This is a paper I helped write several years ago. I reread it the other day and though I would share it with you. Enjoy.
PRINCIPLES OF DISCIPLESHIP AND BEING A DISCIPLE
Dr. Mark H. Heinemann
Dallas Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
CE 705 Principles of Discipleship
Jeff Milton, Shawn Dickerson, Daniel Thomson, Aaron Giesler
PRINCIPLES OF Discipleship and being a disciple
When different people come together to discuss any subject, they must have a common understanding of the subject. This common understanding is necessary for productive communication to take place. This is especially true for more complex or ambiguous subjects. Discipleship is one such subject that demands a high level of semantic congruence for intelligent conversation to occur. Ask ten different people what discipleship is and what is meant by the term “disciple” you are likely to obtain ten different answers. Not only will the responses be different, but some may be disparate, meaning they are incompatible. “Commonsense” definitions concerning discipleship and “being a disciple” are not so common among believers. Therefore, it is essential to define discipleship and “being a disciple” so both author and reader are coming from a common understanding of the terms. Not to be confused with “total agreement,” common understanding is simply agreeing upon the concept and how it interacts within the world.1 Consequently, this paper will define “discipleship” and “disciple” in order to provide a common understanding which provides a platform for positive criticism and discussion. Following an established definitional base, biblical principles of discipleship will be discussed. In conclusion, how discipleship can be promoted in a local church setting will be considered.
Core Definitions of Christian Discipleship
The following definitions will not address every nuance or aspect of interpretation of every occurrence of the terms or concepts regarding discipleship as found in the Bible. Rather these are synthetic definitions based on the general usage seen in the Bible as well as personal experience. As with any definition, there are always exceptions. The definitions of discipleship and disciple are no different.
Disciple: A disciple is any and all followers of Jesus Christ.2 Every believer is a disciple and vice-versa. This definition is derived from the usages seen in the Gospels and the concepts found in the Epistles of the New Testament. A “true” believer will always be in the process of becoming more like Christ; thereby, becoming a mature believer. Becoming more like Christ involves maturing in loving one another (1 Peter 4:8), maintaining a pure life (1 Pet 3:10), keeping the commands of the Savior (1 John 5:3), and avoiding sinful behavior (2 Timothy 1:3). These are basic activities commanded to every believer. And looking at Scripture, they occur most often when people are in a relationship with one another.3 All the time the true disciple is moving to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Consequently, a disciple is every person in a relationship with Jesus and their life should be characterized as one who interacts with other believers; thereby, seeking to have a deeper relationship with Christ and others.
Some would disagree with the definition that every disciple is a believer, but typically they will support the proposal that most believers are disciples. Some view a disciple as being only a more active Christian or a different class of believer.4 They believe that some people go in and out, back and forth from being a disciple to just being a stagnate believer. Their proof for this is mostly semantic meaning and ambiguous characterizations of a few verses in the Bible.
In answer to their criticism of the view presented here, two explanations for a disciple being all Christians are proposed. The opposition would espouse that by our definition we eliminate many people as Christians when they are not actively pursuing Christ-likeness. The first reason for stagnation is that the person may simply not be a Christian. Much like the seed that quickly sprouted but died for lack of water in Jesus’ parable, a non-Christian may look like a blooming Christian but time will show he is not. Secondly, a Christian just may not have any external features that suggest pursuit of Christ-likeness. This person may be going through a time of testing, a time of disciplining, or a time of quiet preparation by the Lord. Regardless, it is not our duty to assess a person’s spiritual condition, but only to encourage and guide them to be more like the Son. Ultimately, it is the Spirit’s job to move a person toward total perfection and glorification in the Son.
Discipleship: Discipleship [a term not used in the Bible] is the process whereby a person involved in the believing community moves toward a deeper relationship with Christ. Moreover, it is the process of becoming a disciple and mature believer. It begins when an individual comes in contact with a believer and begins to turn towards God. Unlike a disciple, an unbeliever through the process of evangelism can be involved in discipleship. It has a loose definition because it is a process and looks very different for every person. This is much like a college student going through the initiation process of a fraternity. From the beginning of the process the student is moving toward the goal of initiation, becoming a full-fledged member of the organization, but not until a certain point does the student move from a pledge to a member. In the same way, a person involved in discipleship is not truly a disciple until he makes the commitment to trust Christ as his personal Savior.
As stated earlier, this process looks vastly different for every person. No two people will arrive at the decision to trust Christ in the same way. Therefore, there is no one right way to disciple someone. It does happen in community and does occur best with close personal contact with other believers.
