The New Testament Church Part 5: (Discipleship)


Before you read this series of articles, it's important you read the general introduction.  In this series we've identified a number of features and qualities that can be found in the lives, experience and practice of the Early Church.  These characteristics, which are not set out in any particular order, are also being outworked in many congregations and faith communities today.

Through this series we hope to encourage individuals and congregations within the Church, to break free from the strait-jacket of religious tradition to re-discover their true identity and destiny as a living organism, a subversive and counter-culture movement, and the Bride of Christ.


In Part 5 we'll look at the issue of discipleship in the New Testament Church.  After they received the Holy Spirit, the New Testament Church witnessed to the reality of Jesus:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Previously, Jesus had told his followers to go and make disciples:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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 (Matt 28:19-20).

Make disciples not believers

Making, baptising and teaching disciples is one of the primary tasks of the Church yet it's largely ignored in the institutional Church We're called to confront unbelief in the communities where we live and work, following which we're to disciple the new converts in order that they might go and make more disciples.  Some are even called to go and preach beyond their locality.

The ultimate purpose of discipleship is to call forth radical obedience to the Lord.  In Luke's Gospel Jesus said:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Notice that Jesus did not simply say 'go and make converts or go and make believers' - he said 'go and make disciples.'  There's a vast difference between the first two and the latter.  We would argue that the majority of believers in the West are converts or believers who never become disciples in the way that Jesus envisaged.  The late David Watson said as much:

If we were willing to learn the meaning of real discipleship and actually become disciples, the Church in the West would be transformed and the resultant impact on society would be staggering.

Discipleship equals relationship

The word 'disciple' should be spelled 'relationship' because it's about 'mentoring in life.'  Discipleship, as understood by Jesus and the rabbis in the first century, involved a pupil and teacher in close relationship.

Whilst we mustn't deny the primary role of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us, discipling that focuses exclusively on our relationship with God, misses the point of what Jesus was saying.  In Mark's Gospel we read:

He appointed twelve - designating them as apostles - that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.

The phrase 'that they might be with him' is the key to understanding the kind of discipleship that Jesus had in mind.  In writing to the Church at Philippi, Paul says:

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me - put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.

True discipleship takes place in day to day living, not in the classroom, study or church buildings.  Genuine discipleship takes place in the general run of life.

In the first century, the disciple usually lived under the same roof as the rabbi.  The disciple served him in menial tasks, whilst the rabbi discipled him in the ways of God.

An organic, relational approach to discipling was the normal approach to spiritual growth whilst the Church was still a living organism.  It was built on the premise that discipleship will occur naturally when Christians live and share in community with one another.

The arrival of the institution  

During the first three centuries after Christ, the Church in the house remained the normal way for Christians to share their lives together and discipling naturally took place in this environment.  However, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, everything changed.

Institutionalism set in.  Communal living was abandoned, priests were approved and licensed to conduct weddings and other functions in a more professional manner.  Magnificent buildings to worship in were built.

Discipleship as a way of life was lost and the divide between clergy and laity meant that only the professionals could disciple the flock from then on.  In reality, this meant that real discipleship ceased.

With the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution, a more institutionalised accademic approach to discipleship became the norm.

With the invention of the printing press the Bible was readily available to the common people who were taught about Christ and it was hoped that they would grow in their relationship to him through a systematic, academic approach.  Discipleship as a relationship between disciple and mentor became remote, even obsolete.

And today in the institutional Church where discipleship is practiced, we still find that the Bible, books, taped sermons, videos, DVD's, skype, conferences and discipleship courses have replaced discipling relationships.

It's easier and more convenient in today's culture to read a manual or attend a course on discipleship than it is to find, maintain and build a healthy discipling relationship.

In view of this, genuine discipleship has become a thing of the past.  Modern methods of teaching, coupled with new technology, have created a relationship vacuum.

The place of internships

Discipleship in the New Testament Church however, was always organic and relational in nature.  In recognising this, some organisations are opting for an internship programme - this is a kind of full-on short term discipleship experience.

Its primary focus is about giving hands-on training in real situations.  Interns generally have a supervisor (we could say discipler) who assigns specific tasks and evaluates the interns' overall performance and growth.

