The concept of discipling is not foreign to us here in India. India has several ‘gurus’ and ‘babas’, each commanding a strong following of devotees, or ‘disciples’. Disciples follow their guru and, almost without exception, the devotees’ following of their guru takes place in the context of community.
In this brief article, I’d like to give a brief definition of biblical discipleship and its implications for us, followed by a brief definition of the local church, and why it is the best place to engage in discipling relationships.
I personally like Mark Dever’s definition of discipling: helping someone follow Christ.
When the Lord Jesus gave His Great Commission to His disciples, He asked them to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”. (Matthew 29:19-20a).
There’s a lot one can learn from this passage with respect to missions and evangelism, but let’s consider some of the implications this passage has for discipling:
Without humility, no discipling relationship will last. Humility teaches us to bear with one another
Here’s a definition that has been used a lot since the reformation: “A local church is a congregation of baptised believers covenanted together in faith and fellowship, marked by the right preaching of God’s word and right administration of the ordinances.”
But, today, many Christians don’t exactly see church in this way. Some see it as a place to enlarge their social circle and meet people with similar interests. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with gravitating towards people who share similar interests, but this isn’t the reason for the church’s existence.
These people see no connection between the local church members and their spiritual life. That is problematic.
There are others who refuse to commit to a particular church — with ‘theological’ justifications, no less. ‘I am part of the universal church,’ they say. Church-hopping is common. They might attend church when their favourite preacher is speaking, but they see no connection between local church members and their spiritual life.
Finally, there are those who regularly attend a particular church, but slip out quietly after service. They have no relationships with other Christians in their church, because they too see no link between a local church community and their spiritual walk.
There are those who regularly attend a particular church, but slip out quietly after service. They see no link between a local church community and their spiritual life
But the two are very much connected. If a local church is a group of Christians that are ‘covenanted’ together, how does that covenant look like in regular life, especially with respect to the other members? If you were a member of a local church, what does covenanting with another person of your local church look like practically?
Fortunately, the New Testament gives us all we need to know:
The mutual love required in discipling requires humility. It isn’t easy; in fact, it’s sacrificial
If you look at what is required in a discipling relationship, and what the church members are required to do for one another, there’s a huge overlap.
Making disciples (helping others follow Christ) is a prerogative of the local church. Discipling relationships require initiative, teaching, correcting, modelling, and humility. Church member relationships require initiative (implied), teaching, correcting, modelling and humility. This is one of the functions for which the church exists in the present age.
That is not to say that discipling outside the church is wrong, but it is far from the ideal. When the Lord Jesus gave the Great Commission to His disciples, these disciples were gathered into local churches, where they were able to disciple one another.
How exactly does a church affirm who the disciples are? Through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To baptise someone is to formally recognise that someone is “with Jesus”. These Jesus representatives must then be taught (Matthew 28:18–20). And through the Lord’s Supper, Paul says, “We who are many are one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
In the local church, pastors (elders) disciple corporately through the Sunday sermon. But they also disciple one-on-one and in small groups, thus equipping the congregation for the work of ministry. The elders also lead by example. The church members receive and support the elders’ discipling. This is a mark of a healthy church.
So Christian, if you want to grow more and more in learning how to follow Christ, be committed to your local church. Make intentional relationships where you speak God’s Word to one another, and where you encourage and guard one another from sin. Have deep relationships marked by genuine love and humility. You will be amazed at how God will use these relationships in the local church to make you like His Son.
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