Webster’s Dictionary offers the following definitions for disciple and discipline:
Disciple. (1) One who believes in and helps disseminate the teachings of a master; an active adherent, as of a movement or philosophy. (2) One of the companions of Christ.
Discipline. (1) Training expected to produce a specific type or pattern of behavior, especially that which produces moral or mental improvement. (6) A set of methods or rules, as those regulating the practice of a church or monastic order.
Looking up these words in a thesaurus provides further reflection on this important topic:
The verb form, discipling, though not proper, is often used to describe the process of training new or immature Christians in faithfulness and leadership. Since “discipling” involves the idea of training leadership to train others, we should never teach the idea of discipleship. Rather, this article and all discussions of this topic should be a process of discovering the principle of discipleship together in order to teach others.
Any consideration of discipleship, then, should involve a group’s inquiry into the following:
Definitions of discipleship.
Discussion of important factors in discipleship-especially how discipleship relates to human and spiritual growth, wholeness, and maturity.
Consideration of the Biblical basis of discipleship.
St. Paul’s methods.
Jesus’ training of the twelve.
Other, and especially, Old Testament references.
Discussion about obstacles to discipleship and solutions to these problems in particular cultural situations and life stages.
Setting of specific goals with means of group support and evaluation for the coming weeks or sessions.
With these points in mind, people will not only learn about being disciples, but will be able to train others in discipleship. Notice that the final point suggests that disciples grow most effectively when they have, not only a “discipler” or trainer, but a support group as well.
It is important to raise these questions in consideration of the context and basic factors in the making of disciples.
What is the culture or sub-culture in which the process of discipleship is taking place? From what ethnic background does this person (or these persons) come? What characteristics of their peer groups affect their values and growth?
In what stage of human growth are the persons being considered? What are the specific developmental tasks of such an age group? What are generally recognized as the moral and faith developmental stages of such persons?
What individual differences exist in this group-what is the uniqueness of each person you have been called “to disciple”? What kind of family does the person come from, and what are the particular effects of father and mother upon him or her? What are the particular dreams and goals of each person-and what are his or her special fears?
These questions do not come just from the behavioral sciences; they can be shown as factors considered by Jesus, St. Paul, and the Bible generally.
The elements of discipleship are many:
Developing the relationship between teacher and disciple, or group of disciples.
Teaching the basics of faith and assurance of salvation.
Understanding the dynamics of discipleship.
Achieving a confidence in apostolic and Biblical teaching.
Growing in faith and Christian practice.
Becoming skilled in sharing one’s faith and leading others in discipleship.
Beginning to define one’s life calling and clarifying one’s spiritual gifts.
Finding one’s place in the Body of Christ-not only in evangelization, but in fellowship, in worship, and in service.
Consider St. Paul’s training of Timothy and Titus in the epistles to them. Notice how the Apostle undertook the task of discipleship with deep and consistent prayer: “I remember you constantly in my prayers…” (2 Tim. 1:4a) Discuss St. Paul’s relationship to Timothy and Titus:
“To Timothy, my true child in the faith…” (1 Tim. 1:2a)
“To Timothy, my beloved child…” (1 Tim. 1:2a)
“I long night and day to see you that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Tim. 1:4b)
“Do your best to come before winter…” (2 Tim. 4:21a)
“To Titus, my true child in a common faith…” (Titus 1:4a)
“Do your best to come to me at Nicopolis…” (Titus 3:12b)
Remember that St. Paul was an old and experienced apostle by this time, conscious of his impending death.
Notice how clearly St. Paul understood the process of discipleship. It is part of the Christian process of reproduction. “What you have heard (learned) from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men (and women) who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2)
Paul was not afraid to have even enemies examine his life closely. He was confident his example could serve as powerful incentive to his disciples. Observe the assertion of his identity in the opening words of all three epistles. Discuss these words of Paul:
“…Christ Jesus our Lord judged me faithful…” (1 Tim. 1:12b)
“I serve (God) with a clear conscience as did my fathers…” (2 Tim. 1:3a)
“…you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my sufferings…” (2 Tim. 3:10-11)
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race…” (2 Tim. 4:7ff)
St. Paul took account of Timothy’s family background:
“I am reminded of your sincere faith…that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice…” (2 Tim. 1:5)
“…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings…” (2 Tim. 3:15a)
St. Paul was culturally aware in describing some negative aspects of the Cretans (Titus 1:12ff) and of Jewish culture (Titus 1:14). The general instructions of these three epistles also convey further understanding of cultural context and problems specific to particular cultural situations.
