Imagine two church members. Let’s call them Bob and Bill. Bob is a Bible student. He likes to know what the Bible says about everything. He can even explain the doctrine of the Trinity if you ask him to. Some of his actions may not seem to show he’s a Christian. In fact, his life doesn’t seem very Christian at all. But he knows his Bible!
Then there’s Bill. Bill doesn’t advertise the fact but he doesn’t read his Bible much. Certainly he wants to be “good.” He tries to love others. But Bill would have a hard time offering an orthodox explanation of who Jesus is, or what the church is. And he wouldn’t do so well defining ethical issues carefully. But he means to live differently than the selfish, self-consumed life he sees others living. He likes to think of himself as a “relationship guy” rather than a “Bible guy” or a “doctrine guy.”
Do either of these individuals sound like you?
Bob should care more about people, and Bill should care more about truth. Really, both should care more about Jesus, because Jesus loves the truths of God’s Word and the lives of God’s people.
The discipling work of a church should help both kinds of people better follow Jesus. Jesus said that whoever would “come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Bob needs to deny himself and follow Jesus by loving people more. Bill must do this by working to love God’s Word more. A disciple is not someone who merely claims to follow Christ. A disciple is someone who really does follow Christ.
That’s where any conversation about discipling others must begin—in remembering what it means to follow Jesus. Discipling means helping others follow Jesus. Discipling is a relationship in which we seek to do spiritual good for someone by initiating, teaching, correcting, modeling, loving, humbling ourselves, counseling, and influencing.
How, then, do we disciple? How exactly do we help Bob care more about living out his faith, and Bill care more about understanding it?
These aren’t just questions for pastors. The Bible tasks all of us with this kind of work. John tells us to love one another (2 John 5). Paul tells us to encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). He also tells us to instruct one another, since we want to see everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). The author of Hebrews tells us to consider how to stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24).
The first matter you’ll have to decide is, who should you spend time with? You only have so much time in the week. You can’t disciple the whole church, so how do you decide in whom to invest?
Bible in hand, here are nine factors to consider—and probably in this order.
1. FAMILY MEMBER
Paul writes, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
The Bible teaches in this passage and others that each of us possesses a special responsibility for the members of our own family. In the family, God gives life-long relationships and natural grounds for affection and concern. And those natural affections and responsibilities should be employed for Christward ends. That’s especially the case if you live with these family members. It’s even more the case if Scripture charges you with special responsibility for them, as it does for parents with children or spouses with each other. These relationships are the most important discipling relationships you will ever have.
2. SPIRITUAL STATE
You should evangelize your non-Christian friends, but it is pointless to disciple them as if they are Christians. Paul tells us, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). You want to disciple a Christian.
3. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Consider these charges from the book of Hebrews:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over you souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:7, 17)
Certainly these verses call us to particularly heed the leaders of our own churches. Yet a further implication is that the ordinary pathways of discipleship work best within the relational context of one’s church.
We have a greater responsibility for our own congregation—to both help them and be helped by them. Members of the same church follow and submit to the same body of elders. They affirm the same statement of faith and church covenant. They experience the same teaching on primary and secondary matters. They see each other at least weekly. For all of these reasons, it’s normally more expedient to build discipling relationships within the context of one’s church.
Furthermore, if a friend of yours attends an unhealthy church, you might be doing damage to their spiritual life by discipling them. How? Your spiritual support, ironically, enables him or her to remain in a church that does not teach the Bible. This is not an absolute rule, but it may be better just to encourage your friend to join a healthy church. Christians need the whole body, not just you.
Scripture is sensitive to matters of gender in discipling. For instance, Paul tells Titus, “Older women . . . are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5).
In public settings, I teach men and women. Plus, we all have a mother and father, and many of us have sisters or brothers or spouses—which is to say, discipling the opposite sex is built into our families. And in the church we covenant together with men and women and have family friends.
Yet when it comes to a normal and deliberate discipling relationship, it’s wise for men to disciple men and women to disciple women. We recognize that gender is a God-given reality, and we mean to treat it realistically and respectfully. We should love everyone in the church, and at the same time labor to avoid wrong intimacies.
