Discipleship Looks Different for Everyone

By Denise Kohlmeyer

"Hey, Sis. I have a question."

That is how most of my conversations have begun with my brother since his conversion over a year ago. At the age of 45, this younger sibling surrendered his life to the Lord after a horribly humiliating and humbling personal experience in 2015. Since then, he has called me long distance almost weekly, asking deep, soul-searching questions, questions I knew that only God could be impressing upon his hurting heart.

But somewhere within that year, our conversations morphed from gospel-oriented dialogue to Christ-centered discipleship. All over the phone, no less.

I have been amazed at how comfortable and uncomplicated these times of "telecommunication discipleship" have been with my brother, compared with my own experience 30 years ago when I was a baby believer myself, asking and seeking. My discipleship involved two years of weekly meetings with a pastor's wife and going through a structured study that touched on the fundamentals of the faith.

In retrospect, given my own experience, that of my brother's, and a careful study of the discipleship stories recorded in Scripture, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus wisely left the logistics of "making disciples...baptizing them...teaching them all that I have commanded you" (known as The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20) open to interpretation and application. He did not put any parameters around its practical outworking, knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for how, when, and where discipleship happens.

Bottom line? Discipleship looks different for everyone!

The word "discipleship" in Greek, mathetes, means "a learner, pupil." The root word, math-, means the "mental effort needed to think something through." Discipleship in the simplest of terms is really when a more mature believer comes alongside a newly born-again believer and teaches them how to follow Jesus Christ, helping them to "think through" His commands intelligently then apply them behaviorally.

The concept of Christian discipleship actually gets it genesis from first century Judaism. Orthodox Jewish parents would put their young sons under the authority and teaching of a Rabbi (rhabbi, "master, teacher"). For years, these pupils would intensely study the Torah and its practical (albeit burdensome) applications, all within a formal, structured setting. The hope was that someday these boys would grow up to become Rabbis themselves.

The Apostle Paul is a perfect example. He left Tarsus to study in Jerusalem under the renowned Rabbi of that day, Gamaliel. Paul proved to be an exceptionally astute pupil too, taking to heart the teachings and eventually becoming a "Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Philippians 3:5).

Jesus employed this same Teacher-Pupil model as well when He gathered a group of 12 men who spent three years sitting under His divine tutelage, learning the ways, purposes and plans of God. They became Kingdom pupils, and were thus known as "Jesus' disciples."

While Paul's Rabbinic discipleship was formal and structured, the disciples' was completely casual in nature — literally — since Jesus often used nature as His classroom: sitting by the Sea of Galilee, walking through a grain field, perched on a mountainside, gathered in a garden, or reclining around a table.

While many believers support the idea of discipleship theologically, they have shied away from practicing it personally. Why? The reasons range widely, from feeling intimidated and overwhelmed by the thought of taking on such a sacred responsibility, to avoiding making a commitment due to time constraints.

From the following accounts, however, we wonderfully see that discipleship opportunities vary just as widely: from one-time, divinely-appointed encounters to longer-term sacrificial sojourns, and everything in between.

Believers can — and should — fulfill this directive, as God brings the appointments about.

Bold and Brief

If ever there was a fulfillment of the entire Great Commission (go, make disciples, baptize them, teach them) in one fell swoop, it is that of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.

While seated in a chariot, this high-ranking court official of the Ethiopian Queen Candace, was reading aloud from the book of Isaiah, having just left Jerusalem where he had celebrated the Passover. Prompted by an angel, Philip ran (literally) along the road to catch up with the chariot. How funny it must have seemed to the eunuch to suddenly look up and see this stranger running alongside his vehicle, then casually ask, "Do you understand what you are reading?" But, unfazed, the eunuch replies, "How can I unless someone guides me?" He then invites Philip into his conveyance, and a discipleship dialogue unfolds. Philip "opened his mouth, and beginning with the Scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus."

