The Road to Discipleship

The following was written by guest writer Jerry Harvill.

Few aspects of the Christian culture are more idealized but less understood than discipleship. Humpty Dumpty vocabularies abound, in which, like Humpty’s approach in Lewis Carroll’s tale, words mean “whatever (we) choose them to mean; nothing more, nothing less!” The plethora of religious cults attracting followers worldwide teach us that a fill-in-the-blank approach to discipleship is both arbitrary and dangerous.

What is true discipleship? We need a fresh and accurate biblical definition that exposes the full weight of its mandate. Let us first examine modern barriers to following Christ, and then the Divine pattern for discipleship.


The road to discipleship is lined with hazards. The better we understand these pitfalls the more likely we will be to navigate safely past them.

Aesthetic Admiration

The first roadblock to true discipleship is the virtually unanimous respect with which men speak of Jesus. Even when it was fashionable to proclaim the death of God, it was also in vogue to acclaim the life of Christ.

This aesthetic admiration is not an asset precisely because in an environment of universal celebration there is no longer anything distinctive or perilous in praising Him. Vague admiration dulls His sword, blunting the original outrage of His mission and innoculating us against the sting of His demands. We substitute homage for obedience. We give Him praise instead of surrender. Paul S. Minear says of our times,

If it is true that Jesus has never had a better press than today, it is also true that rarely has there been less knowledge of his commands and less inclination to obey them. Recognition of his greatness has served as a substitute for reckoning the costs of discipleship. High time that disciples declared a moratorium on praise and an open season on a more honest study of what his demands require. Paul S. Minear, Commands of Christ (Abingdon Press, 1972), p. 11.

Aversion to Authority

The second major barrier to contemporary discipleship is the anti-authority posture of our times. The very idea of obeying commands raises hackles today. Modern man assumes that freedom is a supreme value and that assersions of authority destroy freedom.

Rather than submitting to others, people today look to self as the highest authority. The watchwords of the modern cult of self are self-knowledge, self-esteem, and self-actualization. The philosophy is self-assertion, and the goal is self-determination. The god Me is intolerant of old-fashioned virtues such as discipline and self-denial.

Cultural Change

The third barrier to discipleship is the wide gulf of cultural change separating first-century Galilee from twentieth-century America. The daily problems facing citizens of New York or Nashville or San Francisco appear wholly different from those of ancient Capernaum. What concerns do a 747 pilot and a Tiberias fisherman share? What pressures are common to modern life in the “fast lane” and the lifestyle of Hebrew shepherds?

These changes affect more than externals. The meaning of words, of ideas, and of actions has shifted decisively so that critical adjustments must be made in our thinking before biblical terms and concepts can be seen to relate to our modern experience. Many are so burdened by the rigors of those adjustments that they abandon the whole project. Alan Richardson, writing in the Cambridge History of the Bible, reports a “gradual decay of the ordinary Christian’s sense that he can read the Bible for himself without an interpreter and discover its unambiguous meaning.”Alan Richardson, The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), p. iii. He argues that the Bible has come to be regarded as a book for experts only, requiring elaborate training in linguistic and historical disciplines before it can even be understood.

The net result of the cultural alienation which many now feel from the language and the priorities of the biblical world is the widespread abortion of discipleship. It is seen as an antique, a fossil of a bygone age, no longer functional in an era of microprocessors and artificial intelligence.

Defective Models

The fourth barrier to authentic contemporary discipleship is the distorted role models visible today. For many moderns the institutional church is a liability instead of an asset to discipleship. Francis Schaeffer warned, “I am convinced that in the twentieth century people all over the world will not listen if we have the right doctrine, the right policy, but are not exhibiting community.”Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970), p. 73. Albert Camus, the French existentialist, saw the role of the Church in the modern world more clearly than some theologians. He wrote, “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear… in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest man.”Quoted in Bruce Lockerbie, “Laughter without Joy: The Burlesque of Our Secular Age” (Christianity Today, Oct. 7, 1977), p. 16.

Instead the Church has skeletons in her closet—the skeleton of disunity, the skeleton of hypocrisy, the skeleton of suburban isolation, the skeleton of guilty silence on world issues while headlining minor concerns.

Furthermore, the Jonestown fiasco and its wake of aversion to anything smacking of cultism has almost made discipleship a dirty word. By confusing true Christianity and false religion many have reacted against legitimate evangelism and discipling.

Together these four deterrents pose formidable obstacles to authentic discipleship. We must remember that we, too, are products of our times; we, too, must negotiate these barriers. None is exempt. In fact, self-deception may well be the greatest hazard of all.


What we need today perhaps more than ever before is an authentic, definitive pattern to follow. We need a flesh-and blood demonstration of exactly what discipleship is all about.

That is precisely what we have in the Incarnation of the Son of God. His coming is the pattern for our going; his mission the definition of our own. “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21). “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (Jn. 17:18–19).

Understanding discipleship is in fact understanding the mind of Christ, and practicing discipleship is following the footprints of Jesus. We are on the right track, therefore, when we define the demands of discipleship not in terms of what we think or feel but in terms of what the Cross meant to Jesus. In Him is God’s pattern for discipleship. In Him is the start and the finish of our faith (Heb. 12:2).

Here is the divine model for self-renunciation, self-adaptation, self-surrender, and self-sacrifice. Here is divine demonstration of the demands of discipleship.


It can never be said that Christ requires of His followers what He did not give; that His demands exceed His own personal investments. In Paul’s fourfold summary of what the Incarnation meant for Jesus we see God taking His own medicine; we see the unique Son refusing preferential treatment in order that through His experience of suffering He could be equipped to represent us in Heaven (Heb. 5:8–10). God Himself has shown us the way.

