The Case for Discipleship

By James Rochford

Why should we practice discipleship? We believe that personal discipleship is both biblical and strategic.

The Biblical Case for Discipleship

Jesus PRACTICED discipleship. Throughout his ministry, Jesus trained the seventy (Lk. 10:1), the twelve (Mt. 10:2), and the inner three (Mt. 17:1). He summoned his disciples so that he “could send them out to preach” (Mt. 3:14).

Jesus COMMANDED discipleship. In his great commission, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).

Paul PRACTICED discipleship. At the beginning of his service for Christ, we see that Paul had his own “disciples” who helped him escape from persecution (Acts 9:25). Moreover, on Paul’s missionary journeys, he always had a younger brother with him, whom he was teaching (e.g. Silas, Timothy, etc.).

Paul COMMANDED discipleship. He told the Colossians, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28-29). Discipleship isn’t merely for elite members of the church. Instead, this was practiced with every member. Moreover, Paul wrote to Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

The NT encourages us to imitate human leaders regarding their faith in Christ. While we are all ultimately disciples of Jesus, the NT encourages us to follow the lifestyles of human leaders that are faithful to Christ. For instance, Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Moreover, the author of Hebrews writes, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

The Bible teaches “every member” ministry. Every member is told to serve (Gal. 5:13), encourage (1 Thess. 5:11), teach (Col. 3:16), confess sin (Jas. 5:16), forgive (Eph. 4:32), forbear others (Eph. 4:2), show acceptance (Rom. 15:7), bear burdens (Gal. 6:2), and show affection (Rom. 16:18) to “one another.” Discipleship is the setting in which these imperatives can be exercised effectively.

Many pastors will often tip their hat to discipleship, and they might even practice it themselves. But they don’t encourage their members to do so. Yet, the Bible teaches that the role of the leadership in the church is to “equip the saints for the works of service” (Eph. 4:12), rather than doing all of this important ministry themselves.

Why doesn’t Paul use the term “discipleship” if it was so important?

Paul never explicitly uses the term discipleship in any of his letters. However, a number of observations can be made in regards to this question:

First, he never uses this TERM, but he does describe the CONCEPT. For example, imagine if a coworker of yours came up to you and said, “What’re you doing this weekend? Would you like to get dinner and movie and maybe walk with me through the park afterwards?” Whether or not they used the term “date” to describe this invitation, this is certainly what they were describing.

Second, Paul may have steered away from this term for cultural reasons. Most of the members in Paul’s groups weren’t Jewish, so they didn’t have a concept for this term. Moreover, Greco-Roman “discipleship” had negative cultural baggage—often associated with homoeroticism. Teachers would teach their disciples the art of making love, and they would practice together with one another. For instance, Socrates was recorded as saying, “[Charmides] gave me such a look that I was helpless… and all those in the palaestra [i.e. Greco-Roman wrestling/combat school] gathered around us in a circle, then indeed, my good man, I saw inside his cloak and I was on fire and no longer in control of myself” (Plato, Charmides 155 d). Likewise, Judaic discipleship was legalistic, so this may have had negative connotations that Paul sought to avoid.

The Strategic Case for Discipleship

As we can see above, discipleship isn’t optional for Christian believers. This isn’t just simply a good strategy for the church that we might like. Instead, this is both the example and command of Jesus and the apostles. However, as we might suspect, in addition to being the biblical mandate, we see many strategic reasons for this practice.

First, discipleship is strategic, because MULTIPLICATION beats ADDITION. Multiplication takes longer in the short term, but vastly outperforms in the long term. For instance, consider the difference between multiplication and addition: Would you rather have FIVE MILLION DOLLARS or A PENNY DOUBLED EVERY DAY FOR A MONTH? Initially, we would feel like a fool for accepting the penny, but with time, the exponential growth of the penny would lead to tremendous wealth.

Penny Doubled Per Day

Day 1


Day 7

Day 11


Day 14

Day 18


Day 25

Day 27


Day 31



Consider another example: Which would you rather have?—a church that grew by 50,000 people every year?—or a homechurch that doubled every two years?


