Just before leaving the disciples, Jesus gathered them together and commissioned them with an important task. He told them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus understood the importance of discipleship (the process of making disciples). In fact, it was so important, He made sure it was His last directive to those who followed Him. What precisely is discipleship and why is it so important? Is it simply a matter of making converts? No, it’s much more. The process of making disciples is often misunderstood and neglected in the Church today, and as a result, we are in danger of losing our identity as Christians. Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.
Even secular dictionaries recognize discipleship as something more than simply creating “members” or “converts”. Dictionary.com describes a disciple as “a person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another.” Webster’s online dictionary defines a disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” At least one aspect of discipleship involves learning the doctrines of a particular system or teacher. This intellectual aspect of being a disciple is affirmed in the Bible. The Greek word used for “disciple” in the New Testament is “mathētḗs” and its root, “math-“, means the “mental effort needed to think something through“. Disciples are “learners”, “scholars” and followers of Christ who “learn the doctrines of Scripture and the lifestyle they require”. There is an important connection between doctrine and behavior. It’s not enough to simply follow Jesus’ moral teaching related to behavior, true disciples must understand the doctrines of Christianity. What does our worldview teach, theologically or philosophically? How are we to make a defense (1 Peter 3:15), hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this teaching (Titus 1:9), recognize a heresy when we see one (Titus 3:10), and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14)? Becoming a disciple means becoming a learner.
Sadly, many in the Church have neglected this important aspect of discipleship, and their hesitancy to celebrate the life of the mind continues to put the Church in great peril. History demonstrates the importance of discipleship and the life of the mind. In the early 19th Century, the lack of discipleship resulted in the rise of several heretical religious worldviews. From the 1790’s to the 1840’s the movement known as the “Second Great Awakening” spread through the young American nation. This Protestant movement was wildly successful in gaining converts, but not nearly as successful in discipling new believers. The Second Great Awakening was facilitated by a number of charismatic preachers (Charles Finney was perhaps the most famous). These preachers were excellent communicators and their camp-style revivals were designed to solicit responses from the people who heard them. These same preachers, however, were less than effective in establishing a discipleship process for the new Christian converts. In the wake of the revival meetings, new converts were left largely on their own; local churches were not ready to teach and mentor those who were now interested in learning the truth about Jesus. As a result, a number of groups emerged simultaneously: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Seventh-day Adventist Church (from which Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually appeared), and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were all the result of rapid growth followed by inadequate discipleship.
It’s not enough to embrace the name of Jesus. There are lots of groups (including Muslims) who include Jesus’ name in their scripture. We must understand, acknowledge and embrace the true Jesus. It’s not enough to live morally as Jesus might have lived. There are lots of well-behaved people in every religious (and non-religious) worldview. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must learn the true doctrines of Christianity, be ready to make a defense, hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this true Christian teaching, recognize a heresy when we see one, and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us. Becoming a disciple requires each of us to become a learner.
The intellectual aspect of Christian discipleship is just as important today as it has ever been. Mormons, for example continue to convert people to their worldview, distorting the nature of Jesus, God the Father, salvation, scripture and heaven as they present a clear heresy to those they convert. Who, statistically, are converted to Mormonism at the greatest rate? Undiscipled Christians. Many young Christians walk away from the Church in their college years after sitting in University classes taught by outspoken atheists. Who, once again, leaves the Church at the highest rate? Undiscipled young Christians. Discipleship produces Christ-followers who look more and more like Jesus. That’s a good, important goal. But beyond this, discipleship, protects believers from error and heresy. When we know the truth well enough to defend it in our own mind, we’ll actually defend it in our own mind when presented with a lie. True discipleship celebrates the role of the mind in the Christian life and prepares Christian disciples to live the Christian life, even as they are defending the Christian truth. That’s why Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.
J. Warner Wallace