What is a disciple?

This is chapter two of Alison Morgan's  book "Following Jesus : The Plural of Disciple is Church" which is available from The Mathetes Trust. © Alison Morgan.  We are grateful for permission to reproduce it on Fulcrum.

For the follower of Jesus, discipleship is not the first step toward a promising career.
It is in itself the fulfillment of his or her destiny.   Alan Hirsch 1The Forgotten Ways, Brazos Press 2006, p103

I began my professional life as a student and teacher of Dante, the Italian poet who described his visionary journey down through the abyss of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory and finally through the heavenly spheres and into the presence of God in Paradise. I wasn’t a Christian then; but I read with increasing fascination of the people Dante met as he travelled through the other world – people who in their lives had taken decisions which moved them steadily further away from God, or decisions which moved them steadily further towards God. Even the ones who moved in the right direction hadn’t always got it right – but it seemed it was the direction which mattered, not the detail; and now here they were, fixed for all eternity in a landscape which mirrored the inclination of their souls. Later I would notice the same process in the gospels, where we read not only of the steadfastness of Mary, the instant commitment of Matthew and the loyalty of Mary Magdalene, but also of the mistaken ambition of James and John, the impetuous violence and the outright denials of Peter, the creeping caution of Nicodemus – all people who, whilst not always getting it right, nonetheless spent their lives moving in the right direction. And as in Dante, we also meet those who chose to move the other way: the rich young ruler, the many disciples who were offended by Jesus’s teaching and chose to go back home, and of course Judas – who would fare particularly badly in Dante’s Hell. 2 See John 6.66, ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.’ All these people were answering, in one way or another, Jesus’s basic question: are you for me, or against me? Do you wish to follow me, in all your muddled fallibility – or not?

When I made my own commitment to follow Jesus, I became part of a group which understood Christian discipleship primarily as the process of studying scripture and trying to apply it to our personal lives. It was at a time when there was a great desire to rekindle the faith of the church, and it was a solid foundation on which to build – but it left me, a ‘John’ person, wondering where the ‘Mark’ and the ‘Luke’ people were; somehow there didn’t seem to be quite enough scope for getting things wrong, and most of what was happening was in our heads, not before our eyes or in the depths of our hearts.

Shortly after that I married Roger, just accepting his first full time post as an Anglican minister; we spent the next twenty-four years immersed in the ministry of the local church. Here it became more interesting. As members of our first congregation lurched wildly about in their faith journeys, we learned that discipleship is not just about direction or instruction but also about community. It was through our commitment to one another, through our shared life of prayer, and through our floundering willingness to be guided by the Holy Spirit that we learned more of what it meant to be disciples of Jesus: we learned to pull together. Applying the same lessons in the next place, we encouraged the majority of the church to form themselves into small cell groups where they could not just study the Bible but worship and pray together, share their struggles and dreams with one another, and engage in whatever ministry they felt they were called to, both within the group and more widely within the church and the local community. The church already had an active ministry of healing, and it soon became strong in evangelism; now we were not just understanding things, but also seeing them.

In the year 2000 I met Stanley Hotay, diocesan missioner in the Tanzanian Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro, where I had been invited to help lead a clergy conference. A couple of years later we invited him to visit us in Leicester. Stanley is a passionate evangelist, and he shared with us that the Lord had been speaking to him from Matthew 28.19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing I have commanded you.” Stanley said that the Lord was telling him that he was doing a great job leading people to faith, but that the key issue was to disciple them: ‘You are making converts; but I want you to make disciples.’ And so as we walked one day beside Rutland Water, where trees stand deep rooted on the edge of the flooded valley, a discipleship programme for Africa called Rooted in Jesus was born. 3 So named from the sustained tree imagery of both Old and New Testaments: Jeremiah 17.7 -8, Psalm 1, Ephesians 3.17, Colossians 2.7. See Rooted in Jesus. Working together and drawing in a team of people to help us, we put together a set of notes and exercises for a small group of people to follow together over a two year period. It’s not a Bible study course, although it is based on scripture; it’s an interactive and practical programme designed to help ordinary people follow Jesus in all aspects of their lives – to be everything, in both word and deed, that Jesus invited his first disciples to be. We’ve never advertised it – it never occurred to us to do so – but word got around. Thirteen years later, Rooted in Jesus is now in use in over 65 dioceses or denominations in 15 African countries; I have become not just its editor but also its director.

For the last ten years I have been working with ReSource, an Anglican charity based in the UK, supporting churches and church leaders across this country and beyond; Rooted in Jesus is now run as a project of ReSource. Most of our energy, though, is spent here. We work locally, regionally and nationally, providing resources and encouragement for churches and networks which are seeking to become more effective in mission and evangelism, in the healing ministry and in everyday discipleship. 4 See our website Resource for more details. Also Rooted in Jesus. My role within the ReSource team includes writing materials of one kind or another, facilitating discussion and planning days, speaking at conferences, visiting churches and leading retreats. It’s an immense privilege to have this national brief, for it gives us a unique bird’s eye view of the church in this country, across traditions and denominations; perhaps as much as anyone we are able to take the temperature of the church, to try to discern the signs of the times.

