I get lots of emails. Lots of questions. A parent emailed me with concern about their daughter. The youth pastor’s wife has begun to disciple the daughter one on one. The problem is that the youth pastor and his wife teach that unless you are in one-on-one discipleship, you are not a disciple of Christ. Simply going to church and hearing God’s Word taught is not discipleship in their opinion. In addition, the young pastor’s wife taught this girl that she must remain her disciple for life. No one else can disciple her.
Odd stuff to be sure.
But then I got a follow-up email that really perked my interest:
This past Sunday the Lead Pastor preached on discipleship and it was confusing because it sounded like he was separating converts from disciples. I am studying the matter but I don’t think I believe this. I think they are one in the same but some are ‘drinking milk and some eating meat.’
Immediately I thought of the verses that warn that not all should be teachers because they are held to a higher standard [James 3:1], and other passages that say the Spirit gives us all different gift, evangelism, teaching…found in Ephesians, James, Romans and Timothy. He only gave the great commission verse for his whole sermon and elaborated all the rest from that.
I will search for myself but do you know of any differences in a convert (new believer I guess) and a disciple of Christ? Does disciple mean follower? I know it means something to do with teaching…
There is a lot to get to here.
First, the youth-pastor and his wife are wrong. Discipleship is not limited to one-on-one instruction. In fact Biblically, discipleship occurs in our local assemblies when we hear God’s Word taught. Discipleship is local-church truth. While we can be discipled by people outside of our local church—I was on staff with Cru for four years and discipled many young men one-on-one and in small groups—that is not a truth found in the NT. That is an anomaly. Biblically our discipleship should occur in a local church. (Cru and the Navs and other discipleship groups seek to get those whom they disciple into local churches for this very reason. College parachurch ministries are only able to teach students for a few years. The local church can teach them their entire lives.)
Second, the Bible does not teach that each of us has one person who is our sole discipler for life. The NT teaches that each local church should have multiple elders. These elders are all to teach. Thus all of the elders disciple the congregation. And new elders arrive each new generation. That is what 2 Tim 2:2 is about. Timothy was teaching faithful men, elders, who were to teach other faithful men, the next generation of elders.
So in one’s lifetime a disciple of Christ will have many teachers, many who disciple them. Did not Paul say that: “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15). One spiritual father. Many instructors in Christ.
Third, the Lead Pastor was correct that there is a difference between being a disciple and being a believer. However, I think he was not crystal clear on the point. He seemed to suggest that being a disciple is some higher level of Christianity, for spiritual Christians only.
The word disciple is not found in the epistles, so this whole subject is on thin ice in terms of proof from the epistles. But in the Gospels we know that Jesus had many disciples, many followers. It should be noted that all who followed Jesus were disciples, whether they were born again or not.
Did you know that Judas was not the only unbeliever among Jesus’ disciples? I don’t mean that any of the remaining eleven were unbelievers (see John 15:3). But Jesus sent out seventy disciples on one occasion (Luke 10) and He clearly had hundreds of disciples all together. In John 6 we read, “From that time many of His disciples went away and walked with Him no more” (John 6:66). The Lord Jesus said just before that, “But there are some of you who do not believe” (John 6:64). Unbelieving disciples? Absolutely.
I hope your church accepts unbelievers into discipleship. Would your church allow an unbeliever to hear the sermon in which the congregation is being taught? Would your church allow an unbeliever to come to Sunday school? To participate in a home Bible study? Of course! We encourage that. But that is discipleship, whether the person being taught is a believer or unbeliever.
Some, if not many people, are disciples of Christ before they come to faith in Him. I was.
But the opposite is also true. It is possible to be a believer and yet not to be a disciple. If some of those who stopped walking with Jesus were believers, then they were believers who stopped being disciples.
The issue is not believers who can only drink spiritual milk versus believers who can feed on the meatier aspects of God’s Word (1 Cor 3:1-4). Both are disciples. It is just that some are baby disciples and some are mature disciples.
However, if a believer is not taking in any spiritual instruction at all, no milk and no meat, then he is no longer a disciple. If a believer drops out of church (unless, of course, it becomes impossible for him to attend), he ceases to be a disciple of Christ.
But the idea that someone must join a small group in order to be a disciple of Christ is, in my opinion, not only silly, it is downright dangerous. Look at 1 Cor 3:5-17. The NT knows nothing of home groups, Bible study groups, discipleship groups, etc. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do those things. But it means that one need not do those things to be a disciple. Instruction in the local church is all we need. Of course, the local church must teach sound doctrine.
A person is a disciple of Christ if he regularly partakes of Christian teaching in a local church. What makes a person a “convert,” that is, a born-again person, is believing in Jesus for everlasting life (John 3:16). The moment one believes in Jesus he is born-again forever. That can’t be lost. But discipleship can be lost. Only if we remain under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word do we remain His disciples.
Before I close, I want to head off a few other follow-up questions.
But there’s no good church here! I get emails from people who can’t find a solid Bible-teaching church within a two-hour drive of them. Some of these people meet on Sunday morning in their home as a family. Fine. That is church too as long as you practice the Lord’s Supper regularly and you baptize new believers. Some of these people feel they are not adequate to teach. So they listen to or watch recorded messages. While not ideal, that too becomes a sort of church.
My recommendation to those without a solid Bible-teaching church near you is to start a home church. Or, you could drive for hours on Sunday if need be. I think driving even 3 hours each way on Sunday in order to get solid Bible teaching would be worth it. How many people in our country drive or ride the train 3 hours each way Monday through Friday for work? Lots. Better yet, move to a city with a solid church. But whatever you do, get solid local church instruction.
Remote discipleship? I should add that people can be discipled remotely today by printing, internet, audio, and video. Obviously, that is what GES is all about. We are discipling (and evangelizing) people all over the world by our blog, magazine, journal, books, website, YouTube channel, audio, conferences, and soon, radio. My point is that these things are not substitutes for the local church. We need more than just good teaching remotely. We need good teaching, and good fellowship, in person (if at all possible), including the Lord’s Supper and baptism, two things you can’t meaningfully participate in remotely.
Great question. I hope my answer helps. For more information on the issue of discipleship, see this 1993 article by Charlie Bing, this 1990 article by me, this Feb 5, 2018 blog by me, and this Feb 6, 2018 blog by me.