Who are your disciples? Whom have you discipled?
While these questions are helpful in directing our focus on the importance of disciple-making and encouraging us to be intentionally investing in other believers, I think there is an inherent danger as well in these well-intentioned questions.
During my sabbatical last year, I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about discipleship and disciple-making. I became increasingly convinced that in order to be a disciple-maker, we first need to be a disciple. In other words, to learn how to be a disciple-maker, we need to be learning from Jesus. As Dallas Willard so aptly said,
So we are, then, disciples in disciple making. We learn from Jesus how to make disciples as he did.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (p. 328).
But as I thought about discipling others, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with calling someone, “my disciple”. I was relieved to find that Willard also expressed his reservations about this language. In a lecture on “The Cross and Discipleship“, he says that we are all disciples of Jesus, and we are walking along the road together, learning from one another. In this, Willard shares the perspective of Evelyn and Richard Hibbert in their book, “Walking together on the Jesus Road.”
Discipleship is a mutual exploration of what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus in the various contexts we find ourselves in. The Holy Spirit is the teacher. We walk together alongside him.
I turned to the Scriptures to see if the apostles talked about being disciplers or whether they talked about “their” disciples. The only place in Scripture outside of Matthew using the verb “μαθητεύω” (to make disciples) is found in Acts 14:21.
They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. – Acts 14:21–22
But it is clear that the apostles, and not just Barnabas and Paul, were seeking to make disciples wherever they preached the Gospel. We find that the new believers in the other cities where Paul and Barnabas had preached on this first missionary journey are also labeled “disciples” (see Acts 13:52, 14:20). The same is true of his converts on later missionary journeys (Acts 19:9, 30, 20:1) and those he taught in his “sending church” in Syrian Antioch (Acts 14:28).
I find it noteworthy that none of these disciples are called disciples of Paul and Barnabas. There is no possessiveness evident in this disciple-making process. The new believers are called “the disciples”, with the clear assumption that these men and women are disciples of Jesus. When Paul and Barnabas return to these aforementioned cities to do some more “follow-up”, they encourage these new disciples to continue in the faith (to be true to their allegiance to Jesus), and then amazingly entrust these new believers to local elders, who themselves are also brand new believers (Acts 14:23).
While the word “disciple” is found 28 times in the book of Acts, there is only one time that the disciples are said to be disciples of an apostle. Only at the beginning of Paul’s ministry while he is still in Damascus are those who believe called his disciples or his followers.
Acts 9:25 – his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. (ESV)
Maybe in his early enthusiasm in ministry, Paul had not yet realized that other apostles did not claim any disciples as their own. In every other use of the word “disciple” in Acts, they are simply called “the disciples” or in one case, “the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). It seems to me that the early church and the apostles assumed that all believers were automatically followers or disciples of Jesus. They put a high priority on making disciples, but apparently, the apostles found no need to credit the “discipler” for discipling a certain number of disciples. Acts 11:26 says that “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch”, again indicating that these new believers were considered to be disciples of Jesus first, not of those who had led them to the Lord and taught them.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul castigated the Corinthians for claiming that they follow Paul or Apollos (literally “I am of Apollos” or “I am of Paul”), and said that this was a sign of their spiritual immaturity. He wanted the disciples in Corinth to keep their eyes on following Jesus and to recognize that their various teachers were only servants of the Lord Jesus, fulfilling their various tasks according to the assignments of the Master. Paul called people his “children” in several places (1 Cor 4:14-15, 2 Cor 6:13, Gal 4:19), but he does so, not to demand obedience or to claim their allegiance to himself, but rather to demonstrate his love for them (1 Cor 4:17, 1 Thess 2:7-12).
1 Corinthians 11:1 is instructive in this regard as well.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:1
Paul wanted this to be the standard of disciple-making. His teaching, mentoring, coaching and pastoral care were only worthy of being heeded if they pointed people to follow Jesus.
We are called to make disciples. But let’s remember that these disciples are first and foremost disciples of Jesus. Whatever we do to disciple new believers or train younger missionaries, we need to be careful not to create the sense that they are OUR disciples, that they belong to us or and that we have the right to claim to have the primary role of giving direction to their lives. We are simply under-shepherds, feeding sheep that belong to Jesus (John 21:15-17, 1 Peter 5:2). As they walk the Jesus Road with us, they will likely be used by the Chief Shepherd to instruct us as well. Furthermore, the Chief Shepherd will almost certainly assign other teachers and mentors along the way to supplement or maybe even to correct the holes in the disciple-making that we have done. After all, we are still learning how to make disciples from the Master.