In a recent conversation, a friend described me as a “middle person”—someone who had been discipled and is now making disciples. My response to this is that all of us should be “middle people.” If we are a disciple of Jesus, then we should be discipling others. More specifically, we need to be teaching people to obey Jesus as they multiply disciples to the ends of the earth.
2 Timothy 2:2 is frequently cited as a helpful model for thinking about discipleship. Paul discipled Timothy (and many witnesses); Timothy was expected to disciple “faithful men”; and those faithful men were to teach others also. Being a disciple always includes making disciples. Furthermore, making disciples always requires that the faithful men and women we are discipling will also make disciples. Training others to engage in the missionary task is at the heart of making disciples. However, teaching people to be disciples is about more than telling them how to share the gospel. Making disciples is about helping someone grow in their walk with Christ and being obedient to him.
Character and Proclamation
Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matt 28:19). Being obedient to Christ means that who we are is at least as important as what we do. Missiologists debate the tension between a centripetal mission that seeks to draw others into God's people and a centrifugal mission that involves God’s people going out to those who are lost. However, elements of both centripetal and centrifugal mission can be found in the Old and New Testament. The church is called both to go and make disciples and to live out biblical ethics so that others may see their good works and glorify God (Matt 5:16). Living ethically is not the same thing as missions, but biblical character is essential as a validation of the gospel that we proclaim.
The balance of gospel proclamation and ethical living becomes even more essential in many global contexts that have a stronger sense of community. The people around us will see the way we live and interact with others as followers of Christ. Perfection is impossible, but honest repentance is essential, especially when there are consequences. If we intend to proclaim the gospel and make disciples in a community, our behavior will either confirm or undermine our witness.
Discipleship must emphasize biblical character alongside biblical proclamation.
As we teach people to make disciples, we cannot assume they will develop biblical ethics on their own. Even some of those who were with Jesus struggled in their character development. James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on some Samaritans who did not welcome Jesus (Luke 9:51–54), Peter attempted to kill a man (John 18:10), and all of the disciples debated which one of them was the greatest more than once (Luke 9:46; 22:24). Discipleship must emphasize biblical character alongside biblical proclamation.
Competence and Confidence - Making Disciples Who Make Disciples
The essence of disciple-making is multiplication—making disciples who make disciples who make disciples. Multiplication is something that sounds relatively simple theoretically but requires some deliberate steps that can prove challenging in many contexts. In both the Western and Majority World, a disciple-maker must encourage disciples to take ownership of the Great Commission. In legacy church and legacy mission field contexts, this barrier may be one of the largest. If a church is used to missionaries coming to them from other places, then there may be reluctance or even resistance to taking ownership of the missionary task for themselves. Those in the legacy context may think that they don’t have enough resources, experience, or education to carry out the missionary task. In these instances, the disciple-maker must emphasize the supreme authority of Scripture. Jesus called all of his disciples to be disciple-makers, and the only requirement to be a disciple-maker is that the person has been with Jesus (Mark 3:14; Acts 4:13).
Jesus called all of his disciples to be disciple-makers, and the only requirement to be a disciple-maker is that the person has been with Jesus.
In addition to encouraging ownership of the missionary task, a disciple-maker must release responsibility and authority for disciples to make disciples. Very early in the disciple-making process, disciples need to be given the responsibility to carry out the missionary task. They should be taught how to share their faith, but they must also be expected to go out and do it! Along with the responsibility, authority must be released as soon as possible. If a person has to come to us every time they encounter a challenge or difficulty, then we have not effectively made a disciple. Inevitably, questions will arise as we make disciples, but instead of providing our answers, we need to guide them in discovering the answers that God provides in Scripture. If a disciple-maker tries to provide an answer to every question, he or she unintentionally sets themselves up as having the authority. This significantly hinders the disciple-making process, and it will certainly dampen any potential to multiply disciples.
There is no biblical basis for holding a person back from being obedient to the commands of Christ.
Commitment to Go - To the Ends of the Earth
Every disciple has a role to play in the missionary task to the ends of the earth. As we make disciples of all nations, the new disciples need to be trained, equipped, and released to do the work to which Christ has called them. There is no biblical basis for holding a person back from being obedient to the commands of Christ. Another disciple may not do things the way that we do them, but that does not mean they are being disobedient. The best way to develop long-term disciples is for them to go with us and for us to go with them.
Matthew Hirt (PhD in International Missions from SEBTS) has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. He is also the author of Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.