Increasingly, as we travel the country, we are finding the word ‘disciple’ on people’s lips. A few years ago we’d have said the key word was ‘confidence’, and the question that people were asking was something like this: ‘how confident can we be, in an increasingly secular culture, that the good news of Jesus Christ is still what people need and want to hear?’ But as the currents of the world sweep on, more and more it seems that within the church people are talking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: how to make disciples, how to grow in discipleship. Why should this be? Perhaps we have become more confident as the decline in church attendance begins to turn into growth; perhaps we have simply realised that the basis of our confidence is in fact the quality of our lives as disciples of Jesus. 5 The latest CofE attendance statistics are for the year 2011, and show that of the 44 dioceses, 20 are now growing. See Church of England website The Diocese of Carlisle has defined its strapline and the core of its 10 year vision as ‘to see our churches growing disciples of all ages’; after 30 years of decline, it has now begun to grow. The incoming bishop of Dover, Trevor Wilmott, initiated a year of discipleship after being struck ‘by the desire from people across Canterbury Diocese to reconnect with what makes their faith real.’ In 2012 ReSource was invited to spend six days in the Diocese of Oxford, meeting with 360 clergy and 1300 church council members to think afresh about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus; in 2013 we embarked on a similar exercise across the Diocese of Portsmouth under the title ‘Renewing our vision for mission.’ In the autumn of 2012 a Consultation on discipleship was held in Church House, London, with representatives from many Anglican dioceses; the question was ‘how can we get discipleship into the lifeblood of the Church of England?’ A further consultation, ‘What helps disciples grow?’ followed in November 2013. At ReSource we have facilitated discussions on discipleship with different denominational networks and in many local churches. So many people have asked if they can use Rooted in Jesus here that we have adapted it for the UK and released it under the title The God Who is There, a programme which focusses, as we often say, not simply on what we know but, more profoundly, on who we are becoming.

‘Discipleship,’ Bishop Graham Cray has said, ‘is the most strategic issue facing the western church today.’ Mark Greene of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity agrees: ‘the UK will never be reached until we begin to cultivate communities that are focussed on making whole-life disciples who live and share the gospel wherever they relate to people in their daily lives.’ ‘Discipleship,’ insist theologians Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ‘should be the defining quality of the Christian life.’ American philosopher Dallas Willard puts it more starkly: ‘Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ.’ 6 Graham Cray, Who’s Shaping You? – 21st century disciples, Cell UK Ministries 2010; Mark Greene, Imagine; Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus – a Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Hendrikson 2009 p42; Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines – Understanding How God Changes Lives, Harper SanFrancisco 1999, p259.

It seems that now is the time for the church to think again about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Going back to Galilee

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.16-20)

After the resurrection of Jesus, the eleven remaining apostolic disciples of Jesus make the long journey back to Galilee as he had instructed. Matthew tells the story briefly: they went, they met him, they were commissioned by him. But of course it wasn’t quite as simple as that. John, who was there, tells us a bit more about the time they spent together.

It seems that, once back home, Jesus’s disciples are inclined to resume their old way of life. It’s a natural reaction – after all, their three year adventure appears to have come to an end. And so it is that one evening, as seven of them stand on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Peter announces he’s going fishing. James and John, also previously fishermen, and the four others climb into the boat with him. They fish all night, and catch nothing. In the morning a figure stands on the shore; “Cast the net to the right side of the boat.” They do; and catch so many fish that they can scarcely haul in the net. At that moment the penny drops, and John exclaims to Peter, “It is the Lord!” – the Lord who had first met them three years earlier, there on that same shore; the Lord who had filled their nets on that first day just like this; the Lord who had then called them away from their fishing and promised to make them fishers of men. 7 Compare Luke 5.1-11 with John 21.1-14. And, as if this were not enough of a reminder, Jesus then cooks them a meal. ‘Come and have breakfast,’ he says. It’s a simple meal: just bread and fish. He breaks the bread, and gives it to them. And perhaps as he did so they remembered the last momentous time he had done that, the night before his death, the night when he had spoken these words: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.” 8 Compare John 21.9-19 with the accounts of the Last Supper, particularly in Luke 22.19 and Matthew 26.26. Jesus is taking them back.

But there is more. Having helped the disciples to relive these key moments of calling and offering, Jesus goes for a walk along the shore with Peter. This time he takes him back to something more painful – Peter’s terrified denial of him in Jerusalem. “Do you love me?” he asks Peter three times, matching Peter’s three denials. Peter, hurt, insists that he does. “Follow me!”, Jesus then says, just as he had on that first day three years before. Nothing could be clearer; Jesus is saying to them, here in the place where he first chose them, ‘No, I’ve not lost confidence in you – the invitation still stands. Come; follow me.’

That’s John’s account. In Luke we find yet another dimension of going back. This time it’s not a personal going back but a historical one. Jesus takes them back in the scriptures. As he had done already for Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains to the gathered disciples – Cleopas and his fellow walker, the eleven and the wider group that is with them – how everything that has happened in the last days and weeks had been clearly announced from the very beginning of time, by Moses, the prophets and the writers of the psalms. The whole sorry business in Jerusalem had been not a disaster, but a completion; it had been a fulfilment of the cosmic purposes of God. 9 Luke 24.

So Jesus is taking them back, back to the beginning. It’s recorded for us most vividly by John, the youngest disciple, the only one of the gospel writers who was actually there – John who many years later would begin his gospel with precisely those words: In the beginning. ‘Go back, back,’ Jesus says; ‘it’s your whole journey I want you to think about, not just the end; and, even more than that, I want you to see how it fits into the wider context of the history of the world; for the seeds of the future always lie in the past. And now that we’ve done that,’ he continues, ‘it’s time to go forwards. You are my disciples; that has not changed. And here is your task: I want you to make more disciples. Baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’

What is a disciple?

In every life and in every movement there are times when it’s important to go back, back to the beginning, back to the key moments of the past, the moments in which the big principles were first laid down.   That was true for those first disciples of Jesus; perhaps it was true too for the people for whom Tintoretto and Veronese exploded history on the church walls of Venice.  And I think it’s true for us.  We are living in changing times; and at times of change it’s good to go back. 10 For an analysis of the ways in which our society is changing see my book The Word on the Wind, Monarch 2011.

