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What Is Discipleship Anyway?

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The Christian community was first of all a church gathered around the feet of Christ, to receive his Word, to deepen in the apostolic teaching, to participate in Holy Communion and the prayers.

Often in reaction against the perceived narcissism of consumer-oriented faith and practice, a lot of younger Christians are talking about discipleship these days. On the one hand, this is very hopeful. Basically, we're seeing the children telling their Baby Boomer parents, "Enough about you and how you can have your best life now." Many of these younger believers endured lonely lives, letting themselves into the house after school, watching their parents' self-indulgence and unraveling marriages. Now they share their generation's more general concern to look beyond their own immediate gratification to care about God's creation, to seek justice and charity for their neighbors, and to witness to Christ's transforming hope by actively exhibiting a life of love and service to others. In short, they don't just want to know Jesus Christ as a theory or even as an experience; they want to follow him. Not bad, all things considered!

On the other hand, this promising emphasis on discipleship today is threatened by a strong tendency to reduce "following Christ" to moral and social activism-apart from, and sometimes even against, a concern for doctrine. We've heard the mantras: "deeds, not creeds," "living the gospel," "being the church, not going to church," and the familiar line from St. Francis: "Always preach the gospel and if necessary use words." Much of this new emphasis looks to the Anabaptist heritage for its understanding of discipleship. "Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life," writes Brian McLaren, focusing on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount rather than on Paul and the doctrines concerning personal salvation. Younger Christians are offering a bracing and important wake-up call to shift our self-identity from consumers to disciples. But what is discipleship?

A Disciple Is a Learner

Our Western culture has distinguished sharply between theory and practice, and this has affected our view of the relationship between doctrine and life. In the Old Testament, "following after" or "walking after" the Lord involved the head, the heart, and the whole body. It meant understanding and embracing the truth, responding in faith and thanksgiving, and offering one's entire self in obedience. Your heart must be moved by something other than emotional exuberance, but how can you say that you know God if you do not trust him or follow his commands?

In the New Testament, disciple means "student." To be sure, the context is not that of a lecture hall, with students taking notes that will be closely reviewed for a final exam. Rather, it is of an outdoor mobile "classroom" in which the tutorials take place in the context of daily occurrences and analogies from familiar experience. Nevertheless, this relationship provokes questions and answers, conversation, and even debate. Jesus' miraculous signs were always connected to the reality they signified: Jesus as the Bread from Heaven, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Healer who opens blind eyes and preaches the gospel to the poor, the Resurrection and the Life. Both his disciples and critics come to him with questions, and much of the sayings related in the Gospels have to do with his answers in the form of "teachings."

Jesus' disciples weren't just taking notes. They weren't in the lab, but in the field watching Jesus inaugurate his kingdom and hearing him explain what was happening. Even they, however, did not really understand the doctrine he taught until the dramatic events of which he spoke were fulfilled and the Spirit opened their eyes to understand the prophetic Scriptures with Christ at the center (Luke 24).

Discipleship in the Gospels

Rabbi means "teacher" and that's what disciples called their masters. Jews of Jesus' day were well aware of various schools that evolved around the teachings of a religious leader in the community. Disciples attached themselves to a particular rabbi, coming regularly to the synagogue and sometimes attending the teacher on walks or daily rounds to members of the community. Compared to an ox, the disciple accepted the "yoke" of the master. Hence, in pronouncing his curses upon the religious leaders of his day, Jesus could say, "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others" (Matt. 23:4-5). By contrast, he invites all who are "heavy laden" to come to him for rest. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matt. 11:29).

Two sisters, Mary and Martha, were among Jesus' closest disciples. We are told that Mary "sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving." When Martha complained that Mary was making her do all the work, Jesus replied, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:38-42).

