Helping Disciples Become Disciplers

The Four-Fold Disciple: The Goal of Discipleship

The main goal of Christian discipleship is to turn disciples into disciplers. If discipleship is not about reproduction, then the original teacher’s knowledge is lost and only passed on to one generation. Examples of this are far and wide, but let’s briefly consider the Latin language. Many recognize Latin when we see it, and even more of us know it is a “dead language.” Why is it a dead language? Because at some point, regular speaking of Latin ceased. Of course, there is much more to the death of any language, but I think you get the idea. When we fail to pass on teachings, they eventually cease to be. The entirety of the Christian faith is premised on the reality that what we see today is what was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 ESV). This type of apostolic succession and continued proclamation of the gospel can is demonstrated throughout each century of the church. Thus, proving Jesus’s claim that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). The Holy Spirit is the primary defender of the church, and He uses us in discipleship as the means for the continuation of the gospel and the bride’s preservation until the bridegroom’s return.

In discipleship, our goal is not to create a legacy or a new lineage; rather, discipleship is the continuation of the lineage handed to us through the Scriptures and the faithful saints before us. We are simply continuing the work that the Lord Jesus Christ gave His disciples before His ascension by going and making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). The idea of discipleship is not new, and there are plenty of reasons to be discipled and to disciple. However, the moment we find ourselves in is unique for Western Christians. A 2017 Barna study showed that only 17 percent of Christians “who considered their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview.”1 In 2023, we should rightly assume that the percentage has only worsened. The 2022 State of Theology identifies that many Americans have little idea what orthodox Christianity teaches; this is exemplified by the number of adults that deny divine authorship of the Bible, growing confusion around gender and sexuality, the affirmation that God accepts all worship, the growing denial of objective truth, and the rejection of the need for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to atone for the sins of man.2 The biblical ignorance of Americans is coupled with the rise in religious nones who could make up anywhere from 35 to 52 percent of the U.S. population by 2070. In 2020 those that were irreligious made up 30 percent of the population. It is worth pointing out that in 1972 less than five percent of the American population identified as such.3

Why is all the data so important? Well, it points out a drastic reality many are unwilling to face. Occasionally we will still hear remarks like, “The U.S. is a Christian nation.” The data denies that reality and culture seems to be aware of the lack of Christian influence, so we here continually talk of a “post-Christian” age. Ten years ago, that might not have been an incorrect label. However, it is not 2013, and we are far beyond post-Christian ideas. Being post-Christian would imply that people at large have a link to the Christian faith, yet the evidence shows that the secularization of the West combined with religious pluralism has all but eradicated any semblance of Christian orthodoxy in the public square and the American mind. We propose that we start seeing our current moment as a pre-Christian age. We believe this is a necessary identifier because it prepares us for the reality that we have no common ground with non-Christians concerning worldview and conveys the reality that the ideas of the gospel are foreign and abstract to most Americans today. When we fail to recognize that we speak a different language than those around us, we act like Lieutenant Dunbar in the movie adapted from the novel Dances With Wolves. When Dunbar first encounters his Sioux neighbors on the Western plains, he foolishly tries to speak English, and Kicking Bird responds accordingly, a face screaming, “This man is a fool.” When we speak “Christianese” to non-Christians in this pre-Christian age, we speak a language they do not understand. Thus, it is vital that we recognize our moment in time as Christians engaging with the secular and pluralistic world of the day looks a lot more like the world of the early church in the second, third, and fourth centuries than the world our grandparents grew up in.

So, what do we do about this critical moment we find ourselves in? First, we pray. Second, we disciple. But discipleship has to look different than the previous generation’s version. Since we are in a pre-Christian age, we should disciple the way the early church did by living life together, going deep into the things of God together, and exhibiting knowledge of God and culture for the sake of verbal gospel proclamation and radical obedience to Christ. Much of the early church’s discipleship happened through catechizing, a question-and-answer format coupled with a life lived together, just as it was for Jesus and His disciples. In our moment, we suggest that the best way for the current generation to engage the next generation is by becoming four-fold disciplesA. The four-fold discipleship model is not a program but rather an idea rooted in how the fathers of the faith successfully engaged their pre-Christian moment with the gospel of Jesus Christ and went from being disciples to disciplers.

