Core Foundational Practices of Discipleship

Maturity in Christ should be the aim in discipleship, not proselytes to a denomination or zealots for a cause.

Notice that Paul stresses that discipleship is done in the context of the church with the influence of many others. Thus, examples and commands abound in the New Testament of how the body of Christ ministers to one another and participates in the disciple making process. A grandmother and mother first trained Timothy in the faith before Paul got a hold of him (II Tim. 1:5; Acts 16:1-3). A wife and husband team named Priscilla and Aquila (that’s reflecting the Biblical order of names in the text) helped a young, powerful preacher named Apollos to preach with more Christ-centeredness (Acts 18:26). Older women are to train young women in their duties as wives and mothers (Tit. 2:3-5). Dads are to learn how to raise their children without exasperating them (Ephesians 6:4). Ministers can travel to other congregations to encourage them (II Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:19). So can a sister who has helped many in the Lord (Rom. 16:1-2).


Having laid forth several core foundational beliefs regarding discipleship, or in other words describing what disciples are and the intentionality required in making them, this corresponding post will now address how discipleship is to be practiced according to the Scriptures.

As stated in the previous post, the Great Commission of the risen Christ has been given to the church to fulfill; thus, the life of the church should be structured to obey this assignment. In calling his remaining eleven disciples to a mountain following his resurrection and reminding them of his complete authority both in heaven and on earth, the Lord Jesus commissioned the apostles in a special way. Then, following his ascension into heaven to take his seat at the Father’s right hand, the early church added a new apostle before Pentecost to replace Judas (Acts 1:12-26). These twelve men then stood in Jerusalem on that historic day of the giving of the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the gospel as the new Israel (II Pet. 2:9-10). They, with the other apostles and prophets appointed by Christ at that time, were the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). The instructions of Christ, the head of the church, given to and through the apostles recorded in Scripture are the church’s marching orders. Thus, every local congregation and those they co-labor with should be structured in such a way as to promote and do discipleship. Describing the making of disciples in the Great Commission as the ministry of baptizing and teaching believers so that they follow all of Christ’s instruction clearly sets this duty within the context of the church.

Thus, the pastors and elders have the chief responsibility in shepherding the church to practice and model discipleship in a comprehensive fashion. Given that the ordained leadership of the church is responsible to admit or deny membership into the church as they examine professions of faith and appropriate fruit accompanying it (Matt. 16:18-29; 18:18), to baptize those who have entered the kingdom of God by faith in Christ, and to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God, pastors and elders have a God-given duty to be those who make disciples. As they structure the worship, sacraments, and ministry of the church, and live among the body of believers, the  teaching and ruling elders must intentionally consider how to serve and shape the souls of the congregation with the Word of God. As the duty of a disciple is comprehensive, as every person in the church is to be instructed to obey all that Christ taught, so the disciple making itself must be comprehensive. The elders must invest their lives in serving the church to bring the Word of Christ to the people and to being the presence of Christ among the people using all the means available. From preaching the Word from the pulpit on the Lord’s Day to being the presence of Christ with the smallest acts of service, the leadership of the church has the sacred duty to employ all the means given in Scripture for a comprehensive disciple making ministry.

Yet the greatness of the Great Commission is not limited to the ordained ministry but is to be lived out as a corporate activity of the whole church. 

When Paul addressed the church at Ephesus, he told them they should recognize the ordained gifts given to the church by Christ, beginning with apostles and ending with pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Yet he states their role is to equip the saints in the church so they can render service to the Lord and one another in such a way that the body of Christ is built up so that everyone attains unity and maturity in their faith (Eph. 4:12-13). The church is a body that is “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, which causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16). According to people’s gifts and abilities, and the relationship and receptivity with other members of the body, each member to one degree or another is to be involved in the disciple making process.

In the key disciple making text of II Timothy 2:2, Paul told 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.” Notice that Paul stresses that discipleship is done in the context of the church with the influence of many others. Thus, examples and commands abound in the New Testament of how the body of Christ ministers to one another and participates in the disciple making process. A grandmother and mother first trained Timothy in the faith before Paul got a hold of him (II Tim. 1:5; Acts 16:1-3). A wife and husband team named Priscilla and Aquila (that’s reflecting the Biblical order of names in the text) helped a young, powerful preacher named Apollos to preach with more Christ-centeredness (Acts 18:26). Older women are to train young women in their duties as wives and mothers (Tit. 2:3-5). Dads are to learn how to raise their children without exasperating them (Ephesians 6:4). Ministers can travel to other congregations to encourage them (II Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:19). So can a sister who has helped many in the Lord (Rom. 16:1-2).