Church Doubling Every Two Years




Year 1

50,000 30
Year 3 100,000


Year 10

250,000 480
Year 60 1.5 million

16 million


Second, discipleship is strategic, because it is LONG LASTING. It’s easy to see examples of Christian leaders who failed to pass on their fidelity to Christ to the next generation. Church historians have often compared the ministries of George Whitefield and John Wesley. While Whitefield was a far better speaker,[1] Wesley had more of a lasting impact. Of course, Whitefield spoke far more than Wesley. (Sober estimates say he spoke 1,000 times per year for 30 years. Some estimates state that he spoke to 80% of the American colonies at least once!) However, Wesley’s impact was far greater than Whitefield’s, because he left a legacy of discipleship and small groups where he travelled. Two hundred years later, millions have come to Christ through his work.

Consider the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The United States was on course to be the winners of the 4 by 100 relays. They had all of the skill and talent. But they made one mistake: They dropped the baton. In the same way, without a good handout to the next generation through the means of discipleship, the cause of Christ will be greatly hindered in the long run. We need to ask ourselves: Which generation are we living for? Ours? Or the next generation ahead of us?

Third, discipleship is strategic because it gives IMPORTANT WORK FOR MEMBERS to devote themselves to. In most Western churches, members are only given the responsibility of greeting people Sunday morning or collecting the money from the aisles. The church is populated by highly capable people, who are not given any really interesting or complicated work to do in the church. Something is wrong when our average lay person can complete college and work a complicated job, but they are only allowed to be the equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter when they come to the church! Isn’t there something more important that we can entrust to believers in our church? There is: discipleship! When believers see that their role in the church is complicated, difficult, and meaningful, they sense that their work is truly important. In churches like this, members feel good knowing that they are serving God in a truly meaningful way.

Those who engage in discipleship also feel personal fulfillment and satisfaction. Paul had this view, when he said, “Who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19-20). When members of the church pour their lives into others, it’s deeply joyful (3 Jn. 1:4; read Paul’s relationship with Timothy). These become some of our best friends.

Why don’t more churches practice personal discipleship?

Most churches in the Western world do not practice personal discipleship. Some exceptions would include Campus Crusade, Navigators, and missions organizations. Why not?

First, discipleship has had poor historical examples. For instance, the Shepherding Movement (also called the “Discipleship Movement”) practiced a highly controlling and bizarre method of discipleship in the 1970s and 1980s in some charismatic churches. It spread to roughly 100,000 different members. This group demanded “submission” as the means through which a disciple would learn to follow Christ. Evangelical Christian leaders noticed a number of abusive and cultic activity that followed:[2]

-A new believer was given a shepherd who was “commissioned by God.” Under their view, he was commissioned in the sense that the shepherd had Christ’s presence and authority.

-This authority stretched to the realm of choosing a career, picking a dating partner, etc. This obviously goes beyond the boundaries of healthy Christian leadership.

-Shepherds would even take tithes from their disciples, as a way of showing them how to submit to God.

One of the founders (called the “Ft. Lauderdale Five”) was Bob Mumford. He later repented, believing that the organization was in the wrong. He was famously said, “Discipleship was wrong.  I repent. I ask forgiveness.”

Of course, we vehemently disagree with these practices, or the even worse practices of the cultic “Boston Church of Christ.” However, this is really throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Christian groups have erred in so many areas of theology that we shouldn’t let these aberrant groups change our spiritual direction. For instance, many eccentric hellfire preachers flood into college campuses to preach hellfire to students. This is bizarre and aberrant, but what is our response? Should we abandon evangelism, because of distorted examples like this? Of course not. Similarly, the practice of abusive discipleship shouldn’t cause us to abandon discipleship altogether.

Second, discipleship doesn’t produce fast results at first. As with the penny illustration above, discipleship takes a long time to get going. For the first several decades, it doesn’t feel like you’re accomplishing too much. But with time, this method far outperforms other models.

Third, discipleship doesn’t fit with the clergy-laity model. Christian culture in the West tells us that only trained seminarians are capable of doing “ministry.” However, such a concept is alien to the Bible, which encourages “every member ministry.”

Fourth, discipleship involves trusting our members. Many pastors worry that their members are incompetent, and they will be unable to give good counsel, biblical study, or wisdom to their people. This is a legitimate concern, but this shouldn’t stop us from practicing discipleship. Instead, this should cause us to equip our members!


[1] Benjamin Franklin (regarding Whitefield): “Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well-placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music.” Ben Franklin The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p.51.

[2] See J.S. O’Malley, Elwell Evangelical Dictionary.