So let’s start with the basic question. When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples,” what did he mean? What exactly is a disciple of Jesus? Am I a disciple? Are you a disciple? It’s an unexpectedly confusing question – Michael Wilkins, author of a classic book on biblical discipleship, says that when he asks his students to raise their hands if they are a true disciple of Jesus, few do so; most are confused and hesitant. But when he asks them to raise their hands if they are a true Christian, they all confidently do so. Why the hesitation? Luke tells us that even after his death, ‘disciple’ remained the normal word for any person who believed in Jesus – it was not until the gospel spread to Antioch in Syria that the word ‘Christian’ first came into use. So what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? 11 Michael Wilkins, Following the Master – a Biblical Theology of Discipleship, Zondervan 1992 p25. See Luke 11.26.

I’m a linguist, and I think words are a bit like clothes. Each year I travel once or twice to Africa to train and support people who want to lead Rooted in Jesus groups. People in Africa are very kind, and sometimes they give me a shirt made from beautiful Tanzanian or Zambian cotton. And I take it home, and I wear it, and I wash it. And often I wear it and I wash it so much that the shirt shrinks or it fades; and gradually it stops looking as good as it did. I think that happens with words too – we wear them and wash them so many times that they shrink and they fade, and lose their meaning. And because it happens gradually we don’t even notice.

I want to suggest that this is what’s happened to the word disciple. When Jesus said “Go and make disciples,” he was talking about something new and big and radical, something profound, something that had never been seen before. And yet all too often after we’ve worn this word disciple, washed it and passed it down from one generation to another, we find ourselves left with something shrunk and fad ed, something much smaller than it was originally intended to be. And people look at us, and they see this rather shrivelled garment, and they are not impressed – they no longer say, as people said in those early centuries, ‘where can I get one of those?’. For us, discipleship has become less than it should be: instead of lying at the heart of our identity as people called and sent by the living God, it has become a word we aren’t even sure we can define.

Perhaps this always happens with words which are no longer in common use; bit by bit they lose their meaning. And the inevitable consequence of that, of course, is they are open for redefinition. The shirt which once had been cast aside as shrunk and faded is picked up by passers by, people looking for a word to fit a concept of their own; taking hold of the shirt, they stretch it to suit their own needs. This, I suggest, has happened with the word disciple: it has become something of an umbrella term, as we discovered when we devoted one of our magazines to it – everyone has their own idea of what it means. For some it suggests a programme of Bible study, for others a rather prescriptive shepherding process. For many it’s simply a word attached to centrally organised training courses of one kind or another. For yet others, shying away from this academic approach, ‘disciple’ is just a word for a person who takes a step of commitment to Christ – ‘making new disciples’ seems to be the latest user-friendly phrase for evangelism. The problem with this, as Stanley Hotay discovered when God spoke to him about the difference between making converts and making disciples, is that making disciples involves a lot more than just leading people to faith.

The result of this stretching of the word disciple and its cognate discipleship is that it now means almost anything you want it to mean – which is another way of saying that it means very little at all. As Dallas Willard sighs, ‘the term discipleship has currently been ruined so far as any solid psychological and biblical content is concerned.’ 12 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission – Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Monarch 2006 p53.

So what is discipleship? What exactly did Jesus mean when he said “Go, and make disciples”?

Apprenticed to Jesus

It depends which translation you are reading, of course, but the English word ‘disciple’ is used more than 250 times in the New Testament – usually in the plural. The word ‘Christian,’ by contrast, is used just three times. 13 According to Michael Wilkins the word disciple is used to refer to followers of Jesus 230+ times in the gospels, 28 in Acts; according to Dallas Willard the word disciple is used 269 times in the NT. Wilkins, Following the Master, p40; Willard, The Great Omission, p3. For ‘Christian’ see Acts 11.26, Acts 26.28, 1 Peter 4.16. A careful analysis of all these instances draws us to the conclusion that the shrinking and fading of the word ‘disciple’ can be seen in the loss of two features which were key to the way it was understood by Jesus.

In 2011 the Anglican Diocese of Gloucester conducted a survey among its clergy, asking what they regarded as the most important elements of discipleship. The survey reported widespread agreement across the diocese: clergy from all contexts and traditions selected ‘Bible study’ as the foremost activity of a Christian disciple, followed by ‘prayer’. There was no suggestion that discipleship should involve any element either of ministry or lifestyle; indeed, ‘personal morality’ was rated bottom of the seventeen options offered, along with ‘witness’ and ‘faith at work’. 14 The survey was conducted by Richard Tweedy. Respondents identified these, in this order, as the top markers of discipleship: Bible study, prayer, worship, service to others, Christian beliefs, evangelism and sacramental observance. A local Methodist preacher in Somerset asked the question another way: “if it were illegal to be a Christian, what evidence would there be to incriminate you?” Answers included ‘possession of a Bible’, ‘your bookshelf’ and ‘going to meetings.’ But after that they were strikingly, if rather randomly, practical: Jesus stickers, emails, bank statements, internet history and the practice of forgiveness were all identified as things which would mark you out as a Christian.

When we think about discipleship today we tend naturally to think about some form of study. The English word ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin verb disco, which means ‘to learn’. We live in a culture of study, and inevitably we bring to the biblical text our own assumptions about what learning involves. For most of us, learning means classrooms and colleges; learning is about understanding, about information, about what we know – it’s an activity which takes place in our heads. So it seems natural to help people to become disciples of Jesus by inviting them on a study course – perhaps a Bible study programme to start with, then for the keen ones maybe a diocesan course or some kind of further theological qualification. Viewed in this academic way, discipleship is primarily about qualifications. It’s a widespread misunderstanding: the most perfunctory internet search reveals the existence of bishops’ certificates in discipleship, discipleship study days and discipleship conferences, discipleship libraries and discipleship journals.

