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© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014


In the Bible:
There is no verb ‘disciple’ [or ‘discipling’ or ‘discipled’] in the English language. That is why the Greek verb matheteuo is translated ‘had become … a disciple’ [Matthew 27:57], ‘make disciples’ [Matthew 28:20], and ‘won … disciples’ [Acts 14:21.] Interestingly in each of these verses the reference is not specifically to the on-going process of learning how to live as a Christian but to genuine conversion – to people becoming ‘disciples’, that is, ‘Christians’. This is quite evident when the Greek text is consulted, for in each case the tense of the verb is Aorist, which refers to a decisive pin-point action. We must not think however that ‘conversion’ exists as an isolated thing in itself, disconnected from the life that follows. True conversion is the beginning of a life of learning from Jesus – a life as a disciple, a person who learns from and follows Jesus. [The Aorist tense also contains the meaning of ‘inception’ – of a decisive beginning which of necessity has a continuum following after it.]

In some areas of contemporary Christianity:
Relatively recently the word ‘disciple’ has begun to be used as a verb. We hear statements like ‘I’m discipling so and so …’ or ‘… is discipling me …’. What is meant is not that one Christian is converting another person, but is that someone is being taught to live as a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ. At the same time as this way of using the word is current in some sections of the Christian church, in other sections of the church people would stare at you as if you were speaking a foreign language.   


If we adopt contemporary usage and use ‘disciple’ as a verb, does this verb convey a Biblical concept? Is it Biblical to teach people how to live as disciples/followers/believers in Jesus Christ?

Yes. It is. ‘Discipling’ as an action in which we engage, is Biblical in the following ways:

  • Through the whole of the Bible we find instructions on how to live as the people of God.
  • In the Gospels Jesus Christ gives teaching on how to live as his followers
  • In the New Testament letters there is much teaching and instruction about how Christians are supposed to live.

Whenever we teach others Biblical truth about the Lord Jesus Christ and what their on-going response to him and his commands should be we are ‘discipling’. The mission and purpose of such teaching and instruction in the Bible is:

  • To assist the believer to develop spiritual maturity
  • To encourage the disciple to follow the example and teaching of Christ
  • To enable and encourage Christians to so live that their words and lifestyle will visibly impact others to follow the Lord, and so result in others becoming disciples of/believers in Christ.

Make a quick list of things you or your church are currently doing in which you or your church is teaching others about the Lord Jesus and how they should live for him and his glory.






C. JESUS’ COMMAND - Matthew 28:19

Quote from Leon Morris:

‘’In this Gospel a disciple is both a learner and a follower; a disciple takes Jesus as his teacher and learns from him, and a disciple also follows Jesus. The life of a disciple is different because of his attachment to Jesus. The Master is not giving a command that will merely secure nominal adherence to a group, but one that will secure wholehearted commitment to a person. In the first century a disciple did not enrol with such-and-such a school, but with such-and-such a teacher.’ [p746, The Gospel according to Matthew]

Quote from William Hendriksen:

‘But just what is meant by “make disciples”? It is not exactly the same as “make converts,” though the latter is surely implied. … the term “make disciples” places somewhat more stress on the fact that the mind, as well as the heart and the will, must be won for God. A disciple is a pupil, a learner.  … The apostle, then, must proclaim the truth and the will of God to the world. It is necessary that sinners learn about their own lost condition, God, his plan of redemption, his love, his law, etc. this however, is not enough. True discipleship implies much more. Mere mental understanding does not as yet make one a disciple. It is part of the picture, in fact an important part, but only a part. The truth learned must be practiced. It must be appropriated by heart, mind, and will, so that one remains or abides in the truth. Only then is one truly Christ’s “disciple” [John 8:31].’ [p999-1000 The Gospel of Matthew]

To make it clear what he means by ‘make disciples’ Jesus adds two explanatory instructions:

  • ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, and
  • ‘Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Thus, making disciples of all nations involves bringing them [through evangelism and teaching] to the point of acknowledgment of Christ, and then continuing to teach them to obey all that Jesus taught.


