Gospel & Culture blog
Jesus used various motifs to describe what He meant by “disciple.” He told some simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). The authors of the gospels never spell out criteria for who among the crowd following Jesus was a disciple and who wasn’t. It’s safe to say that there was no specific criteria for membership; disciples were those who came to Jesus for teaching (the core of the word “disciple” is one who adheres to the teachings of another). Davis (2015, pp. 29-32) suggests that perhaps the reason that practical theologians cannot agree on a definition of disciple is that it is, after all, a fuzzy (rather than bounded) set. Discipleship is not a program, or a twelve-step process. It is a lifelong process of transformation, and it is personalized- so it is a bit fuzzier to define.
Another motif for discipleship is based on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God. Those who are under the rule of God, in whom the Kingdom is growing (Luke 17:21), are disciples.
Two main activities have characterized missiological understandings of making disciples: proclamation and obedience. Below I’ll explore both briefly.
Discipleship as persuasion
Church growth missiologists understood discipleship as primarily about proclamation. Wagner (1973) said the process of discipling involved helping “unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Wagner deliberately distinguished this activity from a separate stage, perfection, which involves “teaching them all things” (Rainer, 1993). Yet this narrow definition of discipleship is no longer in wide use. Scholar-practitioners now recognize that discipleship is more than bringing people to conversion.
Disciples as bringing into obedience
In the Great Commission, Jesus seems to define disciple as “those who obey everything that I have commanded.” This definition is a bit more complicated than “followers of Jesus” because it can be difficult to identify what, in toto, is classified as “everything that Jesus commanded.” Jesus may have been referring to a broader set of commands, including the Sermon on the Mount, His warnings to the Pharisees and other religious leaders, and His parables. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the commands in the rest of scripture (the epistles, Torah, wisdom literature, etc.), being the Word of God, are also under the rubric of “everything I have commanded.”
The rather exhaustive possibilities of what it means to obey “everything God commands” suggests that making disciples is about exegeting the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) across all cultures. Perhaps, rather than search for an exhaustive list of every command that must be taught (and followed) to be Jesus’ disciple, we can turn to Jesus’ summary:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:36-40, NIV)
The all-inclusive taxonomy of loving with our all our heart, soul and mind suggests that following “all the law” requires thinking like God does, valuing the things that God does, and treating others like God does. Discipleship is about getting the priorities right, the doctrines right, and about living holy lives.
Note that missiologists do not agree on the exact role of obedience in becoming a disciple. Some practical missiologists (S. Smith, 2011) argue that obedience is the only mark of a disciple, and believe that traditionally, the church has over-emphasized the importance knowledge of orthodox doctrines as a pre-requisite to becoming a disciple. But other missiologists emphasize that discipleship must also encompass orthodox beliefs (G. Terry, 2017, p. 348).
To reiterate, if missions is defined as cross-cultural discipleship, it invovles far more than persuading people to convert. Discipleship is a lifelong process of helping people to love God with their intellect, volition, and behavior. Following Jesus involves re-examining religious ideas about salvation, grace, and works (Eph 2:8-9). But following Jesus also means reordering our business dealings to flow out of humility, love and service. It involves, for example, changing our attitudes toward leadership (Matt 20:25), how we handle money (James 5:1-6), our view of the poor (James 2:1-7), and how we talk to others (Eph 4:29). Increasingly, missiologists are recognizing that cross-cultural discipleship involves enabling bodies of believers to bring all areas of life under the reign of God, including their politics, educational systems, business practices, pastimes, etc.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor