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What Is Transforming Discipleship?

In 2018, the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches (WCC) took place in Arusha, Tanzania, on the theme "Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship." More than one thousand participants from many different Christian traditions and from every part of the world gathered in Arusha from 8 to 13 March 2018. The conference issued a call to "Transforming Discipleship." (1)

I wish to reflect on the following questions: How well does this call correspond to the biblical call, namely to love God more than anyone else; to deny ourselves and to take up the cross; to abandon all'that ire have (Luke 14:25-35)? Mow well does The Arusha Call to Discipleship describe the highly ambitious demand of discipleship to which the apostles were called by Jesus Christ?

This article will reflect upon these questions, offering a critical biblical assessment to understand, in the first place, the qualities a disciple should have; in other words, and more simply, who can be a disciple? Second, it will define and highlight the conditions and requirements of being a disciple according to the gospels. Finally, it will set out the ways of transforming discipleship, a mission that seems to be impossible or at least very difficult to realize in the challenging world in which we live today.

Who Is a Disciple?

A Christian disciple is a person who accepts and assists in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ. Christian discipleship is the process by which disciples grow in the teachings of Jesus Christ and are prepared lw the Holy Spirit, who resides in their hearts, to overcome the pressures and trials of this present lite and become more and more Christ-like. This process requires believers to respond to the I lory Spirit's prompting to examine their own thoughts, words, and actions and compare them with the word of God. This requires studying the word, praying oveer it, and obeying it. In addition, the disciple should always be ready to offer testimony of the reason for the hope that is within them and to encourage others to follow Jesus as disciples.

The term "disciple" is almost completely absent in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, however, the word "disciple"--[phrase omitted],--is very well represented. [phrase omitted] appears 67 times in the gospel of Matthew, 41 times in the gospel of Mark, and 33 times in the gospel of Luke. We can note a particular interest in this term in the synoptic gospels, especially in Matthew, since it appears throughout the gospel. (2) It is true that in Matthew's gospel, the disciples arc generally identified with the twelve apostles; but Jesus gives his disciples the missionary mandate to "make all nations disciples" ([phrase omitted], Matt. 28:19; 27:57). The disciples of whom the gospel speaks therefore represent all those who welcome Christ and his teaching. (3) Matthew therefore means by the term "disciples" all Christians, all those who are members of the church. (4)

In the synoptic gospels, the disciples are very often accompanied by the crowd, "[phrase omitted] in Greek. The word "crowd" appears in the gospel of Matthew 49 times, in Mark 38 times, and in Luke 41 times. We note again the particular interest of the term in Matthew's gospel. It plays an extremely important role, being found in almost every chapter: a crowd follows Jesus to see him, to listen to him (Matt. 13:2), or to be healed (Matt. 4:25, 15:30, 31; 19:2). In many passages, Jesus calls the crowd to him to listen to his teaching (Matt. 5:1; 13:34; 15:10; 23:1). We also see a Jesus who takes pity on the crowd (9:36; 14:14), who heals the crowd (4:23; 15:30-31; 19:2), and a crowd that stands at a distance and observes Jesus, fearful of his miracles (7:28; 9:8, 33; 12:23; 22:33). It is also the crowd that glorifies this same Jesus by recognizing his divine nature (21:8-9,11), and, a few chapters later, calls for him to be crucified (26:47, 55). The crowd followed Jesus everywhere during his ministry (4:25; 8:1, 18; 13:2; 14:13; 15:32; 19:2; 20:29).

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the crowd remains in the background, and Jesus seems to address his teaching only to the disciples (5:1a). At the end of Jesus' teaching, it is said that "the crowds were struck with his teaching, for he taught them as having authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (7:28-29). In Matthew's gospel, the crowds are not hostile to Jesus at first. They even seem rather well disposed toward him (see 9:23 and 12:23). After hearing the Sermon on the Mount, they are "struck by this teaching" (7:28), but it is not said that they let their lives be changed by him.