How did Jesus ‘disciple’ people? How did he teach and train those whom he called to follow him and learn from him? We find three models:

  • he taught the small group [that is, the twelve] in the context of teaching the crowd [e.g. Matthew 13:1-35]
  • he taught the small group [e.g. Matthew 13:36-43]
  • he sometimes, on rare occasions, gave special attention to a smaller group [Matthew 17:1ff; Luke 24:13-32]

Apart from John 21:15-23, where Jesus spoke personally to Peter, there is no record of Jesus teaching one-on-one with any of the disciples apart from the context of the group or at their initial call.


[1] We know from Acts that Paul taught groups of believers.

  • Acts 14:21-22 – he strengthened and encouraged the disciples [= ‘Christians’]
  • Acts 15:41; 16:5 – he strengthened the churches
  • Acts 18:23 – he moved from town to town strengthening all the disciples [= ‘Christians’]
  • Acts 20:17-20 – he preached everything that would be helpful to the church both publicly and from house to house

[2] Paul wrote letters to groups of Christians [Romans to 2 Thessalonians]. In these letters he taught them [a] the truth about Jesus Christ and their salvation in Christ, [b] how they should live and [c] how they should guard against false teaching and false teachers.

[3] He wrote letters to individuals with leadership responsibilities [1 and 2 Timothy, Titus]. In these letters he instructed them how to live as leaders in the church. This included instructions to ‘teach’ others:

  • 1Timothy 4:11; 6:2 – he instructs Timothy to command, teach or urge the people in his church
  • 2Timothy 2:2 – he instructs Timothy to entrust the truth to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others
  • Titus 2:4-15  – he instructs Titus to encourage and/or teach various categories of people in the church

The Bible doesn’t actually call any of this ‘discipling’. [As indicated above the word never occurs as a verb.] Nor does it call Paul taking either Mark, Silas or Timothy with him a ‘discipling’ situation. They were, rather, his ‘fellow labourers’ in the Gospel.


On the above Biblical information ‘discipling’ occurs in any Christian teaching situation.  

In the context of evangelism in which a person is challenged to affirm allegiance to Jesus Christ.

In the context of any situation where Christians are being instructed in Biblical truth. This may be in a crowd or in a small group. It may be by spoken or written communication.

In addition believers are instructed to ‘teach and admonish one another’ [Colossians 3:16], and to ‘encourage one another daily’ [Hebrews 3:13].

‘Discipling’ takes place, for example –

In a Sunday morning service when the Word of God is taught.
In small group Bible study.
When Christian writers teaches the Word of God in their books or articles.
When a Christian radio broadcasts biblical teaching about the Christian life.
In on-line Bible Studies.
In one-on-one teaching.


In the recent history of the Church a number of extremely questionable ‘discipling’ models have been used. The methodologies used by certain groups are so extreme that the description of ‘cult’ or ‘cultic’ has been applied to them.

Characteristic of the ‘discipling’ methods of such groups are:

Authoritarian imposition of rules and regulations.

Individual persons usurping the authority and role of God.

A pyramid structure of discipleship and accountability.

That each Christian must have his/her personal shepherd or ‘discipler’, to whom he/she was accountable. To refuse a discipling relationship is to rebel against God.

The requirement of providing one’s ‘discipler’ with a list of one’s sins.

The requirement that no life decision be made without the approval of one’s ‘discipler’ or ‘shepherd’.

These can be researched by looking up such groups as:

The Shepherding Movement
The Boston Movement [the Boston Church of Christ]
The International Church of Christ.

In his book Churches that Abuse, Ronald Enroth also identifies a number of other, smaller groups in which similar discipling abuse occurs. Such discipling abuse seriously wounds God’s dearly loved children, and is far, far away from Christ’s intention for his Church.