The problem is that this approach, although it fits well with the emphasis our society places on information and qualifications, does not reflect the process by which Jesus taught his first disciples. Such courses may be very helpful in themselves, but they tend to produce not so much Christians equipped to live and share their faith in the context of their daily lives, as recruits to the offices of the church – people who in being taken out of their own context have become disciples not of Jesus but of the institution. ‘Sometimes, Michael Wilkins remarks, ‘our discipleship programs thwart true discipleship – we can become so involved with our programs that we isolate ourselves from real life.’ 15 Michael Wilkins, Following the Master, p22.

What then does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Perhaps the clue again lies in language – for we may notice that the biblical word for disciple is not Latin but Greek, and in Greek it carries a slightly different meaning. The gospel word for disciple is mathetes. And mathetes is not a classroom kind of word: in the context in which Jesus used it, it carried a bigger meaning, something more like ‘apprentice’ – it referred to a process which involved not just learning from your master but learning to actually become like him. So we do not see Jesus teaching his disciples in a classroom, and we do not see him encouraging or equipping them to engage in theological discussion and debate; rather the reverse, for the Pharisees who want to tempt them into this approach are given very short shrift indeed. Jesus taught his disciples in a rather different way: he taught them, apprenticeship style, to do the things which he did – how to live and how to minister. And then, as Matthew records, he told them to teach others to do these things too. So we see Jesus not so much teaching his disciples as training them, in the same practical way that he himself had been trained to be a carpenter. Jesus was indicating, TW Manson suggests, that discipleship was not a theoretical life of scholarship but a practical task of labour in God’s vineyard; ‘Jesus was … a master-craftsman whom they were to follow and imitate. Discipleship was not matriculation in a Rabbinical College, but apprenticeship to the work of the Kingdom.’ 16 TW Manson, The Teaching of Jesus – Studies of its Form and Content, 2nd edition CUP 1935, p239-40. Manson also suggests that Jesus used a specific Hebrew/Aramaic term, shewalya, to designate his disciples, instead of the usual rabbinical term talmidh. This is the
word which in Greek becomes mathetes.

Mathetes : redefining discipleship

The Greek word μαθητής comes from a verb meaning to learn. It first appears in the writings of Herodotus (C5 BC), but was in wide oral use before then. First used to denote a learner or apprentice in a particular skill or craft (eg dancing, music, writing, wrestling, hunting, medicine), its meaning gradually shifted from learner to pupil, embracing the concept not just of learning but also of commitment to a great teacher or master. By the time of Herodotus, μαθητής indicates a person who was making a significant personal life commitment to the master, learning his practices and living them out.

During the Hellenistic era (C4- C1BC) μαθητής was used to denote the nature of the relationship between master and disciple, with the emphasis moving increasingly away from learning towards imitation of conduct. By the time of the New Testament, religious adherents (especially those within the mystery religions) were called disciples. Learning is minimised in these contexts; religious commitment and imitation of the religious figure’s life and character characterise the relationship.

Μαθητής is used in the gospels both to describe the followers of John the Baptist and as the primary term for the followers of Jesus (those who travelled with him and also those who did not). By the time of Acts it’s the normal term for any Christian believer. A disciple of Jesus is now understood to be ‘one who has come to Jesus for eternal life, has claimed Jesus as Saviour and God, and has embarked upon the life of following Jesus.’

Summary from Michael Wilkins, Following the Master – a biblical theology of discipleship, Zondervan 1992, chapter 4.

This was new; so new, Wilkins observes, that it took the disciples themselves some time to get their minds round what was being required of them. Other masters had disciples, so Jesus was working within a recognised framework; but he was changing it into an expression of his own particular relationship with his followers, patiently teaching them what it meant to be his kind of disciple, his kind of follower. This kind of discipleship, a following not for study but for service as ministers of the kingdom of God, had never been seen before. 17 Michael Wilkins, Following the Master, p93.

In other words, it seems that the kind of discipleship we see unfolding in the lives of Jesus’s earliest followers is not theoretical, it’s practical. ‘Watch me,’ Jesus said as he healed the sick, freed the oppressed and offered good news to the poor. Then he said, ‘You go out now in pairs, try it yourselves, and we’ll go through it when you get back.’ Then finally, ‘I’m off now, and you are to keep on doing this, and teach others to do it too.’ 18 Eg Luke 4 and Luke 6.17-19 (watch); Luke 9.1-6 (the 12 sent out) and 9.10 (reporting back and withdrawing to a quiet place where they could discuss it); Luke 10.1-12 (the 70 sent out); Luke 10.17-20, Mk 9.14-29 (further evaluation); Matt 28.18-20 (the command to teach others to do these things too). The implications of this for the way we train people for ministry today are interesting, for we so often take the exact opposite approach, deliberately removing people from the context of normal life and placing them in an artificial environment where there is no one with whom to share the good news and no opportunity to put into practice what is being learnt – which of course in turn means that what is learnt cannot itself be the ministry skills which Jesus was so concerned to impart to his disciples. Jesus wasn’t training theologians; he was training practitioners, and the primary context of the training was not the classroom but the community. You cannot get to be a disciple of Jesus by going on a study course. In fact it seems that discipleship is not about what you know at all; it’s much bigger than what’s in your head – it’s about your whole life, everything that you are and everything that you do. As the Fresh Expressions website notes, ‘the term discipleship designates the whole life response of Christians to Jesus Christ.’ Discipleship is indeed not about what you know; it’s about who you are becoming. 19 See freshexpressions.org.uk/guide/about/principles/disciples . For a helpful discussion of this point see Alan Hirsch & Dave Fergusson, On the Verge – a Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church, Zondervan 2011 pp177-79: ‘The prevailing paradigm of church laced throughout the West has tended to try to make disciples primarily through the transfer (mainly) of doctrinal inf ormation about the Trinity, church, salvation, eschatology, and so on. Often, it has tried to track cultural trends and engage in apologetics and evangelism, but again it has done this mainly on an intellectual level, in classrooms and Sunday school sessions. Please don't misunderstand me here; we certainly do need serious intellectual engagement with the key ideas of our time. What is concerning, however, is that such engagement largely takes place in the disengaged and passive environment of the classroom. This is simply not the way Jesus taught us to develop disciples.’ Elsewhere Alan links this approach with the abandonment of the holistic Hebraic understanding of faith, involving every aspect of life, physical, emotional and spiritual. ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength’, the Law begins (Deut 6.4-9); it covers all aspects of life, from the rules of the temple to what you do when your donkey falls into a pit. See Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Hendrikson Publishers 2003, chapter 7.