What is curious, however, is the strict separation between the disciples and the crowd, especially in the gospel of Matthew (5:1, 23:1). The [phrase omitted] are the privileged and exclusive receivers of the succession of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew; they are charged with the mission of esus, which is to make "disciples of all nations." The disciples mentioned in Matthew thus represent all those who welcome Christ and his teaching. In Matthew, the term "disciple" thus means all Christians, all those who are members of the church, the body of Christ. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), the first teaching of Jesus in this gospel, begins to set out their programme for life. This sermon is therefore primarily an ethic tor the disciples, that is to say, the members of the Christian community. True disciples practise the words of Jesus (7:24-27); they have ears to "hear" (13:10-16); they do the Father's will (12:49-50). The people making up the crowds therefore remain potential disciples.' (5)

We may thus conclude that the specific example of the Sermon on the Mount is intended for the disciples, but not exclusively so: the crowds constitute a distant circle of listeners. The image is thus finely composed by the evangelist: a first circle of listeners (the disciples) and a second circle farther away (the crowds). The Sermon on the Mount is therefore a promise that Jesus addresses to believers (the disciples), but the value of his words is universal (the crowds). (6) In the gospel according to Matthew, the disciples represent those who made the decision to follow Christ. As in other discourses or sermons, the disciples are clearly distinguished from the crowds; they form the circle of very close people who surround the teacher. The crowds constitute a second audience, interested but more distant; their presence is confirmed at the conclusion of the sermon (7:28-29).

What Are the Conditions of Being a Disciple?

To become a disciple of Jesus Christ, there is no need to be honoured in a special way; the relationship between the disciple and the teacher is not exclusively intellectual or academic. Jesus said, "Come, follow me" (Matt. 4:19). In the gospels, the verb "to follow" [phrase omitted] always expresses attachment to the person of Jesus. To follow Jesus, the person needs to break with the past, and in the case of privileged disciples, it means a total break. Unlike the disciples of the Jewish teachers of the law who, once they had learned the Law, could separate themselves from their rabbi and teach in their turn, the disciple of Jesus attached themselves to him and became devoted not to a doctrine, but to a person: they could not leave Jesus who henceforth is for them more than father, mother, and family. Thus the true disciple of Jesus is called to share the very destiny of the teacher: to carry his cross, to drink his cup, and, finally, to receive from him the kingdom. As we can see, based on the gospel evidence, the path followed by a true disciple in each generation is challenging and exciting, giving them a precise sense of purpose and direction.

In the gospel of Luke 14:25-35, (8) Jesus sets out the conditions of discipleship. In Luke 14, Jesus uses the phrase "cannot be my disciple" three times. And one of the conditions of being a disciple is unconditional love toward God: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). In this verse, Jesus does not encourage the hate of family or friends or even of oneself. He is rather making a point by using a strong contrast; he uses the word "hate" as the opposite of love. He chooses the most important love we could have in this world--the love of family--and uses this analogy to show that our love for God must have superiority over all others. Returning to Matthew's gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10:34-35). Jesus wants to be sure that his disciples love him more than anyone or anything else.

Another condition of being a disciple, according to Luke 14:27, is that of denying oneself and taking up the cross: "And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Luke 9:23 reminds us of the same message: "If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." We have become a self-centred society. Jesus' mandate goes against the grain of popular culture. In fact, many in the church today have stated that the answer to most of the problems in our society is to build up our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. The Bible teaches that we have an inherently sinful nature (Prov. 20:9; Rom. 3:23; 5:12-13; 1 John 1:8). The Bible makes it clear that it is not a lack of love for oneself that causes problems in society; it is the obsession with sell. Scripture acknowledges the fact that we already love ourselves. Ephesians 5:29 says, "After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it." However, Jesus did not say that we need to love ourselves (we already do that). He told us to deny ourselves: "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24). The word for "life" in Greek is [phrase omitted], meaning "soul life"--literally our will, ambitions, goals, and desires. When we give this "life" up to allow ourselves to be conformed into the image of Jesus, we discover his plan and purpose for our lives. Bearing our cross means dying to ourselves--putting away our personal goals, desires, and ambitions so that God can reveal his desires, ambitions, and goals for outlives.

After putting away our personal goals, desires, and ambitions, we are called to say goodbye to all that we have: "In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples" (Luke 14:33). The gospel of Mark (10:17-22) recounts the story of the person who asks Jesus about eternal life:
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"Jesus said to
him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know
the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not
defraud; Honour your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I
have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him
and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the
money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come,
follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.


We are thus asked to abandon all that can be essential for our lives to follow God. In Luke (14:28), Jesus highlights the importance of counting the cost of discipleship. Being a disciple can cost everything we have: "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?" We are thus invited to take stock of whether we as Christian disciples are ready to lose everything for God.