Internships are an excellent way to help people grow in their skills and in their relationship with the Lord.  They are far superior to discipleship courses, but sadly, are only available to a relatively few individuals.

At best it's a half-way house for the few, whilst the rest go undiscipled.  It's the institution's answer, but falls way short of what Jesus intends for his Church. 

Our experience of discipleship

From the beginnings of the community to which we belong right up to the present, discipleship has been part of our ethos and value system.  We've discipled those whom we recognise as having 'servant hearts,' 'teachable spirits' and are 'faithful and able.'

One to one discipling has been practised and the majority of members have been discipled by this means at some point in their lives.

Living as extended families (single people or married couples living with other families in the same home) has been a common way to live in the community and many single people and married couples have been discipled whilst living under the same roof as their discipler.

Jesus, and the leaders of the Early Church, were not afraid to say: ‘Follow me, be with me, learn from me, and imitate me' and neither should we.

We see discipleship starting from the moment a person is born.  Christian parents are encouraged to disciple their children by word and action, and this task is eventually shared by teachers, youth leaders, House Church leaders, disciplers and community leaders, as the children grow.

Some members of the Christian community of which we are a part started a distinctively Christian school to provide the right environment and opportunity for their children, where home, school and House Churches could overlap and share in the same ethos and values.

Teachers in school, youth workers, disciplers and House Church leaders are only chosen if they're good role models for young people, and have themselves been discipled.

Discipleship is not just left to the leaders of the House Churches or community, otherwise they'd be overwhelmed.  We encourage those being discipled, who are able, to eventually take on their own disciples.  In this way there are no bottlenecks and everyone is discipled by someone more mature in the Lord than they are.

The Shepherding Movement

The Shepherding Movement, sometimes called the Discipleship Movement, which originated in Fort Lauderdale (USA) and was developed by Derek Prince, Bob Mumford, Charles Simpson, Ern Baxter and Don Basham (known as the Fort Lauderdale Five), provided our original inspiration for discipleship.

Witnessing moral failure in the Church and perceiving the Charismatic Movement as individualistic and subjective, they called for greater accountability, character development, covenant relationships and discipleship.

The doctrine of the movement emphasised the 'one another' passages of the New Testament and the mentoring relationship described in 2 Timothy.  Unfortunately the movement gained a reputation for controlling and abusive behaviour, with a great deal of emphasis placed upon the importance of obedience to one's own shepherd (discipler).

Many churches reacted to this and threw out the whole notion of discipleship.  The answer to abuse however is not disuse, but right use.

Teaching notes

Click here for a teaching note: 'Discipleship: purpose, principles and practice,' which briefly describes what we mean by discipleship.  Discipleship is the principal process for building up the Body of Christ.  The mentor's job is to call forth maturity in Christ, accountability, destiny, gift, ministry and character.

Help required?

Should you wish to discuss any of this further why not give us a call.  Over the years we've worked with many different leaders and leadership teams (both within the denominational scene and amongst the newer churches) helping them to build a culture of discipleship.  We'd love to hear from you.


Mutually beneficial characteristics

It's important to bear in mind the overlap and relationship that exists between the different characteristics of the New Testament Church:

General introduction to series . . .
Part 1 in this series discusses Eschatological focus . . . 
Part 2 in this series discusses Prophetic mandate . . .
Part 3 in this series discusses Meeting in houses and community living . . .
Part 4 in this series discusses Leadership . . .
Part 5 in this series discusses Discipleship . . .
Part 6 in this series discusses Spiritual gifts . . .
Part 7 in this series discusses Pioneers or settlers . . .
Part 8 in this series discusses Identity precedes function . . .
Part 9 in this series discusses Relational unity . . .
Part 10 in this series discusses Kingdom message and proclamation . . .
Part 11 in this series discusses The persecuted Church . . . 

The word 'disciple' should be spelled 'relationship' because it's about 'mentoring in life.'  Discipleship, as understood by Jesus and the rabbis in first century Palestine, involved a pupil and teacher in close relationship.  Whilst we mustn't deny the primary role of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us, discipling that focuses exclusively on our relationship with God, misses the point of what Jesus was saying . . .

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