Being a Disciple of Christ as a Journey, is through Engaging with Others Personal Narrative
The goal of my paper is to present what true discipleship looks like as an essential aspect of being rooted in Christ. I will cover everything from what discipleship is, to the practical implications and applications of discipleship. As Christ followers, we should be in constant engagement with discipleship. Whether it’s personal discipleship between God and self, or communal discipleship among the church and neighbor, we are constantly presented with opportunities for spiritual and relational growth.
What is This “Discipleship” Thing Anyway?
What is discipleship, and what does it mean to be called a disciple, or to engage in the act of discipling? What does it really mean to follow Jesus Christ? By understanding these questions, a believer can live up to their full potential and calling in Christ.
Discipleship is an essential building block and factor of living a life aligned with the call Christ has placed on His people.
The end goal, one hopes, is for that disciple to eventually grow into a leader themselves, modeling what they have learned and doing the same for another. This is what it looks like to be a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Upon our profession of faith, we enter into lifelong discipleship under Christ, modeling who He is through learning and growing in His Words and deeds. As the believer matures in his or her faith and it begins to inform who they are, they are then called through the Great Commission to go out and make disciples themselves. Being a disciple, or a “mathetes” in biblical terms, of Jesus has some unique aspects. First, we never step away from being under His authority. Second, the disciples we are making are ultimately Christ working through us to make more disciples of Him. Being a disciple of Christ involves being called to be under His authority and to know him, as well as to actively follow him; sharing the good news and making disciples of other people.
Okay, so what does that mean theologically?
Now that we have a better, general understanding of what discipleship is, we can begin to explore the deeper aspects of discipleship that make it truly transforming. In order to understand discipleship on a deeper theological level, we must look to Christ and the cross. In his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains the role of Christ and the cross perfectly. He says, “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.” This quote is so powerful and helps to set up the discussion on Christ’s role in discipleship. Dwelling among humanity and displaying a great act of love on the cross, Jesus’ life displays kingdom-focused discipleship in action.
Jesus Christ, the second part of the Holy Trinity, born of divine conception, was sent to earth to take on the flesh of mankind and dwell among them. The Almighty Creator of the world did not yell from heaven a message of condemnation and need for repentance, rather, He sent His one and only Son. Christ entered the world, taking on the sinful flesh of humanity, to bring the good-news-message of salvation and new life. Jesus, in the highest level of humility, came down to our level so that we might have an opportunity to experience redemption and form a relationship with Him and the Father. Overflowing with grace and truth, His life on earth was devoted to teaching us how to love God and neighbor through deeply rooted and intentional relationships.
Through Christ’s life and ministry, we have numerous examples of what it means to love God and engage the world around us. The pinnacle of Christ’s love and humility displayed, comes through His final breaths as He hung on the cross. An innocent life so willingly given up that our salvation may be confirmed and sealed with His blood. Looking to the cross, we see a level of unmatched and unattainable obedience – obedience to the point of true physical suffering and, ultimately, death. In the midst of such an extreme display of love, we also get to witness an extreme display of redemption and hope. Through Christ’s obedience on the cross, God then raises His son’s name above all names and He is highly exalted. It is through Christ’s life and death that we are given the true theologically rooted design of discipleship. Beginning with humble obedience through sacrificial service, and leading to eternal exaltation – this is discipleship. Discipleship is love for God and love for people. We love and serve God by sacrificially loving and serving people, just as Christ displayed through His life on earth.
The presented understanding of who Christ is establishes His essential role as the core foundation of discipleship. This theological view of Christ allows us to approach discipleship with Him as the beginning and center of truth, and not our broken human selves. When Christ is established as the core, interactions with the Word and the world all present opportunities for spiritual growth and discipleship. Christ is the very Word of God incarnate, who walked this earth and died as a living example of truth, love, and ministry. Christ’s role in discipleship is the foundational lens that we look through in order to engage the world around us. This leads us to another essential aspect of Christ’s life for understanding discipleship, which is engaging the world as per the Great Commission.
The Great What?
Before ascending to be seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus explicitly commanded His disciples to go out into the world and make more disciples of all nations. This command from Jesus can be found in each of the four Gospels (Matthew 28:18–20, Mark 16:15–20, Luke 24:45–49, John 20:21–23) and is commonly known as the Great Commission. Understanding the Great Commission helps us to become better informed as disciples, as we look to a command given by Jesus to his people. When examining the Matthew 28 passage, Jesus sets up the command by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This is quite a powerful opening statement, as it establishes Jesus’ credibility for whatever statements will follow. The claim made by Jesus lays the foundation for discipleship, as it establishes Him as the one placed in authority. The established authority of Christ through the Great Commission also sets into motion the rule and reign of God’s Kingdom. Through the commissioning of God’s people to go and make disciples of Jesus, the Kingdom begins to take root in the form of transformed lives.