What is a Christian disciple?

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 28:19-20

A disciple is an active, intentional learner.

A disciple is an apprentice and a practitioner - not just a student of the Word but a doer of it.

A disciple is a follower of a particular teacher.

A disciple is accountable to someone who knows them and helps them to learn and grow and live.

A disciple is outwardly orientated, focused on helping others learn what it means to be a disciple.

Mark Greene, Imagine how we can reach the UK, LICC 2003.

So what about our theological education and Bible study programmes? Bible study is of course essential, for it’s in the Bible that we discover all these things. But study is not enough. Reflecting on his own theological education, Brian McLaren laments: ‘I could see absolutely no correlation between the amount of theological complexity and the amount of spiritual vitality, Christ-likeness, or fruitfulness – in my life, or in the lives of others.’ ‘From my desk at college,’ writes Shane Claiborne, ‘it looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it.’ 20 Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality – A life with God in 12 Simple Words, Hodder 2012, p29. Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution – Living as an Ordinary Radical, Zondervan 2006, p71. If we are to make disciples, we must do more than help people acquire biblical and theological information. Our task is not simply to study the Word of God; it’s to get it off the page and into our lives. The Bible itself often tells us this. ‘Don’t read it, eat it,’ God said to the prophet Ezekiel. ‘Don’t speak it, live it,’ he said to Hosea. ‘You claim to know what it says, but you have no understanding of its power,’ Jesus said to the Pharisees. ‘The Word of God is living and active,’ said the writer to the Hebrews; ‘it is meant to change us and change the people around us.’ ‘There is, Dallas Willard insists, ‘absolutely no suggestion in the New Testament that being a disciple consists of reading your Bible and praying regularly.’ It’s much, much bigger than that. 21 Ezekiel 2.8-3.4; Hosea 1.2-8; Mark 12.24; Hebrews 4.12. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, Monarch 2006, p173.

In the early days of Rooted in Jesus a woman living in Mererani, a village near Arusha in Tanzania, had a life- changing experience. Isaiah Chambala, then the Rooted in Jesus deanery coordinator and now the Bishop of Kiteto, tells the story. This woman was the only Christian living in her village, and each Sunday she would walk to a nearby village to attend church. She was therefore known for her faith, and one night some members of the village, followers of traditional religion, came to her house with a sick girl. No treatment had worked, and someone had told them that Christians know how to bring healing. The woman was an Anglican, a churchgoer, baptised and confirmed – but she had absolutely no idea how to pray for healing; prayer, she thought, was the pastor’s job. Desperate to help, she did the only thing she knew how to do. Closing her eyes and remembering what she had been taught through the catechism, she prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Nothing happened. She recited the Ten Commandments. No result. She said the Creed. Still nothing. She reviewed the sacraments, confessed her sins, and said the grace. The girl was as sick as ever. In frustration the woman burst into tears; what use was her faith? She cried and cried, Isaiah said, and rivers of tears flowed, but this time without words; just crying. "I cried not for the sick person but for myself that I didn't know how to pray,” she said. When eventually she raised her head, the girl had been healed. This experience changed her life. Determined to learn how to make her faith effective in practice, the woman joined a Rooted in Jesus group. Soon she had led the whole family to Christ. “Why did you delay to bring this course to us?” she demanded.

The point, Isaiah explains when he tells this story, is this: discipleship is like football – knowing the theory is all very well, but it’s not enough to know the theory, you are supposed to actually get the ball into the net; you are meant to win the game. It’s no use us just knowing stuff in our heads; being a disciple of Jesus was never meant to be about that. It’s about whether we can put it into practice, whether we can live it and help others to live it. Discipleship is not about acquiring information; it is, as Alan Hirsch puts it, ‘the irreplaceable and lifelong task of becoming like Jesus by embodying his message.’ 22 Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, Brazos Press 2006 p24. I notice that the Diocese of Carlisle, now growing after thirty years of decline, is consciously moving away from what it calls ‘scary academic diocesan courses’ to ‘pathways for people on a journey of growth.’ 23 Amiel Osmaston, Ministry & Training Officer, at a seminar on discipleship at Church House in London, May 2012

That journey, of course, may take us to places we would rather not go – as Jesus told Peter it would, and as it did for theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned voluntarily to wartime Germany from New York in order to oppose the Nazi regime, and lost his life as a result. Bonhoeffer summed up his understanding of discipleship like this:

Discipleship means adherence to Christ and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract theology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge of the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatsoever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ ... Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. 24 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press new edition 2001, p59.

Our theoretical, knowledge-based discipleship is like a beautiful shirt which has shrunk in the wash; created to turn us into giants, it has become something which fits only midgets. We have reduced discipleship from a life-changing journey marked by irruptions of the divine into something so limited and vague that we can no longer even define it. 25 Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used a different image to express this loss: it’s as if we are trying to make a cup of tea from a scrap of paper once used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times, he said. Or, to use a more modern image, it’s as if we are taking a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The tea is tasteless and the photocopy illegible; what we have ended up with bears no resemblance to what we started out with. See Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, ReJesus – a Wild Messiah for a missional Church, Hendrikson 2009, pp52, 69.

