Discipleship and Discipling (Mar 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

By Al Maxey

Quite a number of years ago I was informed by a dear Christian brother that “a disciple of Jesus Christ must of necessity be a convert to Jesus Christ.” He declared that there was no such thing as a “disciple of Christ” who was not a “baptized believer.” At the time I didn’t really give this bold assertion a great deal of serious thought, although it stuck in my mind because it sounded awfully limited in scope (made even more so by the added qualifier that the genuine disciple was only to be found in the Churches of Christ; anyone outside of our faith-heritage was not truly a disciple of Christ). In more recent years, however, I have come to question this perception of a “disciple.” An online Theological Dictionary that I happened to come across on the Internet while examining various definitions of the term “disciple” made this statement: “Every disciple is a convert, but not every convert is a disciple.” Very interesting! I most certainly agree with the latter phrase, but have great difficulty with the former. Such a view seems almost to equate discipleship with membership — i.e., unless one is associated with “us,” he or she is not truly a disciple of Him. This was once the assumption of John, until Jesus set him straight on the matter (Luke 9:49; Mark 9:38-40).

I suppose a critical part of this dilemma, if I may characterize it as such (and for some it truly is), centers on a person’s working definition of “disciple.” Just exactly what or who is a “disciple”? In our English language dictionaries this word is defined as “a pupil or follower of any teacher or school” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). I suppose it is the concept of someone being a “follower” that leads many to believe this denotes full acceptance of and compliance with the teachings of the specific teacher or school one has chosen to be a student of and to follow. However, the reality is that one may studiously follow the teachings of someone without necessarily becoming a convert to that teaching or teacher. Many are simply students and followers out of curiosity or interest, rather than deep, life-altering conviction. For example, I have been studiously examining and following the progression of Buddhism for decades. I have lived among them, attended ceremonies in their temples throughout Asia, studied their teachings in college, sat and talked with their monks, however I am in no sense of the word a “convert” to Buddhism. I am merely a “student.” Thus, by strict definition, I am a “disciple” of Buddhism: one who follows with great interest, and studies the many aspects of, this fascinating religion, but I am most certainly not an adherent or proponent of this teaching. Therefore, discipleship does not necessarily signify membership; one can be a disciple of someone or something and not be a convert to it.

I would agree, though, that one will never become a convert to someone or something unless they are first a disciple. This is only logical. One does not come to deep, life-altering conviction in the teachings of Jesus Christ without first having spent some time in serious study and reflection upon these vital teachings. It is a simple, undeniable fact that we are students of Christ long before we become converts to Christ. These “students” are, by definition, “disciples.” It is also quite true that not every student of Christ Jesus and His teachings comes to the point of personal conviction that these teachings are true or relevant to his or her own life. Some follow with interest for a time, but drift away before coming to a point of conviction. Others come to a point of belief in what they have heard or been taught, but never act upon it — “Many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42). Thus, it is highly unenlightened to suggest that every disciple is, or will become, a convert. In point of fact, very few disciples ever become true converts. Jesus Christ had a great many disciples who were following Him about so as to learn from Him, however certain of His difficult sayings (John 6:60) were more than some of these disciples could tolerate. “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore” (vs. 66). These individuals had indeed been disciples (the passage declares them such), but they were a long way from being genuine converts.

We could also point to Acts 19:1 — “And it came about that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found some disciples.” Who were these people? Well, we know, from verse two, that they were “believers,” but they also lacked quite a bit of significant information. They were disciples of Jesus Christ, but at this point in their development were not even aware of the fact that there was a Holy Spirit, and had never heard of being baptized into Christ Jesus. Some today would declare they were not genuine “converts” until they were immersed and received the Holy Spirit, and yet the passage describes them as believing “disciples.” Obviously, then, one may be the latter without necessarily being the former (if one equates “conversion” with immersion and reception of the Holy Spirit). Thus, again, we see one can indeed be a student and follower (disciple) without having come anywhere near full perception, or even acceptance, of some of the vital aspects of the doctrine of our Lord.

This is really not “rocket science.” A “disciple” is simply a student. There are some, however, who seem to have great difficulty accepting this fact, or who, for whatever reason, want to make far more of the term “disciple” than is warranted. Being “a disciple” often leaves the wrong impression in the minds of people today. It does not necessarily mean one who is a baptized believer and a member of any one particular group or faction. There are some who simply cannot seem to tolerate the notion that someone could be a “disciple of Christ” and yet not be “one of US.” Recently, in an exchange of several lengthy, yet respectful, emails with a noted, and rather conservative, preacher within our faith-heritage, I was asked to address several very pointed questions he had posed to me about this topic. Those questions, and my responses, follow.

FIRST — “Were the Jews who came and were instructed by Jesus, having learned what He said, His disciples, or were disciples ONLY those who were trying to PRACTICE what He taught?”