Furthermore, given that the discipleship is done in the name of the Triune God, disciple making should be a united effort that involves the whole of the congregation. Though the Great Commission was spoken by the Lord Jesus as his disciples worshiped him (though not without some doubting – see Matthew 28:17), we should not only see Jesus but the Trinity as we contemplate his command to discipleship. As Gregory Nazainzen said, “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.”  We see the Triune nature of the Great Commission in at least three ways.

First, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Given by whom?  Clearly the Father. Upon his ascension, we know Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Father. Thus he said in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal him.”

Second, we should also note the singular word “name” is used in the Commission which is then followed by the three persons of the Trinity (Matt. 28:19). Christ is emphasizing here both the oneness of God and the threeness of the persons simultaneously. For baptism is the sign that the believer is now the adopted child of the Father, purchased by the blood of Christ and sealed by the Spirit of God.

Third, in Christ’s promise to abide with us (“I will be with you always” at the end of the Commission), he is promising the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church’s ministry and the believer’s life. Disciple making is a work of the Spirit of God in the life of God’s people.

Thus, since all of God’s people are indwelt by the Spirit of God and are to be obeying the Word of God, the making of disciples should unite the church on a singular focus that is worked out in a varied manner that fits the gifts, needs, and location of each body. Though there are certain practical theological ways discipleship should be worked out in a church, we should not insist on a “one-size-fits-all” approach to discipleship. For hear the Triune way Paul speaks of this to the church at Corinth when he describes the full working of the church. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons” (I Corinthians 12:4-6).

Given these truths, here then are further practical theological ways discipleship can and should be worked out in the local congregation.

1) The cross must be central to the call and teaching of discipleship. Given the dying-to-sin and living-to-righteousness nature of being a follower of Christ, teaching and applying the cross to the disciple’s life must be of primary concern. D.A. Carson reminds us that the Apostle Paul taught in I Corinthians 1 that no public philosophy or commonly accepted “wisdom” can have enduring significance if its center is not the cross.[1] In the modern church’s emphasis on making congregants comfortable and the church seeker-friendly, stressing the centrality of the cross in its application to Christian discipleship could seem to be outdated and strange. Yet, as Carson further points out, it would have appeared the same to those in Jesus’ day as well.

By contrast, Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23). Again, Carson says,

That is our content, and to those who do not know Christ it is an astonishingly odd message. In the first century, it must have sounded like a contradiction in terms, like frozen steam or hateful love or upward decline or godly rapist—only far more shocking. For many Jews, the long-expected Messiah had to come in splendor and glory; he had to begin his reign with uncontested power. ‘Crucified Messiah’: this juxtaposition of words is only a whisker away from blasphemy, since every Jew knows that God himself has declared that everyone who hangs in shame on a tree stands under God’s curse (Deut. 21:23). How could God’s Messiah be under God’s curse?[2]

Similarly, in this age of the prosperity gospel a truly “cross-centered” life can sound oxymoronic. Yet it is at the heart of true discipleship and must be the aim.

2) Someone desiring to mentor others must be a sincere disciple to have a life worthy of modeling. The leader of others should not instruct people in matters that he is not consistently living. If he does, then he is a hypocrite and will only have the effect of either creating other false disciples or having discerning people lose respect of him and his methodology. Thus, whatever the mentor is asking of others he must demonstrate that he is doing himself.

3) A disciple maker must develop trust with those he is mentoring. In order for hearts to be opened up to the influence of others, trust must be established. The mentor then must create an atmosphere of trust. This trust can be developed by the mentor being a consistent model of discipleship as stated above; constantly demonstrating he has the best interests of those he is helping in view; opening up about his own needs, weaknesses, and failures; being gentle and persuasive in encouraging faithfulness in others; and showing a willingness to help those younger in the faith overcome their own failings. John Stott stated, “It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and problems, and to feel with them in their pains.”[3] Stott also emphasized that one cannot fulfill the Great Commission without also fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God and other people. Showing this love will create trust.

4) The mentor should seek to befriend and be a friend to those he is discipling. Jesus made it clear that his disciples were not only his followers but his friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Similarly, the mentor must guard against viewing people as “projects” who need his special touch to become the followers of Christ they should be. Rather, he should work at developing Christian friendship with them. He should view discipleship as taking place not only in being under the preached Word or scheduled studies, but through personal interactions such as sharing meals in homes, social events, running errands together, getting to know his friends and family members, ministering to others with one another, etc. A holistic approach to discipleship will include creating these bonds of friendship. As stated before, these more informal times should be intentional and not simply incidental in nature.

