If we are going to grasp what discipling is, we have to let Jesus be our example. Discipling takes place when we are invited into a relationship where we are challenged to imitate the life of another person. Jesus said it like this: every disciple who is completely trained will be like their teacher. (Luke 6:40) Notice he did not say the disciple will simply “know what the teacher knows.” He also didn’t say the disciple will simply be able to “do what the teacher does.” No, the fruit of a discipling relationship is much more than this. In a discipling relationship, you not only want to “know what the teacher knows” and “do what the teacher does”, you also want to “be who the teacher is.” You want to imitate the life of the one who is discipling you.
WHAT GETS IMITATED?
When we say that a disciple imitates the life of another person, contained within this peron’s life is the process they use to make disciples. In other words, the one being discipled not only imitates the leaders pattern of life, they also imitate the leaders process of making disciples. So in a discipling relationship there are essentially two basic focal points of imitation.
We see these two focal points of imitation coming to the fore when Paul explains to the Corinthians why he is sending Timothy to them. Paul says in I Corinthians 4:15-17 “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me…(think pattern of life)… For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, …(think process)…as I teach everywhere in every church.” Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, and now in his absence the church has been turned away from the patterns of the gospel into ego-centric forms of leadership and ministry. Paul knew that in order for them to mature in Christ, they needed more than just a letter (information). They needed strategic leadership that could provide a tangible point of reference on how to put the principles of Paul’s teachings into practice. Timothy was sent to provide the Corinthians with the concrete example they needed to move forward and stay on course. The nature of Timothy’s task is reflected in Paul’s language when he says that Timothy will reminding them of his “ways” in Christ. That word in Greek is hodos which means “a course of conduct or pathway.” It carries with it the idea of a sequential flow or process, of moving forward along a pathway towards a destination. Timothy would essentially blaze the trail and lead the Corinthians back into the messianic pathway of cross and resurrection.
So why Timothy? Why not Silas or someone else? Paul needed to extend his influence back into the Corinthian community. Timothy had been discipled by Paul, which meant he had been exposed to the pattern of Paul’s life. Not only this, but he also participated in the process Paul used for making disciples and planting churches. As such, Timothy was well versed in both the pattern and process of Paul’s life and ministry. If Paul could not be in Corinth, then he wanted someone there who would be able to represent his “ways” to the Corinthian community. Timothy was definitely qualified to do this.
THE SCOPE OF IMITATION DETERMINES THE NATURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP
If discipleship entails the imitation of someone’s life (pattern and process), then not just any learning relationship qualifies as a discipling relationship. In order for the scope of imitation to include someone’s pattern of life, there has to be a certain level of relational access (spatial proximity) to the life of the leader. This means interaction with the leader has to move beyond the controlled environment of the classroom/conference call and into a more experiential and practical setting where the follower can observe the rhythms and practices of the leaders life. This kind of learning relationship is often characterized by a certain degree of relational frequency and situational variety. In other words, there is regular interaction in multiple settings.
It is important to recognize that a discipling relationship is not the only relationship where imitation can take place. Imitation can also take place in a coaching relationship, but we have to be clear about what can actually be imitated in a coaching relationship. Once we understand discipleship as essentially being about imitation centered around pattern and process, we not only discover the essential framework for what a discipling relationship looks like, we also have a point of reference by which to understand the nature of other relationships, like coaching, in which learning and imitation can take place.