Discipleship In the Early Church

by Dayton Hartman

Today, we have largely diminished “being a disciple” to making a profession of faith and receiving baptism. After that, you’re on your own. American rugged individualism has led us to act as if we do not need one another.

But the early church demanded more. The initial discipleship process for new converts included a regimented three-year plan for growing new believers in the grace and knowledge of Jesus (Apostolic Tradition 17.1) . New converts—called catechumens—regularly heard biblical preaching, received basic theological training, and renounced their sinful practices.

Early Christians wrote a number of letters and tracts on discipleship. In his theological study on discipleship, Following the Master, Michael Wilkins demonstrates that the first Christians understood disciples to be those actively growing in the faith and consistently increasing in the knowledge of the gospel (313-27). For example, Clement of Rome, who wrote near the end of the first century, refers to Christians as those who follow Jesus in the way of truth (I Clement 14:1; 35:5; 40:4; 35:5). This should not take place in isolation, but in the community of Christ through mutual submission and meaningful relationships. Polycarp’s (69–155) exhortations in his Epistle to the Philippians are similar. He calls his readers to renounce sin, to pursue Christ, and to exemplify obedience in Christ. The Epistle to Diognetus also reminded early Christians that disciples in Christ should consistently grow in truth and in the fruits of the Holy Spirit. While disciples must absolutely depend on God’s Word and Spirit for this growth, they should also humbly listen to those who are more spiritually mature. These early Christian authors recognized that we need one another. United to Christ, disciples grow together as Christ’s members.

The rhythm practiced by the earliest Christians was one of relational mentoring. Christians who were well-grounded in the faith would regularly engage with and teach those who were new to the faith. This practice built meaningful relationships, accountability, and responsibility into everyday Christian living. Moreover, it reminded believers of the need to grow in faith and theology.

This rhythm was at one time also found in Christian homes through a process known as catechizing. Catechizing children has long been important to disciple-making. Recognizing that this practice was standard in the early church, John Calvin exhorted all churches to reclaim this ancient practice. “How I wish that we might have kept the custom which … existed among the ancient Christians!” he exclaimed concerning catechesis. Calvin saw catechesis as an opportunity for congregations to inculcate the one true faith, to help clarify and correct any misunderstandings among their youth. The benefits are great:

If this discipline were in effect today, it would certainly arouse some slothful parents, who carelessly neglect the instruction of their children as a matter of no concern to them; for then they could not overlook it without public disgrace. There would be greater agreement in faith among Christian people, and not so many would go untaught and ignorant; some would not be so rashly carried away with new and strange doctrines; in short, all would have some methodical instruction, so to speak, in Christian doctrine. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2:1460–61 (4.19.13))

While some denominations have maintained this tradition, many have allowed its extinction. Baptists, for example, have rarely used catechisms in recent decades despite a heritage of children’s catechisms since at least 1652. When we planted Redeemer Church, one of our goals was for parents and our congregation to work together to instruct children in the faith. For us, this meant parents participating in catechesis rather than relying on a professional children’s ministry.

We strongly encourage children to participate in worship as soon as the parents believe they are mature enough. For those children who aren’t ready, we offer a children’s ministry heavily focused on making disciples. Each week, after a time of instruction, these children gather together to sing songs and hear a 15-minute version of the sermon, delivered by a staff member or intern. The children’s sermon is full of illustrations that will connect with young audiences.

In addition, our staff and interns produce a weekly family discipleship guide for devotions and discipleship. These guides provide families with reflection questions from each week’s sermon (which apply to children and adults), a memory verse from the sermon passage, catechism questions that reinforce the teaching of the passage, and suggestions for family devotions. These suggestions include sections of the text (from the previous Sunday’s sermon) that could be discussed during the week, along with resources for younger children like The Jesus Storybook Bible. For some, this approach to family worship and discipleship seems revolutionary. Many are surprised to learn that we have recontextualized an old practice mastered by the Puritans.

Editor's Note: This was adapted from Dayton's book, Church History for Modern Ministry.