If we are not doing what Jesus said, are we still the Church? We will leave the answer to him. I think we can safely conclude from the Bible that if we are not doing what Jesus said, then we need to make a change.
Take a look at the seven Churches of the book of Revelation. Jesus says to a couple of them, “But I have this against you . . .” (Rev. 2:4, 14, & 20). Whoa!” He tells most of them to “repent.” He even tells the Church of Laodacia that they are so bad that, “I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). That is sobering . . .
I would wager, that if we discipled as Jesus commanded us to, the Western Church would perhaps be smaller and healthier. So what might that say about us?
What do we really mean when we say the word discipleship? Some popular misconceptions include: a short-term class, a small group bible study, a one-on-one study, an accountability group, evangelism, or catechesis and so on.
The problem with popular notions of discipleship is that they are all too often associated with just a small part of it. For example, catechesis is training in basic Christian truth and behavior. It is a key part in discipleship, but hardly its sum total. So catechesis is discipleship, but discipleship is not summarized catechesis. It comprises so much more.
So what is Discipleship?
The simplest answer is Discipleship is learning to live as Jesus. Or, Discipleship is learning to follow Jesus. It comprises a process by which the heart is continuously and gradually opened to God. The Christian is trained in the love of God, to receive it and hence to give it. Discipleship is soul friendship with God.
Here are six universals characteristics of discipleship.
Characteristics in Discipleship
1. Discipleship is a Process — This may be the most important. Discipleship is a process of spiritual formation—formation of the human heart to love God. While you may become a follower of Jesus at a single point in time, learning to follow Jesus’ way of life takes time.
Transformation takes time. Like the seasons of the year, there is a process of change in the trees, animals, and weather. John O’Donahue says, “the birth of the human heart is an ongoing process.” The role of the Gospel is to serve as a midwife to birth the love of God in man’s heart.
The earliest Christians were known as “The Way” and the faith as “The Way of Life.” Christianity is not point or position, much less a label. It is a path—a journey.
2. Discipleship is Training — There is content to discipleship—things that must be conveyed to the Christian in order for this process to take place. This content is found between the covers of the Bible.
The Bible refers to its own content as “doctrine” or “instruction.” The biblical word we find in Acts 2:42 is didache. This is the common New Testament word for instruction. What is unique about this word is that it comes out of the Greek and Roman trades. A more literal translation would be “training” or “apprenticeship” as we would find in the trades today.
In the first century and on, there was a robust process for becoming a Christian. New seekers or catechumens we assigned a mentor, a “spiritual parent” to train him or her in the disciplines of the faith. In Celtic Christianity this person was known as the anam cara or “soul friend.” This process could take 1-3 years of spiritual reading and training before baptism.
This spiritual teacher would introduce and instruct the new person into the spiritual practices of the normal Christian life. The god parent served as a spiritual father or mother who was responsible for overseeing one’s spiritual direction and success in the Christian life.
3. Discipleship is a Discipline — You may notice that both discipleship and discipline are derived from the same root word. To make a disciple by implication means to impart not only knowledge, but also skills and disciplines. As we have already learned, to be “discipled” is to be taught. One is taught and then coached into practice.
The Christian life is not mere philosophical propositions, much less passionate feelings. In the most simple terms, God has revealed his righteousness and perfection to the world through the person of Jesus Christ (Romans. 1:17).
By doing so he invites humanity to join Christ by following Christ. This is by faith that God is not only just but also forgiving. The Apostle Paul calls the Gospel the power of God for salvation to every one who believes (Romans 1:16).
The Christian faith is not suspended propositionally between one’s ears. It is practiced or it is no faith at all. As the the Book of James says, So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14–17).
4. Discipleship is a Lifestyle — Discipleship as a discipline leads us here: Discipleship is a lifestyle. We are learning to live as Christ lives. Paul describes this lifestyle and contrasts it with those who reject it:
“For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life, but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.” (RSV Romans 2:6–10)
Every moment of life is an investment. The Christian life is centered on the pursuit of glory, honor, and immortality. Faith is to lay up treasure in heaven by a God-fearing, moment by moment, honoring of God with our mind’s and bodies (Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 6:21 & 19:21).
5. Discipleship is Evangelistic — Discipleship is missionary in character or it is not Christian. In the Great commission Jesus tells his disciples:
“Go therefore 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. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV Matthew 28:19-20)
There are two sides to this missionary quality: the external and the internal. The Church has not had too much of a problem with the first. Our charge is to go tell other’s about God’s love, transformation, and salvation.
The internal part is a little harder for us. Discipleship does not just evangelize the outsider. True discipleship is always evangelizing the Church. J. I. Packer captured this in his introductory note to the new Anglican Catechism: “This catechism attempts to be missional by means which God may bring about both conversion to Christ and formation in Christ.”
The Church is still broken, in constant need of the Gospel. Our hearts are weak, “prone to wander” as the Hymn says. We need the constant pastoral care. The Gospel that saves us is the same message that sanctifies us. Let us drink deeply.
6. Discipleship Happens in Community — No Christian is an island. Following Jesus is a team sport. The mutually evangelistic task of the Church happens here. Number 5 is really the explanation for number 6. Hebrews warns us, “take care brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (RSV Hebrews 3:12) These words are written to the Church!
The remedy? Hebrews 3:13: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Our best remedy for assurance is the warm and gentle support of our brothers and sisters.
He continues, “For we share in Christ . . .” (3:14). Those participating in the daily life of discipleship participate in Christ as they participate in one another. And so the warning: “if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.” (RSV 3:14) The Christian is called to “hold fast” to the faith in our daily walk.
To have healthy Christians (disciples) we need healthy Churches; To have healthy Churches, we need churches that possess a culture of discipleship. These six things provide a framework to do this. But how do we implement it? I would love to hear your opinion!
Please share your thoughts in the comments below! And please be sure to share with your friends on social media!