The Three Relationships of Discipleship
Discipleship can be a mysterious word, one of those Christianese terms that is said without being rooted in reality and practice. Grammatically speaking, “discipleship” means the process of living as a disciple. A “disciple,” in the general sense, is “a follower or a student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.” 1 Another dictionary defines it as “a convinced adherent of a school or individual.” 2 However, being a disciple of Jesus demands more than being a disciple of a typical institution or person. If we are to adhere to Jesus’s teachings, then we need to take Him at His word, even when He challenges us to hold Him as both Lord—priority number one in our lives—and Savior—the one who rescues and redeems us. Our entire lives are to be directed toward Jesus as Lord and Savior, and discipleship is the process by which human beings live this out more fully with each passing day.
Some of us may be under the notion that discipleship can take place entirely in the context of spiritual devotion and cultivation—reading through Scripture and additional Christian literature, prayer and time spent in worship, listening to sermons and podcasts. While these are certainly important to the regular rhythms of the Christian walk, they are missing a key element: relationship. From the beginning, God says that “it is not good for man to be alone.” 3 We were made to be social, to be in communion with one another, albeit some of us to a greater degree than others. This was not just a reality for Adam and Eve; it was and is a reflection of God’s eternal, relational nature in the Trinity. From before time began, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were in relationship with one another, loving and serving one another. So how does this practically connect to our lives? While there are many ways to characterize our relationships and communities, there are three that stand out as essential for sustained growth as a disciple of Jesus. Teachers, companions, and students are three instrumental roles that have borne great fruit in my life as well as in countless brothers and sisters’ lives. Of course, in having teachers, companions, and students, wisdom is needed for identifying both people to fill those roles as well as principles for flourishing in those relationships.
We can learn about identifying a teacher from metaphorical language used in Scripture. During His earthly ministry, Jesus placed the Father in this role. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise,” 4 a very clear description of how He follows the Father. This is not to be misconstrued as inequality, but that in spite of His equality with the Father, Jesus chose to submit to and follow the Father. As a finite and mortal man, Jesus depended on the Father’s guidance. Paul occupied a similar teaching role for many early Christians. He continued the same parental metaphor found in the Trinity in his letter to the Corinthians where he described himself as “your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” 5 In human relationships, a parent has more knowledge and experience than a child, and therefore is tasked with advising and guiding the child. As such, searching for a teacher, who is in a sense a spiritual parent, involves searching for someone further along in their Christian walk than us. This is often correlated with being in different stages of life, such as a teacher in his mid-30s discipling college students in their late teens and early 20s, though this is not always the case. 6 This person should also have characteristics that resonate with godly men and women in scripture and they should be worthy of emulating, just as Paul was to the Corinthians. Our spiritual parents, those whom we “follow as they follow Christ” can and should be subject to great discernment. 7
Once we have identified a person to disciple us, it is critical to be intentional, humble, and transparent in our interactions with them. First, we consider the principle of intentionality. Even though Jesus was in high demand while He was doing ministry, He noticeably “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” While this reflects how we should approach quiet time with the Lord, it also clues us in to the priority we should give to spending time with those who lead and guide us. Many people would rather wait for someone to offer mentorship to them, but this often leads to stagnation in our growth. Oftentimes, our desire to excel in academics, arts, or athletics drives us to seek out tutors, teachers, and coaches in these areas. How much more then should we do so for our faith, which surpasses all of these areas in importance? 8 Practically, this means actively emailing, texting, or talking with our mentor or potential mentor and being clear that we wish to follow them as they follow Christ. Building regular times into our schedules to meet, to share, and to listen one-on-one is another intentional practice to aid consistency. 9 Next, there is the principle of humility. People, particularly young people, may bristle at the idea of voluntarily placing an older, seemingly less relevant person in a position of authority over their lives. However, holding this sort of attitude makes discipleship a near impossibility, just as any other willful ignorance inhibits true listening and learning. Being a humble disciple means choosing to assume we know much less than we think we do and willingly listening and acting on our mentor’s advice with discernment. Finally, there is transparency. Any relationship without transparency cannot result in any real depth. If we do not present a window into our hearts and lives, how can anyone pray for our sufferings and struggles or celebrate a victory with us? In fact, Paul’s letters are mostly responses to various circumstances that those particular churches were going through. We must be deliberate in opening our lives to our teachers. Jesus chose to do each of these three things in His prayer in Gethsemane, when He says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” to His Father, intentionally revealing his anguish and yet submitting to the Father. 10
On the surface, companions seem easy to find. However, these are not mere surface level friends, but people with whom we engage in a deeper spiritual sense. A companion is not someone we regularly shake hands with during the greeting period of a Sunday service: this person is merely an acquaintance, with little to no knowledge of, care for, or influence over our lives. Rather, there should be an intimacy and commitment among these spiritual friendships to pursuing Christ. These people can only be found among those with whom we have consistent contact. Without this constancy, the companion can no longer speak into the many mundane and seemingly insignificant aspects of life that guide the trajectory of our broader spiritual life. These little decisions, described by C.S. Lewis as “the compound interest” by which “good and evil increase,” shape our characters and souls and cannot be ignored. 11 Often, these friendships are found in people whose lives God has brought parallel to ours in some sort of service and mission. These parallels frequently manifest as close geographical proximity, mutual passions and interests, similar vocations and senses of mission. In Luke’s recounting of the acts of the apostles, we see how God “set apart Barnabas and [Paul] for the work to which [He] called them.” 12 God placed the two brothers in the same places, infused them with a mutual passion for preaching the Gospel, and sent them on similar missions for a duration of their lives – using their relationship to edify both and advance the Kingdom. Today, these spiritually intimate friendships are often cultivated through deep engagement with small meetings and communities in local ministries and churches. They are fellow pilgrims on the Christian journey who spur each other onward.