This will largely depend on one’s definition of the term “disciple.” The term itself simply means “a student.” This is true even in the Greek, where the word is “mathetes” = “a learner, a student, one being instructed.” The etymology of this word suggests that a disciple is one who “stands in relation to another as pupil, and is instructed by that person” (Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 372). Were the Jews who came to Jesus being “instructed by Jesus”? Were these Jews seeking to learn (for whatever reason, whether noble or otherwise) from these teachings? If the answer is “Yes,” which it is, then they were indeed, by definition, disciples. Were they practitioners of His teachings? Well, some probably were, some clearly were not. The acceptance of teaching is not inherent in the word “disciple,” nor is such acceptance necessitated by the term. That would certainly be the goal of the discipler (the teacher), but not every student who is taught is won over as a convert to that which is being taught … not even by Jesus Himself, as we noted earlier (John 6:66). Over the centuries, many have come to learn at the feet of the Master; far fewer have stayed to faithfully serve Him. Both groups may be legitimately characterized as “disciples,” but only the latter, by their obedience of faith, move on to “graduate school,” so to speak.

At this point, let me pause to point out that converts to Christ Jesus, those who have responded to the teachings they had been receiving prior to their actual commitment to Him, will continue to be (or, more accurately, should continue to be) students of the Word throughout their lives. We never truly stop learning. Therefore, just because a disciple reaches this point of conviction and commitment, does not mean that he has reached a point where he needs no further instruction. Our growth and development in understanding and behavior is ongoing. Sadly, there are far too many “converts” to Christ who over the course of time cease being “disciples” (learners, pupils) of Christ. Some think they already know it all, others just lose interest altogether. Both extremes are fatal. Thus, not every disciple of Jesus will become a convert to Jesus; neither will every convert remain a devoted disciple. In reality, disciples of Christ will be found on both sides of the point of conversion: the ones prior to conversion growing TO the point of acceptance and obedience, the ones after conversion growing IN their personal understanding and practice of His teachings.

There is also no question that Jesus, as the Great Discipler, had high hopes of bringing many of these students of His teachings to a much higher level of commitment than that of the multitudes of followers who could be found almost everywhere He went. Jesus had countless “disciples.” That is simply a fact. However, He sought to bring them to that point of acceptance where they would not only commit to growing daily in grace and knowledge, but where they would also submit to becoming transformed disciples. At some point in their instruction, therefore, they would be called to much deeper levels of acceptance not only of the teachings of Christ, but of Christ Jesus Himself. “Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes unto Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me can’t be My disciple'” (Luke 14:26-27). There were multitudes who were following Him and learning from Him; these were “disciples” in the literal sense of that term. However, Jesus wanted His followers and students to move well beyond mere curiosity or intellectual interest to genuine commitment and transformation of life. This required a sacrificial submission to Him, and it is to this our Lord called His hearers that day.

“As He spoke these words, many believed Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed'” (John 8:30-31). This would be similar to Paul’s statement unto Timothy: “Honor widows that are widows indeed” (1 Timothy 5:3). Paul recognized that there are widows, and then there are widows; there are disciples, and then there are disciples. The distinction is in the qualifiers. Obviously, nobody is going to reach that level of commitment Jesus is looking for unless they have been a student of Jesus and His teachings for some time. Such devotion does not come overnight. But, it is that deeper devotion that Jesus seeks from those who are His pupils. It is one thing to learn of Christ; it is another to be led of Christ. It is the latter that characterizes those who are genuinely committed disciples of the Lord, and not just casual learners who forever fall short of that point of personal devotion and commitment. The apostle Paul spoke of those who were “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). This is the Greek word “manthano,” which means “to learn, to be taught,” and is the root word from which we get “disciple.” Paul is essentially describing a “disciple” (a student always learning) who never reaches that level of comprehension and commitment desired by the Lord.

SECOND — “Since the disciples were called Christians, were any persons who had learned what Jesus taught, but did not follow it, disciples?”

If a person has indeed learned what Jesus taught, then he, logically, was a “learner,” and a learner is, by definition, a “disciple.” The simple reality is, and any preacher or teacher knows this: not all who sit at our feet to learn from us will then go forth and practice what they have learned. That is just a fact. Their failure to put into practice that which they learned, however, does not negate the fact of their learning, nor the fact that they were students. So, the answer to this brother’s question is: Yes! I would ask this preacher if there are “disciples” of Jesus Christ in his own congregation who are not practicing what has been taught to them over the years? If there are not, I would truly love to visit that congregation and witness this phenomena! If there are, as I suspect, then this demonstrates that not all students of the Word actually put into practice that which they have been studying. They are still students (disciples) of Christ and His Word, they have just not yet reached (or perhaps have fallen away from) that point of personal surrender in their daily lives to the truths taught unto them. How to motivate such lethargic learners to greater commitment and involvement is a challenge every congregation faces.