Just as Scripture is sensitive to gender, so it’s also sensitive to age. In the Titus passage just mentioned, younger women learn from older ones. Elsewhere, Paul tells Timothy to not allow his youth to be despised, yet in the same letter he encourages Timothy to respect older men (1 Tim. 4:12; 5:1).
Normally you’ll disciple someone younger than yourself. Having said that, Scripture is full of exceptional examples of the younger teaching the older. And surely, as we advance in age, we also want to advance in the humility of learning from those our own age, and even those younger than us. Otherwise, we’ll have no teachers left! Personally, I find I learn much from friends in their twenties and thirties, even as I do from folks in their seventies and eighties.
6. DIFFERENT FROM YOU
Few things visibly display the power of the gospel as much as the unity it achieves among people divided by the categories of this world. “For through [Christ],” observes the book of Ephesians, “we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18). The dividing wall of partition between Jew and Gentile fell at the cross.
Now, the wisdom of God is displayed through the unity of these formally divided people (Eph. 3:10). And of course, the unity the church experiences across ethnic, economic, educational, and other kinds of divides anticipates that day when “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stand perfectly together before God’s throne in worship (Rev. 7:9–10).
So what does this mean practically?
As you look for someone to disciple, by all means, the middle-aged mothers should befriend each other; and young married couples should spend time together; and single men in their twenties should hang out. Such groups have things in common that God uses for growth.
But also consider what you might learn by spending time with college students; or working with the children and youth; or helping internationals from England or Brazil or Korea; or, if you’re a young white husband, meeting with an older African-American husband.
How much God has to teach us about himself from people who are different from us! And how the gospel is displayed in our unity—not just the unity of liking each other, but the unity of learning from one another.
Proverbs again and again commends the teachable son and repudiates the fool who scorns rebuke, instruction, and counsel. Furthermore, it tells us that God “leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9; cf. Prov. 11:2). Therefore, Peter instructs, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Pet. 5:5).
You don’t want to spend time trying to teach someone who thinks you have nothing to teach them, and that they have nothing to learn. Teach the teachable. And try to be teachable yourself.
8. FAITHFULNESS TO TEACH OTHERS
Remember Paul’s words to Timothy: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
We want to disciple everyone, and we especially want to disciple those who will turn and disciple those who will disciple others. We will do addition if we have to, but we’d really like to do multiplication. We’re not simply mentoring the next generation; we’re trying to reach all the generations to come!
9. PROXIMITY AND SCHEDULES
Finally, believe it or not, the Bible is sensitive to time and our busy schedules. Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). You’ll find a number of other verses like this one, calling us to make the best use of our time (e.g., Eph. 5:16).
This final characteristic I’m talking about is a matter of wisdom. But generally, I’d recommend finding those whose schedules align with your own. You must also consider where you live or work, and your time commitments with family, job, and church. Assume that God isn’t calling you to do something impossible.
In all of this, of course, God prepares the good works in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). And as with the Good Samaritan, sometimes he places people in our path who we might not ordinarily think to spend time with. Maybe it’s a member of your church who happens to work in your office, or whose children participate in the same sporting events as your children. Or maybe someone’s spouse leaves, and the grieving party turns to you.
All that to say, be wise and thoughtful about whom you choose to spend time with, but know that the Lord’s providence sometimes overrules all our planning. Praise God, it keeps us dependent upon him!
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Remember Bob and Bill? Suppose your schedule only permits you to spend time with one of them, but not both. How do you choose? Certainly you should pray about it, but there’s no necessarily right answer, and you should not feel guilty if you are unable to spend time with both. This is why we have the body of Christ.
You might choose to spend time with Bob because his work schedule better matches yours or because he lives in your neighborhood or your wives are already good friends. You might decide to pour into Bill because he will be moving back to Bogota, Columbia, next summer, he shows a penchant for teaching others, and you want to equip him to equip others in Bogota. Whatever the rationale, pray, ask for wisdom, and then get to it.
In all of this, whether you are self-consciously discipling one person or four, make sure that you yourself are growing spiritually, and then help those around you to grow. Both are important, and each contributes to the other.
Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Mark Dever’s book, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus (Crossway, 2016, and was first published at the 9Marks blog. Used with permission.