My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness … (Titus 1:1)
We so easily skip over the boring introductory bits of the epistles, yet here to begin our thoughts on discipleship is a real nugget of gold. Paul (if you believe that he wrote this letter) is saying ‘Hello’ to his friend, but hidden in here is a whole chunk of truth about how he sees his role as a Christian minister.
He begins with what he is, and then moves on to why. He is firstly a servant of God. The Greek uses the stronger word, doulos, which means something more like a slave than a gentleman’s butler: he is under compulsion to do what his master commands, and he has no rights of his own to follow his own agenda in life. Then he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, one literally ‘sent’ to go where Jesus tells him and to do what he’s told. These are strong callings, and as a church leader he takes them seriously, as many other passages bear witness.
But even more interesting is what he thinks he is called and sent to do. We usually think of Paul as an evangelist and church-planter, and a pretty driven one at that. The purple passage in Philippians is about his desire to keep on pressing forwards, and in Romans 15 he tells us that having ‘finished’ the eastern end of the Mediterranean he now longs to strike off west towards Spain. Yet there is much more to Paul than an itinerant evangelist, and he goes on to explain to Titus just what is important to him, in terms far more to do with discipleship than with evangelism. His calling has three ingredients: to further the faith of God’s elect, to make sure they know and understand the truth, which, in turn, will lead them to godliness. I don’t think you can have a much clearer model of discipleship than that.
Faith needs furthering: disciple-makers know that simply leading someone to Christ is only the very first tottering step of the journey of faith, and there is a vital ministry, so often neglected in the church, of leading brand-new Christians by the hand through those first bewildering months and years of seeking to follow Christ.
Truth needs teaching: I’m often struck by the number of times Paul, in seeking to correct some kind of dis-ease in one of his churches, exclaims in exasperation ‘Don’t you know…!?’ If only we knew, the implication is, we would be a whole lot less dysfunctional. Disciple-making involves the ministry of skilled teachers to help people know and understand.
Godliness needs living out: again, there are all kinds of condemnations in Scripture for those who say one thing but live an entirely different way. Once we know the truth, we then need help to make it live in us, and burst out of us, 24/7.
So there’s a good starting-point in this trawl through biblical references to discipleship: a disciple is someone who is growing in their faith, who is learning more and more about what it means to follow Jesus, and who is allowing this new knowledge to shape their lifestyle and choices.
How are we doing, both as disciples and disciple-makers?