I'm going to be examining the scriptures this summer with a particular question in mind: What does this passage teach us about discipleship? In the New Testament, there are disciples, and we think we know what that means, but there is not much in the way of the abstract practice of discipleship. Defining "discipleship" is a slippery task:
Disciples of Philosophers would not just learn the facts and propositions of their teacher but would live with them and emulate their lifestyle. After a while, though they would depart from this master-disciple relationship and go to make their way in the world.
In Matthew 28, the Great Commission, which is often cited as a call to evangelism reads very different in the Greek. Instead of "Go, make disciples," the word "go" is a participle--going, or "as you go." There is no verb for making, and the imperative is on the verb (yes, a verb), disciple. "As you go along your way, disciple."
Calvin doesn't use the word. Instead he talks about piety and holiness. He defines piety as "that reverence joined with love which the knowledge of God and his benefits induces" (Calvin, I.ii.1) . Our knowledge of God leads to our love of God, and our response is to try, by the Spirit, to live holy lives.
When I was in college, InterVarsity would try to put people together in twos so that the older, more mature Christian could "disciple" the younger one, setting up paired prayer and devotional bible reading and accountability for right living. There is some good in this, but also some potential for dysfunction.
As I'm reading scripture this summer asking about discipleship, I'm also reading a book called The Meanings of Discipleship: Being Disciples Then and Now. It is a collection of essays and covers biblical, historical and contemporary views of discipleship. It does a good job of not boxing in the concept too strictly, but for now, here's a working definition from a chapter by Loveday Alexander: discipleship means "being formed into the likeness of the teacher, passing on the tradition, modelling your practice and lifestyle on theirs" (Alexander, p. 16). When we decide to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we look to him and learn from him how to live, and follow his lead in living that way. Along the way, we are "formed into the likeness" of Jesus Christ. This doesn't necessarily mean we do the things he did, but that we become so like him that we do the things he would have done if he were living in our context.
In our cultural idiom, we talk about "falling in love." It is wonderful to be flooded with all the positive emotions that come from having a crush on someone, having attention paid to us by our crush, being in love. Still, for the long term, the emotional rush of having a crush or a new loving relationship sometimes fades. What, then is love after the emotion is gone? I'd say love is a choice. For a marriage to last, the couple chooses to continue loving for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. Love at its best is intentional loving, not accidental emotions.
Discipleship, too, is about intentionality. To be a disciple is to choose to be a disciple, to intentionally look to and model your practice of living on someone else. For us Christians, discipleship is choice and an intention to model our lives on what we learn about Jesus' life. With that choice made, we choose to change our lives. As we make changes to our lives, we might then passively get "formed into the likeness" of our master, but we might also double down on the intentionality of it. We might choose to form ourselves into the likeness of Christ. This is not just an intention of actions, trying to do more and more like Christ, but we might choose to be more and more like Christ. Christian discipleship is intentionally forming ourselves to be more and more like Christ, living always in this process of becoming.
I think the fact that both love and discipleship are such intentional life-choices is not a coincidence. The choice to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is predicated on the choice to love Jesus Christ. What we learn from Jesus Christ is that he chooses to love us. Learning begets knowledge, and knowledge of God begets love of God. What we learn by looking to Jesus Christ is that we should love others, our neighbors. As we are "formed into the likeness" of Jesus Christ, we choose to love others as well. Discipleship is love is intentionality at every step and in every direction.
(Calvin, Jean. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, Pa.). Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Alexander, Loveday. 2021. “The Gospels and Acts: Discipleship and the Kingdom.” In The Meanings of Discipleship: Being Disciples Then and Now, edited by Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry.)