Summary: What is discipleship? What does it have to do with the church?
This morning, we continue our look at the five purposes of the church, the five primary reasons that we relate to one another as a body of believers, rather than just living out our faith privately as individuals. So far, we’ve looked at three - evangelism, worship, fellowship - and today, we consider the fourth, "discipleship".
You may not recognize that term, but the concept should be familiar. "Disciple" means "follower". So, for instance, a psychiatrist might be called a "disciple" of Freud if he follows Sigmund Freud’s theories and methods. A jazz trumpeter might be called a "disciple" of Wynton Marsalis if he imitates his playing style. In medicine, we don’t call it "discipleship," we call it "residency". Residents learn the practice of medicine by observing and imitating a more experienced physician. Another example would be a beginning electrician or plumber who learns their trade by becoming an "apprentice". They become a disciple of a more experienced electrician or plumber.
The word "disciple" is used in the gospels and in Acts to refer to the Twelve; the dozen men whom Jesus selected to travel with him, those whom He chose to teach and train personally. "Disciple" is also used in the Bible as a synonym for "Christian". It means "follower," or "student". So when we refer to Christians as disciples, we are identifying them as followers of Jesus Christ; as students of his life and teachings. But there’s something more. The word also carries the idea of imitation. So disciples of Jesus Christ are those who are seeking, not just to understand Christianity in an intellectual sense, but who are seeking to be like Jesus. Disciples of Christ are people who are modeling their lives after his, who are walking according to the example he gave us.
"Then Jesus said to His disciples, ’If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’" - Matthew 16:24
When Jesus said that we should "follow" him, he wasn’t talking about literally strapping on a pair of sandals and walking with him along the dusty roads of ancient Palestine. [As great as that would be]. No, he meant that we should follow his example; that we should live the way he lived; that we should obey his commands; listen to his teachings; look to him as our teacher and guide. That’s what it means to "follow," that’s what it means to be a disciple, that’s what it means to be a Christian.
Well, so far, this all sounds very individualistic. What part does the church play in this process? For the answer to that question, listen to what Paul says:
" Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me." - 1 Corinthians 4:16
"Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you." - Philippians 3:17
Sounds quite arrogant, doesn’t it? Be like me! Do what I do! Follow my example! Until you realize that Paul was really exhorting them to follow Christ. They were to follow Paul’s example, but only as that example was faithful to the life and teachings of Christ. As he wrote later,
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." - 1 Corinthians 11:1
So yes, we study Christ by reading the gospels - and in those we can observe as he encounters all kinds of people: we watch and listen as he relates to children, to family members, to soldiers, kings, poor people, wealthy people, hurting people, needy people, religious hypocrites, false disciples. As we read the gospels, we see how Jesus relates to God the Father. We see his courage, his compassion, his wisdom, his humility, his patience, his strength. And having studied Christ in the gospels, we do our best to imitate him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. But here’s where the church comes in. We also grow as disciples of Christ by observing and following the example of other believers. What does Paul say? "take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you." (Phlp. 3:17)
What does that mean? It means that there should be those in the congregation whose lives are worthy of imitation. It means that normally in a church, over time, as people become more mature spiritually, their lives become more and more reliable as examples of what it means to be godly. The normal thing for a Christian is not that we remain at the lowest level of knowledge and experience; that we learn just enough to get in the door and then put the Bible on the shelf. The normal, expected thing is to have many people in the body who can teach, who can counsel, whose attitudes and conduct can serve as examples for others to follow.