an offering entails.”[16]  To support this point, one need only look at how often readers are told that the disciples “immediately left their nets and followed him” (Mk. 1:18).  James and John “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him” (Mk. 1:20).  To be sure, such reckless abandon in service to Christ is rarely seen in our day.  Rather than casting stones at others for being less committed than we are, perhaps the disciples’ willingness to obey Christ at all costs should cause us to pray that in our time of trial God would give us the grace to be obedient.  We simply cannot escape the fact that “There is no real discipleship in Christ without a decision for a drastic disengagement from people and things extremely dear.”[17]

Exemplars of Passionate Discipleship: Old and New Testament

Scripture is replete with examples of discipleship.  For instance, God comes to Abraham and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).  In verse 4 the text says, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him . . .”  The fact that Abram was obedient to the Lord, despite the fact that he did not know where he was going, is an example of discipleship.

Moses is another example.  The writer to the Hebrews says:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward (Hebrews 11:24-26).

Moses forsook a life of ease and wealth in order to follow God.  Such a life would not have been possible unless he found greater enjoyment in God than he did in an Egyptian palace.  The faithfulness of Moses stands as a rebuke to the casual nature that many of us have toward obedience.  Oftentimes the difficulties with which life presents us cause us to shirk our commitment to God.  Insofar as this happens we demonstrate that we value a life of ease over a life of obedience.  In this respect, the response of the apostles after being beaten is unimaginable to most readers: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).  As John Piper notes, “This fearless joy in spite of real danger and great pain is the display of God’s superiority over all that the world has to offer.”[18]

NT examples also abound.  The disciples left everything to follow Jesus (Mk. 1:18, 20).  Paul said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).  He also said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).  Although Peter at one point denied Christ three times (Mk. 14:66-72), he would eventually glorify God in his death (Jn. 21:18-19).  These examples demonstrate that the disciples, though ordinary, valued God more than life itself.  In this respect, they reveal that they understood that discipleship was about sacrificing one’s life for the sake of Christ.

Moving On: Churchly Discipleship

Much of contemporary Christianity suffers from “the church-as-club contagion.”[19]  Rather than realizing that the church has its origin in God, many view it as a voluntary association of baptized believers.  This seems to have led to a depreciation of the fact that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12).  The disregard for the sacred office of the minister of the Word has resulted in a disregard for the church at large.  Thus, people believe they can go outside the church to deepen their relationship with God.[20]

Ephesians 4:11-12 shows that God has instituted offices for carrying on the work of the ministry.  It also demonstrates that while “All of the people are priests, living stones being built into a holy sanctuary.  Yet not all of the covenant people are ministers.  All are sheep, but not all are shepherds under the Great Shepherd.”[21]  This position is rejected by most evangelicals who have an “every-member a minister” view of the church.[22]  To be sure, every member is a servant of the Lord, but not every member is a pastor in the official sense of the word.  By God calling men to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, he has provided for the spiritual needs of his people.  As Horton notes, the church “is the means through which the Father delivers his Son to us by the Spirit.”[23]

This means the church is the primary sphere in which the grace of God is operative.[24]  If this is true, the church is integral to our spiritual growth.  Thus, while God saves us as individuals, our relationship with God is never to be individualistic.[25]  Perhaps we ought to say that when one is saved he or she is now united to the Triune God and to his people rather than saying he or she entered into a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

When most books or articles talk about discipleship, they tend to talk about getting new believers plugged in at a local church serving in some capacity; or it can take the form of being involved in a small group.  At other times it means being placed in some sort of accountability group.  Ogden, on the other hand, proposes meeting in groups of three, which he believes is the biblical method used by Jesus and Paul.[26]  However, I agree with D. G. Hart and John Muether that such arguments confuse discipleship with assimilation, and the phrase we should use in talking about discipleship is Christian nurture.[27]  “In this sense,” Hart and Muether argue, “discipleship means being conformed to the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in his only begotten son.”[28]

Thus, the calling placed upon the church is simple: preach the Word (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”), administer the sacraments (“baptizing them inthe name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit), and exercise church discipline (“make disciples”).  This simple approach is what God has promised to bless (“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”).  While books abound on how to fulfill the great commission, I agree with Ligon Duncan: “ministry is not rocket science.”[29]

Secondly, discipleship requires catechesis.  Catechesis refers to the instruction given to believers of the basic contents of the faith.  Unfortunately, many Protestants are suspicious of the words catechesis or catechism because they incorrectly believe these words were invented by Roman Catholics.  Many are unfamiliar with the fact that it was the Protestants who invented the use of catechisms, and only later did the Roman Catholic Church begin utilizing them as a means to pass on the faith.[30]  Others, perhaps, fail to realize that it is a biblical word.  The word comes from the Greek κατηχέω and means “to instruct,” “to teach,” or “to inform,”[31] and is used many times in Scripture (Lk. 1:3-4; Acts 18:25; 21:21; 1 Cor. 14:19; Gal. 6:6).  While these verses are taken from the NT, the practice is anchored in the OT command of parents to instruct their children in the Torah (Deut. 6:4-9).