In Matthew 10:24-42, Jesus teaches us what it means to be a disciple in his kingdom. First, "a disciple is not above his teacher," so Jesus' followers should expect to be persecuted if the enemies of his kingdom regard the teacher himself as "the master of the house of Beelzebub [Satan]" (vv. 24-25). Second, a disciple "acknowledges me [Jesus Christ] before people" on earth, even on pain of death, and so is acknowledged by the Father in heaven (vv. 32-33). Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword that divides family members, and only those who take up their cross and follow him can be his disciples (vv. 34-38). You cannot be a disciple of various masters. Following Christ means giving up all other spiritual, moral, and religious authorities as the source of ultimate and saving truth. The goal of this discipleship is not to find a better, more effective way of self-fulfillment, but to lose your life in order to find it in Christ (v. 39). Those who receive the disciples and their Word in fact receive Christ himself, and those who reject them reject him (vv. 40-41).

We also learn what it means to be Christ's disciples from his Great Commission. First, he possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. There is no other Savior and Lord. Second, and on this basis, we are commanded to go throughout the world spreading the gospel, "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" (Matt. 28:18-20a). Being Christ's disciples means bringing people into the sphere of the church's ministry of preaching and Sacrament. It involves being instructed not just in the basics of biblical teaching but in everything that Jesus commanded for our doctrine and life. Through these means instituted by Christ, the Master is still with us along the Emmaus Road, opening our hearts to receive him and all of his benefits (v. 20b).

Disciples have to swallow everything that Jesus said, hook, line, and sinker. Learning this lesson the hard way, the disciples heard Jesus drive away the crowds of consumers by teaching "hard doctrines" (John 6). Jesus did not imagine that his example was enough to win the day. In fact, he knew that he was going to Jerusalem to accomplish what only he could accomplish by himself, alone, upheld by the Spirit. The primary sign of discipleship was the acceptance of Jesus' teaching concerning himself. No one would have been offended if Jesus had merely tried to make the world a better place. Charges of blasphemy and even the offense expressed by the disciples themselves were due to his teaching. Because Brian McLaren sees discipleship merely as following Christ's moral example, he can say,

I must add, though, that I don't believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.

I don't hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.

Jesus offends the crowd of so-called disciples in John 6 by telling them that he has come down from heaven to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him (v. 39). "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (vv. 53-54). "It is the Spirit who gives life," Jesus said to his frustrated disciples in John 6, "the flesh is of no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe....And he said, 'This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father'" (vv. 63-65). We are told that many followers turned away at this point "and no longer walked with him." "So Jesus said to the Twelve, 'Do you want to go away as well?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God'" (vv. 68-69).

Discipleship and the Apostolic Ministry

The Book of Acts tells us what this actually looked like. Even on the day of Pentecost, as the Spirit was poured out, the result was Peter's public proclamation of Christ on the temple steps, from the Old Testament Scriptures, followed by baptism. "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Both the content of their message and these practices distinguished this community of disciples from the world and were the source and means of their disciple-making in the world. To be sure, the teaching they received radically transformed their practice. In fact, a riot broke out in Ephesus because the idol trade around the cult of Diana was threatened by the spread of the Word. Nevertheless, the Christian community was first of all a church gathered around the feet of Christ, to receive his Word, to deepen in the apostolic teaching, to participate in Holy Communion and the prayers. As a result, they shared their worldly goods in common and no one was lacking in temporal needs.

Throughout his ministry, we encounter the recurring emphasis of Jesus on his teaching, his words that bring life. It is through hearing the gospel that sinners are saved and it is through hearing that same message that disciples are conformed to Christ's image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).

When the apostle Paul speaks of "growing up"-becoming "mature in Christ"-his first thought is not imitating Christ's moral example but of being recipients of "the work of ministry" that Christ gave

for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature adulthood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:12-16)

From this ministry of preaching, teaching, and Sacrament-which builds us up into Christ as adherents of one faith-every member expresses his or her discipleship as a new creature through daily interaction with believers and non-Christian neighbors (vv. 17-32). Only then can he or she follow Christ's example of love and humility: "Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:1-2). Notice that we are not called to imitate the inimitable: namely, Christ's sacrificial offering for sin. However, we offer up ourselves as living sacrifices of praise, as Paul says in Romans 12, "in view of the mercies of God" (v. 1). Furthermore, this constant transformation occurs not by avoiding doctrinal investigation but "by the renewal of your mind" through God's Word (v. 2).

