4 Marks of Biblical Discipleship

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Whenever Christians discuss the mission of the church, we tend to get mired in debates over the responsibility of local congregations to be involved in social ministry. Is our work in the world part of the church’s mission? Is the mission broad or narrow?

Underneath these discussions, however, is a bigger question concerning the nature of discipleship. The question isn’t merely about the mission; it’s about how disciple-making should be defined. Is disciple-making broad or narrow?

Below are four important truths we should keep in mind as we consider biblical discipleship:

1. Discipleship is Modeled

Disciple-making is accomplished by modelers, not just messengers. Disciples develop not merely through the intake of correct information, but also through witnessing the life and choices of other disciples they encounter on their way.

This is why the Old Testament emphasizes both the memorization of Scripture and conversations about the Law that take place in the daily rhythms of life. Psalm 119, for example, is heavy on the need for learning and internalizing the Law of God, while Deuteronomy 6 focuses on the daily discussions of the Law in everyday life. It’s also why Paul told the early churches they should imitate him as he followed Christ.

In Total Church, Steve Timmis and Tim Chester explain how they learned the importance of modeling through their own personal experience:

People should learn the truth of justification not only in an exposition of Romans 5 but as they see us resting on Christ’s finished work instead of anxiously trying to justify ourselves. They should understand the nature of Christian hope not only as they listen to a talk on Romans 8 but as they see us groaning in response to suffering as we wait for glory. . . .

We have found in our context that most learning and training takes place not through programmed teaching or training courses but in unplanned conversations—talking about life, talking about ministry, talking about problems. (118)

This emphasis corresponds with the New Testament picture of Jesus with his disciples. Jesus was always teaching, not just through his public discourses, but also through his actions.

2. Discipleship is Balanced

The goal of discipleship is balanced. As Gregg Allison points out, followers of Christ should be characterized by

  • orthodoxy (sound doctrine),
  • orthopraxis (right practice),
  • and orthopatheia (proper sentiment).

When any of these three elements are excluded from a disciple’s development, the other two elements are adversely affected, and the mission of the church is hindered.

Speaking of educational ministry in the church, Allison recommends a discipleship model that consists of doctrinal teaching, character building, and worldview development. This element of worldview formation leads to a point of its own…

3. Discipleship Includes a Worldview

Disciple-making presupposes a worldview—our viewing the world through a Christian lens. What is a worldview? Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen offer a simple definition:

“Worldview is an articulation of the basic beliefs embedded in a shared grand story that are rooted in a faith commitment and that give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives.”

Often associated with the definition of a worldview are the big questions of life, questions that help narrate the story through which human beings view reality. N. T. Wright lists five determining questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Where are we?
  3. What is wrong?
  4. What is the solution?
  5. What time is it?

Asking the final question, “What time is it?” clarifies the shape of worldview thinking and keeps one from losing the important “this-world” dimension of discipleship. Answering this question naturally leads to the next element of discipleship—one that is too often neglected.

4. Discipleship is Eschatological

Discipleship is eschatological in nature, because the church that makes and receives disciples is eschatological in nature. By eschatology, I’m not referring merely to the “last things” doctrines often relegated to the back of systematic theology textbooks. I’m speaking of eschatology in a broader sense, as encompassing the Christian vision of time and the destiny of our world. Eschatology in this sense informs both our evangelism and our ecclesiology.

I love the picture Lesslie Newbigin paints:

“The church . . . calls men and women to repent of their false loyalty to other powers, to become believers in the one true sovereignty, and so to become corporately a sign, instrument, and foretaste of that sovereignty of the one true and living God over all nature, all nations, and all human lives.”

Seeing discipleship from an eschatological standpoint impacts the way we preach and teach. The alternative is to minimize the eschatological understanding of discipleship, which will leave us with an incomplete worldview, imbalanced discipleship, and eventually, a tragic inability to model the Christian way of life, since modeling implies obedience in a particular time and place.

Discipleship is eschatological, because questions like “What time is it?” and “Where is history going?” greatly impact a disciple’s worldview and inform what modeling a life of following Jesus looks like.

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