Apprenticeship in community

But there’s a second thing I think we have lost too, and this is not the shrinking but the fading. We live in a ‘me’ world, and that means we tend to see discipleship as an individual thing – as indeed we do all forms of higher education. I think of my own family; I have a son and two daughters, all at college or university, all having chosen what to study according to their own interests and aptitudes – Edward has opted for engineering, Bethy for dance and Katy for classics. We are delighted that they have chosen subjects they are motivated by and good at, and we are hopeful that in due course this will lead to appropriately remunerative employment. It is, however, not the right model for discipleship. For Jesus, discipleship was not an individual process but a community one. His disciples didn’t choose a subject or a syllabus, they chose a person (or perhaps they were themselves chosen by him); and they learned not as individuals attending classes but as part of a new, mutually accountable community. Their discipleship was embedded in relationships; it required them to travel together in community with their Master.

This dynamic educational environment meant that much of their learning was done in the context of those relationships – sometimes difficult relationships, for their group included unschooled fishermen, a tax collector, and a political activist; men with very different perspectives on life. There were personality differences too; some were by nature impulsive, some reflective, some doubtful. And there were differences in age and experience; some were old, some still young enough to be accompanied by an ambitious mother. But despite this extraordinary variety in background and perspective they learned to love one another, to recognise and accept one another as brothers and sisters, not to compete with one another or judge one another. They learned to think ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. ‘You are not to be called rabbis,’ Jesus said, ‘and you are not to see yourselves as teachers. What you are is brothers, and your role is not to instruct but to serve, as you have seen me serve.’ 26 Matthew 23.2-11 (NB the NRSV inaccurately translates ‘students’ but the Greek word Matthew uses is ‘brothers’ – as in the NI V). Luke calls Peter and John ‘uneducated, ordinary men’ – agrammatoi idiotae (Acts 4.13). The task of these first disciples was to become so united that they would seem to be, as Jesus explained to them, like the branches of a single vine. 27 John 15.1-17; John 17.20-23. Apprenticed to Jesus himself, the key to their identity lay in their relationships, not just with him but also with one another.

And it seemed that this was not just for those few who travelled with Jesus as he moved between the villages of Galilee, Samaria and Judea; it was a principle which lay at the very heart of the Christian gospel. In time, Paul would tell the Christian believers in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus that they too were no longer individuals, jostling for their rights and pursuing their own desires as they had been accustomed to do; they were now just different parts of a single body, the body of Christ. It’s a clever image; for in seeing ourselves as the body of Christ we understand both our identity and our role.

For us today the challenge of community is as great as the challenge of apprenticeship, for we live in a culture which does not prioritise community. The Chief Executive of Leicester City Council, Rodney Green, once remarked that the church of Holy Trinity Leicester was the only place in the city where the gathering was not monochrome, but reflected the many different ethnic and socio-economic communities of which the population was made up. That is how it is meant to be. Being a disciple of Jesus means being joined to other people – people whom we have not chosen and perhaps would be unlikely to choose. We cannot be disciples alone; we can only be disciples together.

In Africa, of course, they still know this. “I am, because we are. We are, because He is,” we said together as we prepared to take communion in Christ Church Cathedral, Arusha. Community still comes naturally to most Africans; and where people make a wholehearted commitment, despite the difficult circumstances in which they may live, to follow Jesus together, then the most remarkable things can happen – now as then. The principle is neatly summed up in a proverb quoted by Bishop Jackson ole Sapit, a Masai from SW Kenya: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone; if you want to travel far, travel together.”

Robert Katandula lives in the town of Mansa, in the Luapula region of Zambia, where in addition to earning his living he leads a Rooted in Jesus group in his local church. The group has 33 members, and divides into 6 smaller groups for discussion and prayer. Rooted in Jesus is not an academically demanding course; the challenges it offers are not intellectual but practical and spiritual, and it leads to radical change in the lives of those who embrace them. Many Rooted in Jesus group leaders have written to tell us of the transformation which has come as people commit themselves to Christ and to one another; but Robert’s reports give a particularly helpful insight into how this comes about.

In January 2012 Robert wrote: ‘The Rooted in Jesus Christ Group is a Christian group aimed at promoting spiritual growth, sharing the word of God and proclaiming the word of God to members and non members of the Anglican Church in the community. Rooted in Jesus Christ hold prayer meetings from Monday to Saturday in the morning daily. In the meetings on Monday to Friday the group discuss es the lessons from the book Rooted in Jesus. Books 1, 2, and 3 have been covered so far.’

Robert went on to describe how the group are putting into practice what they have learned: ‘Each afternoon on Sundays and Mondays the group meets at 1500 hours and goes into the community for visitations. The group gives spiritual support to individuals, families and groups depending on their requests. The group gives counselling, healing prayers, casts out demons and encourages those who are spiritually weak and have stopped attending church meetings. The group has received people from far villages for healing. The group is very much encouraged by the people’s response to the power of prayers. The Rooted in Jesus Christ group is proud of their spiritual growth and the maturity in their lives. The group is seeing miracles happening to people in the community. Many people have been healed, demons are cast out, broken marriages are brought together, lost items are being recovered. Therefore the group is encouraged by how Jesus Christ is answering our prayer requests and also by how some people are changing in their lives.’

