Monday, November 9, 2009

How Discipleship Gets Lost in Inferior Terms and Concepts

Matthew 28:18-20

“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “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 of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.”

There is a trend going around the human services field toward mentoring. The culture has also picked up on this concept of mentoring and the church has followed the trend. The moment we identify a group of “at risk” teenagers’ social workers make a plea for mentors. This use of mentoring is a reactive response toward a need to train and/or help a group of people who are at risk or in need. The basic definition of mentor, as described in the Encarta Dictionary, is “somebody, usually older and more experienced, who advises and guides a younger, less experienced person.” This definition is less reactive to a problem and is more proactive toward advising and guiding, before there is an issue. Once upon a time this concept of mentoring was used positively. Sometimes we still use mentoring positively, and when we do, it looks more like apprenticeship, which is also similar to mentoring. This term apprenticeship for many is interchangeable with mentoring. Apprenticeship is a more positive and specific term, however, and refers to “someone being trained by a skilled professional in an art, craft, or trade (Encarta Dictionary).” Apprenticeship seems to address practical and concrete skills, while mentoring seems to address general guidance and advice for the inexperienced.

Now, there is nothing wrong with mentoring or apprenticeship, however, as Christians we are not called or commanded to mentor or apprentice, we have been commissioned to make disciples. “What’s the difference?” might me your question, and it is a good one. The simplest answer is that discipleship encompasses mentoring and apprenticeship and takes it to the next level with whole life transformation and becoming more like Christ. If discipleship is done correctly, it will include mentoring and apprenticeship. True discipleship requires time commitment and deep transforming relationships with practical application and outcomes for all those involved. God’s power and presence dictate and facilitate these outcomes and everyone involved is transformed through Christ’s presence and power. “Jesus is with us, even unto the end of the age.”

I read an article recently that a friend of mine suggested that got me thinking about discipleship and mentoring and what the differences and similarities are. The name of this article is “How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship.” Reading and questioning this article alongside an older and wiser discipler or mentor, or as an apprentice, we discovered many similarities and differences between the two terms. We agreed and disagreed on several points, but came to a joint conclusion that many followers of Jesus have no idea what discipleship actually means, and if we do not know what discipleship means, then we cannot and will not effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ. We must define and understand discipleship. I came to several other unmistakable conclusions after interacting with my friend and this article, and thinking through discipleship; mentoring and discipleship are not the same, discipleship encompasses mentoring and apprenticeship, discipleship has gotten confused with church programming, true Biblical discipleship has been lost, and we must recapture the meaning and practice of true discipleship.

Defining and Understanding Discipleship

Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples” in Matthew 28:18-20. I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: ‘God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.’” What sticks out in this translation is that in order to make disciples of Christ we must be commissioned by Jesus, we must go out, we must train everyone we meet, we must understand that discipleship is a way of life and train within that context, everyday life and living, we must baptize them, we must instruct them in practice, in other words, discipleship is hands on and applicable, there is skill involved, and finally, we must disciple in the power and presence of Jesus, as Jesus is with us enabling and empowering us.

Peterson interprets the word disciple as training. Simply put, a disciple is a learner. A disciple is someone who receives training “in this way of life.” According to The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, the word disciple is defined this way: “27.16 μαθητήςb, οῦ: (derivative of μανθάνωa ‘to learn, to be instructed,’ 27.12) a person who learns from another by instruction, whether formal or informal—‘disciple, pupil.’ ‘No pupil is greater than his teacher; but every pupil, when he has completed his training, will be like his teacher.’ (Luke 6:40).”

The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament goes on to say that to be a disciple is “to be a follower or a disciple of someone, in the sense of adhering to the teachings or instructions of a leader and in promoting the cause of such a leader—‘to follow, to be a disciple of.’” This idea that we are to follow someone in discipleship has a deeper meaning as the followers of Jesus, His disciples, “at once left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:18).” The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament continues, “In many languages the appropriate equivalent of ‘to follow’ (in the sense of ‘to be a disciple’) is literally ‘to accompany’ or ‘to go along with’ or ‘to be in the group of.” This is a much more active and engaging view of what discipleship is. This requires a depth of relationship and commitment that transcends a Sunday service, a weekly discipleship teaching, or a program on discipleship, or a Bible study. True discipleship does indeed require the skills and aspects of mentorship and apprenticeship, as we cannot have true discipleship apart from depth of relationships and practical application.

We tend to have a fragmented view of discipleship. We have divorced the practical training and application, which includes a depth of committed and intentional relationship, from discipleship and we have been left with just instruction. Jesus did not do this with His disciples. Jesus continually modeled His life for His disciples. Jesus was present with His disciples, His life was the lesson. He taught them and allowed them to do His work as well. Jesus ate with His disciples and spent copious amounts of time with them. Jesus lived with His disciples and walked along side of them as they followed along with Him.

