What is Biblical Discipleship?

By Coty Pinckney
April 10, 2011

Consider the last few verses of Matthew’s Gospel – what we frequently label “the Great Commission”:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The primary command in these verses is to “make disciples of all nations” or (perhaps better) to “disciple all nations.” Whatever Jesus means by this command, it includes preaching the Gospel so that unbelievers of all nations come to faith and are baptized, and it includes instruction in biblical life and doctrine.

Question: Where do we see such discipling taking place in the New Testament? In several places:

• There is a good reason why Jesus’ followers are called disciples! He teaches them how to understand their Scriptures; He brings them to the end of their own resources so they must acknowledge their need for a Savior; He shows them by example how to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and how to love their neighbor.

• Paul’s relationship with Timothy is similar. Consider these verses from 2 Timothy 3, written near the end of Paul’s life:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra–
which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a  godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Paul (as well as Timothy’s mother and grandmother) have taught him the Scriptures, and he has thus been reproved, corrected, and trained by them.  Furthermore, he has seen the Scriptures lived out in Paul’s life through patient endurance, through persistent faith in the face of suffering – even being left for dead after being stoned in Timothy’s hometown. So Timothy now is thoroughly equipped – that is, he is discipled, equipped for every good work. So Paul continues in the epistle, solemnly charging his son in the faith to preach that same Word, “with great patience teaching all doctrine” (paraphrase of 2 Timothy 4:2b).

And the New Testament examples do not end with these two! Indeed, every epistle is an example of this discipling process, as Peter, Paul, James, John, Jude, and the author of Hebrews flesh out what the Old Testament Scriptures and Jesus Himself imply about God and man, about sin and forgiveness, about marriage and family, about work and possessions. Every New Testament author is engaged in the discipling process as he writes.

But look back again at Matthew 28:18-20. Does Jesus tell His followers to “teach them all that I have commanded you”? No. He tells His followers to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus is concerned not only with passing on a body of teaching, but also with joyous, heartfelt obedience to that teaching. And He means hear not only, “Tell them that they must obey” but “Show them how to obey; display for them what obedience looks like.” This is what Jesus had done for them; this is what Paul does
for Timothy.

So: We have seen that fulfilling Matthew 28:18-20 requires at least three foci:
1) A strategy for reaching all nations, all people groups;
2) A strategy for teaching the “what”: Biblical doctrine;
3) A strategy for showing the “how”: Examples of biblical life well-lived.
4) A strategy for sharing ministry and life, so the person being discipled receives feedback and is thoroughly equipped for his or her role in reaching all nations.

This broad, biblical view helps to clarify several common misconceptions about discipleship, such as:
1) “Discipleship takes place when two people read a book together and discuss it.”
2) “Discipleship means meeting regularly with someone who will help me with my problems.”
3) “Discipleship means committing to meet together indefinitely with a group of people who will help each other battle sin.”

Biblical discipleship may – but need not – include meeting together one on one or in small groups. It will necessarily include instruction in doctrine and Christian living, but that can take multiple forms. It will certainly include dealing with sin in our lives.

But there is a key, underlying error that is common to all three of these misconceptions: Discipleship is not about YOU! Jesus commands us to disciple all nations not in order for each us to get our act together. Jesus commands us to disciple all nations so that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. He commands us to make disciples so that those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
(Revelation 7:10).

What then does it mean to be discipled? Consider this definition:
Learning what the Scriptures command,
how to live them out,
and getting feedback as you live out these commands in community,
so that together we might build up the Church among all peoples to His glory.

With this understanding we are faced with key questions:
• How do we structure our local church so that biblical discipleship occurs?
• How do we ensure that each member of our local church is growing as disciple?
• How do we ensure that every member except the newest believer is helping others to grow as disciples?
• How do we ensure that the teaching ministries of the church accomplish the goals of biblical discipleship?

Different churches will answer these questions differently – there are several possible structures within which biblical discipleship can take place. But we must begin by aiming at right goal if we are to have any chance of achieving it.

Will you pray that your church might fulfill this biblical calling? Will you commit yourself to living out these mandates? Will you step out in faith – so that we might make disciples of all nations?

Coty Pinckney is Pastor of Desiring God Community Church, www.desiringGodchurch.org, part of Metrolina Baptist Association.