Years ago, when I was preaching in Germany, there was a dear gentleman who attended the assemblies with his wife faithfully. He was a good student of the Scriptures, was always involved in the activities of the congregation, one of the kindest, most loving individuals one could ever hope to meet. When looking for elders, his name was even submitted by several of the members. He had never been immersed, however. Indeed, he refused to be. He admitted the need for complying with this instruction, but he refused to do so because he felt it would offend his mother (who was still living, and who was in a religious group that denied the place of baptism in one’s faith-response). Thus, here was a person “who had learned what Jesus taught, but did not follow it.” Was he a disciple? In the strict sense of the word: Yes. However, he was not the kind of disciple that Jesus sought — i.e., one who was willing to submit to that which he had learned. (NOTE: God’s people, over the years, continued to love and patiently instruct this good man, and years later I was informed that he had indeed been immersed. Through the discipling efforts of those who cared for him, this reluctant disciple was brought to that deeper level of commitment to the Lord. This man had long been a disciple, but only much later had become a genuine convert, not only in heart, but in action.)

THIRD — “No doubt with your extensive knowledge of various subjects, you have learned the doctrine of Karl Marx. Are you one of his disciples?”

I was exposed to his teachings at the university, but never became a student of them. I did spend a great deal of time, however, studying the teachings of the existentialist philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. I truly enjoyed philosophy, and took a good many of these courses during my time in the undergraduate and graduate programs at my university. Thus, by definition, I was indeed a disciple (student) of the existentialist philosophers. I was not, however, a card-carrying member of the existentialist camp. Why? Because my own following of this school of thought never progressed beyond the intellectual interest stage. I studied it; I didn’t embrace it. I was a disciple, but not an adherent or proponent. One can indeed be the former without being the latter. This is a reality many have difficulty grasping.

FOURTH — “When Jesus gave what we commonly call ‘The Great Commission,’ it is commonly said that He gave four imperatives:

(1) Go into all the world,
(2) Make disciples (learners)
(3) Baptize those learners, and
(4) Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.

You doubtless know that this is not exactly true. He gave one imperative: Make disciples. The other expressions have the force of an imperative, but are participial phrases indicating how the one imperative is to be done. … Jesus wanted us to make disciples, and the manner it is to be done is by baptizing those to whom we preach, and by teaching them to observe all that He has commanded. As I understand the passage, if a person has indicated that he has no desire to do whatever Jesus commanded, it matters not what he may have learned, he is not, and cannot be, a disciple of Christ. If you disagree with this, please indicate so, and explain whether or not you think Jesus wanted us to teach in such a fashion as to make disciplined followers, or just to teach so people will learn and understand what Jesus wants.”

There are several locations where one may find our Lord’s so-called “Great Commission,” with each rendition being somewhat unique — Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47; John 20:21; Acts 1:8. Nevertheless, the commission of the Lord is obvious: unto those instructed in the eternal truths of the Kingdom befalls the divine imperative to share this saving knowledge with the rest of humanity, as they have opportunity, as they go forth into the world about them. As those who themselves have been discipled, they are to disciple others. Some refer to it as “exponential evangelism” — disciples making disciples making disciples … etc. In Matthew 28:19 we see Jesus saying, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (NIV). The brother with whom I corresponded is correct in saying that there is only one actual Greek imperative in this commission. The other three items are all participles. The phrase “make disciples” in the above statement by Jesus is the imperative, thus it is stated as a command.

Although many translations render this Greek verb (“matheteuo”) as “make disciples,” some choose a different wording. The KJV, for example, has: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” The Message has: “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near.” Young’s Literal Translation has, “Having gone, then, disciple all the nations.” The charge of Jesus in this passage is quite literally: “While going, be ye disciplers.” As we go about our journey through life, we are to be instructing, training and discipling those with whom we come into contact. That first participle is from the Greek verb “poreuomai,” which simply means “to go, to pass from one place to another, to journey, travel about.” Thus, while we journey through life we are to be about the business of discipling. In other words, we should take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way to encourage others to become pupils of Jesus Christ; learners of our Lord; students of the Savior. Our commission is to disciple these people with whom we come into contact; instructing them in the truths of God’s kingdom, that they may come to the point of conviction and acceptance of these saving truths, and thus be brought into saving relationship with the Lord.