Building on these biblical mandates, the early church established sound principles for catechizing converts.  Unfortunately, during the Dark Ages the practice waned.  During the time of the Reformation, however, Luther and Calvin restored the practice and once again adopted the method used in the early church for instructing new believers, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.[32]  It is this method that I believe pastors ought to adopt to instruct their congregants.  While the church has benefited in many ways from the Sunday school method, Packer and Parrett have demonstrated (convincingly, this student believes) some of the drawbacks and negative consequences of this approach.[33]

Thirdly, discipleship is fulfilled on the Lord’s Day during corporate worship through the church’s ministry Word and sacrament ministry.  From what can be gathered from Scripture, the early church’s worship was rather simple:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awecame upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church’s worship appears to be fulfilling the Great Commission, thus making disciples.  They did this through preaching, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, praying, and fellowshipping.  The Lord “added to their number day by day,” because the Word was going forth in power and people were being born again (1 Pet. 1:23).  The gospel message is the power of God (Rom. 1:16), not words of “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1-2).

The charge from some authors, however, is that the church must do more today.  Such is not the case.  Jason Stellman rightly observes,

[P]eople today are pretty much the same as they’ve always been, and despite our iPhones and Xboxes, we are no more bored with God’s prescribed means of grace than were the Israelites who demanded golden calves and mighty kings so they could be just like all the other nations (Ex. 32:1; 1 Sam. 8:4-5).[34]

The question boils down to what God has promised to bless.  Clearly the early church gathered together on the Lord’s Day (1 Cor .16:2; Acts 20:7).  Acts 2:42 delineates what took place when the congregation gathered.  God has called ministers to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God (2 Tim. 4:2).  As R.B. Kuiper wrote, “The church’s task is to teach and preach the Word of God.  Whatever else it may properly do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task.”[35]  When the Word of God is preached it is as if the Lord himself were preaching to his people.  This, combined with the sacraments, is God’s means of building up the church.  While it may appear weak and ineffective in the world’s eyes, it is the method that God has established.  The question, however, is whether or not we believed God.

Conclusion

By God’s design, discipleship takes place in the context of the local church through its ordinary ministry of Word and sacrament.  While the church may do many good things, it must get this issue right or it ceases to be a church.  God’s people can rest assured that he will continue to build his church because we have Christ’s promise that he will do so (Matt. 16:18).  Since it is impossible to separate theology and praxis we must recognize that God has provided the means whereby believers can grow in their faith.  Through the ministry of the church God’s people hear the glorious gospel of forgiveness through Christ’s work on the cross.  By his institution we also have this promise confirmed visibly through the ordinances of baptism and the supper.


[1] Robert Louis Wilken, “Christian Formation in the Early Church,” in Educating People of Faith: Exploring the History of Jewish and Christian Communities, ed. John Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 49, 56.

[2] R. Scott Clark, “Letter and Spirit: Law and Gospel in Reformed Preaching,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, ed. R. Scott Clark (Philipsburg: P&R, 2007), 331-363.  See esp. 334.

[3] J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old- Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 14.

[4] Chris Shirley, “It Takes a Church to Make a Disciple: An Integrative Model of Discipleship for the Local Church,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 50:2 (2008): 207-224.  See esp. 207-208.

[5] Michael S. Horton, “Trees or Tumbleweeds?” Modern Reformation 20:4 (2011): 11-16.  See esp. 12.

[6] Demetrios Trakatellis, “Follow Me (Mk. 2:14): Discipleship and Priesthood,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 30:3 (1985): 271-285.  See esp. 272-273; M. J. Williams, “Discipleship,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, et. al. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 182-189.  See esp. 187.

[7] Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy, 5th ed. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 40.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937; NY: Touchstone, 1995), 63.

[9] Such was the case with Socrates.  See Melchert, The Great Conversation, 63; Plato, Apology, in Plato: Five Dialogues (trans. G. M. A. Grube; Indianapolis: Hacket, 1981), 33b.

[10] Williams, “Discipleship,” 187.

[11] R. S. Rayburn makes this point.  See his “Christians, Names of,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 216-218.  See esp. 216.

[12] Trakatellis is not the only NT scholar who has noted that discipleship is a prominent theme is Mark’s gospel.  Also see Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1997), 119.

[13] Trakatellis, “Follow Me,” 277.

[14] Ibid., 278.

[15] Walter W. Wessel, “Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 8, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 720.

[16] Trakatellis, “Follow Me,” 281.

[17] Ibid., 282.

[18] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 123.

[19] Anthony B. Robinson, “Follow Me: The Renewed Focus on Discipleship,” Christian Century 124:18 (2007): 23-25.  See esp. 23.

[20] Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 31.

[21] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 887.

[22] Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, 24, 40.

[23] Horton, The Christian Faith, 872-873.

[24] Lyle D. Bierma, “Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Philipsburg: P&R, 2003), 230-245.  See esp. 244; Richard Muller, “How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal 28 (1993): 425-433.  See esp. 429.

[25] Peter Toon, “Is a Personal Relationship with Jesus What I Really Want?” Touchstone 11:5 (September/October 1998): 13-15.  See esp. 14.

[26] Ogden, Transforming Discipleship, 17.  On this same page he says, “Discipleship is not a program but a relationship.”

[27] D. G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Philipsburg: P&R, 2002), 46.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ligon Duncan, “The Ordinary Means of Growth,” Tabletalk 31:10 (2010): 12-15.  See esp. 15.

[30] Packer and Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 23.

[31] Stephen D. Renn, ed. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), 958.

[32] Packer and Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel, 22-23; 58-62.  These three sources “represent the central catechetical content inherited from the ancient church.”

[33] Ibid., 71-72.

[34] Jason J. Stellman, Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009), 6.

[35] R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ (1966; Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 163.

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