Defining Discipleship

Discipleship has grown out of favor among American evangelical churches. In fact, many churches today cannot even give a clear definition of what a disciple is, much less outline the role of the church in making and growing true disciples of Christ. For this reason, it is vital to develop a clear definition and philosophy of discipleship.

Defining the Terms

A disciple, generally defined, refers to “an adherent of a philosophy or to a person.” In the Greco-Roman world, a disciple was a learner who followed a master; the relationship was not only that of a student to a teacher, but more of an apprentice to a mentor. A disciple was not only a learner, but someone who followed his master with such devotion that he strived to emulate the conduct and lifestyle of the master. In a Christian context, a disciple is one who “has claimed Jesus as Savior and God, and has embarked upon the life of following Jesus.” George Barna refers to a disciple as a “complete and competent follower of Christ.” John MacArthur gives a fuller definition when he says that disciple refers to people who “place their trust in Jesus Christ and follow Him in lives of continual learning and obedience.” The definition I’ve come up with so far is that a disciple is a Christian who willingly submits to following Christ, seeks to know Him more deeply through the study of His Word, and seeks to glorify Him and be transformed into His likeness.

Discipleship vs. Disciple-making

A distinction is often made between discipleship and disciple-making. Disciple-making (commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:19) is a process that starts with evangelism. No one is a disciple of Christ who has not first been redeemed by Christ. Thus, the first step of disciple-making is evangelizing for the purpose of bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ – we’ll call this stage, deliverance. The second step in the disciple-making process is development. This step is the one often referred to as discipleship, or spiritual formation. The development stage emphasizes the progressive sanctification of the disciple, developing them more and more into the likeness of Christ.

This is the stage Christ refers to in Matthew 28:19 when He tells the apostles to “[teach] them to observe everything I have commanded you.” This stage is also never ending, since all Christians will continue to learn and grow into the likeness of Christ — never truly arriving at perfection themselves. The final stage of disciple-making is deployment. When Jesus had taught and trained His apostles, He commissioned them to go and make other disciples. The last step in the disciple-making process is the deployment of disciples to then make other disciples.

Discipleship is the term most often employed to refer to the life of a disciple, the process of becoming a more fully committed disciple, or the process of mentoring others to a deeper level of devotion to Christ. Discipleship really just means “the state of being a disciple,” in other words, having been made a disciple. However, because of this common usage of the term to refer to the discipling process, I don’t mind using it that way. Discipleship is not a program, a short term endeavor, or something only for a particular category of Christians — whether new or mature. Rather, discipleship is the process by which Christians grow in the Lord and are equipped by the Holy Spirit to further know Christ, glorify Him, and be transformed into His image by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:2).

When we come back to the discussion of discipleship, we’ll look at the state of discipleship in American churches today…

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