What is Discipleship?

There are two conceptions of discipleship floating around in Christian circles, and I want to explore what they are and what the difference is between them.  Here they are:

  1. The traditional view of discipleship is that you find a believer who is not as far along the road as you are, and you help them grow spiritually.
  2. The second view is that discipleship starts with unbelievers.

Which one is the correct conception of discipleship?  In Matthew 28:19 Jesus says to “go and make disciples”.  I have some questions:

  1. How many “Christians” existed in the world when he gave that command?
  2. Who did he give that command to, and how would the original hearers have understood that command?
  3. Was the command a universal command for all believers, or just those it was originally given to?

In answer to question #1, None.  Not a single one.  Why?  Because the term “Christian” had not been invented.  The term was used for the first time in Antioch when unbelievers started to use the term to describe believers (Acts 11:26).  And in reality, believers didn’t call themselves “believers” either.  They either called themselves “disciples” or “followers of The Way.” (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 24:22)  The term “disciples” appears 268 times in the new Testament and the term Christians appears only 3 times (Acts 11:26, 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16), and every time it refers to unbelievers making reference to disciples of Jesus.  Therefore he certainly wasn’t saying, “find a Christian who needs to grow and help them develop spiritual disciplines”.   But was he saying, “find another disciple and disciple them”?  That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it?  Furthermore, Jesus gave this command to the 11 remaining disciples just before his ascension.   There were certainly other followers of Jesus at the time, as we see them in the upper room in Acts chapter one, but it is generally believed that there were not more than 100 followers of Christ at that time.

In answer to question #2, He obviously gave this command to his 11 disciples.  If he told his 11 disciples to go and make disciples, then they must have understood that to mean that they should do with others what he had done with them.  They may or may not have been religious when he called them.  Matthew (as a tax collector) was considered a traitor an outcast in Israel when Jesus called him.  Tax collectors were viewed by the Pharisees as a special class of sinners.  Simon was a Zealot, certainly belonging to a fringe of Judaism that was focused more on political aims then spiritual aims.  Some have gone so far as to call him a terrorist of his day.  That may be a bit extreme, but without a doubt some zealots did espouse violent means to obtain their nationalistic goals.  Some of the disciples were simply fishermen.  Blue collar job.  Self employed tradesmen.  We know nothing either good or bad of their spiritual aims.  The point is that Jesus called a diverse group of people to follow him, and their calling obviously had nothing to do with their spiritual depth when he called them.  In fact, Jesus did not call any from the religious leadership groups (Pharisees, Saducees, Scribes, Priests, etc).  Therefore, in answer to question #2 it would seem that the people he gave this command to would have understood it to mean that they should approach normal everyday folk of diverse spiritual, vocational, and political backgrounds to invite them to become disciples of Jesus.  Furthermore, the text says to make disciples “of all nations”.  In other words, not just Jews and not just religious types.

In answer to Question #3, we need to look again at the text.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  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.”  Mat 28:18-20

If they were to make disciples “of all nations” (greek ethne, all ethnic groups), could this group of 11 men actually be expected to accomplish that?  Obviously not.  Secondly, he tells them to teach them to observe (some translations say “obey”) all that he had commanded them.  Does “all” include this last command?  It would seem to.  And if it does, then this command is for those who come after them as well.

So back to the original question, which one of the two conceptions of discipleship is correct?  I think the evidence is that they are both correct, but the first is more corrent than the second.  The first one is the starting point, but it does not eliminate the second one.  However, too many books about “discipleship” start with the second one instead of starting with the first one.  As I read everything I can get my hands on about discipleship, I am still finding new stuff being written which focuses exclusively on helping believers develop spiritual disciplines.  Very few discipleship books are being written on how to “make disciples” of those who do not currently describe themselves as “Christians” or followers of Jesus.  Jesus called unbelievers to follow him.  But at some point, these ordinary men became “believers” and were saved by faith.   What was that point?   Was it when they left all and followed him?  Maybe.  But they certainly were still lacking in faith in many ways, and their progress in faith was at different rates.  So he lived with them and taught them for three years until they were ready to continue on their own.  Jesus integrated the two, and I think that is what he was commanding us to do.  I wish I saw more (or better) models of an integration of these two aspects of discipleship.  Can you point to any for me?

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