What or who is a Disciple?
By Robin Dennis
Discipleship is nothing new. We find the concept of a disciple – that is, a person following a master – among Plato, Socrates and Herodotus; in ancient Hebrew culture, Elisha (2 Kings 4:38), Isaiah (8:16), Samuel (1 Sam 10:5), then we know that John the Baptist had disciples. Josephus identified several messianic movements with disciples; that is usually a group of followers gathered around a leader. When Jesus said “make disciples” I believe that the people knew what disciples were because in the ancient world the concept was a common phenomenon. I agree with the author Ben Hull who, in his book “The Complete Book of Discipleship, on Being and Making Followers of Christ”, wrote that discipleship involved commitment of an individual, to a great master or leader. There is a warning here. I might want to disciple someone but that “someone” might not want to be a disciple. There has to be commitment. Do not waste time with someone who wants to meet for a social meeting. We all have little time and we need to use that time wisely. Jim Petersen in his book “Lifestyle Discipleship” deals with this question of time in the last chapter. He says that what we need is margin. It probably will mean taking radical steps. He writes that we must take the initiative and resume control over our circumstances.
Hull wrote in the book I mentioned above:
A disciple, then, is a reborn follower of Jesus. I’ve already mentioned my distaste for the teaching that a difference exists between being a Christian and being a disciple…I find no biblical evidence for a separation of Christian from disciple. In answer to the age-old question, ‘Are disciples born or made?’ I contend they are born to be made. The vision Jesus set into motion meant finding and training more people like the Eleven, a lifelong experience where imperfect people would be shaped into His likeness – marked by progress, not perfection.
But back to the question of what is a disciple. In 1999, Colin Powell at a conference in Washington (not a Christian conference) said that, in relation to helping deprived young people, just throwing computers at them was not enough. He asked people to spend quality time with these youngsters, to give them personal attention one by one.
That is discipleship. Programs cannot bring lasting change (see above remarks about the church) but personal attention to people one by one can make the difference of a lifetime. Scott Morton in “Down to Earth Discipling” states:
The kingdom of God needs more than programs. We need a massive dose of millions of believers demonstrating personal attentiveness. Proverbs 27:17 says it best: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”.
I wonder who has heard of Edward Kimball? I venture to suggest that not one of us has. But when I ask who has heard of DL Moody the answer will be a resounding “yes”. It was Edward Kimball who led DL Moody to commit his life to Christ. We know Moody attended church, however it was not a program that reached Moody but Edward Kimball. We can all be an Edward Kimball. Moody, for over forty-five years, preached to millions of people and so many responded to the Gospel. Do you believe that you can affect the world? You can. For when I say that, I am speaking from experience. Let me give you an up-to-date illustration. A lady in Sydney from Russia was led to Christ, and now she is by telephone speaking to her relative in Russia about the need for them to commit their lives to Christ. I did not speak to her, nor did the young man who committed his life to Christ at university speak to her, although he is her spiritual grandfather and I am her spiritual great-grandfather. It is a 2 Timothy 2:2 situation: “But what you have heard from me before many witnesses commit to faithful people who will be able to teach others also”.
I wholeheartedly believe that we have a godly responsibility to pass on the heritage we have received from our spiritual parents to others so that they can do the same.
But what do I do? There has been so much written about the “what”. One book in particular was so helpful for me. It is called “The Lost Art of Disciple Making” by Leroy Eims. In that book Leroy sets out 30 training objectives for a disciple. I found that using these objectives made all the difference. Roy Robertson in his book “The Timothy Principle” sets out an eight week course. While it is very helpful I am not sure of the stated time of eight weeks. Sometimes as you meet with your disciple a topic might come up that needs attention immediately, meaning your objective for that day has to be placed on the back-burner. On the other hand a topic might come up that can be discussed later on. But don’t forget that you have said that you will deal with that later, and do deal with it later.
Another important point to remember is that you are not just a teacher. You are a friend who wants the very best for the person you are discipling. A few examples: I watched my friend play sport. Later on I had some men live in my home. I provided meals. It’s about remembering previous conversations and following up on those conversations. It was going places with them.
Jack Griffin used to ask, “Who is your Timothy?” The first time I met Jack, he gave me a card which read, “Only one life twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last”.
Let me finish with a poem by Edgar Guest that Dawson Trotman used to share:
I’d rather see a sermon
Than hear one any day.
I’d rather one would walk with me
Than merely tell the way.
The Lost Art of Disciple Making by Leroy Eims 1979
The Timothy Principle How to Disciple One-On-One with Training Aids by Roy Robertson 1986
Lifestyle Discipleship by Jim Petersen 1993
Down to Earth Discipling by Scott Morton 2003
The Complete Book of Discipleship by Bill Hull 2006