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I am curious how discipleship became the primary paradigm of the vital Christian life, especially among Protestants. 

My own denomination, the Reformed Church in America (RCA), has discipleship programs and curricula. Online you can find the “nine marks” of discipleship and the “five characteristics” of a disciple. We should aspire to be disciples, not just go to church. It’s the main theme of the great Dallas Willard. 

The leadership of the RCA is telling us that God is calling our denomination to “make disciples who grow disciples.” This, apparently, is our main purpose. It sounds and looks biblical. 

Nonetheless, for theological reasons I doubted that God was calling us to this. So I went to the Bible to test it. I discovered, to my surprise, that discipleship is not a paradigm in the Bible. That’s when I found that “disciple” never appears in the epistles of Paul, nor Hebrews, nor James, Peter, John, or Jude. None of those nine marks and five characteristics does the Bible actually connect to the word “disciple.”

This idea, that our primary aim is to be a disciple — I’m going to call it the “aspirational” meaning — is not found in Calvin (he uses “piety”), nor in the Heidelberg Catechism (it uses “prophet, priest, and ruler”). Nor is it in the early church. And as I mentioned, this aspirational use of disciple — that this is what we are called to be — is almost totally absent from the New Testament.

Disciples of the Buddha

The word “disciple” occurs 264 times in the New Testament. The Gospels and Acts use the word 262 times as a narrative term, identifying characters in a story. The followers of Jesus are called “disciples” (mathētai, meaning “students”) because Jesus presented himself as a Rabbi, a teacher. The Greek philosophers had disciples, as did the Buddha, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist. Disciples were “followers” because teaching was peripatetic — traveling, moving from place to place.

There are two notable exceptions to the 262 times that the word “disciple” is simply used as a narrative term. 

Jesus giving the Great Commission

The first exception is of course Matthew 28, the Great Commission, where the Lord Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me; go therefore, and make disciples of every nation, teaching them to observe . . .” 

But this common translation, with “make-disciples” as verb-object, is inaccurate and misleading. The literal translation is the verb-object “disciple-nations.” Nations, not individuals.

For the full force of this, remember that the theme of Matthew’s Gospel is Our Lord’s fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Based on the most familiar prophecies, the disciples could have expected the resurrected Messiah to say, “Go therefore and conquer the nations,” or “subdue the nations,” or “take their silver and gold,” or “get the nations to return the Ten Lost Tribes.” 

Instead Our Lord evokes Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 to call the apostles to instruct the nations in the ways of the Lord. This part of Matthew 28 is the eschatological fulfillment of the Lord of the nations who governs by his Word. It is not then, a mission strategy for recruitment as we have so often been told. This is, perhaps, why none of the epistles ever appeal to the Great Commission, even though James and Peter were there to hear Jesus speak the words.

The second exception, where disciple is more aspirational than merely a term for a follower, is in Luke 14:27-33. Here the Lord Jesus says that “whoever does not hate father or mother . . . or even his own life,” or “bear his own cross,” or “renounce all he has, cannot be my disciple.” 

Essentially, the “aspiration” here is for mortification, to use an old, classic Reformed term — and one you will not see listed among the “nine marks” or the “five characteristics” of discipleship. Yes, God calls the RCA to mortification, but I doubt that’s what my denominational leaders mean. We cannot afford too many Dietrich Bonhoeffers or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Kings. Mea culpa too.

Still, why not use the word “disciple” in an aspirational way anyway? After all, we gladly use the word “Trinity” which is not in the Bible. Yes, but the word “disciple” is found in scripture and yet almost never used in the way we want to claim as our primary task.

My sister-in-law says that “disciple” falls short of our post-Pentecost situation — which the epistles address, in which we individuals are the church, in-Christ, Christ’s body, the temple of the Living God, and the first-fruit of the Kingdom. 

Jesus is not our Rabbi and we are not so much his disciples any longer. Now he is our Savior, the Lord God. If you were to see him, you would not sit at his feet like a student. Rather, you would “fall down at his feet as though dead,” like his best friend John on the Isle of Patmos. 

