This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
What Discipleship Is and Isn’t
Discipleship can be a junk drawer word; people put all kinds of things into it. Some of those things don’t belong there. To clarify what discipleship is, let’s consider what it is not by examining five myths of discipleship.
Myth #1: Discipleship is a Christian thing.
Discipleship did not originate with Jesus. Jewish rabbis and Greek philosophers had disciples who devoted themselves to their teaching. Saul was discipled by Gamaliel and Plato by Socrates. Barack Obama has 131 million followers on Twitter, and John Piper has one million. CNN has 56.7 million followers, and Fox News has 20.7 million.
There are outspoken people in our social media feeds, whose posts solicit anything from a flame emoji to a ranted response. The world, the flesh, and the devil exert considerable influence on our lives, as do the Church, the Spirit, and the Son of God. There is not an uninfluenced day, hour, or minute in our lives. We are constantly discipled by the cultural, relational, and spiritual forces around us. Which discipling forces influence you the most?
Myth #2: It’s all about discipleship.
Some people love discipleship. They say things like, “It’s all about making disciples who make disciples.” They emphasize multiplication. While Jesus certainly used reproductive metaphors to teach about the kingdom of God, he never evaluated his disciples based on their spiritual reproductivity. When he spoke to the seven churches in Revelation, not once did he judge them for low attendance, failure to reproduce disciples, or to plant a church. Instead, he judged their character and faith.
In Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Jonathan Dodson unveils an effective, Spirit-led model for following Jesus in everyday life. Drawing from his own failures and successes in discipling others, he provides practical ideas for mentor and peer-based discipleship as Jesus intended.
When Jesus does use agricultural metaphors, they often convey slow yet deliberate growth, not fast franchise growth. Consider the varied growth of the good soil in the parable of the four soils: the mustard seed which grew slowly into a large, bird-nesting tree; the weeds that grew quickly but were gathered up and burned. Multiplication is not the chief value of the kingdom of God, the gospel is. Productivity is not the measure of maturity, faithfulness is. So while the gospel makes disciples, it makes them for a lifetime. Sometimes they mature quickly, reproducing their faults and faith in others. And some disciples grow sluggishly, facing many challenges and setbacks. Some disciples should be making disciples who make disciples. Many disciples will slip off and on the straight and narrow. For some disciples, faithfulness is running a six minute mile; for others, it’s simply facing Jesus.
Myth #3: Discipleship is “life on life.”
“Discipleship is life on life” is another evangelical expression. When people use this phrase, they emphasize that the Christian life cannot be lived in your head. It’s not enough to accept the beliefs of the Bible; we must also share them with one another. The best version of this saying leads to intentionality in relationships. In college, John Boudreaux shared his life with me and Chris. We went to concerts, did Bible studies, practiced spiritual accountability, and ate meals together. He taught us to follow Jesus by inviting us into his life, and we soaked up his love, insight, and friendship.
However, if we’re not careful, life-on-life discipleship can lead to my best life on your life, meaning I will show you the best but not worst parts of me. I will show you how to study the Bible, what evangelism looks like, what godliness is, but I will not reveal my insecurity, pride, or anxiety to you. We put the best foot forward while hiding the ugly one. We become the professionals and our disciples the novices. This creates an unattainable ideal for disciples of Jesus, leading to deep guilt and shame when they fail to measure up. In fact, professional discipleship replaces Jesus by giving others the impression that if they can be like us, they will have arrived. But we should encourage people not to put their faith in us but in Jesus, who is much more forgiving and gracious than even our best selves. When making disciples we should confess our sins, share our struggles, and be honest about our sufferings, demonstrating that Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes. Only then will disciples get a real picture of what it is like to follow Jesus.
When making disciples we should confess our sins, share our struggles, and be honest about our sufferings, demonstrating that Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes.
Myth #4: Discipleship is optional.
Some expressions of Christianity seem to believe that going to church regularly and being a good person is all that is required to be a Christian. Evangelistic strategies set the bar even lower when baiting people with heaven—“if you died tonight . . . would you go to heaven?” But shouldn’t we woo people with the inexhaustible riches of Christ? Jesus’s goal wasn’t to get people into heaven; it was to get them into himself. For this reason, the New Testament is littered with “in Christ” sayings.
Instead, Jesus taught his followers to abide in him, like a branch abides in a life-nourishing vine. If the branch doesn’t abide, it shrivels and is burned. Jesus didn’t descend from glory and suffer on earth to give us a seat in a pew. He sacrificed his life to give us an entirely new life. Jesus doesn’t make converts; he makes disciples devoted to him, and devotion to Jesus in all of life is what discipleship is all about. Discipleship is possible because Jesus has devoted all of his life to us, before we were even born. Discipleship isn’t optional, because we’re called to Jesus not to heaven. Aim for Jesus, and you get heaven thrown in; aim for heaven, and you’ll get no heaven at all. But, if you’ve truly encountered Christ, you know deep down he’s the only one truly worth living for.
Myth #5: Discipleship is a killjoy.
When contemplating discipleship, we may be tempted to think of all the things we have to give up to follow Jesus. Perhaps it’s the approval of your peers, a bad habit, a home, or a relationship. Discipleship does entail sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t say jump in your luxury car and follow me; he says take up your cross. But what he asks in sacrifice, he more than makes up for in reward: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29). Our eternal reward is exponentially more than our temporary sacrifice.
But what about reward in this life? Didn’t Jesus say we have to lose our lives to gain it? Indeed, he appeals to the inexhaustible gain of life with him. What we lose in this life pales in comparison to what we gain in life with Christ. We often settle for fleeting joys, but Jesus came to give us abundant joy. When we walk with Jesus and the earth seems to give way all around us, he extends us a sturdy hand to lift us up into transcendent happiness that no earthly good could ever afford. Thank God that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, securing joy in our sufferings and beyond them.
Jonathan K. Dodson is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship: Revised and Expanded.
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