Part of Philip's teaching apparently included baptism. As they providentially happened upon some water along their journey, the eunuch requested to be baptized; and, without hesitation, Philip obliged him. The Lord then spirited Philip away, and the newly-converted eunuch proceeded on his way, "rejoicing."

From this one-of-a-kind account, we see that discipleship can be a brief but bold time of "guiding" a spiritually hungry — or hurting — heart to the One who saves and heals. Philip demonstrates that discipleship does not have to be complicated or overly-involved; and it also challenges us to be open and ready for God's impromptu discipleship directives and not waste any time when the opportunity presents itself to espouse and explain the glorious story of Jesus Christ.

Short and Sweet

Apollos is one of my all-time favorite, obscure characters in the Bible. In just four verses (Acts 18:24-28), we get a glimpse of the short and sweet discipling of this eloquently-speaking Alexandrian Jew.

When they encountered Apollos in an Ephesus synagogue, husband-and-wife missionary team Priscilla and Aquila already had a solid platform with which to work. Although he had only known the baptism of John, Apollos was already familiar with "the things concerning Jesus." Yet something was still lacking in his knowledge; so Priscilla and Aquila graciously "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately."

Scripture is silent as to how long this took. It might have been a one-time conversation, like with Philip and the eunuch. But given the breadth and depth of the "way of God," I have to believe that it happened through several conversations over a short period of time.

Regardless, thanks to Priscilla and Aquila's teaching, Apollos was more fully equipped to preach the cause of Christ in his evangelistic endeavors. He soon left for Achaia, with their blessing, and there was able to "powerfully refute the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus."

From this account, we see that discipleship may involve simply filling in or expanding another believer's knowledge of God. Like Apollos, some people are already well-versed in Scripture, but they may be lacking in some essential component that will bring their understanding full circle. In most of these instances, this discipleship directive does not require tons of time, just the ability to recognize those knowledge gaps and then the courage to step forward and take the time to clarify — even to a stranger — "the way of God more accurately."

Lovingly Long Term

This form of discipleship requires a true commitment from both teacher and pupil(s). This is the model which most believers seem to shy away from, given the length of time required. But we see the model for it through the sacrificial service of, first and foremost Jesus with the 12 disciples, but also later in Scripture with the Apostle Paul and his protégé Titus. Each of these men committed long stints to teaching, equipping and strengthening the fledgling flocks scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul spent three years in Ephesus, preaching the gospel, instructing new converts, and establishing local house-churches where the converts could grow and be strengthened in their new-found faith. Titus was left on Crete by Paul with the directive to establish the "government" of the newly-planted churches there, by selecting spiritually-capable men to shepherd the flocks and by also setting forth instructions for individual holy living and community relations among the believers.

Interestingly, Titus' discipling also included admonishment — also a necessary component of "teaching them to obey My commandments." Given that these particular Cretan converts were struggling to put off some of their old behaviors of idleness, gossip, and gluttony. Within this longer duration of discipleship, a teacher has ample time and opportunity to delve deeper into the life of his/her pupil and gently expose areas of sinful, ungodly behavior, then offered loving but firm correction.

From these accounts, we understand that God may require of us a long-term commitment to disciple a new or young believer. This form of discipleship is a calling — a ministry, really — to sacrifice time (possibly years) and energy (for preparation, if it's a structured study).

Discipling someone can seem intimidating. But from these examples, we see that it needn't be. The "making" of disciples, yes, is a command to all born-again believers. When, where and how it happens, however, depends on the situation. We just need to be willing to "go" and be ready to "baptize and teach," trusting that God is "with us always" at the time a discipleship moment presents itself.

So, now, whenever or wherever I hear "Hey, I have a question" — whether it is from my brother or someone else — I now know that a discipleship moment is upon me. Yet, what I don't know is, is if it will be brief, short- or long-term. But it doesn't matter. The length of the moment is irrelevant, as long as it is a teaching moment — the making of a disciple, teaching them about God and His wonderful ways, one question at a time.

Published 9-26-16