“Follow me.” Jesus’ invitation extends far beyond the original Twelve, through the ages and up to the present. What does it mean to be His disciple?
A disciple of Jesus should be recognizable in every culture and era. Even the opposition identified the early disciples of Christ: “Now as [the religious leaders] observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, ESV).
Let me paint a brief portrait of what I consider to be discipleship, based on my study of the Bible. I invite you to take what I present and wrestle with it against Scripture to see how well it holds up.
In his book Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe used the term “irreducible complexity” to describe the phenomenon in nature in which even a simple organism cannot function without all of its essential parts. If even one is missing, the organism is not viable. With that idea in mind, here is my most recent best shot at describing the irreducible complexity of discipleship:
Discipleship is the personal, persistent pursuit of knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ by means of critical spiritual disciplines in the context of supporting relationships, resulting in the distinctive marks of an apprentice of Christ.
The following is a quick flyover of the description:
Discipleship is the personal, persistent pursuit . . .
Discipleship is an individual concept. There are no group disciples. It is primarily an active pursuit that involves intentionality and effort. It is not something that happens to us without our cooperation and involvement.
Of knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ . . .
Knowing, reflecting, and sharing Christ are the coordinates of our journey. It is our GPS setting. These three pursuits are a triad in which each contributes and is enhanced by the others.
By means of critical spiritual disciplines . . .
Discipleship cannot be separated from the means by which it is expressed or achieved. These means can be called spiritual disciplines, habits, or practices. They are the God-ordained means by which we experience His grace. They are the way we “abide” in Christ so that by His power we bear fruit. They are, in the words of Dallas Willard, “what we do so God can do what we cannot do.”
There is no comprehensive list of the spiritual practices, but certain ones have been practiced and promoted throughout Christian history. The most common disciplines in our church culture today involve worship, connecting, and serving. Although these are important, they are not adequate to produce life transformation. But there is a set of inner life disciplines that are historically effective for life transformation. Unfortunately, they are rarely practiced with any skill and consistency. These inner disciplines involve connecting with Christ (such as in prayer) and disconnecting from the world (such as with fasting).
In the context of supporting relationships . . .
Discipleship is not accomplished in isolation. In the New Testament, it is modeled and taught as a pursuit of Christ in relationship with others who are on the same journey. Paul gave the most succinct description of these essential relationships in 2 Timothy 2:2. He describes for Timothy the relationship of a mentor to a team of apprentices and their mentorees. When any part of this triad is missing, the process suffers.
Resulting in the distinctive marks of an apprentice of Christ.
Finally, Christ gave us the defining traits of His disciples. These traits or marks are what should distinguish His disciples from that of other rabbis or teachers. There are five primary statements in the Bible where Jesus specifically said one is His disciple if he or she has this trait—He set the standard. They are:
Whole life transformation (Luke 6:40)
Sacrificial allegiance (Luke 14:26)
Faithful obedience (John 8:31-32)
Servant love (John 13:34-35)
Spiritual fruitfulness (John 15:8)
It is against His portrait that we need to measure our own discipleship as well as how we mentor others. We have not been commissioned to make cultural disciples but distinctive disciples who fit His criteria. May we, too, be followers whom the world can recognize as “having been with Jesus.”
Questions for Reflection
Using the description given, how might you help someone grow into becoming a disciple?
In which aspect of discipleship are you weakest? Who might help you develop it?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress); also, more recently, The Highquest Discipleship Series. This article is adapted from Ron’s blog, The Adventure of Discipleship, December 19, 2017. Ron invites you to watch his blog for further development of the ideas presented here.