Through the Great Commission, Jesus establishes His authority, His Kingdom, and His people. In order for each of these things to be achieved, Jesus follows his opening statement with His command, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This means everyone, every ethnic group, and every culture, sharing the good news and bringing people to know Him as devoted disciples. Jesus’ command initiates an infinite cycle of being discipled and then going out and discipling. This is where the Kingdom of God becomes living, active, and tangible. Because of who Christ is, and because of the power bestowed upon His disciples through the Great Commission, the Kingdom becomes an ever-growing and timeless establishment found in the hearts of all who come to know Him. The Great Commission provides an inside look at Jesus’ initiation of transforming the world through the making of disciples.
Is Discipleship Done on My Own?
When it comes to the topic of being a disciple and making new disciples, it’s not about individuals thrown blindly into the world to tell people about Jesus and personally bring them to Him. Discipleship is actually entirely dependent upon community and relationship. Just as discipleship would fail without Jesus, it would also fail without a community. Christian Community describes God’s redeemed people coming together in response to His call. They gather so that they may know God better through each other’s company, and know each other better through God’s company. The collective body of Christ represents a visible gathering of those who welcome Christ, His Kingdom, and His Word through their interactions with one another.
The community aspect of discipleship is not only beneficial to those on the inside. To those on the outside (unbelievers), discipleship in a community presents an opportunity for visible evidence of what a community rooted in Christ looks like. Those who do not believe and often doubt need to see Christ’s love in action. This is where discipleship among the body is essential. The body of Christ becomes a living, breathing representation of Christ’s love, grace, and mercy. If we are truly transformed and in Christ, we cannot walk in isolation. We must walk in love and service, engaging each other by being the hands and feet of Christ to the world around us. When engaged in discipleship, we are teaching the living Word to one another through our words and deeds. Everything is about intentional relationships rooted in and representing Christ.
Expanding on the role of the body and Christian community in relation to discipleship, we can look more specifically to the Ecclesia, or church. “The reality of discipleship is the nature of the church. This is because Christ exists in the church community.” When engaging in discipleship in the church, one must understand that it comes through social interaction with people, and those people are grounded in wanting to follow Jesus’ interaction with the world. The church takes on the very nature of Jesus Christ represented in the world. Christ’s essential role is being for us, and since the church represents Christ, this role is mirrored through the church being for each other. Thus, the social nature of the church is a basic theological category within which discipleship takes place.
People are inherently relational beings, and because of this, they are constantly seeking relation with those around them. When Christlikeness through discipleship is the aim and motivation of the church, the community becomes one that lives with and for each other; this is communal discipleship. Discipleship in the church setting is about connecting and ministering to the divine image of humanity. Made in God’s image, we all possess a divine understanding of being one with each other. We must constantly seek to live in a community that outwardly expresses the divineness of our very nature. In the church, the goal is “that all would reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” This is one of the essential roles of the church in discipleship.
Another essential role of the church is the recognition and understanding of sin. As long as the church is made up of living, breathing human beings, sin will always be a reality. Such an important aspect of being a disciple and discipling others is recognizing the reality of sin and shortcomings. All too often, being a Christ follower is presented as a perfectly clean life and a one-way ticket to Heaven. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as sin is still active and present in everyone. When dealing with discipleship and ministering to others, especially in the church setting, these “dirty” truths of Christianity need to be properly expressed. As believers, presenting a Gospel message that brings hope and new life is important. However, that message must also include the truth that sin is real, and Satan is constantly trying to knock us down.
Whether engaging in community through your relationship with God or your relationship with others, it is very evident that discipleship is not individualistic and community is essential. This, then, is the body’s role in discipleship: a communal group constantly seeking to deny self and take on Christ’s living image of love for others. This group recognizes the divine nature of all humanity and seeks to strengthen the understanding of Christ in each other. They establish a church culture wherein all parties see each other as helpless sinners saved by grace and growing in Christ even as they still struggle and learn. Discipleship is clearly dynamic, as it is founded in Christ and actively exists among His people through Christian community.
Who is a Disciple and How Can I Be One?
When it comes to discipleship, there is no ten-step process or perfect way of doing it. This is found to be true in that discipleship involves people, and where there are people, nothing is ever cookie-cutter and simple. Evangelist and teacher Oswald Chambers once said, “Never try to make your experience a principle for others, but allow God to be as creative and original with others as He is with you.” This quote helps to put into perspective the reality that discipleship is unique and truly a different animal from person to person. In reality, there are as many ways to do discipleship as there are people in the world. With that being said, there are four quick aspects that I believe are not a sure answer but help to lay the foundation for approaching discipleship. Before discussing those four aspects, I believe that one must first recognize discipleship as a journey.
