Followers of Jesus are to be leaders in disciple-making. At home, at work, in school, in church, anywhere really, it is nothing less than what the scriptures invite us to do with our lives: Be disciples and make disciples.
In fact, the word μαθητής (mathetes) appears more than 250 times in the New Testament, meaning “a learner, disciple, pupil … who follows one’s teaching.”1 And in simplest terms, that’s what “discipleship” is: following someone’s teaching, becoming more and more like him or her. In the Christian faith, that someone is Jesus.
But how? How does one grow in this divine direction?
The answer has massive implications, including the design of our churches and Christian schools. So I’ve attempted to match the enormity of those implications with an enormity of data, drawing from millennia of Christian discipleship methods.2 My purpose is to remind church leaders, school leaders, family leaders, and other disciple-makers about the rich range of options available to pursue this high calling.
For the sake of practical application, I have organized the discipleship approaches by methodology, though there is also a loose chronological order to them, earliest to newest.
Discipleship through Mentorship
“Discipleship” did not begin with Christianity (except in the sense of discipleship toward Christlikeness). In fact, one can find discipleship systems in the form of mentorship or apprenticeship in many pre-Christian societies, perhaps most of them. To take just two, “discipleship permeated Greek life,” with “a person following a master” among the approaches of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and well-beyond, five centuries before Jesus walked the earth.3 Mentor-driven discipleship also abounds in Jewish history. Consider, for example, Moses and Joshua or Elijah and Elisha. In Jesus’s day, the Pharisees followed this same life-on-life template, as rabbis had for centuries. So did John the Baptist and even the zealots as they prepared for war with Rome.
In each case, one or a few students followed a particular teacher, even to the point of living with him, gleaning all they could until they knew what the teacher knew. It’s in this context that the followers of Jesus were called “disciples,” with Jesus adopting the longstanding, transformational model of mentorship—close, daily apprenticeship to a master teacher.
To cite one post-Resurrection example, especially germane to today’s church leader, consider Aurelius Augustinus—Augustine, Bishop of Hippo from 396-430—who discipled many through mentorship. Despite a dislike for travel and incessant demands on his time, Augustine prioritized mentoring through letters, church councils, teaching in a monastery, and innumerable personal visits, a “multifaceted approach to mentoring … (that) provided spiritual direction, encouragement, rebuke and discipline, practical advice … and exhortation for maintaining sound doctrine.”4 Though more of an arms-length approach than that of Jesus, who had live-in mentees, Augustine’s mentorship offers disciple-making inspiration to equally-busy church leaders of the modern day.
Discipleship through Joining in Christ’s Suffering
Trials and even persecution may be inevitable for any follower of Jesus. He taught: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Similarly, the Apostle Paul not only embodied this teaching of Jesus, he wrote about it to Timothy: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
We join in Christ’s sufferings by design. A byproduct is these inevitable trials may yield growth and strength (e.g., Rom. 5:3-5, Jas. 1:2-4, 1 Pet. 4:12-19), personal as well as corporate, and as such, may be received as a blessing (Matt. 5:10-12). That is, trials and persecution can be personally sanctifying and corporately propagating for the church. They can make and multiply disciples.5
Certainly, that was the experience for the early Christians, persecuted ruthlessly by Rome. But “rather than snuff out the Christian movement, persecution fanned it.”6 Despite being eaten alive by lions, burned at the stake, publicly executed by sword and spear, discipleship thrived in the first 300 years after the Resurrection.
“The accounts are both terrifying and holy,” observes theologian Gerald Sittser. “The martyrs were real people who did in fact die horribly. They had families and friends, hopes and longings … just like us.”7 And also “just like us,” though surely to an astronomically-higher degree, their “suffering produce(d) perseverance (and) perseverance, character” (Rom. 5:3-4), the Christlike character of an all-in disciple.
Discipleship through Imitating the Asceticism of Jesus
This pathway to discipleship is related to perseverance through trials, but usually without the martyrdom. Many have sought to become like Jesus by imitating the ascetic aspects of Jesus’ life. Origen of Alexander (185-254), for example, an early Christian scholar of biblical interpretation, “believed that the human spirit could ascend to the presence of God only if the turbulent desires of the physical body were brought into check.”8 As a result, Origen followed a path of solitude, study and abstinence in an effort to pursue greater godliness. Similarly, the Desert Fathers literally lived in the desert to battle Satan, as Jesus did for 40 days. “Reacting to the spiritual slackness in the church,” many sold everything, gave the proceeds to the poor, and sought God in solitude.9
In the same way, monastics beginning in that era and continuing for centuries, pursued ascetic lives in an effort to rid themselves of bodily appetites. For them, discipleship to Jesus meant total imitation of the life of Christ. To take but one example, the intentional poverty of Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the son of a wealthy Italian merchant, laid the groundwork for an entire Franciscan order that would “live simply so that we can use any wealth we have for the benefit of others.”10 For Francis and so many others, the theory has been that comfort and indulgence is an obstacle to true discipleship; abstinence from such ease removes that obstacle.
