Discipleship is widely discussed in the Christian community. It generates a large variety of response, both from Christians and non-Christians. Even among the members of the Christian community, it is a misunderstood subject, and yet it is the central component of the Great Commission. It is as important as it was during the earthly ministry of our Lord and the era of the early church. It is imperative for today’s church to define what Christian discipleship means and determine its application in the lives of its members.
In the Gospels, we find a variety of disciples—disciples of Moses (John 9:28), disciples of John the Baptist (John 1: 35), disciples of the Pharisees (Mark 2:18) and disciples of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-2). All these groups have some commonality and a wide range of strong differences in theory and practice. The right understanding of the nature of Christian discipleship and its application in the local church can be obtained by examining Jesus’ relation to his disciples and his teaching about the subject.
The meaning of a disciple takes different shapes and implications depending on one’s perspective. The general meaning is a learner, pupil or apprentice. The teacher teaches, and the student learns. Some describe the student as an adherent to someone or some idea. The student may go beyond learning the information and align himself with his teacher.
A Christian disciple is a student, a learner, a follower of Jesus Christ who aligns himself with the Lord. The Christian disciple is someone who is called by Jesus. The disciple is committed to Jesus alone and obeys his teachings. The New Testament refers to those who had heard the teachings of Jesus, adopted them as their own and determined to follow him. In Growing True Disciples, George Barna notes: “The apostles are great examples of this relationship between a student and master. They followed Jesus, the master teacher and model of the Christian faith, striving to learn from his words and deeds, growing through the practical, hands-on training that he facilitated.”
Discipleship is a natural process by which a disciple becomes an obedient and consistent follower of Jesus. It is a lifelong experience of spiritual growth or formation of one’s character to become like Jesus. Discipleship takes place after one decides to follow Jesus. It is a post-conversion experience. Understanding what the discipleship process requires, implies and entails is very important for the success of the process.
It is not a program or a training time, as most conceive of discipleship. It is a lifelong process that will bring the student—the believer—to be like the Master through their relationship. According to Barna: “The strength and influence of the church is wholly dependent upon its commitment to true discipleship. Producing transformed lives, and seeing those lives reproduced in others, is a core challenge to believers and to the local church.” Since the term “disciple” is applied to various groups and personalities, a disciple of Jesus must then be distinctively marked.
There are marks that attest the authenticity of the life of the Christian disciple according the Scripture. The Gospel of John cites four basic characteristics of a Christian disciple: A disciple needs to remain in Christ, obey the Master’s teaching, bear spiritual fruit and glorify God, the ultimate goal (John 15:1-7). John 15 records the teaching of our Lord in his upper room discourse, in which Jesus presents himself as the vine and his disciples—believers—as the branch that needs to remain in the vine and bear fruit. He also commanded his disciples to glorify God by conforming to all his commandments.
The church’s role
The church or the fellowship of saints has a part in accomplishing God’s plan in multiplying disciples of Christ. The purpose of the church as stated in Matthew 28:19-20 is to go and make disciples to glorify God. It is only as we work together in this way that it is possible to accomplish God’s plan. This is why fellowship is indispensable to the process of discipleship.
Every believer needs a community of saints for his or her spiritual formation—discipleship. Every Christian needs a fellowship of like faith and practice, a local body and a place to belong. When functioning properly, the true fellowship is designed to serve as one’s extended family for believers. Such fellowship is very important for a continued process of spiritual formation—discipleship. Due to the reciprocal nature of the corporate body of Christ, fellowship is a necessity for spiritual growth of a disciple. In the fellowship, every member receives the ministry of the Spirit more than in individual or private settings and efforts.
Texas Baptists have invested a lot to make disciples in Texas and beyond. There are so many resources, tools and trainings ready to be used by our Texas Baptist family. I encourage all of us to explore what we have already and use it to do well on his business—discipling believers to disciple others.
Bedilu Yirga is first vice president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and pastor of Ethiopian Evangelical Baptist Church in Dallas.