Understanding what discipleship is and how to do it comes through recognizing it as a journey and experience. People come to know Christ either through growing up around Christianity or through some unique personal journey or experience. In reality, how someone comes to know Christ does not really matter if they live their everyday lives with a surface faith that they neither fully understand nor own. Unfortunately, these people often end up leaving the faith, as they begin to feel that their religion is lacking or just doesn’t fit their current way of life. This is where one must understand that discipleship and being a Christ follower is more than just a discipline; it is a life-changing journey. Believers must come to understand the paradox of spiritual growth. “Spiritual growth is paradoxical: the more progress you make, the more you realize how far there is to go.” This way of understanding our spiritual growth creates such a unique view of our lives and discipleship. The believer begins to develop an understanding of their life and the lives of others that expresses constant spiritual progress. The closer to God we move in our journey, the more we realize our brokenness, further encouraging us to be actively engaged in our faith by seeking discipleship.
One unique yet effective way that a believer can understand being a disciple of Christ as a journey is through engaging with their own and others’ personal narratives. Through vocalizing and discussing our stories, one opens oneself to vulnerability and begins to see God’s redemptive hand at work. Anytime someone is able to vocally walk through their personal narrative with someone else, they establish a foundational level of trust and allow for greater discipleship-driven depth and relationship. It is often this vocalizing that allows God to speak into and through our stories, leading to personal and communal growth, conviction, and revelation.
As believers, recognizing God’s authority and active hand at work is important for approaching discipleship in a way that denies self, while exalting God and others. Believers must take into account the reality of the journey that God places before us, and engage with Him every step of the way. Engaging with God brings recognition of how broken and far from perfection we are. This life is a journey that every individual must endure, and it is through personal devotion and discipleship that we can look through the trials of this life and into the hope that comes from Jesus. Along the journey, believers learn to lean on each other and God, learning how to embrace stumbling and shortcomings. Finally, stepping toward becoming a disciple, one must understand that God will never give us more than we can spiritually handle. From the first to last breath, God has ornately designed a plan and purpose unique to each of us. No matter whether a life encounter is positive or negative, God’s mighty hand is at work. With this comes the understanding that “no believer encounters unprecedented temptations, but rather all face various forms of common enticements that are inherent in the human condition and journey.”
Now that we understand discipleship is a journey, the first of the four aspects that I mentioned earlier is relationship. Learning how to do discipleship must lean into the relational side of humanity. Through the relational aspect of who we are as created beings, discipleship allows people to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ as they engage and grow in relationships with others. It is through relationships and interacting with others that we begin to better understand our place in the Kingdom and our value in Christ.
The second aspect of engaging discipleship is the experience. True and active discipleship can target all five senses. This kind of discipleship builds off the relational aspect and makes it a completely immersive experience. It seeks to look at the context of those involved, then, through the guidance of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, speaks into their lives. The discipleship experience allows all those involved to dive into the middle of each other’s mud puddles, being fully present and receptive.
The third aspect of engaging discipleship is academic. Discipleship is not only about conversations and discussing each other’s feelings; it also involves “book work” and “study”. The academic aspect recognizes that discipleship must involve an active relationship with the Scriptures. A discipleship-based relationship with God and others is not limited to everyday conversation topics. Rather, successful discipleship seeks to engage the Scriptures in both personal and communal settings. The Scriptures provide a roadmap for life and relationships that motivates those involved, provides perspective, and encourages growth.
The fourth and final aspect of engaging discipleship is the personal aspect. This aspect seeks to create a level playing field among all involved and is really a culmination of the other three aspects. Often when we think of “personal,” we think of ownership or oneness. However, this is not the case in relation to discipleship. In this context, the personal aspect encourages those involved to bring all of who they are to the discipleship table. It is about recognizing and understanding that we all have baggage and are all equally in need of each other and a Savior. Through the journey, relationship, experience, and academics, the personal aspect seeks to draw from each, internalize, and then externalize for the sake of personal and communal growth.
To conclude, being a Christ follower who engages in true and active discipleship is honestly complex. Unfortunately, all too often, believers try to ignore this complexity and engage God and people on their own terms. Most often, people accept the gift of eternal life and then look forward to the spiritual vacation of heaven, but are not willing to put in the spiritual work to get there. As presented in this paper, a well-balanced diet of seeing Christ as the center of all things, fellowship with believers in community, and recognizing the many aspects of discipleship, all aid in the process of moving toward God as an active disciple. As believers, we must engage in a discipleship that promotes individual and communal spiritual growth, placing Christ at the beginning, center, and end of all we do. This is discipleship, engaging Christ in a way that informs and transforms how we engage others. It will be costly at times, but knowing this should only encourage and strengthen us to rely more on Him and strive to be more like Him.