A Definition of Discipleship

Update: The ideas presented here are expanded to include seeing God, in addition to hearing Him, starting in this post.

In the Great Commission in Matthew, Jesus clearly commands His church to make disciples. While a necessary step to making disciples is to work with the Holy Spirit to make believers from the lost, it’s clear that we’re not to stop there. In fact, the church is to continue making sure that those who accept the Lord’s call grow in their dedication and Kingdom effectiveness. To be effective in this work, we need a Christian definition of discipleship. So let’s start by looking at Scripture for insights. Consider one of the most clear statements made by Jesus on this matter:

“It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master.” Matthew 10:25a

So if we are to be disciples of Christ, we should strive to become like Him. This is one of the clear pictures given us for the process of sanctification. Now, this can mean many different things. We can look at what He said and did, and seek to proclaim the Kingdom, minister to people, and teach as He did. We can look at His sacrifice on the cross, and seek to give ourselves as completely as He did. Yet there is something even more fundamental than these, because both what He spoke (John 12:49-50) and His walk to the Cross (John 14:29-31) were described as obedience to the Father. And He did what He saw the Father doing. Essentially, Jesus determined the Father’s will for His life, and followed it.

This can be the model for us: to determine God’s will for our lives and and to follow it. One good way to describe this is that we should listen to God and do what He says. So our definition of discipleship becomes one who learns to hear the voice of God, and to do what He says.

In fact, this is not just in the New Testament, for we can see the same thing in the Old Testament. Isaiah recognized this:

He awakens me morning by morning, He awakens my ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord GOD has opened my ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back.
Isaiah 50:4b-5

Here we see the two parts to Christian discipleship: hearing God’s voice, and being obedient to do what He says. So one definition for a Christian disciple is one who is learning to hear and obey the voice of God.

Regarding the first part, God speaks to us in many ways, so this can encompass many different things. Sometimes He speaks to us by letting us see what He is doing, sometimes through reading His Word, sometimes through other studies, sometimes through other people, sometimes through His Spirit. Learning to hear His voice is a good working description because it leads to a various spiritual disciplines such as holy living, Scripture meditation, prayer, fasting, discernment, etc. It moves us beyond book study into seeking a real relationship with Him.

The second part, doing what He says, also takes us beyond the classroom into the realm of action. Just like faith without works is dead, study without practice is not discipleship. The idea of learning spiritual truths without putting them into use is not Scriptural.

While there are many possible definitions for discipleship, this one captures the essence of what it means to live out a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Part of its power comes from starting with this relationship, and with a person seeking God’s face. The necessity of this is described throughout Scripture.

Having heard His voice, our love for Him should compel us to obey, just as Jesus’ love for the Father led to His obedience (John 14:15 and John 14:31a). In this way, Christian discipleship leads to righteous behavior, not because of guilt or sense of duty, but because of a close, love-based relationship with the Lord Himself. Of course this will lead to witnessing. Of course this will lead to love of the Brethren. Of course this will lead to helping others. Of course this will lead to being salt and light. But if we focus on those things instead of letting them be a fruit of our relationship with Him, then our faith becomes a mechanistic religion, ineffective for changing either ourselves or the world.

This leads to a much different role for the church than simply increasing people’s knowledge. The church should lead people into a deepening relationship with the Lord, and teach as much about hearing His voice personally, as what He has spoken to others. There should be deliberate encouragement for obedience, and opportunities to act out what people hear. So a matching definition for making disciples would be for a church to teach people to hear God’s voice, and encourage them in obedience. Both the individual and corporate versions of this definition start with a focus on God, and have an action component.

I worry a little about churches that put the pastor in such an exalted position that it discourages people from seeking God and His will on their own. This can produce people in the sad position of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, desiring that Moses relate to God for them, rather than having a relationship themselves (Exodus 20:19). Or Saul, who always had to have someone else seek God’s face for him. Perhaps people still don’t want to hear from God personally, because they’re afraid of being sent to Africa as a missionary, or of being told to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds away. Of course, the reality is that He is more likely to tell us to pay attention to something in our child’s life, make a particular decision at work, or speak of Him to someone we barely know.

So as a body of believers, we need to realize that this popular perspective can lead to happy church attendees, but not disciples. Let’s put such perspectives aside, and seek God’s face. Let’s come together in His name and encourage each other to do so. This is truly the work of the Great Commission.

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