The negative side of being so flexible is that having a universal quantitative evaluation is next to impossible. There is really no way to measure how far along a person has matured from where they began. Conversely, flexibility is the greatest strength of discipleship. Each human is unique and responds uniquely to different means of discipleship. Discipleship does not force fit everyone into a program or learning style. Rather, the disciple and his discipler set the course and determine the best ways of achieving those goals. This means if a very auditory person desires to become more like Christ, then listening to her teacher is one of the best ways she can do that. Or, if another person is a kinetic learner, going out and doing is the way best suited to cause maturation. The point is that flexibility is the greatest asset for discipling unique individuals. It may seem ambiguous or seem to theoretical for analysis but there is no such thing as a universal standard for different people.
Biblical Principles with Christian Discipleship
Commission for Discipleship
Jesus commanded His disciples to “make disciples.” They were to continue the ministry that Jesus had begun in them by taking the things that Jesus had taught them and teaching them to others. In Matthew 28:19-20, some of Jesus’ final words to His disciples are recorded. He tells them that, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” His final command in the book of Matthew is to “make disciples.” The other three verbs in this sentence are all participles that support this one command to “make disciples.” Disciples are made by going, by baptizing, and by teaching.
The earliest Christians were predominately Jewish and initially their ministry was predominately to Jews. They had a tendency to stay in Jerusalem and draw converts to the Jerusalem church up until the persecution of Steven in Acts 7.5 This command was for them to go and disciple. They were to take their ministry of discipleship outside of Jerusalem to the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria, and on into the ends of the earth as found in Acts 1:8. The other two verbs (baptizing and teaching) reveal the means of discipleship. A disciple was to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The sacrament of water baptism is in view here, but it is much more. It is immersion into Christ Jesus to the point that the convert becomes identified with the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The act of baptism is a part of this identification process. A disciple was to be made by teaching all that Jesus had commanded the disciples. This teaching is focused and directed toward the words of Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry. Jesus’ words were to be taught to converts with special emphasis on His commands. Discipleship in this process is a process of teaching and the goal of that teaching is identification with Jesus Christ by being obedient to his teachings, and by living in such a way that the life of the students is reflective of the life of Christ.
When attempting to put together a discipleship program, it is difficult to know where to begin and what to teach. There are many things that Jesus had taught. His teachings could be covered sequentially through a study of the Gospels. His teachings could be covered by starting with the doctrines that Jesus had spent the most time on and working all the way down to other doctrines that He mentions.
Ulrich Luz believes that there should be an emphasis on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew chapter ten. The mission discourse in Matthew 10 is concerned with Jesus’ inner circle. It is concerned with the conduct of the disciples and their destiny as bearers of the message.6 This passage is one of the few within Matthew that is directed directly to His disciples and Luz views it as the mission for the disciples and an example for current believers. He states that, “Matthean discourse on discipleship transfers the model of Jesus Son of God to the disciples… it shows how the story of Jesus is realized in the practice of mission.” 7 The mission in Matthew 10 is to continue the message and ministry of Jesus – they were to put into practice the things they had learned from Him. For Matthew, being a Christian depended entirely on the fruits (Matt 7:15-20), on obeying the law of love (cf. Matt 7:21-23), and the will of the Father (Matt 12:49-50).8
There are some principles that can be derived from Matthew 10 that are universally true for discipleship today, but the passage overall seems to be directed specifically to the twelve disciples. These commands seem to be situation specific, the disciples are told here to go only to the lost sheep of Israel. At later moments in Jesus’ ministry He will tell them to go outside of Jerusalem and to bring the gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19; Acts 1:8; 10:9-48). However, a universal principle that may be derived from this passage is that disciples are to be mission-minded; they are to seek to spread and share the good news about the person, words, and works of Jesus Christ. His disciples are to represent Him by proclaiming the same message that He proclaimed, going to the people He sent them to go to, and by performing the ministry that He sent them to perform.
Content of Discipleship
There is a clear call in the New Testament to go and “make disciples,” but many churches have gone about the process of accomplishing this command in different ways. In this section, a few key characteristics of discipleship will be identified that can be used to derive the essence of the content that should be considered for a discipleship program.
