A popular buzzword across many church traditions these days is “discipleship.” Usually when I hear it spoken or see it written, people are attributing to it a romantic notion of one-on-one training between a mentor and a single student, as if that’s how Jesus, the Apostles, and other biblical disciples all did it. Certainly, one-on-one training in the faith is a valuable thing, but on a large scale, it’s not very practicable, is it? I mean, if every mature Christian with teaching/exhorting/pastoring gifts just focused on one person for three years, There’d be a lot less training going on overall. So says the cautious critic in me.
But what does the Bible say? Most people who talk about discipleship usually know that the Greek work “disciple” at root means “one who learns,” is it’s the noun form of the verb μανθάνω meaning “to learn.” So, I thought, let’s take a look at the verbal usage of this word in the New Testament. It appears 24 times, so I’ll just list the ones that particularly refer to Christian training (or “discipleship”).
- Matt. 19:3 – “learn what this means: I desire mercy…”
- Matt. 11:29 – “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…”
- Matt. 24:32 & Mark 13:28 – “Learn a parable from the fig tree.”
- John 6:45 – “All who have listened and learned from my Father…”
- John 7:15 – “How is it that this man has learning, though he has never studied?”
- Rom. 16:17 – “contrary to the doctrines you have been taught…”
- I Cor. 4:6 – “that you may learn by us…”
- I Cor. 14:31 – “prophesy one by one so that you may all learn…”
- Eph. 3:2 – “But that is not the way you learned Christ!”
- Phil. 4:9 – “Keep on doing what you have learned…”
- Phil. 4:11 – “I have learned to be content…”
- Col. 1:7 – “just as you learned it from Epaphras…”
- 2 Tim. 3:7 – “always learning and never able to arrive at knowledge…”
- 2 Tim. 3:14 – “continue in what you have learned… knowing from whom you learned it…”
- Titus 3:14 – “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works…”
- Heb. 5:8 – “he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
That’s still 15 passage to take note of! Rather than examine each in this short blog-post medium, I want to point out a few general trends among these.
First of all, there’s the fact that discipleship is not always carried out by human mentors. In Matthew 11, Jesus invites his disciples to take his yoke upon them to learn from him. Effectively, he wants them to learn by imitation. Yes, they’ll be learning from him, a person, but the catch here is that we can be discipled by imitating Christ too, without ever having met him face to face! Matthew 24/Mark 13 lift up abstract teachings as good discipling material too – the visible parable of the fig tree that Jesus had rebuked. Even more esoterically, in John 6, Jesus speaks of us learning from God the Father! This is probably a reference to the Holy Spirit (whom the Father sends into the hearts of his people) that John’s gospel describes in greater detail later on. Finally, Hebrews 5 describes how Jesus was discipled through his very suffering!
Another important question is what discipleship is supposed to teach us. One of the more prominent topics is theology (doctrines in Romans 16, or simply “Christ” in Ephesians 3). Behavior, ethics, or Christian living is another goal of discipleship, as Philippians, Titus, Hebrews, and Matthew 19 say, and as John 6 implies (by listening in addition to learning).
Also crucial to note here is the very role of discipleship. In John 7, it is observed that Jesus was never formally discipled by anybody, yet there he is, teaching away like it’s the most natural thing in the world for him. What little we know of Jesus’ upbringing actually is on this topic, fortunately enough: Jesus had very righteous religious parents, and made full use of his childhood visits to the Temple. He learned from his parents and from “the system,” if you will – the institutionalized Jewish faith of the time. The fact that Jesus then went on to criticize many Pharisees and teachers during his own ministry is a revealing sign, then, of his discernment in from whom he was taught the Law, Prophets, and Writings. On a similar note is the first quote from 2 Timothy 3, wherein Paul warns of a time when people will be unruly, disobedient, intolerant of good teaching, and ignorant of the truth despite all their so-called discipleship. In short, bad discipleship exists, and is a real problem! The second quote from that same chapter adds some clarity to the process of discerning this issue: it matters from whom we learn. There are authoritative teachers to whom we ought to listen, from whom we should never depart.
So let’s just summarize this survey of biblical information on discipleship.
- Discipleship can be carried out by individual teachers, families, formal worship, imitating saints (especially Jesus), the Holy Spirit, and by suffering.
- The content of discipleship includes both theology and life application.
- Discipleship can be done wrongly, with sinful results, so we must take care to seek it from Christians who are both righteous/mature and capable/authorized.