Transforming Discipleship

Examining the ten verses of Luke 14, we become aware that the conditions of being a disciple appear unreal and the explanation of the biblical term "disciple" refers to the early followers of Christ. We know that they were a praying, worshipping, loving, giving, and evangelizing group of men and women who refused to keep the truth of the gospel to themselves. To many in the church today, the experience of the believers in the first-century church may seem radical, but to those early believers, it was normal Christianity. In addition, these women and men--empowered and motivated by the Holy Spirit--literally turned their world upside down for the sake of Christ. In short, they were revolutionary disciples of Jesus Christ. They were changing the world at the price of their own blood.

However, God still looks for disciples today, ordinary people whom God can use to do extraordinary things, such as finding inspiring and unexpected ways of turning the contemporary world upside down.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the theme of the most recent WCC world mission and evangelism conference was "Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship." According to the Arusha Call to Discipleship, are we really called to follow Jesus and break with the past, meaning a total break? How does the Arusha Call express the transformative part of discipleship? This call of transformation and, more precisely, Transforming Discipleship, was picked up in the address by the moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, Geevaghese Mor Coorilos, (9) who concentrated his reflection on Acts 17:6, where it is said: "When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, 'These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.'"

It is true that one of the relevant features of the mission of the early disciples of Christ was the revolutionary nature and content of their discipleship. However, mission and evangelism today seen in the light of "Transforming Discipleship" should be about turning the contemporary world upside down. "Nothing less would qualify discipleship as transforming," as Metropolitan Geevaghese stated. (10) It is the same call to turn the world upside down as that shown by Paul and Silas, who were accused of questioning the decrees of Caesar, even as they boldly proclaimed that there was another Lord, Jesus Christ. For Metropolitan Geevaghese, the mission of transforming discipleship in today's imperial global context is about challenging the empires of our times and announcing their fall as if they have already fallen. Discipleship is about challenging idolatries that try to replace God with human power and money (11)

According to Metropolitan Geevaghese,
In our own world today, dictatorship and neo-liberal capitalism arc
combined and imposed on citizens as a package by several contemporary
imperial/fascist regimes. The greed-driven economy has effectively
replaced the regime of justice and equity with mammon. Moving in the
Spirit here would mean confronting the idolatry of money. On his
pilgrimage towards Jerusalem, Jesus occupied the temple by cleansing it
of the forces of mammon that had converted it into a market place, a
trade centre, a bureau de change, and a stock market (Matt. 21). Inside
the temple, Jesus turned the tables of market forces upside down.
Mission as transforming discipleship, then, is also about turning the
tables of unjust economies upside down. (12)


Mission as Transforming Discipleship today is thus also about turning the imperial mission, logic, and praxis upside down. This means that as churches and the ecumenical movement, we should undergo a process of soul searching and renounce all traces of these imperial vestiges from our structures and ministries. Sadly, the logic and legacy of the empire has kept coming back to haunt us and at times to appropriate the agenda of our churches, mission organizations, and ecumenical institutions. As Jesus evicted the market forces from the life of the temple, we must get rid of the influence of mammon and its worship. Combating marketization of the temple was an integral element of Jesus' pilgrimage toward the cross. This means that mission as transforming discipleship is about turning the world--both secular and ecclesial--upside down.

A strong call to Transforming Discipleship comes again from Metropolitan Geevaghese: "It is not enough to say that empires will fall. Like the early church did, we need to announce their fall as if they have already tallen... [It] is also not enough to say that another world is possible. Our mission is to announce its arrival as if it has already been ushered in. Our mission is to turn the world upside down. Nothing less will do." (13)

In calling for a concrete transformation of the notion of Discipleship, Metropolitan Geevaghese refers to the writer Arundhati Roy, who states: "Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it... The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling; their versions of history, their wars, their weapons, their versions of inevitability." (14)

The metropolitan's reflection on Transforming Discipleship is a call for an innovative and at the same time a genuine transforming discipleship. In his words, we can read a call to love God more than anyone else; to deny ourselves and to take up the cross; to abandon all that we have (Luke 14:25-35). It a real call of turning the world upside down for a real change and so that "God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10b).

Transforming Discipleship also and especially implies that the disciples of Christ need to transform themselves so that the world can be transformed, turned upside down, by them. All of this can be realized only if a transformation happens in human beings, in their minds and hearts. This transformation is only possible through the understanding and realization that human beings are sinners who are eager to repent with true sincerity and humility. Only after this is it possible to start climbing the stairs of the beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus Christ on the Mount.

