Discipleship: Biblical Definition, History, What It is Today
Why is discipleship important? Discipleship is important because it’s the process (or instrument) by which people grow in their faith. We want other people to become mature committed followers of Jesus Christ.
Without discipleship, people don’t grow in their faith, they don’t grow in their commitment to living for Jesus, and they will typically miss out on things Jesus has for them in their life.
What is Christian discipleship? Discipleship is the process a person goes through to go from being an unbeliever to a committed believer in Jesus Christ. Unbelievers are mainly committed to finding joy and fulfillment in things other than God, but committed believers are committed primarily to bringing glory to God and finding their joy in him.
History of Christian Discipleship
Christian discipleship has a long history and is founded in concepts that were taking place in the first century and before—primarily found in Jewish and Greek history. During the intertestamental period, which is the time between the Old and New Testament, the rabbinic system was developed in the Jewish nation. Rabbis were the religious teachers of Jesus’ time, so when He came on the scene rabbis were in charge. They had a system to train up future rabbis, so that Jewish theology and culture could be propagated and strengthen.
Then, in the late first century and early second century, as Christianity spread tremendously throughout the Roman Empire, many Christians used the ancient Greek approach to mentorship. By the third century, Christian discipleship was a beautiful blend of the Jewish approach and Greek approach.
Ancient Jewish Discipleship: The Rabbis
In the first century, discipleship was the process that a person went through to become a rabbi.
Rabbis would select young men whom they believed could become rabbis in the future. It was common that at the age of twelve or thirteen a young man would be selected to become a disciple and would then travel around for several years with their rabbi. Rabbis would frequently publicly preach and teach with a group of young men following them, and the idea was that those young men were apprentices. You could call them “rabbis in training.”
During their discipleship time, the young men were being trained in the way of their rabbi. They would be trained in his theology, his ideology, his teaching style, his philosophy, and how he believed the Jews should live.
The rabbis’ hope was that when they died, the young men that they had trained would then take on their mantle, their way of doing things, and that they would carry on his legacy then continue. That is, in essence, the root and concept of discipleship. The early Christians obviously borrowed from this a lot. But not merely for those that would be leaders in the church, but for all believers.
Ancient Greek Discipleship: The Paideia
The Greeks also had a system for discipleship and mentorship. They didn’t call it discipleship—they used different terminology. But the older Greeks certainly had a robust approach for how they intended to form and shape the younger Greeks as they came of age.
The Greeks had a vision of what they wanted their societies to be, and they knew that, in order to achieve their societal visions, their citizens would need to view the world in a particular fashion and would need to conduct themselves in a particular manner. They wanted their citizens to develop their character and intellect—to think a certain way and to communicate a certain way. This was called the paideia. The paideia was the way of the Greeks–in other words, it’s the way the Greek persons needed to be if the Greek civilizations were to flourish.
The famous Greek philosopher Plato had doubts about whether democracy could truly work. Why? Because in order for democracy to work, Plato knew that the people needed to be able to think well. Otherwise they’d fall victim to “false and braggart words and opinions” of a potential tyrant. Many ancient Greeks agreed with Plato, so they knew that raising up their children in the proper paideia of Greek culture was essential.
The goal was not for young adults to “be their own man” or somehow “be true to themselves” (as you often hear in modern cultures), but instead, the goal was for young adults to be trained to embrace the wisdom and philosophy of teachers from the previous generations. This Greek approach was a sort of discipleship. They were making disciples of Greek culture and Greek philosophy, to ensure the Greek way of life could be propagated and flourish. And it worked for many centuries. Their approach was very effective. Christian parents and educators have much to learn from how the Greek did this.
Distinctions of Jewish and Greek Discipleship
In some ways, the paideia training approach of ancient Greece was more academic in nature than the Hebrew approach. Some may call it more ‘heady’. Meaning, it tended to be more focused upon learning, history, grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
The Jewish discipleship approach certainly shared some of these Greek components, but it was more centered on learning how to live like your rabbi, how to behave, how to pray, how to function within a family, how to worship, etc. The Jewish discipleship approach was seemingly better at bringing together the academic components of discipleship with the personal, heart, and emotional elements of discipleship.
Jesus and Discipleship
When Jesus comes on the scene in the first century, the rabbinic system had already been in place for almost 200 years. He didn’t invent a new system. Instead, Jesus is working in the framework of the society in which he lived, and then he brings redefinition to it.
Jesus does exactly what all the other rabbis would have done; he selected a group of young men to live with him and he would have taught them all the things that the other rabbis would have taught them. He would have taught them theology, philosophy, and how to interact with academic components.
He also taught them how to live.
Jesus teaches them his way of interacting with God, his way of interacting with people, and his way of doing ministry. He then begins to teach his disciples that this is not merely one way of doing and viewing things, as other rabbis would have claimed, but that it is the absolute way. And all other ways are secondary to his way of doing things. Jesus makes the call to discipleship universal because his way is the truth and the life for all men.
Jesus Calling People To Be Disciples
Most rabbis in the first century only allowed their invitation to discipleship to be open to a select few. It was only introduced to young Jewish men who demonstrated high intelligence and high aptitude, but in Mark 8, Jesus laid the foundation for this invitation becoming universal.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34)
The old Latin word, catholic, literally means universal. Christians took on the word “catholic” because they were making the point that Christianity is universal. Christianity is not just for some, but for all people.
It wasn’t just for boys, it was for men and women. It wasn’t just for Jews but for Jews, Gentiles, and people of all nations. It wasn’t just for the rich, but also for the poor. It wasn’t just for those who demonstrated high aptitudes in academics, but it was for all people of all walks of life.
The call to be a disciple of Jesus was open to everyone.
Jesus Calling People To Make Disciples
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20)
We are to proactively go into every walk of life, every season of life, every potential moment, seeking to introduce people to Jesus and invite them to be disciples of him. We are to proactively befriend and develop relationships with people who may or may not be believers, seeking to mentor them so they may grow in faith.
We are also intentionally interacting with people that may be unbelievers, seeking to help them become committed followers of Jesus Christ.
What Discipleship Looks Like Today
Today, discipleship takes on many different forms in essence. However, it is not all that different from what Jesus did in the first century. We befriend people and help them to become committed in their faith.
Pastor Mark Dever, at Capital Hill Baptist Church, puts it this way:
“Discipleship is friendship with a Christ-Centered focus.” ~Mark Dever
He is saying to disciples of Jesus, that we should seek to be friends with people who may not know Jesus or who have a nominal or weak commitment to Him. We intentionally have conversations centered around Christ, intentionally bringing up topics regarding theology and philosophy.
In Matthew 28, Jesus tells us to teach people all that he commanded. So in our friendships, we should be intentionally trying to help people learn and grow in all that was commanded. We seek to expose their beliefs that are theologically flawed. We verbalize the things we see that are not in line with what the Bible teaches so that they know the truth.
We are helping them become more obedient to Christ.
Too often, people are nominal in their commitment to Jesus, they live to gratify their flesh and run after their own desires. They live in line with how they think their life ought to be. But the goal of discipleship is to help people live in line with God’s opinions and commands, according to what the Bible teaches.
At the heart of discipleship, we are befriending people and leading to exemplify the life of Christ and to be obedient to the commands of Jesus.
Kenneth E. Ortiz (M.Div.) is a professor and recruiter at Bethlehem College and a pastor at Cities Church. He has 15+ years of vocational ministry experience. He’s also a podcaster, author, and Ph.D. student. Kenneth lives in Bloomington, MN with his wife Malaina, they have one daughter.