What Do We Mean By the Word Discipleship?

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It is always important to define our terms to make sure we are on the same page. Several people have asked for me to define my terms. I hope this is helpful. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on how you define this.

I was at a conference a few years back and had a chance to ask a question of a very prominent New Testament scholar. I had read enough of his work to be intrigued by his view on baptism, as he spoke in ways that sounded very much like he believed it was essential. The time came for some Q&A and I asked him about his view on the essentiality of baptism. He gave four reasons why he believed it was extremely important. I enjoyed his answer and we went on to the next question. As soon as the next person asked their question it hit me – when he said “baptism” he and I may not mean the same thing. He may be thinking infant baptism and I am thinking believers baptism. These things always hit you when it is too late!

So what do we mean by the word disciple and the word discipleship?

The answer to this is going to be given in two stages. The first stage is this post where I am going to share my initial thoughts on how I conceive of these terms from a biblical perspective. The second stage will come over time as we work through these things together in conversation.

Why two stages?
If Jesus asked you to be his disciple and you replied by asking him how he defines that word I am sure his answer would come in two stages. He could explain what it would entail. He could define the terms. But he couldn’t show you all that really means or teach you all that really means until you were on the road with him for quite some time…possibly all the way up until his ascension three years later.

I am not claiming to be Jesus but I am looking at things through that lens.

Let’s launch into stage 1 of the answer – what is a disciple and then we will discussion what is discipleship?

What is a disciple?

First, we look at education in ancient Israel. We don’t know an awful lot about how they educated their youth in the scriptures. We do know that there wasn’t one set approach as various teachers went about this with different philosophies. Rabbi Shammai believed that only the best students should be chosen and educated. Rabbi Hillel believed all children should receive education.

There was something written in Sayings of Fathers chapter five that gave one person’s take on development and education that said,

“At five, children are ready for scripture; at ten, for Mishnah; at thirteen, for the Commandments; at fifteen, for the teachings that gave rise to the Talmud; at eighteen, for marriage; at twenty, for the pursuit of righteousness; at thirty, for full strength; at forty for discernment; at fifty for counsel; at sixty, for old age; at seventy, for gray hairs; at eighty, for labor and sorrow; at ninety, for decrepitude; at one hundred, death.”


To the best of our knowledge education in Israel began around age 5-7. They spent time in prayer and in studying Shema (Deut 6:4-6) and Torah. The study could be rigorous and the punishments for failing harsh. Most of the study centered on past interpretations, not gaining new insight. This was about preserving their scriptures and culture.

Schools weren’t typical until at least 200 B.C. with most of the training taking place in the home by the parents. A lot of what we know about Jewish education systems comes from the Mishnah, which was written after the first century and may not be a perfect representation of how things were in Jesus’ day. Ray Vander Laan has popularized some of these views and you can find that at That the World May Know website. For more on this see Crenshaw’s book “Education in Ancient Israel.”

We know some people excelled in their education and we see them in the New testament as the scribes. Everett Ferguson calls the scribes, “the official scholars of the Torah.” (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 516).

The New Testament itself gives us some insight into what a disciple is. We see that John the baptist had disciples (John 1:35) and, of course, Jesus did as well. The word in Greek for disciple is the word “mathetes” which means an apprentice. It is a stronger, more involved word than student. This isn’t about going to class a few hours here and there. It is an intensive apprenticeship that spans the course of several years.

Mathetes is used nearly 300 times in the New Testament. How many times is the word Christian used? Three times and all of them are pejorative. This means that disciple is the word early Christians thought of themselves as. Christian came later. If we want to have a semblance of early Christianity, today, we need to embrace being disciples.

There is no such thing as a “disciple in name only.”

You can be called a Christian or call yourself a Christian and not be a disciple. But you cannot be a disciple and not be a Christian. That is because Christian is a title, a name. Disciple can be used that way but it is an action word – a follower. John the Baptist and Jesus had disciples who learned from them as they were apprenticed by them…as they followed them around.

The closest thing to discipleship I have ever experienced was in graduate school. I was studying Clinical and Healthy Psychology at the University of Florida and every student had a mentor professor. The professor was purposefully shaping you to become like them. You worked in their lab, wrote chapters for them, did research and therapy under their supervision, etc.

