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My “discipleship” problem

My “discipleship” problem

A small confession: I am not sure what the word discipleship means. It is a word used frequently by people whom I know and respect, but I don’t quite know how I am supposed to respond to it.

When I hear that I am going to “be discipled” –the word sounds like disciplined– I am uneasy. It sounds like something that is going to happen to me, something that is going to be done to me.

Probably by a priest. Perhaps not a priest of my choosing. And quite possibly not one who recognizes that, like many adult lay people who are involved in their churches, I’m under the impression that I am already doing the best I can to follow Jesus as closely as possible.

So as you can see, I am not eager to enter into the parent/child, master/student type of relationship that the word discipleship, in most usages, seems to imply.

Can somebody help me see the word discipleship in a more positive light?


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Jim Naughton

Kurt, Joshua, thank you for these edifying responses.



When discipleship is something that priests “do” to lay persons, I share all of your worries about it. I think that it’s unavoidable that discipleship points us to a master/student relationship, but the master must always be Jesus, and not another human being, ordained or not. The best advice that I got upon my ordination to the priesthood was “Remember you’re still a sheep, not the Shepherd.”

As a member of the clergy, I often have a wider knowledge of resources that can aid one in discipleship than lay people in the parish I serve (because I spent three years learning about these resources), but not always. And it’s important for me to recognize that just as I have some things that I can teach the people around me about how discipleship has worked for me, they also have things (perhaps more than I do) that they can teach me. Discipleship is something that lay people do with clergy, not something that clergy do to lay people. And the priority, I think, is always with the laity, because they’re the primary ministers of the Gospel. I can be a guide in some ways, but I need to be guided in others, especially because the vocation to which I have been called is not the ideal to which most Christians are called. It’s the exception, not the rule, and any form of clericalism, but especially a clericalism that makes priests the spiritual masters to whom the laity must turn for formation, is dangerous because it tries to distort someone’s God-giving vocation.

Joshua Rodriguez

Kurt Wiesner

My understanding of discipleship begins with Jesus’ own start of his ministry in The Gospel of Mark.

The Gospels of Matthew, Luke & John all struggle with what to do about Jesus getting baptized by John the B.

Matthew has Jesus control it: (Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.)

Luke downplays it so that the vision happens by Jesus praying rather than the baptism: (Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’)

And of course, John makes it the Baptist’s divine vision: (The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’)

Only Mark gives no explanation as to why Jesus gets baptized: (In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.)

Jesus then goes into his own wilderness to figure out what it all means, but it is only after John is arrested (his voice effectively silenced) that Jesus begins his ministry:

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

The other Gospels are worried that Jesus will be seen to be a disciple of John the Baptist, which would lower his status. Mark doesn’t care, because he doesn’t see it as hierarchical. Rather, it is the FOLLOWING of John the Baptist by Jesus that leads him first to experience/reveal/see God in a new way (baptism), which leads to his stepping into his own ministry when what God is doing in John is silenced.

Discipleship begins where we experience/see God, and then it’s within or from that place (or person, as it is in Jesus) that we then respond to God.

Jim Naughton

Thanks for the reference, guys. I love this quote: “Well, my hunch is that when ordinary words become “religious”, it is time to take them to the laundry. Because what has usually happened is that they are being taken out of their normal field of application in interpersonal relationships and given a patina of specialness. This “special” quality then often mystifies at least as much as it illuminates.”

This one, too: The “normal” form of discipleship works by people eagerly looking for others to be like them, to join their group. And when a convert joins the group, of course the first thing they want to do is become as much of an insider as possible: there is a massively thirsty “Daddy, daddy, tell me who I am, and tell me quickly”. Now the easiest thing to imitate in a group are the distinctive things, the things which make us “us” and not “them”, and so it is no surprise that a new convert quickly becomes the most ardent exponent of every one of the group’s “over againsts”: he or she picks them up in a fantastically hungry absorption or osmosis. This means that such proselytes too are being infantilized into becoming simply a function of the worst features of the group, creative of nothing. If the group is of any worth at all, then there will also be wiser heads that are embarrassed by this cheap identity, and who try to get the convert to see that in time he will discover for himself how much like other people and other groups they all are, really. But that wiser head will have to be grounded on something other than group identity if that is to work


I second Scott’s recommendation of James Alison—and suggest that the etymological emphasis was always on teaching/learning. Disciple=learner, student, scholar, apprentice, protege, etc.

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