Discipleship is the process of embracing the life and ethic of Jesus Christ because of the hope laid out in the Gospel.

"Be transformed"

"Discipleship" is a term used to refer to a disciple's transformation from some other worldview and practice of life into that of Jesus Christ, and so, by way of Trinitarian theology, of God himself. Note the Apostle Paul's description of this process, that the disciple "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." Therefore a disciple is not simply an accumulator of information or one who merely changes moral behavior in regards to the teachings of Jesus Christ, but in response to God's work in him or her seeks a fundamental shift toward the ethics of Jesus Christ in every way.

Lee C. Camp, in Mere Discipleship writes

"disciples prioritize God's kingdom, rather than the self-seeking agendas of the kingdoms of the world. There is no compartmentalization of the faith, no realm, no sphere, no business, no politic in which the lordship of Christ will be excluded. We either make him Lord of all lords, or we deny him as Lord of any. [Discipleship is] not a call to a burdensome moral perfectionism, but a call to leave the old ways of death and darkness, and walk in the new way of abundant life and glorious life, with the Christ who is Light and Life. And there, on the path with Christ, we are loved even when we do not deserve to be loved. On pilgrimage with Christ, we are forgiven with an extravagant love - he washes our feet even when we would betray him. And there, on pilgrimage with Christ, we too are called to forgive with such extravagance. On the way with Christ, God's abundance, provisions, and goods are shared with us, joyfully consumed and used, for we eat in the kingdom of God! And on the way with Christ, the provisions and goods in our hands are shared with those around us, for we do not live according to the rebellious kingdoms of the world, which hoard and hold, but according to the kingdom of God, in which God clothes the birds of he air, the flowers of the field, and us too, so that we live with a lightness and ease that befits sons and daughters of God. The basic narrative might be summarized this way: God's good creation has rebelled against the good purposes of its Creator. This rebellion brought death, anguish, violence, lust, greed. And God, in Christ, has announced and acted to redeem the rebellious creation, restoring it to God's good, original intentions -- the kingdom of God is at hand! But surprise of all surprises, the redemption comes not through power and might, but by his sharing in our suffering, taking the very brunt and blow of our rebellion; the Son was crucified, refusing to be cowed by the rebellious principalities and powers, and in his crucifixion, triumphed over them; and in his resurrection, was vindicated by the Father. The church, then, a community called to follow in the way of Christ, a community that is "the body of Christ," exists not to show the world how to be "religious," but to show the world how to be the world God created it to be. We are to be salt and light -- and as he was in the world, so are we to be;" ^[1]^

In the New Testament this transformation is analogized in many ways as an activity (often with athletic language) which points to the future promised by God through Jesus and his Apostles and Prophets.

  • Philippians 3:13 "but I press on to make it my own ... forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead"
  • 1 Corinthians 9:24,25 "Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one."
  • 1 Timothy 6 18:19 "They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life."
  • Hebrew 13:12-14 "Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

"Love one another"

Jesus offers a self-referential, and what is perhaps the most definitive, example of discipleship in the Gospel of John 13:34-35: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." ( NRSV) Further definition by Jesus can be found in Luke 14, which is a veritable treatise on the topic. Beginning with a testing trap laid out by his adversaries regarding observance of the Jewish Sabbath, Jesus uses the opportunity to lay out the problems with the religiosity of his adversaries against his own teaching by providing a litany of shocking comparisons between various socio-political and socio-economic realities versus the meaning of being his disciple. Examples which are expressed definitions of a disciple are:

  • Luke 14:26 Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
  • Luke 14:27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
  • Luke 14:33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Discipleship for the Twelve

The same process of transformation is also evident in the recorded experiences of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. Though regarded highly throughout Church history, the biblical texts themselves do not attempt to show the Twelve as faultless or even having a solid grasp of Jesus' own ministry, including a recognition of their part in it. All four gospel texts are not reluctant to convey the confusion and foibles of the Twelve in their attempt to internalize and live out the ministry of Jesus within their own discipleship.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment for Jesus, in regards to the Twelve, is when he announces that he will be put to death. Peter at that point boldly rebukes Jesus saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." To which Jesus responds, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. [...] If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 15). While Jesus is teaching that humility and self-sacrifice are the ways of discipleship Peter is still demanding self-preservation. This contradicts Jesus' teaching, even if it is for the sake of his master.

Some other examples where the Twelve worked directly against the very heart of the ministry of Jesus: In Matthew 19 Jesus rebuked the Twelve for their disinterest in children and Jesus explains that children are a model for a heavenly demeanor. In Luke 14, Philip demands that Jesus show them the Father, to which Jesus exasperatedly explains that they should know by then that if they have seen him, they have, in fact, seen the Father. In Matthew 10 the disciples argue over which of themselves will be the greatest when Jesus' kingdom comes into full effect. Jesus responds, to explain their gross misunderstanding of the humble and self-sacrificial nature of his teaching, "whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.".

Corporate and individual context

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The Great Commission

Ubiquitous throughout Christianity is the practice of proselytizing, making new disciples. At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when calling his earliest disciples Simon (Peter) and Andrew , he says to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people" (Matthew 4:19). Then, at the very end of his ministry Jesus institutes the Great Commission, commanding all present to "go therefore 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 that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20a). Jesus has incorporated this practice into the very definition of being a disciple and experiencing discipleship.

Discipleship in relationship

  • catechists and catechumens in the early church
  • "discipleship" as a reference to the relationship in and process of "discipling"

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Pentecost and onward

According to the Book of Acts, at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples take on a new boldness, accuracy and discipline in their discipleship. It is from this point where we see the often confused and fearful band of disciples (not limited in this context to the Twelve) mature into the early Church, the pioneers of the faith of all modern Christians worldwide.

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Modern modes of discipleship

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  1. ? "Mere Discipleship", Camp, Lee C. 2003; pp. 19, 23-25.

Further reading

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone, 1995)
  • Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Brazos, 2003)
  • Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper, 1998)