What key components flavor companionship of this sort? Building upon intentionality, humility, and transparency are two fundamental ingredients that are worth drawing attention to: encouragement and rebuke. In our sin-marred world, there is tremendous need to remind one another of God’s goodness and the good He has provided for us. Paul exhorts the early Christians in Thessaloniki to “encourage one another and build one another up.” 13 Friends and companions must encourage each other of the hope they have from God; we have to be immersed in the good news of the Gospel and share God’s vision of hope, which we are so quick to forget. There is also great need for rebuke and correction in our broken world. The “trusted… wounds from a friend” do not leave us unchanged, but rather leads us into robust godliness. 14 This process of graciously and lovingly calling each other out on sin is like iron sharpening iron – clashing of metal that creates messy sparks and uncomfortable noise, but ultimately resulting in refined metal far greater than before. 15 Another way to highlight the importance of each of these traits is to see what a companionship would be without one or the other. A friendship sans encouragement can quickly become lifeless and cold, with only pharisaic legalism coming about as fruit. On the other hand, a friendship sans rebuke can slip into a desire to stay in comfort zones and avoid challenges, with no sense of becoming more like Christ from the relationship.
Identifying students, people that will follow us as we seek God, holds many similarities to the first category of identifying a teacher, of which it is an inverse. Of course, with this inversion comes the responsibility to lovingly guide and teach rather than receive these. Ideally students should intently pursue their masters as Jesus did. However, reality often falls short of this, and we see Jesus calling out His disciples a few at a time during His earthly ministry. 16 Many times, this will be our situation as well. To identify potential candidates, first look for people whom God has already placed in our spheres of influence by virtue of our geographical location, our work, our interests, and our families. Jesus’ initial disciples did not come from the four corners of the earth, but rather were chosen from the local pool of people. From here, we should simply observe whether we are in a position to love and guide them in faith, or at least in some particular aspect of faith. Even the newest of believers can have a role in lovingly and humbly guiding someone, perhaps someone who is curious or skeptical about faith. This is not just a responsibility for the seasoned believer, but instead is a commission given to all believers by Jesus. 17
While leading students shares in many of the same principles as being a companion and following a teacher, there are specific nuances that come about with this position of authority. The principle of humility, instead of submitting to authority, now looks like using a position of power and privilege to serve rather than coerce. Jesus washing His disciples’ feet is a prime example of this. Even though He was the most powerful and important person in the room, Jesus used that opportunity to put others before Himself. In being a teacher, it can be tempting to share all of our wisdom and stories, but this wealth of experience is often greater served after asking questions and listening. Asking questions, being genuinely curious and inquisitive, and listening all require sacrifice and putting the other above ourselves. However, these are necessary to effectively serve, love, and guide a student toward what is good. Transparency also takes on a specific nuance, particularly in being honest about being unequipped or less than knowledgeable with regards to a certain topic or situation. This may manifest in life issues or theological studies that are beyond what we can realistically handle. An important aspect of leading well is to know our limits and to ask for help when we need it, though it may be tempting to do otherwise. Transparency and humility better serve those who follow us and allows us to grow at the same time.
Do we have teachers, companions, or students in our lives? Are they present and active in our lives now? We should seriously consider the way these relationships shape our walks with God and eagerly seek out people to practice discipleship with. Discipleship does not have to be a mysterious word or a vague concept; it can be and must be rooted in reality and practically. By inviting teachers, companions, and students into our lives, we become more like Christ and do the same for others.
- Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary ↩
- Genesis 2:18 ↩
- John 5:19 ↩
- 1 Corinthians 4:15 ↩
- Teachers in a different stage of life often have a different perspective of life from us that we can learn from. Life stages like full-time work, marriage, parenthood, and retirement provide rich experiences that widen and deepen our wisdom and understanding of God. I have found great benefit in learning from teachers like these. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 4:14-19 ↩
- 1 Timothy 4:8 ↩
- Though not absolutely essential, being able to meet in-person often enriches the experience of companionship. Look for people in your area who you can easily meet up with. ↩
- Luke 22:42. Of course, we should remember that our teachers are human, not God. Though we should humbly submit, we need to remember that our teachers can be wrong as well. ↩
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity ↩
- Acts 13:2 ↩
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ↩
- Proverbs 27:6 ↩
- Proverbs 27:17 ↩
- John 1:43, Luke 5:27, Mark 1:17, Matthew 9:9 ↩
- Matthew 28:16-20 ↩