The apostle made sure that his disciples were confident in their own salvation and callings (see 1 Tim. 1:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Tim. 6:20a; 2 Tim. 1:6, 9; 2 Tim. 2:19; Titus 2:11). He presented to them the high challenge of discipleship and leadership (1 Tim. 1:3; 1 Tim. 4:11; 1 Tim. 4:15; 1 Tim. 6:11-12; 2 Tim. 1:8; 2 Tim. 2:21-22; 2 Tim. 4:1-2; Titus 1:5; Titus 3:8). Especially instructive and worthy of discussion is 2 Tim. 2:1-7).
But Paul was also sensitive to their particular weaknesses when he considered Timothy’s sense of his own youthfulness (1 Tim. 4:12) and physical ailments (1 Tim. 6:23). He recognized the special temptations that come to young people (2 Tim. 2:22). There is also an intimation that young men like Timothy and Titus can get caught up in useless theological controversy and bickering (1 Tim. 1:4-7, 1 Tim. 6:20b; Titus 3:9).
In Paul’s instruction, there is strong recognition of the need for fellowship and group support: “Greet Prisca and Aquila…Eubulus sends greetings…I will send Artemas and Tychicus to you…speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way…Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you (I need him).” In today’s world, there are few young people growing in Christian faith without a strong community of faith and positive support group. One goal of the youth minister and “discipler” is always to reinforce Christian friendships and encourage Christian support groups.
The discipleship process should also discuss the necessary foundation in the essentials of apostolic and Biblical faith, the temptations of this world, the adversities that face true disciples, and the basic principles of godly living. These themes are all present in the epistles to Timothy and Titus.
New disciples are usually first presented with basic texts on salvation and the Christian life from a variety of Scriptural sources such as: John 1:12; John 3:16; Ephes. 2:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 3:20 (notice that this applies first of all to churches and then to individuals); 1 Cor. 10:13; 1 John 1:9; James 2:14-17; Matthew 6:33; Proverbs 3:5-6; and Psalm 119:9, 11. Open discussion of these and other verses is necessary for young Christians.
After these initial discussions, a study of St. Paul’s training of young leaders should follow. There are few studies more exciting than to follow the training of the twelve through Mark, Luke, and Matthew.
Focus attention on the relationship of Jesus to his disciples, on their initial attraction and calling to Him, his patient demonstration and explanation as to who He really was, the place of miraculous signs, of special teaching, of opposition and adversity, of sacrifice and discipline, and finally on Christ’s actual assignments given his followers to witness and to help those in need. Emphasize the freedom Jesus gave his disciples to fail (Peter is the classic example) and how the Lord drew gentle and patient lessons from these mistakes.
You may be asked to teach a class in discipleship. Instructions for Christians well on the way to maturity and ministry should begin with these considerations:
How and by whom were you discipled? What strengths and inadequacies can you remember from your past experience?
Who are you now discipling? You cannot continue unless each person is willing to find someone who wants to be instructed in Christian faith and practice. If no such person is to be found, their first task may be to lead another person to faith.
After addressing these initial questions, take the group through the process of discipleship as explained herein.
To disciple others is a high calling. It is not so much something to talk about, as to do. Its success comes through prayer in the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Many churches and even theological schools could benefit from a discipleship program. In the developing world, especially, where conversions are dramatically occurring, leaders need resources in follow-up and discipleship.
Many youth ministers and Christian leaders have come into positions of responsibility without skill and training in leading people to and nurturing faith.
Today’s opposition from worldly forces of many varieties demands a strong faith. Dynamic opposition calls for steadfast faith. Such faith must be instructed and nurtured.
Evangelization that does not strongly emphasize teaching represents faulty priorities. The lesson of Matthew 12:43-45 must be taken seriously.