John Nolland notes that in Matthew 9:37-38, Jesus, immediately after addressing the twelve, gives them an extended set of specific mission directives.9 In Matthew there is an urgency in Christ’s call to discipleship. The disciples are given a commission to act as soon as they are named here. Earlier in Matthew the first disciples are called to leave their father and boat to follow Jesus. Following Jesus involved abandonment right then and there of their lifestyle and material possessions (nets cast but not gathered in) – the call of Jesus is totally disruptive. The urgency and the radical nature of the call are based on the near approach of the kingdom of heaven (4:17) – following Jesus has to do with his significance for this kingdom.10
Another universal principle of discipleship is that a disciple will follow Jesus. It is not clear in the New Testament how much they gave up in order to follow Jesus. It seems in some areas that their families were with them, in other areas they may have continued to use their skills as fishermen to earn money and continue their ministry. However, they follow Jesus immediately after receiving the call. In Matthew 9, they are given a commission shortly after being named as the twelve disciples.
Luke 9:51-10:24 describes an encounter that Jesus and His disciples had with three men who were not willing to follow immediately upon Jesus’ call to them. Two of the men offer to follow Jesus and one of them is told by Jesus to follow Him. Howard Marshal views this as a section on the duties and privileges of discipleship. In the incident in Luke 9:57-62, the cost of discipleship is apparent – there must be absolute commitment to Jesus.11 This passage is often used to defend the view that discipleship is a higher calling that is only practiced by elite Christians who are willing to make a greater sacrifice. Marshal notes that from the theme of opposition to Jesus, Luke turns his attitude to would-be disciples. Three of whom express their willingness to follow him while he is on his way to Jerusalem, but misunderstand the degree of self-sacrifice involved. To each of them Jesus indicates the stringent nature of discipleship.12
The cross-bearing passage found earlier in Luke 9 and in other areas of the gospels 13 is also used to defend that discipleship is a “higher calling.” Darrell Bock notes that in Luke 9:24, all three verbs are imperatives, but the call to “deny [one] self” and “take up [one’s] cross” are in Greek aorist tenses, while the call to “follow [Jesus]” is in the present. This implies that discipleship involves the fundamental commitment of self-denial and bearing one’s cross, while the call to follow Jesus is constant. Growing out of the base commitments,14 there is a clear call of self-denial prevalent throughout Luke 9. Though discipleship is not a higher calling for elite Christians, all Christians are called to live this “higher calling.” God provides mercy and grace, but it is not cheap grace. Bock adds that these texts are hard for us to reflect on today because cross-bearing in the ancient sense of walking to one’s death rarely happens for most Christians today. Discipleship does not come today with the almost automatic sense of cost it carried back then.15 This makes it difficult to apply these passages today, but there are clear applications and principles that can be derived from these texts.
As stated earlier in this paper, all Christians are “disciples,” but scripture teaches that there is a high level of commitment placed upon Christians. Discipleship is not a calling to an easy life – it is a life dedicated to following Jesus. A universal principle that could be taken from this passage is that a disciple is dedicated to following Jesus by self-denial. This self denial is best described in Philippians 2 – it is an imitation of Christ who is God, but humbled Himself by talking on the likeness of humanity. Christ’s humility is evident in everything He does. He does not come to do His own will but the will of the Father. He does not come to teach His own words, but the words that were given to Him from the Father (John 7:16-17). At the Garden of Gethsemane He does not seek for His own will to prevail, but the will of His Father (Luke 22:42). Christ demonstrates self-denial throughout His ministry. He is one with the Father, and He is divine, sharing in the same essence as the Father, but He submits to the Father and works to carry out the will of the Father. The Christian life is to be characterized by self-denial by being submissive to the Father, as Christ was submissive. The Christian life is a life of giving up rights and entitlements in order to serve God, it is a willing submission to God.
Biblical Principle Summary
What overall biblical principles should guide the process of discipleship? (1) A disciple is to be mission-minded (Matthew 10:6-7). The process of discipleship is never-ending, but there is a chain of discipleship that continues from discipliner to disciples. Each Christian has a mandate to share what they have learned in their relationship with Christ. This type of passing on may take different forms in different believers but fruit will be evident from each Christian. (2) A disciple will follow Jesus (Matthew 4:17). The term disciple literally means a student. A disciple of Jesus Christ is someone seeking to learn from Him. The great commission is to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. A disciple is receptive to this process because they are seeking to know Christ and follow Him. (3) A disciple is dedicated to following Jesus by self-denial (Luke 9:23). Luke 9 describes following Christ in harsh terms, but the Christian life is a hard calling. The burden is light with regards to expectations of religious duty in the eyes of others, but there is heavy responsibility to be entrusted with the gospel of God, to represent it with ones life, and to share it with the world who rejected Christ.
