Discipleship has become a bit of a buzzword in the American Church in the last few years — and rightly so. Discipleship is critical to healthy spiritual development for any follower of Jesus. We must be discipled and we must also commit to making disciples. This is foundational for anyone who wants to take faith seriously.
And here is where the conversation begins. I teach a membership class in our church that tries to explain who we are as a church and where we are headed and how we plan to get there. I always ask two fundamental questions at the beginning of every class. First, On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is discipleship? In 23 years of teaching this class I have never had anyone say anything other than a 10. We all recognize that discipleship is critical for everyone.
Then I ask a follow up question: What is discipleship? And it gets fuzzy and jumbled in a hurry. People mumble and contemplate and wax eloquent. It is interesting to me how we all agree that discipleship is absolutely critical, and yet once we begin to talk about what it actually is, we can’t seem to focus on what we ought to do.
Discipleship in the Jewish world was and still is very intentional. This may be an eye opener for many of us as we consider how we might fulfill the great commission.
Jewish schooling is very different than what we are familiar with. In our western education system, our goal is to get the student to know what the teacher knows. We disseminate information and take tests that prove I can regurgitate the information — or at least I can lock it into my short-term memory long enough to pass a test. The problem is that there is no need for the ability to use this information or prove that I can apply it in life.
In a Jewish education, the goal is that the student becomes what the teacher is. It is not enough for the student to be able to reproduce facts from his mind. He must also be able to prove that he understands how to use the information in real life. Proficiency in application is core to how they teach.
Discipleship reflects that premise. The goal of discipling someone in the Jewish world is not teaching or education — it is the desire to have the person I am discipling walk just as I have walked. In other words, the goal of the student is to become what the teacher is, in every sense.
Paul alludes to this idea in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you.
It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
And the writer of Hebrews speaks of it in chapter 13:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
John also picks up on this idea in 3 John:
Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.
Maybe the problem we have with understanding what it means to make a disciple is that we don’t truly understand what it means to live a life worth imitating. Or maybe it is that we don’t understand what it means to allow people to know us deeply enough that they could imitate us.
Discipleship must be relational at a foundational level if we are going to become what our teacher is. This is one of the central critiques from Jewish people concerning Christianity as a whole. If Jesus was a rabbi, He must have been the worst rabbi ever because His followers look nothing like Him.
Perhaps the place to begin is in being willing to know others truly and to be truly known. And maybe before that even happens, we need to make sure we are actually dealing with the issues in our lives that don’t look much like Jesus. One thing about doing discipleship the way the writers of the Bible would have done it is that it forces all of us to deal with the junk in our lives because we become so deeply known by others.
May you become a great disciple maker. And may you be willing to be truly known.