Listen To Article
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.
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.
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.”