These three principles above are helpful for guiding discipleship, but it is also important to note the goal of discipleship. Bock derives an excellent application from the Luke 9 passage, Jesus saved us for discipleship. He saved us to change us, to make us different in the world than we were before we came to know him.16 Discipleship is part of the process of transformation to become like Christ. God is heavily involved in it and there is a human responsibility to commit oneself to following Him.
Discipleship in the Local Church Setting
What exactly does discipleship look like in the Local Church? How do we as a body of Christ move people to a place where they are going out to others and sharing the good news of the gospel? First we must look at and evaluate a church’s mission statement which should point to what being a disciple of Jesus Christ looks like. In addition to being a mission-minded church, in terms of going out from the church to bring others to Christ, the church must also teach the importance of service to others, growth in God’s Word, and what it means to be an active participant in the believing community. In order to have an effective discipleship program in the local church leading to spiritual growth, it all must start with the church’s mission statement which should point people to the desired outcomes which we will explore further.
One of the first places to start in promoting discipleship in the local church is for people within the church to have access to opportunities for self-evaluation. The first step in developing such a core aspect of the ministry is for the local church to come up with a defined set of competencies. For example, the church should focus on truth found in God’s Word, an importance of living life in community, opportunities for outreach, and spiritual/relationship growth development within the church. By the church having such an evaluation system this will promote more efficient growth in both the individual and the church.
Competencies of Evaluation
It is our belief that the core values in a person’s character and spiritual development are found in the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Since we know these are the core qualities an individual should strive for, we can now align them with the beliefs of the church as a whole. Along with these two criteria, we now ask, “how do we as a church implement or practice what we know to be true?” Once we come up with our mission, values, and how we practice what we believe we are able to create evaluations for individual members to follow.
Fundamentals of the Faith
There are multiple fundamentals of the faith that people should value in any discipleship program. A few core values would be the following: (1) graciously focused on truth; (2) being vitally connected in community; (3) actively loving a lost and broken world; and (4) being fully invested in Christ’s church. In order that we might facilitate disciples, we could begin by introducing people to the fundamentals of the faith through a class that meets in people’s homes for six consecutive weeks. If after six weeks, participants demonstrate a deeper desire to commit, then the growth process could be nurtured further. Bear in mind, the outcomes of people being involved in small groups are that: (1) they are able to be held accountable with others on their spiritual development, and (2) they have service and out-reach oriented opportunities which are also consistent to the church’s core values.
Along with being vitally connected in community through their small group, there could also be specialized classes related to the core beliefs of the church that are offered at the church once a week. For example, trained volunteers could teach the fundamentals of the faith to children and teens at the church on Sunday mornings. All members would be encouraged to be involved in a small group upon graduation from high school. All Children’s ministry programs could point children to the value of growing in God’s Word. The lessons that children bring home from church would coincide with what is being preached from the pulpit to foster further discussion at home with families. The discipleship program of the church would invade all age groups and would promote a common vision of the church to produce disciples of Jesus Christ.
Within the context of a developmental stage, a church should look to improve current involvement of members in the church, examine people’s lives from a biblical perspective, and further opportunities to serve other people in the community. A recommended discipleship curriculum to follow (and explored below) is the Navigators 2:7 Series that consists of three books which require sixty minutes of reading, scripture memory, and self-reflection each week. It is during these small group times that individuals will begin to grasp the fundamentals of the faith.
Growing Strong in God’s Family (Book 1)
The focus of this time is to help strengthen participants in the basic principles of the Christian life and church ministry. The idea behind this first study is to allow people the opportunity to enjoy reading the Bible. Another aspect of this study is to teach people how to have a meaningful quiet time in God’s Word. Prayer and Scripture memory help aid others in learning how to apply the truth of God’s Word to their own life. Again, it is the hope of this study to align people with the core values that are fundamentals of the faith – which should reflect local church values.
Deepening Your Roots (Book 2)
Discipleship is seen as including both practical life experiences and ministry driven focus from God’s Word. The two objectives found in this book are: (1) continuing to develop people in their relationship with Christ – so that they can experience a more consistent and closer walk with God; and (2) it will begin to increase their perspective and skills regarding relationship evangelism. It is here in this study where the individual will learn to give a personal testimony and to actively participate in one’s relating activities with non-Christians. Scripture memory, Bible study, prayer, witnessing and fellowship are foundations that are further developed in this book.
