When Jesus called his followers "disciples" (mathētēs is the Greek word used in the Gospels and in Acts), he was using the word as it was understood in his first century Jewish cultural setting (for a helpful discussion about this, click here).
In that setting, disciple-making involved a relationship between a mentor (typically a Rabbi), the disciple-maker; and a protege, known as the "disciple." This relationship was not about mere information transfer. Rather the Rabbi shared his whole life with his disciple and in so doing, imparted his character (who he was), his knowledge (what he knew) and his skills (what he could do). You might say that the Rabbi gave his disciple his heart, head and hands.
Have you noticed that the word "disciple," which is used extensively in the Gospels and through chapter 21 in the book of Acts, is not found in the epistles of Paul, John and Peter? Did disciple-making cease at some point to be the practice of the church?
The answer is "no"---disciple-making continued, though the terms used to describe it did change. That change is helpfully explained by Mike Breen in his ebook, The Great Disappearance. Following is a lengthy quote; as you read it I encourage you to consider what Jesus, through the Spirit, is now doing in various cultural contexts to multiply his disciple-making followers. The quote begins with a passage from Paul's letter to the church in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 4:14-17
I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom /love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Now it's clear from Paul's writing in the New Testament that he has discipled Timothy. You can even see that implicit understanding in this particular passage of correspondence with the Corinthian church. But if we peel back the contextual layers of this passage, we'll start to see some clues emerge.
That word "guardians" is the Greek word pedagogos. It refers to a specific person who was hired by the parents and brought into the extended family (oikos---the Greek word for "household" making up 30-70 people extending to blood-and-non-blood relationships) to stay with the family from the time the child was weaned until the age of 12 or 13. This guardian would teach the child the classical Greek education of reading, writing, arithmetic, and logic. The guardian was there to provide the basic information.
When the child turned 12, he or she went through a ritual, a moment of religious significance in the Greco-Roman household (oikos). The pedagogue brought a 12-year-old girl to her mother. Her mother, even though she lived with this appalling perspective of being a second-rate citizen outside the home, actually carried the most significant role inside it. She managed the whole household. Her role was to understand the complexity of the organic and organized components of the oikos.
She knew how to deal with the sick. She oversaw the educational process. She managed the economic infrastructure and cash flow. She was the business manager and the shaper of a hospitable environment for guests. (Remember, pretty much all business was run through the home, and she oversaw this aspect of the business.) Make no mistake: This was a job. In fact, it was probably a job for three or four people. You had to be a professional dynamo to do this well.
From that point on, the girl "stood at the shoulder" of her mother, discovering how all the information she had learned was actually grounded in everyday life. Once she married, she would either extend the oikos or, along with her husband, start a new oikos.
A son at the age of 12 was brought, in a similar ceremony, to the shoulder of his father to learn the trade of the family. He would learn to ask, "What is it that this family produces?" He would come to understand the trade, craft, or business of the house. Paul's father was a tentmaker. How do we know that? Because Paul was a tentmaker! "What are you going to do when you grow up?" is an entirely new question of the last 100 years. Nobody ever asked that question of children previously. It would be ridiculous. Children were going to do what their parents did. It took such a rare set of circumstances for a son to do something else that he would never ask the question. From age 12 on, the son learned to imitate his father with the normal methods of apprenticeship in the craft and trade of the house.
In this passage, Paul was referring to a pattern of life that everyone understood. He was shaping his message to a context so that people could comprehend it.
So why the great disappearance? Why do we see the language of 'disciple' disappear from the pages of the New Testament?
The reason is that the Gospel was moving away from the cultural heartland in the geographical area known as the Holy Land. The Gospel was moving from Israel---from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria---and was now reaching the ends of the earth. In Corinth, there were very few (if any) rabbis and disciples. And the vast majority of the pagan cities such as Corinth, Ephesus, Alexandria and Rome had no understanding of what the word 'disciple' meant because that word was always used in reference to a Jewish rabbi. These people had no idea what a rabbi was.
So Paul looked for an analogue, a guiding picture, that the church could understand, one that included all that was involved in discipleship to a rabbi. If you are being discipled by a rabbi, you certainly want to know what the rabbi knows. But a more important question is this: "How can I become who the rabbi is? Yes, I want to know what he knows, but I also want to be like him!"
