Typical students enroll in a program, take a predetermined number of courses usually for a set amount of time, and graduate with a diploma or a certificate as proof that they have successfully completed their program of study. For all practical purposes, this approach to education has worked well. Pilots safely fly their planes to their destinations most of the time, doctors perform their medical duties without creating too many big complications, and teachers teach well enough to produce people of reasonable competence for society.
Yet we generally do not seem to follow this modern approach to education in our churches. Churches try to revert to the ancient system of discipleship described in the Gospels. Indeed, in the past few decades, there has been an explosion of materials on Christian discipleship. In some church-growth circles, the term discipleship has become a watchword. A thoughtful person might ask why we do not follow a modern educational approach when it comes to training our members.
The truth is that we do. In spite of the name, few “discipleship” programs actually revert fully to an ancient method of discipleship. For one thing, reverting to an ancient method of discipleship is too time consuming and costly for most people. For example, Jesus taught his disciples through intimate and constant contact. His disciples almost always ate with him, and often they even shared the same sleeping quarters with him. Many of them, especially the Twelve, left behind their families to live with Jesus twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Very few of us can afford to give or receive this type of education.
Moreover, modern pedagogical ideals differ sharply from those of Jesus. The pedagogy of Jesus centered on reproducing his way of life in the lives of his disciples through imitation and constant contact. By contrast, most types of modern education discourage imitation, let alone the idea of students being around the teacher twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, the modern teacher focuses on equipping students with necessary information and competencies and encourages students to think for themselves. Most of the so-called “discipleship” training programs reflect this type of modern pedagogy rather than the pedagogy of Jesus.
This raises the question whether or not discipleship is still a viable or desirable option for us today. Each person will ultimately need to settle this question individually, but one thing is clear: Discipleship is a very important concept in the New Testament. Many passages in the four canonical Gospels report on the relations and the dialogues taking place between Jesus and his disciples. If discipleship were not important to the New Testament community, the Gospels would have been written vastly differently. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, a second century Gnostic document, almost entirely lacks narrative material on Jesus and his disciples. Unquestionably, the Gospel writers of the New Testament envisioned the church as a community of disciples.
The Gospel writers, however, did not envision a church of discipleship formed around earthly personalities, such as the Apostles. In the Gospels and Acts, the term disciple occurs in abundance, but, when used in a Christian sense, it refers only to those committed to Jesus. The only exception may be Acts 9:25, which apparently refers to Paul’s “disciples.”1 In the rest of the New Testament, the believers are never addressed as disciples, and the helpers of the apostles are never referred to as their personal disciples. In fact, the term disciple (mathētēs) is completely absent from the New Testament outside the Gospels and Acts. The reason is that the New Testament strongly discourages the formation of discipleship with anyone other than Jesus.
Matthew warns the reader in the words of Jesus: “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (23:9 RSV). Paul also strongly discouraged people from giving allegiance to a human personality. He writes: “So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's. This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-4:1 RSV; italics supplied). According to this passage, Paul did not consider himself a master of his converts. Rather, he wished to be thought of as a servant, or a disciple, of Christ who was in service of the converts. It would be a great mistake if the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19 RSV) , was understood to mean that one should go and make disciples for oneself or for a particular faith community.
In the New Testament, discipleship refers to an intimate relationship formed between the believer and the risen Lord. For example, the Great Commission calls for allegiance to the teachings of Jesus: “[Teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:20 RSV). In the same breath, it also affirms the abiding reality of Jesus’ resurrection: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (vs. 20 RSV). The New Testament is unanimous in its unwavering conviction that Jesus’ resurrection is reality and that we can still meet him and become his disciples today. Accordingly, the stories of the call of the disciples in the Gospels are not mere stories about an event that happened in the remote past. They are a paradigm of how discipleship happens between the believer and the risen Lord today.
The risen Lord comes to us even now, calling out to us who are busy at work, “follow me.” He meets us on the road, in our homes, at our weddings and funerals, when we wait for him and when we betray him, in our destitution and in our joys, but most dramatically in the pages of the Bible when its printed words become a living word that speaks to us in the voice of Jesus. Discipleship means experiencing the reality of the risen Jesus and becoming enamored with him. Only the training programs that can help people forge such a transforming relationship with the risen Lord deserve the name discipleship.
Notes and References
1. Concerning the textual problems associated with this verse, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 3d. ed. (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), 32122; see also my discussion on Paul’s attitude toward his converts in this essay.
P. Richard Choi chairs the New Testament Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.