Discipleship through Spiritual Practices
This method constitutes an entire school of thought, with volumes written across the centuries to describe the theology and practice of “spiritual disciples” as sanctifying habits. From a bird’s-eye view, this approach is similar to the previous one since it advocates the imitation of Jesus’s life; however, it is broader in that it is not focused exclusively on habits of abstinence and self-denial. Instead, beyond ascetic practices like solitude, simplicity, and fasting, other practices advanced include prayer, worship, meditation, Bible study, spiritual guidance, journaling, and even celebration. “Service to others” is also central in this model, provided it is true service rather than self-righteous service.11
Overall, the theory is that as one reorders life around God through these activities, God pours out his grace on that person. Stated differently, activities within a person’s power enable that person, by God’s grace, to do what is beyond their power (e.g., gain patience, increase humility, love others as God loves them, genuinely forgive, etc.). Some of the better-known advocates of this approach across the millennia include early church bishops like Clement of Rome (35-99) and Ignatius of Antioch (??-110),12 Benedict of Nursia (480-550),13 Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556),14 Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556),15 and in contemporary times, Richard Foster16 and Dallas Willard.17 Of course, that simply scratches the surface. The larger point is that this enduring school of thought proposes an inextricable nexus between godly habits and godly transformation.
Discipleship through Growth of Knowledge
In the twelfth century, a monk named Dominic “stressed the importance of a strong intellectual life, not only for refuting heresies but also for building up a sound, well-informed spirituality.”18 He eventually founded a university as well as the Dominican Order, which emphasized “learning, preaching and spiritual direction” as a trilogy of spiritual formation.19 Thomas Aquinas was among those adopting Dominic’s philosophy, and is still recognized as a pinnacle of scholasticism and one of the greatest minds of the last millennium.
Is there really a linkage between the cognitive and the spiritual? More specifically, and more to the point of this overview, is discipleship really driven in part by the mind? One need not merely take the word of medieval monks to answer that. The Apostle Paul urged the Roman church to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Likewise, in the Lukan gospel, Jesus affirms that we are to love God with all our mind (Luke 10:27-28). Indeed, the New Testament, including Jesus himself, points to a cognitive component of spiritual formation.
Contemporary Christian philosopher, J.P. Moreland, expounds on Paul’s framing in a chapter entitled “The Mind’s Role in Spiritual Transformation.”
“Think of what Paul could have said but did not. He could have said ‘Be transformed by developing close feelings toward God,’ or ‘by exercising your will in obeying biblical commands,’ or ‘by intensifying your desire for the right things,’ or ‘by fellowship and worship,’ and so on. Obviously, all are important parts of the Christian life. Yet Paul chose to mention none of them in his most important precis of the spiritual life. Why is that? What is it about the mind that justifies Paul’s elevation of it to such a position of prominence in religious life? …
“According to Paul, the key to change is the formation of a new perspective, the development of fresh insights about our lives and the world around us, the gathering of knowledge and skill required to know what to do and how to do it. And this is where the mind comes in. Truth, knowledge and study are powerful factors in the transformation of the self and the control of the body and its habits for a healthy life in the kingdom of God.”20
There are worthy counterpoints and caveats to explore as well,21 and surely one can take the intellect-spiritual linkage too far, as the longstanding gnostic heresies demonstrate. However, for our purposes, the lesson is that many Christians, dating all the way back to the New Testament, have argued that the mind is a pathway to change. As we think, so we do.
(to be continued)
- Joseph H. Thayer. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 386. Thayer also indicates that “the word is not found in the O.T., nor in the Epistles of the N.T., nor in the Apocalypse.” Stated differently, μαθητής and its forms are found in the Gospels (230 times) and in Acts (28 times).
- Though not exhaustive, to identify those models we will glean from scripture as well as chapter-length and book-length treatments of the topic. See, for example, Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007); Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006); Dallas Willard, Renewing the Christian Mind, Gary Black, Jr., editor (New York: Harper Collins, 2016); Michael J. Wilkins. Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Random House, 1986, 2002).
- Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, 53. See also Wilkins, Following the Master, 70-79.
- Edward L. Smither. Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 212.
- Along these same lines, there is the call of 20th century German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imploring churches to preach “costly grace,” which is replete with trials, as opposed to “cheap grace.” Specifically, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. … The world goes on in the same old way. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. It is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. … (But) we Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ. … The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 44, 53.
- Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 28.
- Ibid., 32.
- Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, 81.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ibid., 85.
- For a succinct description of the distinction, see Richard Foster. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: Harper, 1978), 128-130.
- Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship, 77-78. “Both Clement and Ignatius emphasized the importance of study, prayer, service, worship, unity and love toward others.”
- See, for example Benedict’s publication in 516, now called The Rule of St. Benedict, originally written as a guide to faithful living for monks and monastery leaders, but which is applicable to all.
- Founder of the Jesuits and author of what are now called The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a set of activities to help one discern God’s will and grow in union with God.
- The first Archbishop of Canterbury (1533-1556) and author of the original Book of Common Prayer, a guide for prayer, devotion and the sacraments in the Church of England.
- Foster, Celebration of Discipline, among his other works.
- See, for example, Dallas Willard. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).
- Gordon Mursell, ed. The Story of Christian Spirituality: Two Thousand Years from East to West (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 104.
- J.P. Moreland. Loving God with All Your Mind. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 65-66.
- See, for example, the work of Augustine and his contention that, when it comes to faithful living, “disordered loves” have primacy over disordered thinking. The ideas have been resurrected and popularized recently, especially in James K.A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Ada MI: Baker Academic, 2009). Specifically, as Smith summarizes the theory on the back cover, “Humans–as Augustine noted–are ‘desiring agents,’ full of longings and passions; in brief, we are what we love.” This stands in contrast to the contention that we are what we think or know.