Discipleship-Do-Nots: 10 Things a Discipleship Relationship Shouldn’t Be

Christian leaders have said a lot about what making disciples should be.  But knowing what to do involves an awareness of what not to do, and becoming what should be means avoiding what shouldn’t.  So here we go, what a discipleship relationship isn’t:

  1. Moral policing:  Discipleship isn’t less than moral accountability, but it’s much more.  Unlike versions of Christian behaviorism, with a focus on moral alteration, discipleship aims at transforming the heart.  Discipleship relationships move from transformed hearts out to obedient hands—not the other way around.
  2. Peer friendship:  Not initially.  Discipleship might end in a peer relationship—Jesus did eventually tell his disciples, “I have called you friends…” John 15:15—but it begins in authority.  Biblically, a discipleship relationship assumes a teacher and a pupil, a leader and a follower.
  3. Tutoring:  Discipleship is most certainly not mere information transfer.  It’s not just the intellect that Christ transforms, but the whole self—heart, soul, mind, and body.  Discipleship seeks to make faithful adherents to the first and greatest commandment, to love God totally.  Treating discipleship time as a tutoring session narrows the scope of God’s redemptive purpose.  Disciples are made in the dust of the Rabbi.
  4. Unstructured:  Discipleship isn’t chaotic.  Relationships whose goal is discipleship require structure.  Disciple-making requires time, strategy, a sense of where someone is and where they need to be, and discipline.  Jesus enforced rhythms.  He practiced routine.  His disciples spent as much time learning Jesus’s structured habits as they did spiritual truths. Parameterless discipleship will eventually dissolve, but a plan ensures perseverance.
  5. Emotive Confession-fests:  Too many discipleship relationships fall into this pit.  Confession is at the center of discipleship.  Relating to and from the heart is essential.  But the kind of self-centered emoting that so often dominates our notions of accountability simply isn’t sufficient for a life of sustainable surrender to Christ.  True confession recruits heart, mind, and habit.  Sobriety from sin depends upon transformed thinking and a will reinforced by the community of God’s people.
  6. Uniform:  Discipleship doesn’t look the same from one relationship to the next.  There are absolute factors in a biblical discipleship relationship—a commitment to meeting regularly, prayer, study, life on life time, etc.—but disciple-making includes a kind of fluidity based on individual circumstances.  Not every meeting will be the same.  Not every time spent together look the same.  Not every conversation so focused on the explicitly spiritual or the practically mundane.  Insist on the essentials, but flexibly.
  7. Textless:  Without the scriptures, it’s not discipleship.  Teaching, studying, discussing, and internalizing the word are indispensable to discipleship.  Jesus told us to teach all that he commanded, and all that he commanded is found in the Bible.
  8. Isolated:  The individual Christian life must be lived in the body of Christ.  So must discipleship.  Discipleship brings the body of Christ to bear on the individual.  But even the discipleship relationship can lean toward a kind of coupled isolation.  The discipler can’t become the lone spiritual master over the disciple.  The relationship can’t become, as can be the tendency, sequestered from the wider counsel of the church.  The disciple is attached to the disciple-maker; the disciple-maker to the church; the church to both.
  9. Spiritually myopic:  Too often, discipleship narrows in on very specific notions of spiritual development.  Fueled by the assumption that only prayer, Bible study, and accountability comprise discipleship, too many disciple-makers fail to relate to those they’re discipling on important life-levels.  Effective discipleship reaches into every area of life.  Some of the most effective ways I’ve been discipled include lifting weights, coyote hunting, discussing films, and reading novels.   Those who’ve most effectively discipled me met me in my interests and taught me new ones.  They knew that all things are spiritual, that everything that holds our attention spiritually forms us.  Discipleship doesn’t just hone in on what’s considered “holy”; it sees everything we do as spiritually significant.  Biblical discipleship brings every human experience into view.
  10. Optional:  You’re a Christian?  You’re a disciple.  You want to imitate Jesus?  You make disciples.