5) Times of discipleship should be viewed less as training and more as influencing. Mike Myatt has said, “You don’t train leaders you develop them – a subtle yet important distinction lost on many.”[4] Certainly some training and materials must be used in teaching men about discipleship. However, Myatt’s proverb would indicate one should not focus on training disciples simply by going through a curriculum, but developing them through joint study, relational living, and doing ministry together. Also, one’s tone of voice, body language, expressions of concern, kindness in manner, etc., can be more influential on a person being mentored than the actual lesson material being taught on any given day. I recently heard the testimony of a godly young man who spoke of how it was simply the love and concern of two older men in the faith that God used to draw him back to faithfulness to the Lord.

6) The goal should be to help people become dependent on Christ, not reliant on the mentor.  If discipleship is not done carefully, the mentor can be seen as a guru that produces a devotee rather than a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Many evangelical ministries are founded by charismatic men where this type of dependency on the leader is fostered. In recent times, the repeated tragedy of the head of an organization falling and his devotees becoming disillusioned show the danger of this approach. The Apostle Paul warned and guarded his ministry against factionalism and so must we (I Cor. 1:10-17). Again, even when telling Timothy to take the things he had learned from him and teach others, Paul made it clear these lessons had been heard “in the presence of many witnesses” (II Tim. 2:2). Union with Christ must be constantly encouraged. As Jesus said to the disciples that he chose:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).    

7) Maturity in Christ should be the aim in discipleship, not proselytes to a denomination or zealots for a cause. In the ministry of the church, care must be taken to keep motives pure and not be seeking simply to win people over to a particular theological camp or type of ministry. Jesus warned about the Pharisees having a spirit of proselytizing that only condemned them and their followers further (Matt. 23:15). Paul’s goal in discipleship was clearly explained to the church at Colossae, when he said of Christ, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28-29).

8) Facilitate growing relationships with others, not a spirit of independence. Certain paradigms of discipleship can often breed further the independent thinking and individualism so common in American Christianity. Yet what should take place in discipleship is a small yet vibrant network of relationships where people are given a context to practice the prevalent “one another” commands of the New Testament. Though individualized times may be helpful on occasion, most of the time spent in discipling relationships should be in the context of being with others in congregational settings as well as some type of small group settings. When Jesus called the disciples by saying to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” he was speaking to brothers who worked nets together to catch fish, not individual fishermen with their own poles (Matt. 4:19). A.B. Bruce’s words capture this spirit of teamwork when he said, “These words…show that the great Founder of the faith desired not only to have disciples, but to have about Him men whom He might train to make disciples of others: to cast the net of divine truth on the sea of the world, and to land on the shores of the divine kingdom a great multitude of believing souls.”[5] To do this work requires working with others.

9) Discipline is necessary for a person to grow in discipleship and must be expected of those in a mentoring relationship. Though friendship between the mentor and the one being encouraged in discipleship must be developed (as explained above), those entering discipling relationships must be clearly told of, and called to, sacrifice. As Jesus explained discipleship in terms of “cutting off your right hand” and “plucking out your right eye,” the atmosphere created in mentoring relationships should be one of a serious intent to count the cost in following Christ. Thus, the expectation is that assignments given and agreed upon will be completed. Consistent failure in obedience would be a sign that further investment into a person at this time may not be warranted, and may be indicating that the individual is actually a false disciple that may need more formal discipline by the church (John 8:31-32; 14:15, 21; Matt. 7:21-27).

10) Raising up laborers for the kingdom of God who show they are able to disciple others in the local church must be the constant emphasis. Pastors are to equip the saints of the church so they in turn can be involved in supplying what is lacking in the body of Christ and seeing the body built up into spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-13). When Paul was instructing Timothy in II Timothy 2:2, he clearly put before him entrusting lessons learned to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In mentoring, one must look to see if the disciple is communicating the lessons he is learning and the experiences he is having to others, in ways appropriate to his own maturity and place in the body, to validate the effectiveness of his influence.[6]


[1] D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 161.

[2] Ibid, 247.

[3] John R.W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1975), 25.

[4] Mike Myatt, “The #1 Reason Leadership Fails,” Forbes, accessed July 24, 2015,

[5] A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2000), 13.

[6] See Dawson Trotman’s Born to Reproduce” for further development of the importance of this principle.

Barry York is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. This article is used with permission.