The text says literally, “Himself he emptied” (v. 7). We should not see the idea of emptying in terms of discarding something. Rather, I suggest we see this passage in the light of Is. 53:12, “he poured out his life unto death,” and that we understand the “emptying” in the sense of total personal commitment and total self-denial.

Furthermore, it is vital to note the emphatic word order in this verse. The word order of the original Greek points to His humiliation as voluntary, self-imposed. No one took anything away from Christ; what He renounced he renounced of His own will.

With this verse we begin to see the mind of Christ on discipleship. Everything touching self-advantage or self-display must go. There is no limit to self-humbling as long as anything remains that may be poured out. In His self-emptying, Jesus shows us that the most divine act is to give.

How shockingly Christ’s act contrasts with contemporary demands for personal rights. The only person in the world who had the right to demand His rights, waived them! His attitude reveals the self-seeking hidden within our exclamations, “I don’t have to put up with this!” How many conflicts and church splits would be prevented if our discipleship contained this voluntary renunciation of personal rights? Could we hold grudges and at the same time “put up with anything” for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:12)? Jesus poured it all out, emptying Himself. Let us remember His words: “No servant is greater than his master …” (Jn. 15:20).


Jesus thoroughly identified Himself with the human situation. He was not an angel pretending to be man; He was truly one of us in both essence and detail.

It was not upper echelon humanity that the Son of God incarnated, but slave-man. A play on the word morphe, “nature,” accents this point as we see Him who was “in very nature God” (v. 6) now “taking the very nature of a servant” (v. 7). Jesus paid the full price in adaptation in order to be our Elder Brother (cf. Heb. 2:14–18).

Here is the strongest possible mandate for disciples who are servants. Here is the strongest possible imperative for a Servant-Church. When our churches are content to pamper themselves and to merely “hold services,” we have forgotten our calling and we are lying against the divine model we claim to love and follow. The “mind of Christ,” which we are to imitate (Phil. 2:5), demands that we roll up the sleeves of our faith and get dirty in the work of redeeming men. No smug suburban isolation; no concern by proxy. Here is a shattering call for the middle-class, status-conscious American Church to “empty” herself in world service and to “be willing to associate with people of low position” (Ro. 12:16).


The Philippians passage goes further by affirming explicitly Jesus’ humiliation: “he humbled himself” (v. 8). The term tapeinophrosune, “lowliness,” was transformed by the Cross and redefined by the Gospel. From ignoble, scurrilous, secular connotations it became one of the great words of the Christian vocabulary under the influence of Christ’s radical new policy of greatness. Jesus taught that to be great in His Kingdom is to be servant of all. In His service the way up is down.

Tapeinophrosune describes a condition of unselfconsciousness in which one has a humble opinion of oneself. It is the opposite of egotism, self-seeking, and assertiveness. One of the definitive features of Jesus’ personality was humility (Mt. 11:29). It is not surprising that His supreme act of love and service is described as lowly surrender.

More specifically, the term means in this context a willingness to seek others’ advantage instead of our own. Paul exhorted, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility (tapeinophrosune ) consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). The whole Christological section that follows is but a practical application of the Incarnation to enforce this lesson of humility in Christian discipleship. The intended message is plain: your attitude toward serving others should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; model your thoughts on His.

How many of us are more likely to defend our own interests than to humbly defer to others? Yet one of the marks of the Spirit-filled man (or church, or organization) is not self-assertion, but submission. H.A.A. Kennedy once observed, “It is a strange phenomenon in religious history that intense earnestness so frequently breeds a spirit mingled of censoriousness and conceit.” H.A.A. Kennedy, Expositor’s Greek Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), p. 433. May the Lord hasten the day when our earnestness is matched by our humility.


Verse 8 goes beyond saying that the Son of God surrendered to the extent of dying. At its climax, it asserts the most awful of deaths as His sacrifice: “Even death on a cross?” (v. 8). The type of construction Paul uses here stresses the kind or character of Jesus’ death: death-by-crucifixion. A.T. Robertson says, “Here is the bottom rung in the ladder from the throne of God. Jesus came all the way down to the most despised death of all, a condemned criminal on the accursed cross.”A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), p. 445.

In our consumer culture indulgence, not sacrifice, is the norm. Sadly, instead of challenging this spirit of our age in the name of Christ I see the Church smuggling consumerism into discipleship under religious labels! Christianity and Madison Avenue’s “good life” become hopelessly confused. In our churches bigger is equated with better, motion with growth, and success with celebrity. We pamper and indulge ourselves while we preach about sacrifice and praise self-denial.

The Incarnation of the Son of God is the divine model for true discipleship. To have the “mind of Christ” is to know the rigors of demanding servanthood. To follow Him is to practice self-renunciation, self-adaptation, self-surrender, and self-sacrifice. Surely, for the Christian to see his Elder Brother pouring Himself out in total sacrifice is to learn not only what each disciple ought to do, but also to learn why he must do it.


Here, then, is both the problem and the solution. The flesh that frustrates our desires to serve the Lord according to “the attitude of our minds” can be effectively overcome only by putting on “the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23). Both the model and the means for the demands of discipleship are found in the mind of Christ.

By modeling our thoughts on His we can overcome the threats of aesthetic admiration, aversion to authority, cultural changes, and defective models. By adopting as our goal the mind of Christ we will know that His loving, coming, and serving is the mandate for our loving, going, and serving. In Him we will find the pattern and the power for a life of self-renunciation, self-adaptation, self-surrender, and self-sacrifice.

Jerry Harvill was a minister for the Churches of Christ for twenty-three years. He teaches speech and journalism at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. This article is adapted from “The Cost of Discipleship,” which appeared in Spiritual Life, Fall 1985.