The following September Robert wrote again to report on the expanding ministry of the group now that it had completed the final book of Rooted in Jesus: ‘I am proud in Jesus’ name to inform you that our group has started charity work in the community after learning the word of God on ‘salt and light.’ During our visitation to people in the community we found a lot of problems such as lack of food, clothing, proper accommodation, and school support for orphans. The group is overwhelmed with [the] challenges people have in the community. After the lesson members of the group contributed financially and materially. The group raised 24kg of maize grain, 6 bars of soap, salt, and second-hand clothes. In August our group went for a one day outreach meeting to share the word of God with St Paul’s Anglican Church, which is about 35 km from Mansa town. The theme for the meeting was ‘individual relationship with God.’ Lessons covered were: introduction to Rooted in Jesus, salt and light, how to receive blessings from God and spiritual healing. I am proud that many Christians surrendered their lives to Jesus as Lord; demons and evil spirits were cast out from many people during the altar call healing prayer time. I thank the power of God [for] releasing many people from the power of darkness to light. The group has planned to reach 8 congregations before December; we are going to start with St Andrews 45 km from Mansa town.’

Robert notes that ‘the committed members of the group have been transformed physically and spiritually in their lives due to the completion of the course.’ Robert’s pastor, Fr Teddy Sichinga, adds: ‘We at All Saints Anglican church, Mansa have benefited a lot; the church has grown numerically, spiritually and financially because of the Rooted in Jesus programme.’

Robert’s group is an excellent illustration of the nature of discipleship. The members of the group show remarkable commitment to one another; they learn together, they learn in practical ways, and they take immediate steps to apply what they are learning. The impact on their own lives and on those of the people they come into contact with is huge.

So what is Christian discipleship? I have come to define it like this: discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in community. It’s practical, and it’s corporate. To recognise this radically changes our understanding of it. It means that the focus of our discipleship should be not on what we know but on who we are becoming. And that’s where the challenge lies, because we aren’t becoming engineers or dance teachers, we are becoming like Jesus, the Son of God, growing into his likeness day by day as we learn to obey him. This is why the first Christian disciples were called Followers of the Way. They were following Jesus, they were going on a journey that no one had ever been on before, and they were going on it together. They were so good at going on it together that people rushed to join them, did indeed want to buy the unshrunken, unfaded T shirt; and the church was born.

Jesus and his Disciples

Jesus did not simply fit himself into the more or less standard model of the rabbi. He had no "formal" education beyond the synagogue schools and did not become a disciple of a rabbi. He did receive a (very unorthodox) stamp of approval from John the Baptizer, but not as his disciple. He was known to the people around him as uneducated. Amazed at the depth and power of his words they exclaimed: "How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?" (John 7:15). Also, Jesus did not accept disciples upon application, testing them to see if they were "worthy." He personally selected - though not from "the best and the brightest" in his community - those he would especially train. There was a larger outer circle of people who seem to have just showed up in his presence and received
training of various degrees (the "other seventy" of Luke 10:1, for example, and the group in the "upper room" of Acts 1:13). Often would-be disciples were subjected to severe discouragement by him (Matt. 8:18-22, Luke 9:57-62 and 14:26-33). He also leveled scalding criticisms at the proud practitioners of the law in his day (Matt. 23:13-33, Luke 11:39-52) and prohibited his followers from being called "rabbi" and using other "respectful greetings" exchanged among those who took themselves to be highly qualified as teachers (Matt. 23:1-12). He was not "one of the boys," nor were his disciples to be.

Nevertheless, the basic nature of the rabbi/disciple relationship of his day was retained by Jesus and his disciples and, arguably, remains normative to this day. That relationship is very simple in description. His disciples were with him, learning to be like him. "With him" meant in that day that they were literally where he was and were progressively engaged in doing what he was doing. Jesus moved about the Jewish villages and towns, primarily around the Sea of Galilee, with occasional forays beyond that and especially to Jerusalem. His main disciples ("apostles") were with him in all of this, and no doubt at considerable hardship to themselves and their families. Peter on one occasion plaintively remarks: "We have left everything to follow you" (Matt. 19:27). It was no doubt a thought that often occurred to his disciples.

As they traveled about he did three things in the synagogues, homes and public areas: He announced the availability of life in the kingdom of God, he taught about how things were done in the kingdom of God, and he manifested the present power of the kingdom by amazing deeds (Matt. 4:23, 9:35, Luke 4:18-44). Then, after a period of training, he set his disciples to doing the things they had heard and seen in him - continuing all the while to evaluate their work and to teach them as they progressed. This continued through his trial and death, and during his postresurrection presence with them when he trained them in how he would be with them after his ascension, without visible presence. His instruction as he left was for his disciples to make disciples of all "nations" - of all types of people - and his promise was that he would be with them always until the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20).

Dallas Willard, ‘Discipleship’, The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, edited by Gerald McDermott,
2010

 

Being disciples – a group study

‘Discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in communit y’ – Alison Morgan

1. Volunteers, or disciples?

We were doing some work in the Diocese of Oxford on Mission Action Planning, and as we encouraged people to form parish groups and consider how they wanted to move forward, one woman raised her hand. ‘That’s all very well,’ she said sharply, ‘but you have to remember that we are all very busy. We don’t have much time, you know – we are just volunteers.’ ‘We quite understand,’ my colleague Martin replied; ‘but Jesus is not looking for volunteers, he’s looking for disciples.’ This led into one of the most fruitful discussions of the day.

So what about you? How do you see yourself in relation to your local church? Are you a volunteer, or are you a disciple? What difference does it make if you see yourself as a disciple, rather than a volunteer?

2. Student, or apprentice?

‘I could see absolutely no correlation between the amount of theological complexity and the amount of spiritual vitality, Christ-likeness, or fruitfulness – in my life, or in the lives of others ’ – Brian McLaren.

Who in your own fellowship do you particularly respect for the maturity of their faith? What is it that marks them out? What is the experience or the circumstances that have helped them to become like this? Think back over your own faith journey. What has helped you to grow?

Consider the story about the woman in Arusha, desperate to see Jesus heal the sick girl who had been brought to her, and of her regret that although a faithful churchgoer she had not been apprenticed to Jesus much earlier in her life. “You will do the works that I do,” Jesus said to his disciples (John 14.12). Do you see yourself as an apprentice of Jesus, learning to do the works that he did?