Mentoring and Discipleship Are Not the Same

The article, How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship, makes the point that mentoring is different that discipleship. I agree with this premise. However, the article goes on to describe mentoring as an advanced form of discipleship. This is a false premise and makes assumptions of discipleship that are simply not true. The presupposition is that somehow discipleship is a program that does not include mentoring and apprenticeship, we will talk more about this in the section on how discipleship has gotten confused with church programming. Mentoring is not advanced discipleship. Mentoring and apprenticeship are critical elements to discipleship and discipleship is not complete without these components.

The author of How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship is talking about discipleship when they speak of mentoring and they do not seem to know it. This seems to be a common mistake we make. We speak a lot about concepts such as mentoring and programs as a church, but what we are really grasping at is the need for discipleship. Mentoring and apprenticeship are the p-nut butter and Jelly to the same sandwich of discipleship. Somehow the author is making a divide and discipleship is being fragmented into something that it was never intended to be. We do this as well as a church. How are we getting here? My initial response to "What is happening here?" is that Biblical Ministries Worldwide, the people who put out this article, has a weakened view of discipleship, or they think that discipleship is no longer a term that is doing justice to the magnitude of what discipleship is. In other words, they do not think that discipleship is relevant, so they want to make it relevant and add mentoring to it, as if it were not already there. Instead of reinventing something we assume is incorrect, incomplete, or no longer relevant, in this case discipleship, we should seek to understand and practice the magnitude of what discipleship truly is.

Discipleship Encompasses Mentoring and Apprenticeship

How can someone disciple someone else without practical application in their training through mentoring and apprenticeship? They cannot! Discipleship in its truest and most Biblical form requires practical and hands on application. Discipleship requires life on life interaction and major time and resource commitment. Discipleship is not a spectator sport. We have taught discipleship in the church as if it were a lesson. Being a disciple is a way of life. It is caught more than it is taught, as the cliché goes. Mentoring gives the picture of a life touching a life. Somehow discipleship has lost this same image and the church has allowed this to happen. However, discipleship requires life on life interaction and practical application that far exceeds that of mentoring. Discipleship includes mentoring and apprenticeship.

Jesus never fragmented discipleship, apprenticeship, and mentoring. True discipleship is holistic. There wasn’t a single part of someone’s life that Jesus was not interested in bringing under His Lordship. Jesus fed His people; He healed their diseases; He taught them; He connected with their families; He met them where they were and loved them enough not to leave them there. Jesus went to parties and turned water into wine. Jesus dines with sinners and saints alike. Jesus sent out His disciples and commanded them to make disciples. He gave away His life, and work, and ministry to His followers after having spent years with them equipping them, and teaching them, and modeling for them what He desired for them.

Discipleship Has Gotten Confused with Church Programming

Discipleship is not a program! Discipleship is life on life investment. We used to do this thing at the church that I grew up in called “Discipleship Training.” What this was, basically, was a Wednesday night Bible study. Someone would teach and you would come and listen. There was no participation at all. Rarely was there any practical application. Sometimes there was a discussion, but that was about it. I can’t ever remember even knowing what a disciple was back then, let alone a discipleship program. Was I being programmed to be a disciple? Is this what discipleship has come to? No wonder we are looking for something else to call it. We are confused about discipleship. Discipleship in many of our churches has been reduced to something similar to what I am describing, a program, or a class. This is not God’s intention for discipleship. Discipleship should be a life adventure, the greatest life adventure!

One of my fondest memories from my time at this church was when the leadership let me lead and helped me know what to do. There was encouragement, and instruction, and then I was allowed to participate. This never happened at the “discipleship training,” but it happened as adults at that church came along side of me and taught me and helped me do leadership tasks. I was shown what they were teaching me. The formal discipleship program never made me a disciple. People pouring their life and relationship with Christ into me and modeling what it meant to be a Christ Follower; this is what made a disciple out of me.

True Biblical Discipleship Has Been Lost

“So, my son, throw yourself into this work for Christ. Pass on what you heard from me—the whole congregation saying Amen!—to reliable leaders who are competent to teach others (2 Timothy 2:1-2).”

There must be a correlation between the lack of understanding of discipleship and our lack of Biblical knowledge as a church and our lack of understanding scripture and our lack of understanding discipleship. It seems that we are becoming more and more Biblically illiterate and we therefore do not understand the dynamics of what discipleship is. Paul, writing to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:1-2, encouraged his “spiritual son” to throw himself into work for Christ and to pass on that which he had heard from Paul. Paul encouraged the church leaders to teach others. The prerequisite for the leaders to teach was that they be competent. What makes a leader competent? I have heard it said “You cannot teach what you do not know.” This is such a true statement. Teaching begins with knowledge. Discipleship also begins with knowledge. A disciple is a learner. A disciple is someone who follows and learns from Jesus and teaches and makes disciples of Jesus. This begins with us and our understanding what it means to be a disciple of Christ ourselves. We cannot accomplish discipleship without first sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from Him. We must understand the word of God before we can follow the Word of God.