Paul understood this relational context because he himself was a disciple of Gamaliel. Paul understood the world of rabbis and disciples, but suddenly he was on mission to people who didn't have a cultural reference point for it. I think he decided, "it's silly for me to try to explain this. There must be some cultural reference that I can use that gets to the heart of the discipleship process. They've got to get what spiritual formation looks like. They need to know how it happens."
What metaphor did he use? The parent and the child. Paul didn't use this metaphor in a paternalistic sense, but in the sense of formation, growth, and development. He said, all of you have seen this picture. It's something you understand. As you are raised, there is a pedagogue who gives you the necessary information. It will be the foundation for all training later in life, but the parent offers the model to be imitated. And eventually, you'll start your own household and innovate on what you've learned."
This was the perfect metaphor for Paul, and thus, for the rest of the New Testament. The scriptures replace the rabbi/disciple relationship with the parent/child relationship.
Look at the rest of the New Testament, and in almost every book, you will see that the way the text understands spiritual formation is through the lens of parent and child.For related information concerning a whole-life, relational approach to disciple-making, read the addendum below and download a helpful article about why disciple-making programs often fail by clicking here.
AddendumHere is the text of the article "Disciple" that appears in The New Bible Dictionary:
A disciple (from Lat. discipulus, ‘pupil, learner’, corresponding to Gk. mathētēs, from manthanō, ‘to learn’) is basically the pupil of a teacher. The corresponding Heb. term limmûḏ is somewhat rare in the OT (Is. 8:16; 50:4; 54:13; cf. Je. 13:23), but in the rabbinical writings the talmîḏ (cf. 1 Ch. 25:8) is a familiar figure as the pupil of a rabbi from whom he learned traditional lore. In the Gk. world philosophers were likewise surrounded by their pupils. Since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching of their masters, the word came to signify the adherent of a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.
Jewish usage is seen in the NT references to the disciples of the Pharisees (Mk. 2:18). The Jews considered themselves to be ultimately disciples of Moses (Jn. 9:28), since his teaching formed the basis of rabbinic instruction. The followers of John the Baptist were known as his disciples (Mk. 2:18; Jn. 1:35). The term was probably applied to his close associates. They practised prayer and fasting in accordance with his instructions (Mk. 2:18; Lk. 11:1), and some of them cared for him in prison and saw to his burial (Mt. 11:2–7; Mk. 6:29).
Although Jesus (like John) was not an officially recognized teacher (Jn. 7:14f.), he was popularly known as a teacher or rabbi (Mk. 9:5; 11:21; Jn. 3:2), and his associates were known as disciples. The word can be used of all who responded to his message (Mt. 5:1; Lk. 6:17; 19:37), but it can also refer more narrowly to those who accompanied him on his travels (Mk. 6:45; Lk. 8:2f.; 10:1), and especially to the twelve apostles (Mk. 3:14). Discipleship was based on a call by Jesus (Mk. 1:16–20; 2:13f.; Lk. 9:59–62; even Lk. 9:57f. presupposes Jesus’ invitation in general terms). It involved personal allegiance to him, expressed in following him and giving him an exclusive loyalty (Mk. 8:34–38; Lk. 14:26–33). In at least some cases it meant literal abandonment of home, business ties and possessions (Mk. 10:21, 28), but in every case readiness to put the claims of Jesus first, whatever the cost, was demanded. Such an attitude went well beyond the normal pupil-teacher relationship and gave the word ‘disciple’ a new sense. Faith in Jesus and allegiance to him are what determine the fate of men at the last judgment (Lk. 12:8f.).
Those who became disciples were taught by Jesus and appointed as his representatives to preach his message, cast out demons and heal the sick (Mk. 3:14f.); although these responsibilities were primarily delegated to the Twelve, they were not confined to them (Mk. 5:19; 9:38–41; Lk. 10:1–16).
According to Luke, the members of the early church were known as disciples (Acts 6:1f., and frequently thereafter). This makes it clear that the earthly disciples of Jesus formed the nucleus of the church and that the pattern of the relationship between Jesus and his earthly disciples was constitutive for the relationship between the risen Lord and the members of his church. The word, however, is not found outside the Gospels and Acts, and other NT writers used a variety of terms (believers, saints, brothers) to express more fully the characteristics of discipleship after Easter.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. K. H. Rengstorf, TDNT 4, pp. 415–460; E. Schweizer, Lordship and Discipleship, 1960; M. Hengel, Nachfolge und Charisma, Berlin, 1968; NIDNTT 1, pp. 480–494.