Discipleship Today

I have referred to the process of Christian growth in terms of drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. The great truths of the Christian faith arise out of a dramatic narrative. These doctrines are not abstract formulas; rather, they summarize the impact of God's work in creation, redemption, and consummation. Furthermore, they are meant not to lead us simply to information but to doxology: praise and thanksgiving. And those who are filled with praise are energized for a specific kind of discipleship in the world, defined by the new understanding we are gaining concerning the grace of God that has appeared in Jesus Christ.

Conservatives have tended to take the doctrine without adequate grounding in the drama or story of Scripture, and much of evangelical worship over the past generation has focused on praise without adequate grounding in the drama or the doctrine. And now the current emphasis on discipleship is threatened by an inadequate grounding in these other important aspects of Christian maturity.

Like improvisational theater, "discipleship" collapses into one-man shows. Only when it is generated by a common script, with the Spirit as the casting director and Christ as the central character, is it the community theater that sweeps strangers and aliens into the inheritance of the saints.

Writers in the Emergent Church circles focus on the kingdom-living of disciples, such as Dan Kimball here quoting Mark Oestreicher:

My Buddhist cousin, except for her unfortunate inability to embrace Jesus, is a better "Christian" (based on Jesus' description of what a Christian does) than almost every Christian I know. If we were using Matthew 25 as a guide, she'd be a sheep; and almost every Christian I know personally would be a goat.
This assessment, however, rests on several misunderstandings. First, our Lord's description of Christian practice in Matthew 25 is given in the context of his warning of imminent persecution after his ascension. Although visiting prisoners, clothing the naked, and giving a cup of cold water are virtuous practices that Christians should be engaged in, they do not necessarily distinguish Christians from non-Christians. In its context, Jesus is referring specifically to those who are willing to risk their own lives to comfort their persecuted brothers and sisters. Earlier, in Matthew 10, Jesus says that disciples must receive those who are sent in his name-in spite of the threat of persecution. "And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward" (Matt. 10:40-42). When Jesus is turned into a generic moral example and his redemptive work is perceived chiefly in terms of a transforming social vision that we continue and extend, the gospel becomes a new law.

Second, although I'm sure that Oestreicher might wish that his cousin embraced Christ, he says that she "is a better 'Christian' (based on Jesus' description of what a Christian does) than almost every Christian I know." The assumption here is that Christian identity is determined by a generic moral behavior rather than by the faith that bears its own kind of fruit. Ironically, this assumption is too narrow with respect to the morality of non-Christians and too broad with respect to Christian identity. It's too narrow because someone like Mahatma Gandhi does not have to be a Christian at all in order to seek greater justice, peace, and love among people in the world. This is the law of our creation, inscribed on the conscience of every mortal (Rom. 1-3). Yet it's also too broad because it can easily lead to the assumption that people like Gandhi are righteous before God, apart from faith in Christ, because they are righteous in our eyes according to their works. I am sorry that Oestreicher feels compelled to conclude that in terms of civil righteousness his Buddhist cousin may be superior to "almost every Christian I know." That is not my experience, but that's beside the point. The main point is that his cousin does not have to be a Christian in order to be good to her neighbors. Conversely, Christians will always live in a manner that is inconsistent with their confession of Christ.

Calls to repentance are entirely appropriate. Younger generations are especially offended by the narcissism, greed, and wastefulness that have ravaged their lives and threatened their future. They see the impact of such arrogance on everything from a lack of concern for creation-stewardship to the economic crisis to overreaching foreign policies that have weakened a great nation's moral authority on the global stage. Christians have even more reason to be concerned about justice than their non-Christian neighbors. Being disciples of Christ, however, is not the same as being interested in solving the global crises that concern all human beings. In every legitimate jeremiad against ungodliness, there is the danger of self-righteousness and works-righteousness. We can too easily generalize and deflect sin to others, as if it were possible to separate the sheep from the goats ourselves-especially in terms of moral superiority.

