What is a disciple and what is involved in making disciples? Is there a correlation between the declining church membership in Britain and a dearth of discipleship? What were the hallmarks of New Testament discipleship and how can they be applied to the British church today?
A disciple – what is it?
The word disciple is a derivation of the Latin word discipulus, which itself is formed from the Greek word for pupil or learner, mathētēs. The New Testament uses this word not only of Jesus’ followers but also those who followed of Moses (John 9v28), the Pharisees (Mark 2v18), John the Baptist (Mark 11v2) and of Paul (Acts 9v25). Therefore a Christian disciple in its base form is a follower of Jesus. A learner is a person who is undergoing life change and transforming increasingly like Christ. A disciple is somebody learning to be like Jesus in every facet of life, practising His presence with them and engaging their life with Him so that He truly lives through them. Kimball assigns a measure whereby all discipleship is compared to what Jesus said in Matthew 22v37-40 – is the disciple loving God totally and is the disciple loving people openly? Disciples are called to remain in this incomplete world, but to be growing and maturing in a process is called discipleship.
New Testament Discipleship
The context for being a disciple in the New Testament era can be derived from three sources: the Old Testament, the Greco-Roman culture and first century Judaism.
Old Testament: It was in the role of the Old Testament prophets, that discipleship can be seen. Samuel (1 Samuel 19vv20-24), Elijah (2 Kings 4v1), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 36v32) all had disciples. These disciples seen them as their master, and was endemic within Israel’s society. Isaiah refers to the people around him as disciples (Isaiah 8v16), whereby the relationship is seen as primarily educational. The disciples referred to here are not only followers of Isaiah but also of God. The relationship was based on reciprocal support in order to reveal what the Lord was saying to Israel.
Greco culture: Classic Greek writings referred to disciples in three senses: learner (general), adherent (technical) and institutional (restricted). For those who were in the adherent context, they their rules of following set by the great master. One aspect of some first century Greek thought was Plutarch’s theory that a person’s highest achievement was to become like god.
First century Judaism: Within this context, disciples were attached to recognized masters, teachers or groups. The Pharisaic disciples were probably attached to an academic group. Those who followed John the Baptist were seen as radical, eschewing as they did normal Jewish society. Those Jesus referred to as the disciples of Moses, concentrated on their ‘honoured’ status as followers of the one to whom God had made Himself known. Philo states the goal of discipleship was to see God.
As we study the New Testament era, we can look to two models in order to gain insight. These two models are Jesus and Paul. The other Apostles also had disciples, but the New Testament has more to say about these two schools of discipleship, through the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
Jesus and disciples: Disciples of Jesus can be broken into two main categories: adherent and general. The adherents were the core twelve following Jesus and called to be his co-workers. The general were those who were convinced of Jesus being the Messiah, but didn’t leave everything to follow Him. The twelve sacrificed all in order to follow Jesus, proclaiming God’s kingdom and being trained for their future roles. In Matthew 28vv18-20, Jesus commanded his disciples to make other disciples. In order to fulfil this command, He assigned the three tasks of going, baptizing and teaching. When Jesus told his disciples to go, He meant it to be as an obligatory activity of daily life. Baptism was symbolic of becoming under the lordship of the Trinitarian Godhead, suggests Krentz. Teaching was not just to be an oral activity, but actively helping everyone including the weakest members. As baptism follows evangelism, baptism leads to teaching, which is a core part of disciple-making. This is partly why the New Testament church was seen as a radical community.
Pauline discipleship: In a world dominated by Greek philosophy and as a Judaist rabbi, Paul strives to bridge the gap between the Gentile and Jewish streams of discipleship thought. Jervis states that he does this, by claiming the motivation for discipleship is to become Christ-like. Certainly this is Paul’s motivation as a follower of Jesus seeking to imitate Him (1 Corinthians 11v1 NLT). Imitation not only be words, but by action as he stipulates the Philippian church to have the same mind as Christ did. (Philippians 2v5 AV) Martin objects to this on the grounds that Christ is far too glorified in order to be imitated. However, Hawthorne argues this means adopting a lifestyle shaped by Jesus. The core of Pauline discipleship is to following Jesus’ actions. This imitation requires a continual growth in personal holiness, by allowing the Holy Spirit to permeate all aspects of life (2 Corinthians 3v18).
Discipleship – Radical Community, Individuals & Leadership
The church in Britain is gradually shrinking according to recent statistics. The Census of English Church Census of 2005 shows that 3,166,200 were regular churchgoers in 2005 against 5,441,000 in 1979, with the average age increasing from 37 to 45. What should the church do to reverse this trend? How should individual Christians react in regards to a life of discipleship in an age where church attendance is rapidly declining as we have seen? It is by being a radical community of radical individuals which will help stop this decline in Britain. Paul Weaver emphatically states that what Britain needs is Christians living a “radical discipleship”, engaging with the British culture, counting the cost of discipleship and reflecting true humanity.
Radical Community – Firstly, the church needs to be a community that is seen to be radical by the surrounding society. At Pentecost, the church began when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples (Acts 2v4). This momentous occasion, started the discipleship process of how Christians were to live as God’s people. The hallmarks of this community were “engagement and transformation.” This community was radical. It was where people’s lives were being changed as the Holy Spirit filled them. Instead of being a withdrawn people filled with fear of retribution from the Roman government and Jewish leaders, they became a people filled with boldness and joy. The New Testament church grew by being a radical community imbued with radical individuals engaging with others.
Today’s church will grow by building a strong community. A community which involves joining together “isolated and solitary” individuals where people are imbued with love, showing care to each other, particularly the frail, elderly and young, with what Moltmann calls a “creative passion for the impossible.” An inherent human need is the need to belong. By fulfilling relational needs, the radical community will become relevant to the people within it. It will then also become relevant to those who are on the outside and looking in.
