A Brief Theology of Discipleship
By Taylor Mendoza
Pastor of Students and Young Adults
We were newly married, and my wife (Halie) had sent me to the grocery store to pick up a few items for dinner. Our plan for the night was to make Carnitas tacos. My list had three items on it: cilantro, onion, and salsa. I walked into the grocery store as all Americans walk into a grocery store, thinking, “Now, … where do they keep all of this stuff?” Cilantro was easy to find, and so was the onion, but the salsa was not. It wasn’t because I had a hard time finding the salsa section; it was because I had found too much salsa. What do I get? Red salsa, green salsa, habanero, ghost pepper, chipotle, picante, chunky, mild, hot, pico de gallo, or salsa-guac? I murmured quietly so that the lady next to me couldn’t hear, “Americans and their consumerism … forcing me to make tough decisions!”
An American Walks Into a Grocery Store
I use this brief story to illustrate the oddity of the American experience known as consumerism. As part of our experience, we find ourselves confronted with choices. Thousands of choices. If Americans lacked anything, they wouldn’t lack in options. This rhythm of choosing, then consuming, can very easily become our view of discipleship as well. What does it mean to be a disciple? If we answer this question as an American walking into a grocery store, then we think that we should pick a church with the flavors that we like most, we sit in our pew, and then consume delicious meals of biblical truth. However, Jesus’ picture of discipleship is less like an American walking into a grocery store and more about a leader walking onto a fishing boat.
A Leader Walks onto a Fishing Boat
Mark tells us in his gospel that Jesus came proclaiming faith and repentance. He further tells us that Jesus intended on proclaiming the gospel in order to make disciples. As Jesus passed along the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew casting fishing nets into the water. Knowing that they both were fishermen, Jesus approached them, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-18).
Immediately both Simon and Andrew drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus for the rest of their lives as his disciples. Jesus’ statement to follow him as their leader offers us the briefest and simplest definition of the call to discipleship for all of us.
First, a disciple is someone who follows Jesus. Disciples don’t just consume, they follow. They imitate or mimic the ways of the one in whom they follow. They adopt his way of thinking, they love what he loves, they hate what he hates, they do the things he does, and they obey him out of love and reverence. When Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom of God the powers of heaven infiltrated the world and unleashed the inevitability of influence. The benefits of his gospel were countless. The gospel helps Christians, non-Christians, planets, penguins, plants, and pencils—but not all equally. The gospel especially speaks to those who are the misfits of the world. Anglican pastor-theologian J. C. Ryle once said, “The first followers of our Lord were not the great of this world. They were men who had neither riches, nor rank, nor power. But the kingdom of Christ is not dependent on such things as these.” The only requirement of discipleship was to follow him.
Helping Others Follow Jesus
Second, a disciple is someone who makes other disciples. This idea is captured in Jesus’ words,” I will make you fishers of men.” The process of discipleship is clear: First, they follow Jesus, then they make disciples themselves. If the call of discipleship were only to “follow Jesus,” then they would be in danger of viewing their Christianity only through the lens of consuming. But if the call of discipleship also includes “fishing for others,” then they are in the ideal position to follow their leader, Jesus Christ. A.B. Bruce, in his famous book, The Training of the Twelve, said that the great Founder of our faith, Jesus, desired not “only to have disciples, but to have with Him men whom he might train to make disciples of others.” Bruce then would illustrate that they were “to cast the net of divine truth into the sea of the world, and to land on the shores of the divine kingdom and great multitude of believing souls.” What is abundantly clear is that a basic theology of discipleship includes the following of Jesus and the making of other disciples.
Jesus as the Center of Discipleship
Third, disciples are not to rest in their own ability to follow or their ability to make other disciples. The highlight of discipleship is not the word “follow,” but the word “me.” And the highlight of fishing for others is not our “fishing” but Jesus “making us” fishers of others. A basic theology of discipleship must include the centrality, sufficiency, and power of Jesus Christ. Without Jesus as the center, discipleship could very easily fall into legalistic consumerism as individuals seek to follow Jesus. Without Jesus as center, discipleship could also very easily fall into legalistic pride. In other words, discipleship cannot merely be about our work of following Jesus, and it cannot merely mean our work of influencing others. By virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the call to discipleship is a call to participate in the work of Christ. Theologian and pastor John Stott said it this way:
People think of discipleship as if it means nothing more than becoming a bit religious, and adding a thin layer of piety to an otherwise secular life. Then scratch the surface and prick the veneer, and underneath there is the same old pagan. Nothing fundamental has changed. Becoming and being a Christian involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice but death and resurrection with Christ.
So even though we are often Americans walking into a grocery store, let us not forget the valuable lesson of a leader walking onto a fishing boat. In this brief story, Jesus demonstrates for us a basic theology of discipleship. Discipleship is the call to follow Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection by imitating him and helping others follow Jesus as well.