We will never be able to draw a sharp contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, righteous and sinful, based on the works that we see. Even the best works of the holiest Christians in this life are imperfect. This is not a cop-out but biblical realism. We are saved by Christ's righteousness, not ours. We are being sanctified, but this work remains incomplete until we (individually and corporately) are raised in glory. In this respect, the church's existence as the harbinger of Christ's heavenly kingdom is ambiguous. The visibility of the church in this age lies, however, in the public preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and the governance of the church under the Scriptures. Only by identifying the place where God is at work creating light out of darkness can there emerge a people who display, however inadequately, the effects of Christ's redeeming work that one day will be completed at his return.

Worldliness and Wordlessness

Stop words and you stop the Word that breaks into this present evil age with the powers of the age to come. Turn a culture into a mindless repetition of slogans from advertising, politics, entertainment, and pop-psychology, and there is no longer any place for Paul's practice of "reasoning" in the synagogues and public halls as reported in Acts. Everything becomes an Oprah show, with objective claims reduced to subjective experiences, feelings, and hunches.

The anti-doctrinal tenor of our churches is consistent with the anti-intellectual tenor of our times. We have become worldly at the places where we thought we were most pious. It is not a mark of faithfulness but of worldliness to identify Christian discipleship with emotional experience or a moral and social activism that eschews doctrine. It is not a sign of maturity when Christian communities no longer wrestle with the uniqueness of Christ and the objectivity of a gospel that can only be proclaimed and defended because its content is Christ's victorious life and obedience rather than ours. It is the Word of God's law that puts a stop to our spin, our endless resourcefulness in weaving fig leaves to cover our guilt. It is the Word of God's gospel that clothes us with Christ and gives us a new identity. Jesus Christ lived the law and bore its curses for us. Therefore, there is no "gospel" for us to live at all. Rather, we live in the light of the gospel that we have heard, with faith toward God and love and service toward our neighbors.

We need sound doctrine, not because we are intellectualists but because we need the surprising good news that we have been saved not by our discipleship but by Christ and his work. We need this doctrine not simply to know how to be saved from God's wrath but for the knowledge of how we have been liberated from the tyranny of sin. Anyone can rise to the occasion and help to make the world a better place, but only through faith in Christ can a sinner be united to Christ and bear the fruit of the Spirit, whose fragrance penetrates this passing age with the scent of the age to come. We need the doctrine in order to know what God is doing in this time between Christ's two comings, as he gathers us to receive his good gifts through preaching and Sacrament, as we respond to him in prayer and praise, contribute to the up-building of the saints through the gifts he has given us, and reach out to the world through witness and service.

Christian discipleship is founded on words: specifically, the word concerning Christ. "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Neither our faith nor the faith of others comes by doing but by hearing the good news of what has been done for us by another. Dan Kimball is simply wrong when he invokes St. Francis's advice about a wordless preaching of the gospel and says, "Our lives will preach better than anything we can say." Everything in the New Testament points to instruction in the faith that yields true discipleship, genuine maturity, and generous fruit-bearing. Our Buddhist cousins, Muslim neighbors, and burned-out church-goers need to encounter disciples of Christ who point away from themselves, witnessing to Christ as the Savior of sinners-even hypocritical Christians. And, ironically, when we are seeking Christ rather than a generic social and moral impact on the society that we could have apart from him, something strange happens. A communion emerges around the Lamb, drawing people together "from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people and nation" into "a kingdom of priests to our God" (Rev. 5:9). From a justifying and sanctifying communion with Christ that they share together emerges a foretaste of genuine peace, love, and justice that can orient our ordinary lives and animate our activity in our worldly callings.

The contemporary interest in discipleship should be welcomed. Jesus does call us to discipleship, not just to "making a decision." This discipleship is a lifelong walk of pilgrims together toward the Celestial City. Yet this call begins not with the feverish though well-intended activism of Martha, but with the humble delight of her sister Mary in her Savior's teaching. Before we can serve, we must sit, listen, and learn from the Master who calls in Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."



1 [ Back ] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 206.
2 [ Back ] McLaren, 260.
3 [ Back ] McLaren, 264.
4 [ Back ] Mark Oestreicher, quoted in Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for a New Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 35.
5 [ Back ] Kimball, 79-81.

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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Discipleship: Wisdom for Pilgrims' Progress" Sept./Oct. 2009 Vol. 18 No. 5 Page number(s): 14-18

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