Recently, during a conversation with a friend struggling with anger, I commented that their issue with anger provided a good discipleship opportunity. This, unsurprisingly, seemed like a confusing comment to this person; we talk a lot about discipleship in church world, but we have some strange conceptions of what the word actually means.
At its most basic, discipleship can be understood through the pupil-teacher relationship – the teacher (discipler) educates the pupil (disciple) through a sort of ‘apprenticeship’ – the two spend time together, the teacher shares their knowledge, and eventually sends the student out to teach another.
Anyone who has any church experience will know that discipleship in the New Testament is most commonly understood in reference to the twelve men who followed Jesus around, His Twelve Disciples. Most of us in evangelical churches will also know the word from the Great Commission (upon which most of our mission statements are based):
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew chapter 28, verses 19 and 20).
After some discussion, I realised that my friend was confused because they felt that in order to be discipled in their situation, they would need to go out and find a discipler. They would have to draw up a discipleship covenant, and meet weekly at the local coffee shop, and buy a special book with specific questions to be asked…
Here’s where the confusion comes in – we have made discipleship in Western Christianity into something that it was never intended to be.
Life is our discipleship training manual
Dallas Willard in his book, The Great Omission tells us that “The word ‘disciple’ occurs 269 times in the New Testament. (Whereas) ‘Christian’ is found only three times and was first introduced to refer precisely to the disciples…” We have made discipleship into something for super Christians with mentors and training manuals, but what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of ‘disciples’ was Christians, period – all of us who follow Him are disciples (whether we engage as such or not).
Whilst resources may be of benefit for us in our discipleship, the principal discipleship training manual that we work with is ‘life.’ As we proceed through life, coming up against hurdles, or experiencing success, we are met with an opportunity to ‘be discipled.’ It’s in the nitty gritty of everyday life that we are granted opportunity to ‘work heartily as for the Lord’ (Colossians chapter 3 verses 23 and 24) – discipleship cannot be nailed down to a one-hour study each Thursday morning – Christ wants our whole lives to be in submission to Him and to His will.
Our principle discipler is Jesus
In the same way, discipleship does not necessitate that we find a mentor and ask them (as though they were the funnel to all wisdom) what we should do – Jesus is the actual source of all wisdom! Whilst it is good to seek mentorship from others, and whilst much biblical discussion of discipleship involves another, we don’t NEED someone else to disciple us, for it is Jesus we are seeking to emulate and follow, not another person. Jesus is our principle discipler.
Jesus wants to disciple us through our whole lives – he is with us always through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Matthew chapter 28 verse 20) and he cares about how we respond to life’s ups and downs. The concept of ‘whole-life discipleship’ is fashionable at the moment, and with good reason – believe it or not, Jesus does care about (and want to be involved in) our whole lives, not just our morning bible reading, prayer, Sunday church attendance, or formalized mentoring meetings.
As we go through life with Christ our discipler, we can learn lessons from everything, and we can use every opportunity to put Christ’s teaching into practice. So, for my friend ‘the struggler’ (it’s like Thomas the doubter, but worse!), their struggle offered an opportunity to practice what we learn in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 26, “in your anger, do not sin.” The best time to practice this command, believe it or not, is when we are angry!
Christians: we are all disciples. Whilst we may seek resourcing through books and studies and we should seek the help of others, Jesus Christ is our principle discipler, and His training manual is life. So, when next you find yourself in a challenging life situation, ask the Lord through prayer what he is seeking to teach you as your discipler; and I pray His presence is clear and tangible for you as you seek Him in this way.
Brent Van Mourik is the Queensland Church Relationship Manager for Baptist World Aid Australia and is a registered pastor with the Baptist Union of Queensland. He completed a Bachelor of Theology with honours in New Testament through Malyon College in Brisbane, where he now lives with his wife, Jane, and his young son, Joshua. In his down time, he enjoys making and drinking good coffee, and developing his theology of disappointment, whilst putting into practice Ephesians chapter 4 verse 26 (“In your anger do not sin”) on the golf course.
Brent Van Mourik’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/brent-van-mourik.html