Defining Discipleship

Here begins chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship. To recap:

Chapter Three

Discipleship in the New Testament

As with many aspects of New Testament theology, it can be difficult to ascertain an overarching sense of continuity and synthesis from the different authors. In regards to the topic of discipleship, it can be argued that “each of the New Testament writer’s presents the concept of Christian discipleship in a manner related to his own ideological background and perspectives, the perceived needs and understandings of his audience, and the specific details of the situation addressed.”1 As a result, the New Testament texts may offer quite different portraits of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One could easily look specifically at Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Acts and enter into a prolonged discussion on the topic from the perspective of what the individual author presents as the relevant material.

Nevertheless, according to James Dunn, “it is essential to scrutinize the records of the original discipleship of Jesus, in order to gain insight into the spirit and character of that discipleship, in order to get some kind of yardstick by which to measure one’s own discipleship.”2 He further goes on to argue that the New Testament texts are essential in regards to understanding discipleship because “the events and sayings of Jesus’ ministry which called them to discipleship, which shaped the character of their discipleship, or which provided the model for their discipleship will have been among the Jesus traditions which the first disciples were most eager to preserve and pass on.”3 Therefore, while being written from a variety of different perspectives, the New Testament, as the record of the beginnings of the movement known as ‘the Way’, is inherently built upon the teaching and example of Jesus and later conversations in relation to what it meant to follow along on that ‘Way’.

While one must be careful not to assume that discipleship in the New Testament automatically translates into today’s context, it does provide the 21st century reader with a decipherable pattern of discipleship anchored in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.

3.1 Defining Discipleship

To begin, it is important to articulate exactly what one is referring to when they invoke the terms ‘disciple’ and ‘discipleship’ in relation to the New Testament. In the gospels as well as in the book of Acts, the most common term employed is mathetes which, when translated from the original Greek, renders the meaning of disciple to be ‘follower’, ‘adherent’ or ‘student / pupil’.4 This term is a derivation of the verb manthanein, which means ‘to learn’, and is frequently used by the gospel writers to refer to those who follow Jesus – approximately 68 times in Matthew, 44 times in Mark, 34 times in Luke and 73 times in John.5

It is interesting to note, however, that the New Testament authors do not employ a term for ‘discipleship’ within the scope of their writings. Rather, “the verb ‘to follow’ (akolouthein) and the adjectival principle ‘those who follow’ (hoi akolouthountes) appear regularly in the Gospels to identify the crowds who thronged around Jesus.”6 These terms are not only used in reference to the multitudes, but are also used 14 times by the gospel writers in the sense of following Jesus specifically as his disciple, inferring that there is a more personal ingredient involved in following Jesus than to physically trail behind him. 7 To be a disciple of Jesus, therefore, requires a deep commitment; it involves more than “simply to go around with him as the crowds do. It is to follow in the way that is life, to follow his teachings and his example.”8 But, as Karl Barth notes, the use of the verb akolouthein – which he translates as ‘to go after or behind someone’ – rather than the noun akolouthesis, meaning ‘discipleship’, should inform us from the outset “that we are dealing with an event that cannot be enclosed in a general concept.”9

Discipleship in the gospels, therefore, is encapsulated in the act of following, walking with and listening to Jesus, but appears to be more open ended than the learning of and strict adherence to general rules and principles.

Discipleship in the New Testament points us back to the divine-human conversation that has been taking place since the moment of creation, as discussed in the previous chapter. On one hand, this conversation is “continued and perfected in Jesus because in him God addresses humanity in and through a human being who speaks God’s word and with God’s authority.”10 This is the basis for the call to discipleship as outlined in the New Testament; God’s authoritative word freshly spoken through Jesus. And at the same time, “Jesus is not just the one who speaks God’s word, but he is also the one who first listens to God’s address and follows it in perfect obedience.”11 As Eugene Peterson puts it in his biblical paraphrase, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14a, The Message).

In doing so, Jesus demonstrates and embodies the reality that God continues to call people to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord over all creation, and that he is deeply interested and involved in the present realities of the world. This is to be the witness of all those who wish to follow him. Based on this initial sketch, it will henceforth be argued that discipleship involves the following: to be called out of old ways of living in order to embrace something new; to hear and be shaped by the teachings of Jesus; and to be engaged in the present realities of the world in accordance with the example of Jesus and his message of good news for the poor and marginalized.

1 Richard N. Longenecker, ed., Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 4.

2 James D.G. Dunn, Jesus’ Call To Discipleship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3.

3 Ibid., 4.

4 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, s.v. “Disciples.”

5 Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 2.

6 Ibid., 4.

7 Ibid., 4. Longenecker cites a few key examples of the more personal usage of these terms, which can be found in Matt. 9:9; 19:21; Mark 1:17-18; Luke 5:11; John 1:43.

8 Melvyn R. Hillmer, “They Believed in Him: Discipleship in the Johannine Tradition,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 77.

9 Karl Barth, The Call to Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 6.

10 Christoph Schwobel, “God as Conversation: Reflections on a Theological Ontology of Communicative Relations,” in Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, ed. J. Haers & P. De Mey (Leuven: University Press, 2003), 56.

11 Ibid., 56.

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