This article was originally written for Servants of Grace
When I was in seminary seeking my Masters of Divinity, I was all about academia, theology, and the Word of God; admittedly, three of my favorite things, still. I recall asking my pastor about starting a discipleship class, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand what discipleship means.” He was right. I was clueless.
Let me rewind. During this period of my life, I was of the mindset that a Bible study or some type of class was discipleship (as I stated)—that if I studied the Bible under someone, that they could teach me to be more like Jesus. Unfortunately, that is just not true. Jesus never pulled out the scroll of Jeremiah or the Torah and parsed the meanings of words to His disciples. From the beginning, discipleship looks more like on-the-job training than any classroom that I have ever seen. So, what I began to understand was what discipleship was actually about, and also, what it was not.
What It Was Not
I’m in the process of co-authoring another book and it happens that discipleship is a chapter focus, so this is a researched topic for me. I believe it’s something drastically missed within evangelicalism and a spiritual discipline deeply misunderstood. I believe the Western church has mistaken discipleship for catechism, dating back to the time of Constantine. Once the attractional method of the missio Dei came into the arena, the Church seemed to disregard day-to-day walk of discipleship, which was so evident in the DNA of the scattered and persecuted church. Nothing can compare to discipleship inside the trenches. And so it seems that complacency is not good for true spiritual edification.
If we look at discipleship from the beginning, we take note that Jesus presented His disciples with new paradigms of thinking and He also offered them visualizations of what He taught. For instance, when the disciples were discussing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus provided an answer by taking a small child, placing him on His lap, and then discussing the attributes of a child (Matt 18:1-6). He didn’t sit them down and exegete Isaiah. Jesus gave visual and tactile teaching (seeing and touching) about something which was evident. We are people who indeed learn by example. Everyone has been a child, so for the disciples, they comprehended how children think and act—their innocence, so to speak. So, from the beginning, discipleship was not about attending a lecture, while lectures may have been an aspect of discipleship, it was much, much more.
What It Was
Discipleship has a lot to do with contextualization and walking with a person in the everyday framework of life. Jesus, from the beginning of His earthly ministry, walked, ate, and slept with His disciples. He knew them and they experienced His relationship with the Father—a three-year process. This doesn’t mean that discipleship must take three years, but that it is a process. They witnessed as He went to pray alone with the Father, heard how He openly spoke with the Father, and what He declared about the Father. The disciples witnessed how Jesus handled criticism, fraud, neglect, discernment, love, empathy, compassion, and even more importantly, the aspects of humanity: money, housing, hunger, sickness, and death. I don’t think we disciple people anymore, I think we speak at them.
I recently heard a good friend, Peyton Jones, say that a disciple must accept permission to be mentored because there is an air of superiority (albeit in Christ-like humility) within true discipleship. The one being mentored must resign to the understanding that the mentor has experienced and knows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, intimately. The disciples were able to disciple others because they walked, talked, slept, and broke bread with Christ—they all had an intimate knowledge of the Son, and upon receiving the Holy Spirit, power from and understanding of the Father.
This means that discipleship from the beginning was neither birthed nor matured in a classroom, but in life. As well, there is not much accountability from a classroom. I can’t possibly become intimate with ten to twenty people in the same forty-five to sixty minute group discussion, no matter how deep I care to go. Allow me to validate, I had a younger man approach me and ask to be discipled. I asked if he understood what he was asking. He looked as confused as I had when I approached my pastor some years ago. I knew he didn’t, so I began to explain that discipleship was about the missio Dei intersecting the gospel of life. This meant, I emphasized, “That we will have coffee with each other, lunch, go fishing, and everything in between. I want to know your fears, anxieties, depressed thoughts, and struggles.” I knew that he was searching for a Bible study, but the Bible comes to life through our daily grind. This doesn’t mean that Bible studies are bad; to the contrary, they are much needed and should be a part of every believer’s discipline, much like prayer.
Discipleship From The Beginning
When Jesus elected His disciples, calling them out of the world, He stated, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19 ESV). This means that the mentor has a responsibility, a great one. He must be prepared, as the disciple is to follow, to pour out his knowledge, time, and emotions. But a person cannot be a mentor, who has never been mentored, for he will never understand the mentor-disciple relationship. It is a deep interpersonal aspect of brotherhood, or sisterhood, for the believer. Discipleship goes beyond the spiritual, even though the spiritual is interwoven into everything; it goes beyond the natural, even though the natural is interwoven into everything. Discipleship is Trinitarian; it’s the incarnated flesh and Holy Spirit of God that comes to dwell with man. Discipleship is a slow transformation from perceiving worldly to a renewed thinking and reacting in godliness (Rom 12:2). Discipleship from the beginning is a new creative process of the Holy Spirit, a sanctification of the flesh, mind, and heart. Discipleship is about people walking with people, to be more like Christ.
Matt Fretwell is married, has three daughters, is an author (Denied Desires; Identity Theft, Sanctificagious, 30:1 Manhood, 30:1 Marriage), pastor of a 112 year old revitalized church planting church (Oak Hall Baptist) in Sandston, Virginia), is the founder of Job 31 Ministries, an advocate board member of Living Bread Ministries, a global comprehensive Church Planting organization, the East Coast Coordinator for New Breed Church Planting, and co-founder of a church planting and revitalization initiative called Planting RVA, in Richmond, Va. Matt also writes for Church Planter Magazine and is pursuing his doctorate in Great Commission Leadership at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Twitter: @w84harpazo or Facebook