What is Discipleship?

My pastor asked me a thought provoking question in an e-mail recently. The question was “Was is discipleship and how is it done?” I thought it was an excellent question because I believe that there are a wide variety of definitions of discipleship and how to go about doing it. Below is an excerpt of my response to my pastor. In this e-mail, I primarily addressed the “What is it?” more so than “How is it done?”.

I believe a key text is the Great Commission because in it Jesus gives his definition of making disciples:

“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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:19-20 (emphasis added).

It seems that there are two aspects of discipleship:

1. Teaching: there is an aspect of discipling that involves teaching sound doctrine and theology. Paul discipled Timothy in this way and called Timothy to do the same (see below).

2. Obedience to Jesus’ (God’s) commands: there is another aspect of pursuing practical righteousness/holiness. If we are a follower of Christ, we should pattern his life and obey his commandments (John 14:15).

Paul definition appears to be consistent with Jesus’ as he disciples Timothy, his son in the faith:

“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
– 1 Timothy 4:6-16 (emphasis added)

Again, Paul has a balance teaching sound doctrine and pursuing practical growth in godliness. In short, discipleship involves doctrine and conduct.

Many people today (including evangelicals) believe that it is not important to study doctrine. “Deeds not creeds” is the essence of the Christian faith according to some. I find this ironic because actually, it is correct beliefs about God and sound biblical thinking that will lead to good works. For example, if you believe that God is sovereign, holy, and good, this is will affect how you live your life. If you believe God is the sovereign King of the universe, you can live with a peace and comfort that surpasses all understanding because you know God is ultimately in control (Isaiah 26:3; Philippians 4:7). If you believe God is holy, you will conduct your life to be holy as God is holy because you know you be judged accordingly (Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:16-17). If you believe God is good, you will have patience in suffering and temptation because you know it will be ultimately be for your good (Romans 8:18-25, 28; 1 Peter 2:18-23).