Recapturing the Meaning and Practice of True Discipleship

My friend made the point that “We toss around discipleship as if we know what it means.” I tend to agree with him. If this is true, we must define our terms and commit to seek understanding and education as to what discipleship is. We must pursue understanding of what Jesus meant when He said, “Go make disciples.” If it was so important to God Himself that the last command He gave to us was to do this, then it must become equally important for us to study and do.

We must understand the Biblical definition of discipleship as the church, as Christians, and as leadership. We need to fight to recapture the meaning and depth of discipleship. The word disciple is used over 269 times in scripture, the word Christian is only used 2 times in scripture, and the term mentoring, well, mentoring is not used once in scripture. This is an interesting fact and has great significance. I think we like the term mentor because we understand it more in our cultural context, or we think we understand it. If we understood discipleship, however, we wouldn't want to worry ourselves with mentoring, because the term would be found lacking by itself and we would discover that in true discipleship, mentoring is encompassed.

I am not comfortable with the watering down of biblical terms, or in this case, replacing the Biblical term discipleship with one we think is better, mentoring. When we begin to replace discipleship with mentoring, we begin to water down the true biblical meaning of discipleship by assuming that mentoring is a superior term. This leads to inferior concepts. Mentoring leaves out, or has the potential to leave out, biblical truths. Jesus’ command to make disciples included “teaching them to observe everything that I command you.” Mentoring does not necessarily include this facet. However, I do like mentoring, if it is in the context discipleship and teaches the word of God and the life of Christ.

Mentoring on its own has the potential to leave out important components of discipleship like becoming more like Jesus, biblical knowledge, leadership, and preparation for ministry. Discipleship has something to do with mentoring and leadership and more, though some fans of mentoring believe that it does not. The term discipleship is a much richer term, and encompasses apprenticeship, leadership, teaching, mentoring, learning, modeling, instruction, Christ-likeness, knowledge of scripture, obedience to scripture, transformation, an understanding of gender roles, civic duty, and so forth, and I could go on. Mentoring is our societies grasping at a discipleship equivalent. We have a superior term and it is discipleship. We just have to reclaim our term by restoring its meaning back to it. We must be Disciples of Christ who are making Disciples of Christ.

I appreciate the way mentoring is described in general and the way it is described in the beginning of the article How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship. This description, however, is of discipleship. We as a church, corporate, have had the tendency to dumb down discipleship so that it is easier and it takes us off the hook and relinquishes us of our responsibility. If discipleship is simply a class, then I can teach it an hour a week and be done with it. If discipleship is a program, then I can put it on. Real discipleship; however, requires real work; it requires a relationship; it requires a real commitment of time and resources; real discipleship is a way of life; it requires an investment; real discipleship requires us to be real disciples. I think that many of us cower at this responsibility and commitment. I confess that many times I do.

Recapturing the Meaning and Practice of True Discipleship: A Meaningful Reconciliation

There are varying understandings of what discipleship and mentoring means. These terms are being thrown around these days in many circles. There is indeed a distinction between the terms discipling and mentoring. While these two are not the same, a discipleship relationship in it truest form will include mentoring and apprenticeship.

In How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship, there is a two columned chart included that assumes much about both discipleship and mentoring. The chart is under the title A Meaningful Difference. The chart begins with two major fragmented assumptions about discipleship and mentoring that I will address specifically. These two major assumptions are: Assumption one, that discipleship is broader and more basic, or simple, than mentoring. Discipleship is just focused on getting believers grounded in their faith, living a God-honoring life, and being equipped for general ministry. And assumption two, that mentoring is somehow advanced discipleship and that it is focused on preparing faithful, fervent and gifted emerging leaders for mature, capable and fruitful leadership, as if Jesus’ command to make disciples did not include these elements.

I have recreated this chart below adding a third column, which I might entitle A Meaningful Reconciliation: A Clearer Vision of True Discipleship. In this chart I reconcile the above assumptions that are made about discipleship and mentoring with hopefully a clearer and truer view of what discipleship is supposed to be as we find it in scripture and as it is modeled by Jesus.

A Meaningful Reconciliation: A Clearer Vision of True Discipleship

Seeking to follow Jesus as His disciple, and to make disciples of Him,


Works Cited

How Mentoring is Different than Discipleship,, © 2009

Louw, Johannes P. ; Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York : United Bible societies, 1996, c1989, S. 1:327

Louw, Johannes P. ; Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York : United Bible societies, 1996, c1989, S. 1:469

The New King James Version. Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1982, S. Mt 28:18-20

Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S. Mt 28:18-20

Petersen, Paul. Out of the Depths of a Thinking Man’s Brain. © 2009

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