In the beatitudes (Matt. 5:3), the one who is blessed [phrase omitted], the one who is "poor in spirit," concerns the one who is poor socially and spiritually, the one who realizes their state of sinfulness and wants to be relieved of their sins. Then they mourn humbly on their state of sinfulness (Matt. 5:4-5), to become thirsty for justice (5:6). And whoever wants to establish justice must be merciful (5:7), have a pure heart (5:8), and be a peacemaker (5:9). It is only after completing these stages that the disciple will be prepared for persecution, to be insulted tor justice, and thus to be ready for God (5:10-12).

In The End

We have reflected on being a disciple in today's challenging and self-seeking world, where material values take an important place in every aspect of life. We have tried to demonstrate how according to the gospels, we are called to be genuine disciples by loving God, denying ourselves for God, taking up the cross for God, and abandoning all that we have tor God. This seems a very difficult mandate to realize. However, if we have the ambitious dream to turn the world upside down and to try establishing justice for the poor, for those who mourn, for the humble, for those who hunger and thirst, we have no choice other than to at least try to love God more than anyone else; to deny ourselves and to take up the cross; and to abandon all that we have.

The consolation and the support of the Holy Spirit are essential in this task that is otherwise hardly possible. The work of the Holy Spirit leads to a renewed covenant of God with his disciples. The Christian disciple needs to open up their mind and spirit to universality, to endure the path God has prepared for them.

Acts 2 sets out what the Christian mission and discipleship needs to be: it needs to be open to universality. The church, formed by its disciples, is likened to a crowd--[phrase omitted] --of people in the Spirit, and that is universal from its very beginnings. From this moment, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, marks "the beginning" of the mission of the disciples and the church. Pentecost does not restore a single language, but it is miraculous that the Spirit, in the midst of humanity, speaks all languages, comforts all people, and helps us to become disciples of Jesus at all times. Pentecost does not establish a fusional communication; rather, it offers a promise: the Spirit can transcend any culture, or rather inhabit any culture, to make heard the wonders of God. To put it another way, the Spirit of Pentecost establishes the church as a diverse community where universal communication in several languages is a gift.

We have a choice--to be or not to be a disciple of the triune God. We have a choice to watch things happen or make things happen. We have a choice to take a step and have a profound effect on the world today.

Dr Ani Ghazaryan Drissi is a lay theologian and a biblical scholar belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church (Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin). She is a programme executive for the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order. This article is a revised version of a Bible study given at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, in April 2018.

(1) "The Arusha Call to Discipleship," International Review of Mission 107:2 (December 2018), 542-46; https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangel ism/the-a rush a-m I l-ro-H isrinleshin.

(2) Rudoll Bultmann, Die Geschichte dcr synoptiscben Tradition (Gdttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1931); John Nolland, The Gospel of Mattheir:. 1 Commenlary on the Greek Text/(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 23.

(3) Wolfgang Trilling, Das Wahre Israel: Sludien zurTheologu des Matthaus Evangelinms (Munich: kosel, 1%4), 50.

(4) Marcel Dumais, Le Sermon sur la Moniagne (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1995), 109.

(5) J.C. R.Cousland, The Crowds in the Gospel of"Mattben' (Leiden; Brill, 2(102), 44.

(6) Bettina Schaller and Daniel Marguerat, "Matthieu 5,1-12 : Ne pas se tromper de bonhcur!" I. ire et Dire: htudes exegetiques en rue de la predication 71 (2007), 15-25.

(7) Ulrich I.uz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, rev. ed. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2007), 182-83; Josef Schmid, Das Evangelium nacb Matthaus (Regensburg: Gregorius/Pustet, 1948), 74; Pierre Bonnard, Lerangile selon saint Matthieu (Neuchatel: Delachaux & Niestle, 1963), 54.

(8) "Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 'Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot he my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, "This fellow began to build and was not able to finish." Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?' If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (34) Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor tor the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"' (Luke 14:25-35).

(9) Metropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos, "WCC/CWME World Mission Conference--Arusha, Tanzania, 8-13 March 2018: Moderator's Address," International Review of Mission 107:2 (December 2018), 311-19; https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/cc)mmissions)ns/mission-and-evangelism/cwme-moderators-addressmetropolitan-geevarghese-coorilos.

(10) Ibid.,314.

(11) Ibid., 315.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ibid., 319.

(14) Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (London: Penguin/Viking, 2005), 86; quoted in Coorilos, "WCC/CWM K World Mission Conference," 319.

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12421

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Author:Drissi, Ani Ghazaryan
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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