—An updated post from the 2015 archives—
The term “discipleship” never really occurs in Scripture. It’s a relatively recent English word coined to capture the essence of Christ’s parting command to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). We use it to define a widely-affirmed yet otherwise largely undefined Christian concept—the process of how a disciple is made. However, it is also interesting to note that the term “disciple” is never used in the New Testament outside the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and the book of Acts (written by Luke). If there is a biblical doctrine of discipleship, it is mostly anecdotal and implicit.
The Greek terms for a disciple are used liberally in the Gospels and Acts—mathetes (n) means “a learner,” manthano (v) means “to learn,” and matheteuo (v) means “to make/be a learner”—but there is no corresponding Greek term that means “the process that causes one to become a learner.” But even more than that, the epistolary New Testament writers—Paul, Peter, John—never once use any of the “disciple” terms in their instructional epistles to churches and individuals. For whatever reason, they don’t talk about disciples and disciple making. In light of Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples,” that seems like a curious omission. But there’s a good explanation.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi (or, teacher). Rabbis had disciples, and disciples had one purpose: “A pupil [disciple] is not above his teacher, but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Rabbis taught, and disciples followed and learned to become like their rabbi. It was a technical term during the time of Jesus’ ministry in Israel—John the Baptist had disciples, Pharisees had disciples, and so did many other now forgotten Jewish rabbis and prophets at that time. Those in Israel would’ve been very comfortable with talk of rabbis and disciples.
However, when Christianity broke out of Jewish culture, and Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews), the term “disciple” would no longer have the same currency in Asia Minor as it did in Israel, and in fact was subject to different associations in the Greek culture of Asia Minor (see Acts 11:26). So whether the words were intentionally or unintentionally avoided, the language of discipleship was not important to Paul, or Peter and John, as the church spread into the Gentile world on its way to Rome.
Or perhaps the concept was transformed with Paul’s new teachings—redefined by the reality of the new church of Jesus Christ, in which every follower of Jesus became a part of His “body” of which Jesus was the “head.” Jesus would still be physically present in the life of every new believer (or, disciple) in His body, the church. He would, in a sense, be incarnated in the gifted individuals who made up the church, unified as a body by the Holy Spirit. Paul described this reality in his letter to the Ephesians:
…but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. ~Ephesians 4:15-16
Paul also described this new relationship as being “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:2-14). As His disciples, we are no longer just with Christ (Luke 6:40), but we are in Him, and He is in us (John 15:4-6). Our identity is not just that of a Jewish rabbi’s disciple, but we are unified spiritually and ontologically with Jesus, the risen Savior. We are not just His disciples individually, but corporately—as His disciples we are spiritually joined and unified in His body by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The new reality revealed in Paul’s teachings is that it is only when we are fully integrated into the life of the church that we are known as His disciples, and that we are able to make disciples of Jesus its head. To be in Him is to be with Him. And according to Jesus, the world will know we are His disciples when they see our love for one another (John 13:35). That “one another” love can be associated with Jesus only if we are known by our association with His body, the church. To be “in Him” is to be part of the body of believers who also are “in Him.”
Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples” by doing two things: (1) “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and (2) “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). A disciple is made by identification and instruction—we are identified with the community of Jesus’ followers through baptism (we are “in Him” together), and we are instructed in Christ’s teachings by other disciples (we live “with Him” together). In the Ephesians passage above, Paul teaches that identification and instruction “in Christ” happens only in the body of Christ, where every part of that body contributes not just to our individual maturity, but also to the maturity of the whole body. “We [the body] are to grow up in all aspects [likeness] into Him who is the head [of His body], even Christ.”
We are certainly exhorted in Scripture as individuals to become like Jesus, but that likeness finds its full meaning only when it is seen within the growth and maturation in love of the corporate body (see Ephesians 4:15-16). The body of Christ is how the world will see our Christlikeness. A single, separated individual cannot truly show what Christ is like. Only the body can do that. To be separated from the body of Christ is to be separated from Christ. “But we all … are being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The terminology about discipleship may have changed between the gospels and the epistles, but the goal remained the same—to “make disciples” of Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to “make disciples”? Before his conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had been at one time a student of Gamaliel, one of Israel’s greatest rabbis. Paul understood what a disciple was, and what Jesus meant when He commanded us to “make disciples.” Paul doesn’t use discipleship terminology in any of his letters, but it should be no surprise that the concept and priority of making disciples through identification and instruction permeates his teaching, even if the specific “disciple” language is not there in his letters to the churches.
There are many other things to say about making disciples, but one thing doesn’t get said enough: A biblical disciple of Jesus will be part of a body of Christ, a local church. There simply is no New Testament example of a “disciple at large” who is not connected with a body of believers. An “independent disciple” is an oxymoron, or a contradiction. And before you can make disciples, you need to be a disciple yourself—you need to be part of a body of believers, using your gifts to build up the body of Christ so that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35).
Putting the Pieces Together: When you hear the term “discipleship” what does it mean to you—a concept? a doctrine? a paradigm? a program? What do you think it means to be a disciple of Jesus today? How do you express your identity as a disciple of Jesus? Is it possible to be a disciple of Jesus apart from the body of Christ? If yes, would that disciple be able to be like Jesus (think about that for moment)? If no, how is your life as a disciple expressed in the body of Christ?