Bearing Fruit in God’s Family (Book 3)
This book is an activity-oriented book. In addition to having a more consistent quiet time, memorizing Scripture, and discussion on qualities of biblical character, participants now learn how to present the gospel message. Through this study, the individual will grow in aligning himself or herself with our core value of actively loving a lost and broken World. Once the individual has come to understand this, they will be equipped to share the gospel with non-believers. As the individual has grown in their faith, they are able to live life by a biblical set of priorities. They are now able to multiply themselves in the lives of other people. Through this basic curriculum we have produced disciples who now walk with God and effectively minister to others.
Follow-up and Continued Care
Upon completion of the above growth plan, the individuals would sign a covenant statement where they would commit to actively participate in the local church. We feel that by giving individuals a covenant statement to sign this is the first step in being a follower of Christ by being fully invested in His church and to begin to use their spiritual gifts. Among the recommendations, it is necessary to encourage active participation in a small group – primarily for fellowship, prayer, and community involvement. The individual along with their small group would then agree to participate in Sunday morning’s fellowship time to provide a larger relational network and gain exposure to interactive teaching. Finally, the individual would participate in Sunday morning corporate worship and larger church community service opportunities. At the end of each year, with the help of a mentor, the individuals would re-evaluate their growth from the previous year. It is the hope of this evaluation that the goals would be consistent for a larger leadership role given to the individual for the coming year.
It should be mentioned at this point that children and teenagers would also be learning on the same developmental track as the adults. It is vitally important in a program like this one to coordinate the church’s discipleship plan across the board, thus helping the parents to fulfill their spiritual obligation to their children. Our Sunday morning program for kids and teenagers would also incorporate an element of our discipleship plan as they too grow in their knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.
We must not forget that a major reason for Christ’s success here on earth was that He had a plan and He intentionally completed it. Without a plan in place, the local church can only react to circumstances. A plan puts us in charge of our energies and activities with God’s sovereign hand to guide us along as a congregation. This discipleship plan for the church includes the values that define the church, measurables for incorporating these values, and provides emphasis on principles of the faith as found in God’s Word. The plan that is discussed in this paper leaves it up to the individual to decide how deep to grow in his/her faith. Our suggested plan is based on Colossians 2:6-7 which states, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
Understanding discipleship and who a “disciple” is begins with accepted definitions. Collectively, we view a “disciple” as being any and all followers of Jesus Christ. Our definition of “discipleship” is the process whereby a person involved in the believing community moves toward a deeper relationship with Christ. Discipleship in our view does include evangelism of unbelievers. What drives the discipleship process is biblical principles that have been discussed. These principles suggest that “true” followers of Christ are called to be mission-minded and dedicated to the process of following Christ – not following self. Following Christ involves being an active participant in the believing community within the body of a local congregation. Within this local congregation, a structured discipleship model program has been suggested in order to promote individual spiritual growth within the church community setting. Discipleship is process of becoming Christ-like. Day-by-day, by the Holy Spirit’s help and intercession, we are called to continually seek as the body of Christ to be, “built up in Him.”
Bock, Darrell L. Luke. In NIVAC. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1996.
Growing Strong in God’s Family. Book 1, The New 2:7 Series. NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO 1999. PLEASE FORMAT FOR ME CORRECTLY AS I AM NOT ABLE TO DO IT IN GOOGLE DOCS.
Deepening Your Roots in God’s Family. Book 2, The New 2:7 Series. NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO 1999. Rev. ed
Bearing Fruit in God’s Family. Book 3, The New 2:7 Series. NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO 1999. Rev. ed.
1 , 91.
2 , The way of the Master, 235.
3 3 John 1:3, 1 Peter 4:8, Philemon 1:7, Colossians 1:4, Philippians 2:2 all provide concrete examples of how an earthly relationship based on love for others provides opportunity to grow in relationship with Christ and become more like him.
4 , 10-6. These authors would not characterize a disciple as such but this is the overall effect of their classification.
5 Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 645.
6 Luz, Ulrich. Studies in Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 144.
7 Ibid., 159.
9 Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew (In NIGTC. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2005), 414.
10 Ibid., 179.
11 Marshal, I. Howard. Commentary on Luke (In NIGTC. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1978), 402-3.
12 Ibid., 408.
13 The Cross bearing passages: Luke 9:23-27; Matt 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-9:1.
14 Bock, Darrell L. Luke (In NIVAC. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1996), 269.
15 Ibid., 267.
16 Ibid., 269.