What is Discipleship?
The simplest definition for the mission of the Church is “To make disciples.” This makes sense. Jesus explicitly tells his followers to do just that in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. But now we’ve swapped one problem for another. In defining the mission of the Church, we must now define the term “disciple”. The Greek word for disciple (mathetes) means student. But don’t picture a university lecture hall. There’s an old Jewish idiom, “covered in the dust of the Rabbi.” This means he is so close to the Rabbi’s heels, he’s getting dust kicked up onto him. Being a mathetes means learning knowledge but it’s more holistic than that. More earthy. More real. A disciple, over time, morphs into the likeness of the Rabbi. Now back to the Great Commission – “Go and make [people into] mathetes.” Tall order.
John’s great commission is less precise. In John 20:21, Jesus breathes on his followers and says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Peter adds more flavor to the discussion by identifying the Church as “A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
So what do we have so far? The mission of the Church is to make people who are students, followers, sent, Spirit-filled, priestly, chosen, royal, holy, spokespeople and God’s own. No wonder there’s so little clarity here. And those are merely three verses! Maybe the Old Testament will help.
The word disciple/student is used only once in the OT and it’s used to describe the followers of Isaiah (8:16). What we do see throughout the OT is the call to remember. Countless times the story of the Exodus from Egypt is recounted. Festivals and feast days remind the people who their God is and what God has done for them. They are set apart, different from those around them. We see this in the rite of circumcision, the Mosaic Law, and the sacrificial system. When discipleship language is used, it comes most often as a father imparting wisdom to his son, see Proverbs 3. Thus there is a familial aspect to being God’s people.
What does the mission of the Church boil down to then? Three I’s. Introduction. Imprinting. Identity. I heard a podcast recently about animal imprinting. If a duckling hatches next to a dog it will assume, for its entire life, that the dog is its mother (assuming the dog doesn’t eat it!). The naive duckling is introduced to something far grander than itself and the dog’s identity is imprinted onto the bird. We cannot make disciples, in the technical sense. We can only introduce people to the Great Rabbi. We can only teach what discipleship means to the extend we model what a disciple is. A disciple yields to Christ, as clay yields to the potter’s hand. As I yield, Jesus imprints his identity onto me. As a result I begin to see my entire world differently. Covered in the dust of the Rabbi, I find my identity not in who I have been or what I have done, but in what Christ has done to make me the person I am to be.