This involves improving present societal conditions, rather than remaining a conservative community which repairs the status quo. In doing this, today’s church will be emulating characteristics of the early church (Acts 2v44-45). As individuals became Christian, they were added to the church. Discipline helped ensure that the community was being seen as a holy community. To be excommunicated from the community for gross sin was a severe punishment. However church discipline as part of discipleship, is not primarily about punishment but being “formative and corrective”. Ortberg sees church discipline as foundational to disciples making, because it concerns the community’s spiritual health, and strengthens the community bonds.
The church must be a community of disciples, willing to be holy. It is by making people holy, that the church will grow. The role of the community engaged in radical discipleship is to make people holy and not happy. Happiness will flow from holiness, but holiness will not necessarily flow from an induced ‘feel good factor’. The radical community needs to be making disciples who are trained, equipped and developed in order for them to make disciples themselves. Whereas in the past, discipleship processes and programmes have emerged after people have joined the church, it should be foundational. The best way is for the leadership to set the example, and show a way forward. Good leadership has good accountability to each other and to the whole community. Paul espoused that elders caught in sin were to be rebuked publicly, as a warning to others in the community (1Timothy 5v20). Only after this, could leaders be restored.
Radical Individuals – Secondly, individuals within the community need also to be radical. How does an individual be radical and holy? Calvin asserts that denying oneself and relying on God for all things is the goal of the Christian life, attained by total submission to the Holy Spirit and a life of constantly “dealing with God” in all matters. This transformation is done by a constant renewing of the mind (Ephesians 4v23). A willing heart is also required in order to transform and sanctify. It is by loving others in a way that the end of a disciple’s generosity is when the resources have expired. A disciple must live as Jesus did, John commands (1 John 2v6). There is no better way for a disciple to fulfil this, than by imitating Jesus and obeying his command to “…take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9v23). This is seen as a higher challenge for the mind! Bonhoeffer extrapolates this in regards to discipleship as a leading to death for all who follow Christ; either as a physical death or in being ostracized from the community.
For the first century Christians, persecution and martyrdom was a reality, as evident in the story of Stephen (Acts 7v59). Yet it also means enduring suffering, and this is how a Christian disciple maintains a “communion with Christ”. For it is through suffering, that we share with the crucified Jesus. The bitterness of our cross is made sweeter the more we dwell on the sufferings of Jesus and our enabled fellowship with Him. Epitomizing the situation Christians may soon be facing in Britain, is the story of the Reverend Eric Delve who stated that he would rather be imprisoned than being compelled to bless a homosexual civil partnership. Although other Christians do believe that the sexual orientation bill is not a threat to distinctive Christian conscience or identity.
How is discipline to be exercised for individuals outside of the leadership? Paul when addressing the Corinthian community promotes the idea that the church should deal with extreme disciplinary matters corporately (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). As Christian individuals, we are linked together in a community through rebirth, and our relationship exists only through our relationship with Christ. This is why discipline (accountability) is an important part of discipleship. Reconciliatory restoration is necessary, or it is as if Christ’s wounds are publicly opened.
Lastly, there is no such thing as an individual member of the radical community. Members are interdependent upon one another, bound by a “corporate, inclusive personality.” The church community is perichoretic by nature, and individualism is oxymoronic and not coherent with Paul’s teaching.
Radical Leadership – A radical community filled with radical individuals requires radical leadership. Radical leadership commences with compassion, similar to that of Jesus when he looked over the crowds, and commented that they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9v36). It should be a compassion driven like that of Jesus towards the woman at the well (John 4vv1-26). With compassion in our motivation toolkit, and a broken heart, the community can reach out to for those emerging who primarily see Jesus as an irrelevance.
A radical leader needs also to involve the voices of others by engaging in dialogue with trusted others. This will involve having a diverse team around the leader who are both willing and empowered to give advice. Kimball stipulates that leadership for the emerging generation will require an individual leader to have relaxed grip on control, with power diffused to others, which is radical in that it goes against current strains of leadership.
A shepherd leader is required rather than a manager, so that the role is one of guidance and nurture rather than merely feeding the community. A leader who cares and loves is one who goes out to find the lost rather than waiting for the lost to come. This shepherd leader is also involved in the training of other shepherd leaders so that care is disseminated. This does not mean however that a radical leader becomes a subordinate to the community, catering to every whim and fad suggested by others. The leader needs be a servant but also requires discernment. This radical leadership style requires a pursuit of relationship in order to work, rather than a pursuit of aims and outcomes. This may well involve, as Kimball suggests meeting somebody on the fringe of the church community and establishing a relationship with them. This will enable trust to form and helps establish the community on a firm relational foundation. Once relationship has been formed, then the spiritual gifts of the person can be used in order to serve the community. By exercising gifts and being functional enables the individual to grow, be used by God and to flourish with confidence and support. Radical leadership encourages the fringe.
Finally, Jesus recommends that leaders be wise like asps and innocent as doves (Matthew 10v16b). The asp reference denotes leaders as being skilful and shrewd in making decisions that are characterised by intelligence, patience and cunning. Additionally, leaders are to be gentle and harmless, like doves. This would make leaders who are accountable to live lives holy, blameless and a life of integrity worthy of the gospel. An illustration of this sober warning is in the story of Ted Haggard who had to step aside once the story of his personal immorality was revealed. In order to do this, dependence on the Holy Spirit for strength and care is a vital necessity. By relying on the Holy Spirit, the leader is perpetually connected to Jesus Christ, who is after all, the Head of the church community.
If British churches and Christians started to take radical steps, both in being and making disciples, then growth would systematically increase. The Church would no longer be seen as irrelevant but as a thriving community where Jesus is glorified and transformation sought.