This is why “disciple” falls very short. In prioritizing discipleship we miss more important paradigms.

I’m curious to know if the discipleship paradigm may have arisen first out of Protestant Liberalism before it came into today’s Evangelicalism. It keeps company with weak ecclesiology and often weak Christology. It leans toward individualism and Jesus-as-Rabbi/teacher/ethical model.

Of course, I have no problem with churches holding discipleship groups or reading discipleship books. But put to a biblical test, I cannot believe that God is calling the Reformed Church in America to “make disciples who grow disciples.”

Header photo by Alex Kotomanov on Unsplash

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.


  • Nate DeWard says:

    Maybe the RCA is using “disciples” as a shorthand for “followers of Jesus.” Without doing a deep word study of the post-Pentecost Church, I’m pretty sure that word has more weight in the NT. Does that work better for your preferred paradigm, Daniel?

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Actually, no Nate, I don’t think it does. Again, “followers” falls short of the dynamic eschatological identity that Christians have in the Epistles.

  • Nate says:

    Thanks for diving into this and making me think, Daniel. As you point out, there does seem to be a change in the nature of the relationship with Jesus after the ascension and Pentecost. I also agree that in the past half century “discipleship” has been another word for the transfer of information. However, I do think that the New Testament after Acts carries the idea that we become like Jesus. All the moral instruction in the epistles is there to help us imitate Christ and be conformed to his image. Of course, there is also a lot about what it means to live in a state of grace. I wonder how the Church would be different if we focused more on the ways of Jesus and living in grace.

  • Kathryn Davelaar VanRees says:

    Always good to read your thought provoking thoughts, Daniel.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Thanks, Daniel, as always. I’ve been suspicious of this catch-phrase as well, for several reasons. Partly, I fear, it’s my nature to be suspicious, so I’ll add a huge “for what it’s worth” and give wide space for folks to write me off thereby. But, still. I recall the first time I heard the phrase “the great commandment and the great commission” proclaimed in a triumphalistic – nearly colonialist – sermon years ago, offered by a well-respected midwestern (no longer) RCA preacher. It just seemed, as my beloved brother Al would put it, “too tricky by half.” Two “greats” and two “com-‘s”, rhyming metrically; too good to be true! Indeed, too good to be gospel, and WAY too small a sliver to hang one’s whole ethic and praxis and interpretation of the Scriptures on. What Jesus says in Matthew: It’s a commission. Referring to – as you put it – the nations, not individuals (as we read what an individual is in the 21st century west). But it’s by no means the only commission. Mark (the long ending) reports a commission. So does Luke. As does John – with two commissions. So how does this get to be THE great commission? I think it has to do with the word “MAKE,” which gives us something concrete to do, and something quantifiable, and something that serves our interests – multiple interests such as meeting budgets, growing churches, feeling good about ourselves, etc. – as it serves our Lord’s interest. What if the only commission were, per Mark 16:15 – “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Well, how would we know if we were succeeding? What if, per Luke 24:47, “repentance and forgiveness of sins” were to be proclaimed “in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”? Hard to hang a Big Hairy, Audacious Goal on that. Or, John, who reports Jesus saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and leaves the details to us (though the next words were “receive the Holy Spirit” and that bit about forgiving/retaining sins.” And Jesus’ “Johannine Commission II” – “Cast your nets on the other side,” which can surely be as fruitful if you’re just looking for an individualistic praxis. Or again – poor John keeps ’em coming – “Feed my lambs. . . tend my sheep. . . feed my sheep.” Why is Matthew’s version “GREAT”? Other than that it makes a tricky trope and gives us something to do. (The “Jesus didn’t call us to worship him” meme is going around again. As if Jesus were merely some fella from Nazareth who hit on a lucky religiously rebellious idea. Yuck.) And that is just the commission! Say nothing of “the” great commandment, which, as I recall Jesus saying, is “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s it. Love directed God-ward. That’s the greatest command. Sure, it’s followed up with the neighbor bit, but if you want to be persnickety about it, the “greatest commandment” refers to the Lord alone. Then again, why do deep dives, Biblically, when Bible-ish sounding tropes seem to do the trick?

    • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

      Great thoughts, Paul. And until I die, I will always have a tug in my heart when Al is brought to mind. Thanks for bringing him to mind.

  • Don Tamminga says:

    Thanks! In my own experience discipleship has been mostly about church growth and numbers which I have never felt comfortable with, to say the least. Thanks for your insights. T

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Someone wrote me privately to ask what word I would prefer. Well, as guided by Acts, and the Heidelberg (Why are you called Christian?) I would say, with full consideration, “Christian.” From the Greek, “little Christ,” someone who is in Christ, who bears his name, etc. But for many that’s not good enough, you’ve got to be more than just a Christian, you’ve got to show the fruits, be truly sanctified, be winning others, etc. But those are common Protestant judgments on inadequate Christians that I am content to leave with Our Lord alone.

  • Pauline Evans says:

    Interesting. I’m used to hearing about discipleship not as a focus on church growth in numbers but actually in contrast to it. Getting more people into the church often means just getting people who say they believe, while discipleship is about obedience, the kind Bonhoeffer talks about in The Cost of Discipleship. But then, for most of my adult life I’ve been in very small churches where no one is talking about church growth.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      By the way, Bonhoeffer did not use that word himself in the German original. It’s simply Nachfolge.

      • David E Timmer says:

        And Nachfolge would more normally be translated as “following after,” either in the sense of temporal succession, or of imitation. A disciple (in German) would be a Juenger, and discipleship would be Juengerschaft. Yet Nachfolger in the sense of follower/imitator/supporter is pretty close to Juenger in meaning, and Bonhoeffer clearly associates the terms.

        • Nate DeWard says:

          While I do not speak, write, or read German, these comments generally align with the point I offered above.

          • Daniel Meeter says:

            Well of course you’re right, Nate, but on the smaller point, what Bonhoeffer analyzes and proposes is more than subtly different (and far more churchly) than the Anglo-Protestant categories. And second, why don’t you do the word study on “follower.”? I’d be willing to gamble . . . .

  • Roger Boyd says:

    Daniel, I have often enjoyed your blogs but this one troubled me greatly. It seems like you have raised questions about ‘discipleship’ without clear definition and without providing alternative concepts. First of all, I would agree that discipleship (or being a disciple) as found in many of our churches does not fit the idea of being a follower or ‘student’ of Jesus (as you used those words in your blog) as I believe our Lord intended. As practiced in many of our churches, discipleship often focuses on being more Biblically literate or knowledgeable (inflow of knowledge) without the clear goal of obedience to the Word and sharing it with others (outflow into the world). Being a disciple (“narrative term identifying characters”) of Jesus should not be separated from the action of making disciples, “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (‘aspirational’). Noting that this use of the word in Matthew 28 is not the most common meaning of the word can hardly be dismissed thereby as being unimportant. It is clearly very important and rests on the “all authority in Heaven and earth” that belongs to Jesus.
    Without using the term “disciples” in other parts of the New Testament, the ACTIONS of the disciples are clearly in obedience to this command. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul is clearly describing a process that fits the concept of “disciples making disciples” which our churches are trying to encourage in our day. Whether that be with individuals, or “all ethne” (Matt 24:14) seems to be irrelevant. People come to know Jesus sometimes one-by-one, and sometimes in whole family or village groups, as the book of Acts shows us.
    I believe there are many ways we might answer the question of what our “main purpose” is as Followers of Jesus, or even the question of why God chose to save at all. Ephesians 1: 12,14 clearly says that that God’s purpose is that we would bring praise and glory to God. But we do that also in obeying his command. We are to be disciples who share God’s love and his Gospel to all ethne so God will be praised in every tongue and every ethne. Jesus commands all of his followers, not just a few who are called into full-time Kingdom work, to do that.
    While you quibble over whether this is “the primary aim” in scripture because of its lack of use as an “aspirational” term later in the New Testament, I do not see you defining what you believe is the goal of a follower of Jesus. There are enough common fears and roadblocks for (especially Western) Christians to share the Gospel with others without putting up this objection. What are the “more important paradigms” that you allude to? Why do you make such an offhand aspersion such as “I’m curious to know if the discipleship paradigm may have arisen first out of Protestant Liberalism before it came into today’s Evangelicalism” without any support for that comment? You are using words that are emotionally loaded in today’s environment without reason. I find your last 4-5 paragraphs very disappointing and not generally pertinent to the issue of “disciples making disciples” at all.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Thank you for the time and trouble and thoughtfulness of your response. I am sorry to have disappointed you, and if I troubled you, I guess it’s because, as I knew, I am causing trouble. First I really am curious. If I were a theology prof, I’d invite a graduate student to write a dissertation on the history of discipleship as a determinative category, as well as on the history of calling Matthew 28 “The Great Commission.” Second, I do believe that it’s really important, in exegetical terms, that not one of the Epistles, nor the Revelation of John, make use of this category. For me that’s an opening (positively critical) observation, leading to an open and self-critical reflection: if they don’t, and we do, what might we be missing, what might we be over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing? Our response should not be to defend our use of Discipleship, or put it over the NT like a template, but openly to re-examine it, subjecting our common practices and accepted interpretations to new awareness and obedience, and then patiently and humbly explore what other paradigms we might be missing. And that should not include a rush to answer a demand for the right alternative, because that cuts short the process of deep listening to scripture. Protestant and Evangelical theology is no less subject to repentance than any other theology. No, I did not define what I believe is the goal of a follower of Jesus. That’s not the purpose of my question, I did not refute Discipleship to replace it with my own proposed goal. My purpose is to open a risky and apparently window. ( Especially as people might think it calls their programs and job titles into question.) I could say that the obvious problem with Discipleship is that there is no Church in it, no mystical body of Christ, as in Ephesians and First Peter, and that’s what the Epistles have their eye on, the union with Christ in his eschatological Majesty and Pneumatological reality, but then you’d think that my real purpose was to advance my version of ecclesiology. My real and only purpose was to note the disjunction between our language and the Holy Scripture’s, and then, Sola scriptura (in the ablative), be open, upon patient reflection, to what that might and might not mean.

      • roger boyd says:

        Thank you Daniel for your thoughtful and respectful reply. It did indeed stimulate much reflection for me and, I hope, for many others.

  • First, thank you, Daniel, for raising what I believe are important questions about whether or not we should be using the paradigm of discipleship for this moment in our denomination’s story. I believe we need longer and deeper discussions about this.

    So yes, the word disciple is not used outside the four Gospels and the book of Acts. But an even more curious and serious thing to note is that the teachings of Jesus are rarely referred to or quoted outside of the Gospels. I don’t think any of us would say that the teachings of Jesus are no longer relevant. I’m guessing that it was the way of Jesus (e.g. the wisdom of the cross) more than the teachings of Jesus that guided the daily lives of these early Christians and their communities. And yet here we have these four Gospels and the book of Acts, which were likely written after Paul’s epistles and many other New Testament letters, suggesting that the authors believed it would be helpful to return to the paradigm of discipleship as well as the specific teachings of Jesus to further develop how to imagine our lives “in Christ.” I think Matthew is suggesting as much when he concludes the great commission with, “And I will be with you always to the end of the age.” So there is an attempt here to unite the ascended and cosmic Christ with the historical Christ and his teachings (i.e. “… and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”).

    Do any of us doubt that today’s church – like the gospel writers may have been suggesting for the later first century church – would do well to reconsider Jesus’ teachings about wealth, loving our enemies and false piety? Was Jesus’ incarnation as a rabbi or teacher a disguise or one-off, or is it an essential way in which he still reigns as Messiah and Lord?