Do you know when I knew it was time to drop out of the program? When I looked around at all the professors and no longer wanted to become who they were. That isn’t a slam on them. That was a reflection of a change in direction in my life at the time. They were discipling us to make us into little versions of themselves. They did this through us following them around, learning to do what they did and learning to teach what they taught.

That is what being a disciple looks like. Jesus is the instructor. We are his disciples.

What is discipleship?

Discipleship is the process where followers (apprentices) become like their instructor through hands on training. In our case Jesus is always the instructor. Sometimes people get discipleship wrong because they fail to make Jesus the instructor. Once Jesus is understood by all parties involved to be the instructor we remove the hierarchy from the process that often poisons the discipleship water hole.

In order to be discipled by Jesus we have to understand that the goal is to become a little version of him. I don’t have time to go into all of the verses but know that this is what spiritual formation or transformation is all about – to develop the mind of Christ, attitude of Christ, image of Christ, and so much more – to become like Jesus in all things (read here for the verses).

Next, discipleship is never done alone. It is done in community. It is done like Deuternomy 6 says – we learn when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we sit up – in all postures and walks of life. You don’t stop being a disciple and you don’t stop being discipled by Jesus. Discipleship is an active process. As Brian McLaren once wrote “we make the road by walking.” That walking is done by following in Jesus’ steps, watching him and learning from him. Watch the way he does it and learn to do it his way rather than the ways that come most naturally to ourselves.

How do we follow someone who isn’t here if we aren’t following the person who is?

I am glad you asked.

We do this through studying the gospels. We can follow Jesus by studying what he said and watching (through reading) what he did. We learn his teachings and his doings from the gospel to go on to teach what he taught and do what he did.

Consider the Great Commission from this perspective. Jesus didn’t just say go baptize people. He said “go and make disciples” by doing two things – baptizing and teaching them to obey everything Jesus had commanded. That is discipleship 101. Jesus is passing on his teaching (the Jewish people called this a “yoke” like Matt 11:28-30?). You follow the Rabbi/teacher to learn their teaching and learn to do life their way to teach it to others.

We must be in the Gospels daily and we must discuss them with other people so we can share insights with one another, so we can have mutual accountability (uni-directional accountability is a recipe for disaster) and so we can encourage each other along the way. Once we get through the introductory stage of this process here on the blog we will be in the gospels discussing discipleship by paying close attention to Jesus, together. I am looking forward to that and I hope you are too!

There is so much more I want to say that I will get to in upcoming posts but let me say this. When Jesus sent out the 72 in Luke 10 he didn’t send them alone. He sent out 26 groups of two!

Discipleship ends our spiritual and relational isolation. Like God said, “Man is not meant to be alone.” This is something we must do together with Jesus in the lead. If man is in the lead, we are doing this incorrectly and it is destined to be abused.

Let’s review. A disciple is an apprentice-follower. The goal is to become like your teacher. The teacher is Jesus and we become like him through study, through obedience, and through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus with other people, not alone. We follow Jesus to learn his teaching to teach it to others. We follow Jesus to learn what he did to imitate his actions toward others. This is discipleship. God calls every Christian to be a disciple…to learn from Jesus in order to become more like Jesus.

Let me know what questions or concerns you have as we work these things out together.

10 Responses

  1. In 1965 I visited Frank Worgan in England. A young man wanting to preach lived with Frank, studied with him, went with him to visit in hospital, etc.. Frank would assign him a topic for a lesson, listened as it was presented in Frank’s living room and commented on. That was a form of discipleship.

  2. I think we possibly have too many Pauline disciples in the church, meaning that that their focus is on what Paul said in response to putting out fires, so they go about making the fires don’t even start by doing a lot of stomping.
    They kind of forget we are supposed to be Jesus disciples more focused on love, mercy, grace, justice, faith, reading and servitude.
    It is less about what goes into the church (structure) and more about what the church (the people) do in the world.

  3. As I read thru this and reflected on what has been said. There is a lot of similarities between discipleship and mentoring. I use to think of them as the same, but came to realize there are some differences as well. Do you see differences and if you do what are they?

