The question of “What is biblical discipleship?” is one that I think should be better examined in the Christian church. The term disciple is used in the bible, often times referring to groups of people following Jesus, and especially to the original twelve men that Jesus called and whom followed him faithfully (well sort of faithfully) until His resurrection. It is a term that is used in churches and teaching materials, many Christian organizations have discipleship classes and material, and most urge its members to be disciples of Christ. It is a word that I believe has become “Christianese” that is, a word that is used a lot by Christians even though most don’t know its real meaning, or at least they act like they don’t. But the reason I think it is so important to understand what the words disciple and discipleship mean is because of the great commission, where Jesus commands us to go out to all the world and make disciples.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20 NIV
Most Christians in America, and other westernized countries, take the great commission to mean “Go and make converts for Christ” or “Go and tell people about Jesus so they will become Christians”; but this understanding of the great commission is simply flat out wrong. Converts are not disciples, the words are not synonymous, and thus this understanding (that Jesus simply wants us to proselytize or make converts all over the world) has in my opinion weakened the church and failed to complete the great commission.
So what then is a disciple? If you simply translate the word to modern English you would get the definition “a student” and for discipleship you would get the definition “teaching”. But simply using the words student and teaching are oversimplifying the word and missing a lot of the point. Others define the word disciple as “follower”, thus a disciple would be a “follower of Christ”. I think this is a better definition, but it still can miss the point. To understand what discipleship truly is, and what Jesus meant when He said “Go and make disciples of all nations” we need to understand how education worked back in the time of Jesus.
Pastor Francis Chan, in his book multiply, has this to say concerning what the word disciple meant in Jesus’ day:
The word disciple refers to a student or apprentice. Disciples in Jesus’s day would follow their rabbi (which means teacher) wherever he went, learning from the rabbi’s teaching and being trained to do as the rabbi did. Basically, a disciple is a follower, but only if we take the term follower literally.
You see, the 12 disciples literally followed Jesus everywhere. They walked with Him, talked with Him, ate with Him, worked alongside Him, slept in the same tent as Him, they did everything with Him! They left everything behind to actually follow Jesus. If Jesus went to Samaria, they went to Samaria with Him, if Jesus went to Judea, they went to Judea with Him. It was as simple as that. And as they followed Jesus, they would learn from Jesus. They would learn by His instruction and teachings, yes, but they would also learn by observing Him in everything. Finally, they would learn by talking with Him, having conversations about everyday life, about problems, and about His teachings. This is what discipleship looks like.
I think the problem the Church has is that we think the great commission means that we are to go and make disciples of Christ; that we are to go and convince people to follow Christ. But I don’t think that is what Jesus meant when He said “Go and make disciples of all nations”, what I think He meant was “Go and make disciples of you, go and get people to follow you in all nations. And as they follow you they will learn how to follow me, you will teach them to obey everything I have taught you, and you will do so by showing them how to obey with your own lives”. In fact, this is exactly what the apostle Paul teaches. He literally tells people to imitate him as he imitates Christ!
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1 NASB
Instead what we do is we have big revival meetings where hundreds get saved at a time, or we go on short term mission trips and lead people in other countries to Christ and then we leave them, maybe sending them to a church to attend every Sunday. These new converts are left with no one to follow except for Christ, whom they only just heard about. They don’t know how to follow Him, they don’t even know where to begin, many times they don’t even have a Bible to read, and even if they did, would they know how to read it, when to read it, where to start? And because of this many fall away from the faith, and many more become lukewarm Christians filling churches on Sundays and strip clubs on Saturdays. And why wouldn’t they, they don’t know any better because no one has taught them!
But hold on, if they go to church someone is teaching them, isn’t that enough? Absolutely not! Sermons in American churches range from fifteen minutes to an hour long, with most being around thirty minutes. Tell me, how long would it take you to get proficient at a skill only practicing 30 minutes a week? How long would it take you to get a college degree if you only spent 30 minutes in class or studying a week? Could you ever expect to master anything on that kind of schedule? Of course not! Yet this is what many of us entrust our Christian walk to, 30 minutes a week on Sunday, even though this is the most important part of our lives (or it should be at least).
When I was saved I was only 16 years old. I was saved under Pastor Matt Krachunis at Faith and Victory in Auburn Washington. Pastor Matt truly discipled me, he let me follow him everywhere. I would show up to church early, sometimes beating him there, I would leave late along his side, I would eat dinner with him weekly, most weeks more than once. I would watch movies with him, I would play games with him, I would help him pour concrete and put up a fences around his house. His house was my house, at least he made me feel that way, and his life was my life. In fact my parents even started calling me “Mini-Matt” because I started to act like him! And how happy I am that I learned to act like him, because he was doing his best to act like Jesus. Through that time in my life, my time of following Pastor Matt like a lost puppy, I learned so much that I would have never learned on Sunday mornings. I learned how to raise children in a godly manner based on how he raised his two children, I learned how to react to anger in a godly way, because I would see him get angry from time to time (especially at me when I would do stupid things), I learned how to love everyone, watching him love. I learned theology because I would ask him about it, and he would spend hours teaching me, sometimes even debating me. I remember clearly saying to myself “I want to find a wife just like Pastor Matt has, I want a marriage like his”. As a young man I had learned more about marriage just watching Matt interact with his wife, then I would have ever learned reading a hundred books. Pastor Matt truly discipled me.
So, in short, to make disciples we need to make followers, we need to allow people into our lives and let them learn to follow Jesus by following us. Then, once they have learned to follow Jesus by watching us, they can themselves make disciples. This is how we should obey the great commission. Sermons, lectures, and teaching materials are all great tools to help us disciple, but in the end it comes down to truly letting people follow us as we teach them.