    So I have no difficulty with the paradigm of discipleship being a possible focus for our denomination. I wonder to what extent today’s evangelical church needs a return to the teachings of Jesus, just as Bonhoeffer believed was important for Germany’s evangelical church. As far as the more communal emphasis in the rest of the New Testament, I think Matthew also recognizes this importance. I see three vocations for the church in Matthew – the salt of the earth, a city on a hill, and sent to make disciples of all nations.

    I don’t want to make this longer than it is. I am less concerned about are using discipleship as a paradigm for this time in our denomination, than our going the next step of revising and reforming our understanding of discipleship in a way that aligns with the actual life and teachings of Jesus. I’m guessing this would call for something more radical than most of us are ready for. It would require confronting the idols of Mars, Mammon, Babel and Venus that are weakening the church and tarnishing its image today. Thanks again, Daniel, for starting this discussion.

  • Nate DeWard says:

    Daniel, I’ll do something else for a bit. I’ll read “The Complete Book of Discipleship” by Bill Hull with your critique in mind. If I have something more to say, I’ll reach out. I invite your engagement with this book if you want me to send you a free copy. I’ll pay the shipping. Just send me your address.

    Please don’t buy the book. I already have your copy.

    I am grateful for your thought provoking post. Peace.

  • Danny says:

    I do not belong to the Reformed denomination. Interesting reading here about what the Bible states and its intent meaning regarding disciples. I have missed in my studies of the Bible of any denominations mention or implied in scripture. I do see that the Gospels and Acts use disciple many times, and the word church is only a few times. In the Epistles and Revelation the number of times disciple and church word usage flips. It appears that discipleship was important in the beginning and is a precursor to the establishment of the church. Meaning the church is made up of disciples. While there are many non-Christian usages of disciple and church in history, the words do invoke the idea of unity of individuals and relationship. Scripture does teach we are many members but one body. Disciple represent individual members where as the church represents His body.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I think you’re getting at it here.

      • RZ says:

        Congratulations on provoking serious thought here! I agree on the communal-you emphasis, although the discipleship term itself has not really bothered me so much. So now, thanks to your prompt and the musings of others, I wonder if the rabbi-era and the rabbi/ disciple- era actually ended with the ascension. Since there is really now one supreme rabbi, who has himself ascended and whose disciples have since passed, no rabbi can really measure up. ( The church has not done particularly well either.)
        Paul considered himself an apostle, but perhaps not a disciple, it would seem from his language. I might be reading too much into this, but I wonder if he saw his own “disciple”ship failure, having missed the entire meaning of Christ as messiah because he had been such a “good” Jewish disciple. The true Christ-imitators of John 8:31 are singled out by Jesus as those who will ultimately discern truth while those pious elitists in the crowd , who could not fathom a self-sacrificing theology, will self-perpetuate their own blindness. Thanks for prompting our own musings!
        PS…. So why do we now have such a celebrity culture dominating our western church airwaves?

        • Daniel Meeter says:

          I think even Mark moves past Matthew’s discipleship emphasis (yes, I believe Matthew was written first) by drawing more attention to the unaccountable and even fearful identity of Jesus beyond Rabbi. Ja, his teaching, but HIM! In Hebrews we relate to Our Lord as our High Priest. And yes, not just Ascension, as you say, but Pentecost, not just for the inspiration of our learning knowledge, but a whole unthinkable new reality of God in us, via the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel goes there too. As to your PS, my first thought is that when the people become a mass, and a mass of consumers at that, and theres nothing else to talk about, we want celebrities.

  • Beth says:

    good question…

    is it possible that the idolatry of politics today has pushed them into thinking the people in their own pews don’t comprehend the basic concepts of the faith? that merely mouthing the right words is a formula for religion but not a way of Life we are called to? plenty know their catechism, but are found wanting when it comes to actual practice. otherwise trump would never have gotten a toe hold. and we’re not talking young people here. but people churched and discipled their entire lives, many in leadership, and may even have been overheard saying: I never sin anymore.
    but I already hear the people on the other side of the issue saying it wasn’t the politics. it was culture. as if that is some grand justification to put someone else on the cross in their place.

    a change of heart is what’s needed. and I don’t see any church strategy making that happen.
    carry on

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