    Another thought, is discipleship always the mature Christian leading those with less maturity or can we disciple those who are at similar points on our paths of Christian growth?

  4. Matt, you introduced a word in your writing that struck me a little differently this time, in the context of your mission here…”yoked.” In the past, the NT reference to this imagery was usually used in the context of dating before marriage, and the “don’t be yoked to an unbeliever,” section of scripture. In your context, the Rabbi (or professor) was yoked to his disciple(s). This is a very real image of the agrarian society then – and maybe something we’ve lost touch with in modern times. Being handcuffed together would be our closest image, but that is certainly not a positive context. Your professors give a better image of what that was by making “little professors in their image” instead. I grew up in a blue collar home, and all of my relatives were mainly blue collar workers of some sort too. “Apprenticeship Programs” were the image of my youth, and what I see this context in my mind’s eye today.

    Learning to be a disciple in my young walk after baptism, I understood that nearly EVERYONE…male, female, single, married, etc. were ALL smarter than I was as a new Christian. This meant that I needed to have a mindset of an apprentice, and learn the trade from those who had been doing it already. Like your example, there would come a time that I would figure out for myself if I wanted to stay under that guidance, or to move on to the next person(s) to learn other things germane to me at the time. I was given quizzes, sat through many classes, attended small groups studies, watched and helped with one-on-one studies with non-believers, had discipleship partners (roommates and friends mostly) and loved to meet others at conventions, retreats, etc. Everyone I could learn something from was in my radar range. There were others who brought teachings to me, even when I didn’t want it, but that was still a form of discipleship for me (admonishment and rebuke included).

    I remember many of my early friends in the brotherhood being very direct with, “Hey Keith, so have have you been doing in the area of _____?” It was painfully personal at times, but those who were my friends, asked those questions with a discipleship mindset. I was encouraged to reciprocate too, since there is nothing new under the sun, and we all have the same temptations, etc. By having a core group of believers to look out for me, and vice-versa, we formed a strong band of fellowship and discipleship as we grew in the Lord. We were yoked together by being friends or roommates mostly, but I took advantage of it, and many of those brothers are still some of my best friends in the world, no matter where in the world we are all scattered now.

    Anthony Jones and I began instituting something along the discipleship lines of this context, when he and I began mentoring guys in our APEX ministry. We would have guys write a study that he or I would present for them, then we’d have them lead a study themselves, then we’d have them help co-teach Wednesday and Sunday classes with us, etc. Eventually, a few of these men went on into ministry, missions, and a host of other kingdom-focused things in their journey. There was no greater satisfaction than seeing someone grew up into a mature handler of God’s Word and present it to others. When we’d find ourselves preparing content years later, we’d banter back-and-forth as peers…very satisfying!!!

    In all of that, we’d also try and make sure we were doing okay in our individual walk(s) too. Still asking tough, practical questions about how we were “really doing,” so no one would fall between the cracks. While no of this was perfectly executed – it was what we had to work with at the time. I still like the model, but I miss the more one-on-one intimate digging into our personal journey challenges, victories, etc. I learn so much from a new brother in Christ, who is bubbling over with excitement about things I’ve placed in the “mundane” over the years. I still appreciate an older brother who will see that I’m struggling behind a facade of smiles and high-fives, and ask me about how I’m really doing. I see Jesus doing this exact thing.

    Imagine Him teaching a non-believer how to become a believer, while 3-4 of His closest dudes watch the process. When they’re all done, He asks them, “Does anyone have any questions about what you witnessed just now?” After they discuss it a bit, He notices one of them being pensive and quiet, and says to him, “What’s really going on inside today? Are you okay?” Knowing that He probably already knows what’s going on inside, he spills his guts about the issue(s) that are plaguing his walk…to which Jesus then reacts by helping him to lead the next study and giving positive critiques about what was right and wrong with the approach afterwards…never beating him up for making mistakes or being a “bad person who sinned the other day.” But being the Christ-like leader and mentor and professor and Rabbi and “dude you’re yoked to” while you BOTH battle forward together. That’s how I see these two sides coming together in harmony. Sorry for the rambling!!! HA!