Those students of Christ who reach that point of conviction, and who desire to accept the gift of God’s grace offered through the atoning blood of Christ Jesus, are to be immersed, an action demonstrating their faith. Who do we baptize? That’s right — disciples, or more accurately: those who were being instructed or discipled by us. Notice what Bro. H. Leo Boles wrote on this passage from Matthew’s gospel account: “Those who are ‘discipled’ are to be baptized; they were not to baptize ‘all the nations,’ but those of ‘all nations’ who were ‘discipled.’ … Only those of the nations who are made disciples by preaching the gospel are to be baptized” (A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 564). If I have correctly understood what the brother said in his above comment to me, he seems to suggest that until a person has done what the Lord commands (and he is specifically looking at baptism), then that person cannot be regarded as a disciple of Christ. This, however, is not what Jesus is saying. It is those being discipled who are to be immersed, just as Bro. H. Leo Boles observes. Indeed, what benefit is there to immersing one who has not been discipled in the teachings of Jesus Christ? The minister writing to me says that we are to “baptize those learners.” Does he not realize that “those learners,” by definition, are disciples? Thus, one most definitely can be a disciple of Christ, and not yet have done what the Lord has asked them to do in order to benefit from His atoning sacrifice.

Both prior to conversion, and also subsequent to conversion, disciples of Christ are to be instructed in the teachings of our Lord Jesus. Thus, while we journey through life discipling others, we are instructing them in our Lord’s teaching. “To disciple a person to Christ is to bring him into the relation of pupil to teacher” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 595). Then, after these students of Jesus have been brought to the point of commitment and acceptance, and have demonstrated the same by their immersion (an evidentiary act of faith), we are to keep on “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20, NIV). In other words, our training and instruction is to be never-ending. For as long as we live we are to be engaged in discipling others, and we ourselves are to be the recipients of continued discipling. “To disciple a person to Christ is to lead that one to become a follower of Christ, to be a learner in His school, to be obedient to His commands, to become a Christian. To ‘make disciples’ means to give all kinds of instruction for entrance into the church of our Lord” (H. Leo Boles, p. 564). “Those persons who are ‘discipled’ to Jesus, and who have then been baptized … are to be taught ‘to observe all things’ which train and develop a child of God. Three things are commanded in the commission to be done, namely: (1) make disciples, (2) baptize those who are discipled, (3) then teach them to be obedient to all the commands of God” (ibid, p. 565).

The preacher who wrote me suggested that the participial phrases depict the means whereby one is made a “disciple.” I could not disagree more. The first participial phrase, which speaks of our “going,” or of our journeying through life, is indeed tied to the “discipling” of others — as we are going, we are discipling (or, since they both appear as aorists, we should say: as we go, we disciple). However, the last two participial phrases are tied to our obligation to those whom we have discipled in the teachings of Christ. Those who have been instructed in His truths, and who are ready to commit their lives to Him, are then immersed. As converts to Christ they are then the recipients of continued training and instruction … as, indeed, we all are. “The syntax of the Greek participles for ‘baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ forbids the conclusion that baptizing and teaching are to be construed solely as the means of making disciples” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 597). Thus, “baptizing and teaching are not the means of making disciples … The <i>response</i> of discipleship is baptism and instruction. Therefore, baptism and teaching are not coordinate — either grammatically or conceptually — with the action of making disciples” (ibid).

Dr. John W. Ritenbaugh, in the Forerunner Commentary, writes, “As they go, they are to make disciples. Teaching and baptizing do not make a person a disciple, though they play a part. Just because a person is baptized does not mean he is converted. Nor does it mean he is a member of the Church of God or part of the Family of God. Just because he has been taught the way of our God does not mean that he has fully accepted and committed himself to what has been taught.” This biblical scholar goes on to note that Jesus places the emphasis on the instruction of others: the discipling of others, who, when they reach the point of acceptance of these teachings, will evidence that obedient response in an act of faith known as baptism, and they will then submit to the further instruction that comes for all converted disciples of Christ as they seek to daily walk in the light as He is in the light.

At the end of Question #4, the preacher with whom I corresponded wrote, “…explain whether or not you think Jesus wanted us to teach in such a fashion as to make disciplined followers, or just to teach so people will learn and understand what Jesus wants.” Frankly, I think Jesus expects us to do both. Obviously, in our early encounters with those whom we hope to disciple, we seek to impart the very basics, so that they might come to appreciate who Jesus is and what He expects of our lives. But, we dare not leave these students/disciples at this basic level. Therefore, we soon intensify our discipling efforts with them so as to “make disciplined followers” of our Lord; men and women fully committed to living lives of dedicated service to Him. I don’t see the above as an “either…or” situation, but simply differing ways to relate to those whom we disciple, depending on where they are personally in their individual journeys to come to Christ Jesus.

Although I realize this was a somewhat lengthy treatment, I pray that the exchange I had with this dear preaching brother will provide some substantive food for thought to the reader. May God equip and enable us all to be good disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ and disciplers of those honest seekers of grace with whom we come into contact as we journey through life.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataNovember 27th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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