This column was featured in the February/ March 2023 edition of The Record
by Rev. Benjamin E. Castaneda
The term ‘discipleship’ is often bandied about in Christian circles as if everyone intuitively understands what it means. However, I wonder if somewhere along the way we have forgotten what discipleship is and what it looks like in practice. In this brief article, I want to explore these two points.
What Is It?
Whether you realise it or not, if you trust in Jesus then you are his disciple. But what does that mean? At root, it means to be enrolled as a student. The goal, though, is not simply intellectual development. Discipleship is less like memorising a set of facts and figures and more like being apprenticed to a master, learning through an immersive experience the tools and techniques of a particular trade. In Jesus’ day, famous rabbis would travel throughout Israel followed by a gaggle of students; likewise, Jesus’ disciples were his constant companions. They listened to his teaching, observed his interactions with the crowds and religious leaders, gaped open-mouthed at his miracles, ate with him, prayed with him, joked with him, and travelled on foot with him everywhere for three years as he modelled for them a life of faith in his heavenly Father.
Simply put, discipleship involves induction into a new way of life, and our aim is nothing less than conformity to our Master. As those who have been raised from spiritual death into the glorious newness of Christ’s resurrection life (Rom 6:1–11; Eph 2:1–5; Col 2:13) and been given a new identity ‘in Christ’ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:3–6), we must walk in a manner worthy of our calling, seeking to be transformed more and more into his likeness (Rom 12:1–2; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:1, 22–24; 1 Pet 2:21).
There are two implications that I want to press home. On the one hand, discipleship is a radical calling that encompasses our whole lives. As Jesus declared in Luke 9:23–24, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’. In other words, we cannot – indeed, must not – keep living as if nothing has changed except our religious affiliation. The Church is not just another social club. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently wrote in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’. Anything less demeans the greatness of his sacrifice for us. There is no corner of our lives that is exempt from the call to follow Christ. Our days and nights, our weekends and holidays, our work and hobbies are all subject to this great demand.
At the same time, discipleship is also incredibly mundane. Crops do not spring up overnight, and neither does Christlikeness. Like farming, it requires patient, diligent, and often monotonous toil – tilling the earth, planting seeds, pulling weeds – with seasons of harvest often interspersed with long periods when little seems to be happening. Eugene Peterson therefore aptly described discipleship as ‘a long obedience in the same direction’. Christian maturity is a lifelong process, with growth measured not over the course of weeks but years and even decades as stubborn sins are put to death and habits of obedience are cultivated.
What Does It Look Like?
I am going to make a statement which might sound controversial but I believe is biblically sound: the primary aim of the church is discipleship. What do I mean by that? The last directive of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew is often termed ‘the Great Commission’ (Matt 28:18–20). As many commentators and preachers have observed, the heart of Jesus’ commission is his command to ‘make disciples’. What is the Church supposed to be about? According to Jesus, we are to make disciples. Jesus’ followers in every age have been called to enrol new students in the school of Christ and to walk alongside one another ‘until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:13).
How does this happen? Jesus himself tells us. The other actions we find in the Great Commission – Go’, ‘baptising’, and ‘teaching’ – are all participles which help explain how the main verb ‘make disciples’ is to be accomplished. In other words, discipleship happens by 1) going, 2) baptising, and 3) teaching.
1) Going. In order to make new followers of Jesus, we have to pursue them, going out into fields which are ripe for the harvest. This could mean going to the far corners of the earth, but this command does not have to mean ‘go a long distance’. ‘Go therefore and make disciples’ can take place across the world or across the street. ‘Go’ next door, ‘go’ to the grocery store, ‘go’ to family reunions. It means ‘going’ down the hall to your child’s room to read the Bible with them before putting them to bed. ‘Go’ has nothing to do with distance and everything to do with intentionality. When Jesus commands us to ‘go’, he is calling us to be intentional in displaying to others the beauty and grace of our King, demonstrating through our words and actions that he is infinitely worthy of being followed.
2) Baptising. Why does Jesus mention baptism? On the one hand, baptism is a sign – being washed with water points you away from yourself to the cleansing of our sins through the blood of Jesus. But baptism is also a seal – it visibly marks you as no longer belonging to the world but to King Jesus and his covenant people.
3) Teaching. Making disciples is not just about ‘getting people saved’. Discipleship requires investing in people, walking alongside them as we teach them the Scriptures and encouraging one another towards the goal of Christlikeness. This is why we need the Church! Paul makes the point in Titus 2:2–6 that older men are to provide an example for those who are younger, and older women are likewise exhorted to teach younger women. Parents are called to instruct their children (Deut 6:6–7; Eph 6:4). Elders have a particular responsibility to teach (1 Tim 3:2) and to shepherd the flock of God, protecting the Church from error and offering themselves as an example of Christian maturity (1 Pet 5:2–3; Heb 13:7).
To close, I simply want to ask a question: how are you involved in the process of discipleship? How are you intentionally showcasing to others the true spiritual life found only in Jesus? While only ordained ministers can baptise, as part of the baptismal vows the entire congregation promises to help parents raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. How do you participate in that? And lastly, how can you take part in teaching all that Jesus commanded? Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a task just for a select few educated individuals. We all have a role in teaching one another about the grace and love of our Saviour.