A few years ago, my roommate and I decided we wanted to road trip with the greatest dog in all of God’s creation—Corrie the German shepherd. We had an extra seat next to the fluffer, so we invited our good friend Robin to join. With nine hours of road between Dallas and Taos, Robin, Alex, and I had plenty of time to discuss the mundane, the imaginary, the profound, and everything in between.
Somewhere outside of Amarillo the conversation turned to discipleship. Both Robin and Alex have attended churches faithfully since they were in diapers. They rarely miss a Sunday, serve faithfully in a whole host of ministries, and take their faith seriously. They deeply love the Lord and would by almost any standard be considered mature believers. So, when I asked them, “How do y’all define discipleship?”, I expected a robust, thoroughly developed definition they had picked up over the years in church.
Robin stroked Corrie’s ears, Alex looked out the window at the very flat landscape, and I kept my eyes on the road waiting for a response. Finally, Alex broke the silence, “Huh, I’m not really sure how I would define it. I guess reading the Scriptures, evangelizing, and serving maybe.” Robin followed with, “Yeah, I guess it’s a word that we use a lot, but I’m not sure I would know exactly how to define it either.” Corrie added nothing to the dialogue.
That conversation prompted me to start asking Christians from time to time how they would define discipleship. I soon learned Alex and Robin fell squarely into the norm. It turns out that if you ask ten Christians to explain discipleship, you will get ten different answers all approximating it but having a hard time clearly defining it.
One of the common responses to the question, “What is discipleship?” is that people discussed a program. They think of a midweek ministry in their church, and sometimes these ministries even have discipleship in the name. Another response usually has something to do with knowing how to perform or practice the spiritual disciplines. In other words, discipleship is boiled down to the ability and habit of reading one’s Bible and praying regularly. And, if you are a super-duper disciple, you might even meditate.
Another common response described something we might call mentoring. Usually, it includes references to Barnabas discipling Paul who discipled Timothy, but as they fleshed out “discipled” they really were describing mentoring—advising or training someone. Perhaps most honestly, people also responded that discipleship is something mature people do. “All of us are converts, but few of us are disciples” sums up that position well. And, while the last one should be rejected outright, the other responses are what I might call, discipleship adjacent. Those definitions live on the same street as discipleship, but do not share the same address. They play a role in discipleship, but they do not accurately summarize the whole of discipleship.
So, you might be asking, then what is discipleship? Glad you asked. Discipleship is simply having a relationship with the trinitarian God. When Jesus tells his disciples in his post-resurrection final pep talk to “go and make disciples,” he was essentially telling his followers to invite others to become followers of him. Discipleship is an invitation to come to Jesus. However, more than simply coming to him, discipleship results in a radical transformation from the inside out. It changes who you are and whose you are. In other words, discipleship is primarily about identity formation through living in union with the trinitarian God. It asks and answers the questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who are others? And, how do these relate? Discipleship is about encountering the living God, who made you and loves you, and that encounter results in a radical transformation of who you are so that you become a lover of God, others, and yourself.
How do I know I am right? Glad you asked. The whole of Scripture seems to be answering the questions I just laid out for you. For example, how far do you have to get before God answers the question, “Who is God?” Just past the table of contents, in Genesis 1, we see an introduction to the God of the universe. Who is God? He eternally existed in three persons, one essence. He, out of an overflow of love, created the whole world and everything in it. He made the world good, he made it for our enjoyment, and he made it with the breath of his mouth without strain. He tames chaos with order. He enjoys beauty as evidenced by giraffes, aardvarks, constellations, orchids, and butterflies. He shares his image with humanity. We are only on page one.
We jump forward to that same God who takes on flesh and walks with fallen humanity strolling down the dusty streets of Galilee. Jesus looks to Peter and asks, “Who do you say I am?” The visible image of the invisible God, is helping his followers to better answer the question, “Who is God?” And, when Jesus gets ready to go to the cross and ultimately die, resurrect, and ascend, he tells the disciples the Holy Spirit will come. And do what? Testify about himself. God himself sent himself to tell us about himself. God wants us to ask, “Who is God?” And thankfully he goes to great lengths through his Word, Son, and Spirit to answer the question for us.
Discipleship and Identity
Discipleship goes beyond simply knowing God, though. It also forces us to ask, “Who am I?” Again, we do not have to go very far in our Scriptures to find the answer to this question. After introducing himself to us in the creation story, we get to verse twenty-six of chapter one, and God lets us into an intra-trinitarian conversation. “Let us make humanity in our image” (Gen 1:26). Corrie the German shepherd is a God-made creature, most beloved of all the dogs. Yet, despite all her perfections, she does not bear God’s image. You, my friend, do. Who are you? You are first and foremost a child of God who bears his image. You were created to bathe in God’s love, live in relationship with him, and partner with him in bringing shalom to the world. If discipleship is about living in union with the trinity, asking and answering “Who am I?”—if done correctly—will bring you to the very face of God in whose image you bear.
Finally, since discipleship is living in union with God and the Trinity is both singular and plural, we must wrestle with the equal ultimacy of the one and many. Put more succinctly, who you are as an individual and who you are as a member of a community deserve equal treatment. Thus, discipleship demands we ask, “Who are others?” Or, if you are a first century lawyer questioning Jesus, you might phrase it like so: who is my neighbor? Answer: everyone.
Follow up question: what do I owe him or her? Answer: love. Having a relationship with the Triune means that you are not only saved from sin and death, but you are also saved into a family. Ephesians 2:8-10 are wonderful verses to memorize, and many Christians start here on their memorization journeys. We are saved by grace. Awesome! We do not have to earn it. Wonderful! You have been given gifts by God. Rad! Then we stop at verse ten and forget that eleven through twenty-two follow. However, Ephesians 2:11-22 explains to what end were we saved by grace and given works to do. Your salvation means you are brought near to Christ and put into a family so that union with Christ also means union in one body of believers. You belong body and soul to Jesus Christ, and you belong to each other.
Discipleship is “you walking with God.” And, if we are going to disciple well, we must have our identities formed and transformed so that we rightly understand “you,” “walking,” and “God.” Who is God? Who am I? Who are others? And, how do these relate? Asking and answering these questions will allow us to make disciples more faithfully.
So, go to your programs, practice your spiritual disciplines, and participate in mentorship relationships. Use all these methods to help you on your discipleship journey. But the next time you find yourself on a road trip (with or without a German shepherd) and someone asks you, “What is discipleship?”, I hope you will answer, “It’s having your identity shaped by union with the one true God.”