What does the word “disciple” mean to you? Jesus referred to His followers as His disciples. In our churches we often use the words “disciple” and “discipleship” to refer to the life of a Jesus-follower. So you may know that a disciple is a learner and discipleship refers to our learning what it means to follow our Savior. A few years ago, in the writings of Dallas Willard, though, I discovered another word similar to “discipleship.” And I think it can help us think about what it means to follow Christ, to learn from Him: apprenticeship.
I don’t want to set these two words or ideas against each other. “Disciple” is a biblical term, and, as far as I know, “apprentice” is not used in any standard translation of the Bible. Moreover, the ideas of discipleship and apprenticeship overlap a lot. Disciples develop skills and apprentices learn, sometimes in a classroom setting, and vice-versa. But I think there are a subtle distinctions that come to mind when we think about these two roles.
These are not absolute distinctions, but in our thinking:
- Disciples listen and learn. Apprentices watch and learn.
- Disciples gain information in order to know. Apprentices gain information also, in order to do.
- Disciples relate to a teacher who knows more than do the disciples. Apprentices relate to a master skilled in the techniques which the apprentices hope to acquire.
- Disciples are tested to show they have learned the information the teacher expects. Apprentices are tested to see if they have learned to do what the master does.
Jesus was a teacher. He communicated information and expected His followers to remember it. He taught them (and us) about the Heavenly Father, about the world and humankind. Jesus’ disciples in turn were to share the truth that truth with those who came after them. Of course, Jesus wanted His followers to learn to do what He did, also, not simply remember what He said. So let’s rephrase that “Great Commission.”
Jesus said, “As you go, make disciples (apprentices)…baptizing them (bringing them into an apprenticeship role)…teaching them (showing them how) to do all that I have commanded you (thus becoming like you/Me)….” (NOTE: This doesn’t mean we are to be “apprentice saviors.” We are to be apprentice “citizens of the kingdom,” people learning the truths and skills necessary to live in the kingdom.)
Going further in the idea of apprenticeship, an apprentice to Jesus is a person who:
1. Has trusted Jesus with her or his entire life.
2. Wants to live as Jesus would if Jesus were living in the apprentice’s own circumstances, doing the kinds of things Jesus did.
3. Joins other apprentices in a community of learning and practice.
An apprentice seeks to become increasingly like her or his master, so the apprentice needs:
- To recognize what the master does (vision).
- To decide to become like the master (intention).
- To grow in the ability to imitate the master through developing the necessary skills (means).
Remember an apprentice seeks to learn the skills of her or his master craftsman. More on this later. For now, what Jesus-skills are you developing?