  5. Great breakdown, Matt. I enjoyed the read. I also find myself thinking a lot about the Shema as I read your description of discipleship. Discipleship is not a program…it is life. As you said, it is what keeps us from living out our faith in isolation. We must be yoked to one another. That was at the root of the Deuteronomic instructions as well. We lie down and wake up and walk along the roads…together. As we go, we are discipling. Depending on the subject matter we are either teaching others to live as Christ by our examples or we are teaching them to fix their eyes on a cell phone (to cite 2 major dichotomies!).

    I do believe discipleship can have a programmatic piece to it…which would help us to be intentional about the content we need to be modeling and teaching. But I think what is far more valuable and “real” is a strategy that is organic…which comes from living life together and having our conversations regularly “salted” with Jesus.

    1. I think the programmatic piece on the church’s end needs to be done very carefully so this doesn’t become one more ministry. It should be equipping and encouraging. Vision casting that is trying to change our church culture to a discipleship culture. Most of all the church leadership needs to be engaged in discipling to lead by example.

  6. Good stuff, Matt. As I was reading I remembered a Spiritual Formation class in undergrad taught by a professor who I still respect and learn from, Brandon Fredenburg, who said something that fits our conversation, even thought it may not have been in the context of discipleship. He suggested that there are levels of learning that we do from Jesus (I’m paraphrasing from memory, as I can’t find those notes, but I think you’ll get the gist)

    1. Learn about Jesus.
    2. Learn what Jesus believed.
    3. Learn what Jesus would do and do that.
    4. Learn to believe what Jesus believed.

    In the context of being an apprentice as you described, we learn about the subject at hand and that is good. When we learn what someone believes, or their why, that too is good. When we learn enough about someone and why they do what they do, we can begin to learn what they do and anticipate it (this is where the wwjd bracelets may have missed the mark…it is one thing to emulate, but another to go beyond that, which is what Jesus, I believe calls us to). It then follows that if we are following and learning from someone, their beliefs become our beliefs, and our actions follow, because with belief comes action that would imitate the teacher.

    We have often separated belief from action, but our beliefs inform and influence our actions. So we learn from Jesus, not simply about him, or what he thought or why, but we allow our beliefs to be formed by his, and we follow in his footsteps by then allowing his beliefs to inform others beliefs as well.

    I’m rambling, and I hope that made sense. Thanks for the journey, Matt.

    1. Yes…that makes total sense and we will dive further into some of what you explained here in the next post or two. This is at the heart and soul of the discipleship process. I have a way I am going to break down the posts into some categories that are similar to what you outlined above – not the same – but a similar idea that I think will be helpful to people as we walk through this together.

  7. You mentioned the number of times the word(s) appear in the New Testament. Have you noticed, though, that after Acts (21:16), the word never again appears in the text?

    From the description I read, the idea of an apprenticeship is a better illustration. This idea is even found in the Commission itself: Go. Teach. Baptize. Teach all I have commanded you… Go. Teach. Baptize. Teach…

    We (the ‘master’) teach (apprenticeship starts) We baptize (Joined the ‘union’ so to speak) and teach them to do what they were taught (become a ‘master’ themselves).

    PLEASE NOTE: I am using apprentice concept terms, not ICOC terms!
    I work(ed) with a number of trades (Carpenters, Electricians, Sheet-rockers, Painters and such) who use apprentice systems, and they use the “master” and “apprentice” words.

    I found four different master/apprentice roles. John the baptist had disciples
    Pharisees called themselves disciples of Moses
    Jesus had disciples
    Paul had disciples (that is how they are identified when the help him escape).

    Not all disciples of Jesus fall in the descriptions given in a number of articles. There is the disciple who wants go and bury his father. Thomas was not the only disciple who had a hard time believing the resurrection.

    There was a distinct difference in how disciples were perceived. Plato and Socrates had their disciples, except Socrates refused to refer to his “??” as disciples, and yet, they matched the definition 😉

    Jesus is calling His disciples to some very strong commitments. He wants to be the One and the most important commitment in our lives. It is our commission to teach others, baptize them, and teach them – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

    A devotion to the apostles’ teaching… If only we could go back to that…

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