3. Individuals, or community?

‘As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another’ – Romans 12.4-5.

How would you describe your own experience of being part of a community? Think about your family, about your small group or your church. To what extent can you say ‘I am, because we are’, and ‘We are, because He is?’

Have there been times when you have been able to grow in your faith as part of a community, in ways which would not have been possible on your own? What is the particular contribution you have been called to make to the community of faith?

 

References   [ + ]

1. The Forgotten Ways, Brazos Press 2006, p103
2. See John 6.66, ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.’
3. So named from the sustained tree imagery of both Old and New Testaments: Jeremiah 17.7 -8, Psalm 1, Ephesians 3.17, Colossians 2.7. See Rooted in Jesus.
4. See our website Resource for more details. Also Rooted in Jesus.
5. The latest CofE attendance statistics are for the year 2011, and show that of the 44 dioceses, 20 are now growing. See Church of England website
6. Graham Cray, Who’s Shaping You? – 21st century disciples, Cell UK Ministries 2010; Mark Greene, Imagine; Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus – a Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Hendrikson 2009 p42; Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines – Understanding How God Changes Lives, Harper SanFrancisco 1999, p259.
7. Compare Luke 5.1-11 with John 21.1-14.
8. Compare John 21.9-19 with the accounts of the Last Supper, particularly in Luke 22.19 and Matthew 26.26.
9. Luke 24.
10. For an analysis of the ways in which our society is changing see my book The Word on the Wind, Monarch 2011.
11. Michael Wilkins, Following the Master – a Biblical Theology of Discipleship, Zondervan 1992 p25. See Luke 11.26.
12. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission – Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Monarch 2006 p53.
13. According to Michael Wilkins the word disciple is used to refer to followers of Jesus 230+ times in the gospels, 28 in Acts; according to Dallas Willard the word disciple is used 269 times in the NT. Wilkins, Following the Master, p40; Willard, The Great Omission, p3. For ‘Christian’ see Acts 11.26, Acts 26.28, 1 Peter 4.16.
14. The survey was conducted by Richard Tweedy. Respondents identified these, in this order, as the top markers of discipleship: Bible study, prayer, worship, service to others, Christian beliefs, evangelism and sacramental observance. A local Methodist preacher in Somerset asked the question another way: “if it were illegal to be a Christian, what evidence would there be to incriminate you?” Answers included ‘possession of a Bible’, ‘your bookshelf’ and ‘going to meetings.’ But after that they were strikingly, if rather randomly, practical: Jesus stickers, emails, bank statements, internet history and the practice of forgiveness were all identified as things which would mark you out as a Christian.
15. Michael Wilkins, Following the Master, p22.
16. TW Manson, The Teaching of Jesus – Studies of its Form and Content, 2nd edition CUP 1935, p239-40. Manson also suggests that Jesus used a specific Hebrew/Aramaic term, shewalya, to designate his disciples, instead of the usual rabbinical term talmidh. This is the
word which in Greek becomes mathetes.
17. Michael Wilkins, Following the Master, p93.
18. Eg Luke 4 and Luke 6.17-19 (watch); Luke 9.1-6 (the 12 sent out) and 9.10 (reporting back and withdrawing to a quiet place where they could discuss it); Luke 10.1-12 (the 70 sent out); Luke 10.17-20, Mk 9.14-29 (further evaluation); Matt 28.18-20 (the command to teach others to do these things too).
19. See freshexpressions.org.uk/guide/about/principles/disciples . For a helpful discussion of this point see Alan Hirsch & Dave Fergusson, On the Verge – a Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church, Zondervan 2011 pp177-79: ‘The prevailing paradigm of church laced throughout the West has tended to try to make disciples primarily through the transfer (mainly) of doctrinal inf ormation about the Trinity, church, salvation, eschatology, and so on. Often, it has tried to track cultural trends and engage in apologetics and evangelism, but again it has done this mainly on an intellectual level, in classrooms and Sunday school sessions. Please don't misunderstand me here; we certainly do need serious intellectual engagement with the key ideas of our time. What is concerning, however, is that such engagement largely takes place in the disengaged and passive environment of the classroom. This is simply not the way Jesus taught us to develop disciples.’ Elsewhere Alan links this approach with the abandonment of the holistic Hebraic understanding of faith, involving every aspect of life, physical, emotional and spiritual. ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength’, the Law begins (Deut 6.4-9); it covers all aspects of life, from the rules of the temple to what you do when your donkey falls into a pit. See Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, Hendrikson Publishers 2003, chapter 7.
20. Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality – A life with God in 12 Simple Words, Hodder 2012, p29. Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution – Living as an Ordinary Radical, Zondervan 2006, p71.
21. Ezekiel 2.8-3.4; Hosea 1.2-8; Mark 12.24; Hebrews 4.12. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, Monarch 2006, p173.
22. Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, Brazos Press 2006 p24.
23. Amiel Osmaston, Ministry & Training Officer, at a seminar on discipleship at Church House in London, May 2012
24. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, SCM Press new edition 2001, p59.
25. Danish philosopher Kierkegaard used a different image to express this loss: it’s as if we are trying to make a cup of tea from a scrap of paper once used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times, he said. Or, to use a more modern image, it’s as if we are taking a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The tea is tasteless and the photocopy illegible; what we have ended up with bears no resemblance to what we started out with. See Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, ReJesus – a Wild Messiah for a missional Church, Hendrikson 2009, pp52, 69.
26. Matthew 23.2-11 (NB the NRSV inaccurately translates ‘students’ but the Greek word Matthew uses is ‘brothers’ – as in the NI V). Luke calls Peter and John ‘uneducated, ordinary men’ – agrammatoi idiotae (Acts 4.13).
27. John 15.1-17; John 17.20-23.

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