What, then, is a four-fold disciple? A four-fold disciple is someone discipled by Christ, an older saint, sources, and culture in that order. If we miss the mark on any of these, we fail to be a complete four-fold disciple and are bound to repeat the failure in discipleship that has led us to the current moment. Over-emphasizing one fold can turn us into religious zealots who do not know how to interact with the lost world around us. Likewise, overemphasizing another turns us into progressive Christians, denying the truths of the Christian faith. At the forefront of the four-fold disciple is the idea that we are devoted disciples of Christ. From there, everything logically follows. Let us now briefly examine each fold.

  1. Disciples of Christ

If a Christian is not a disciple of Jesus Christ, then he is not a Christian. Literally speaking, to be a Christian is to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The disciples model this in the Gospel accounts, and Paul implies in Galatians 1 that he learned from Jesus in the wilderness before ever turning to any other disciple to learn about the Christian faith (Galatians 1:11-2:10). Now we do not get the privilege of sitting at Jesus’s physical feet as the first-century disciples did. Still, we get the privilege of having His word and the ability to pray to Him. We practice our spiritual disciplines seeking the presence of Christ so that we may look at others and say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). For 21st-century Christians, the only way we can learn from Christ is through His word and through spending time with Him in prayer. Thus, we should not neglect the discipleship that happens through these means of grace. Ultimately, we are calling Christians to have intimacy with Jesus in this first fold.

  1. Disciples of Saints

When examining the relationship between Paul and Timothy, it is clear they had a spiritual bond, so much so that Paul identifies Timothy as his “son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:1). This type of relationship does not form overnight but is built upon hours and hours spent together. To be a four-fold disciple, we must be willing to spend hours and hours with older saints learning from them. This is not a one-year commitment that we should make; instead, this is a lifetime commitment to being discipled by older saints. Life-on-life discipleship is not simply multiple hours spent studying the Bible together or going through a book; it is walking hand in hand through life together and allowing an older saint to point you to Christ. This type of relationship is one where sin is confessed, insecurities are brought to light, and friendship is formed. This type of discipleship relationship will flourish because of spiritual engagement via prayer and study of the Bible. However, those are only advantageous and life-giving when the disciple and the teacher have a relationship that is beyond that, and likewise, the relationship is fueled by the spiritual linking that happens in prayer and time in the word together. To be a disciple of an older saint is to allow them to get into your life and for you to get into theirs. We do life-on-life discipleship by enjoying meals together, traveling with one another, spending time with our families together, and doing various other ordinary and mundane life activities together. We know life is busy, but if we are to engage the next generation truly, we must be willing to commit ourselves to be discipled by older saints in all areas of life.

  1. Disciples of sources

Historically the church has not limited discipleship to geographical or temporal moments, and if we genuinely want to grow as disciples seeking to become disciplers, we must become disciples of sources. We must read good books, listen to good podcasts, be good sermon listeners, attend conferences, and be catechized in theology, apologetics, and all matters of faith and life. In many ways, we are calling for disciples to grow in theology, apologetics, and church history, as we believe knowledge in these areas is essential in making a good disciple who can disciple others. A disciple of sources is developing a Christian worldview that can withstand the objections of the pre-Christian age. The world says knowledge is power, and we simply recognize that reality and urge Christians to devote themselves to growing in the knowledge of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. At Emet Ministries, we want to provide you with good sources for discipleship. It is why we have other websites listed on our own, it is why we do book reviews, and it is also why we have developed The Veritas Institute for those looking to go deeper. A four-fold disciple will recognize the significance of being a disciple of sources because when we do this, we begin to see the first two folds come out practically.

  1. Disciples of the culture

The final fold only makes sense when we recognize that it comes last. We do not first look to culture for discipleship; instead, we look to Christ first. The second fold is also essential when it comes to being a disciple of the culture because being a disciple of an older saint provides accountability and points out when and where we have gone too far. Finally, the third fold is relevant as it gives the backbone for us to think biblically about the fourth fold. Once we are being discipled in the three previous ways, we can become a disciple of the culture. This is a crucial component of being a Christian, for Jesus prayed to the Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-18). As Christians, we are not of the world, but we are in it, and we are to engage it with the gospel of Christ. We cannot engage in what we do not know. Thus, we must be disciples of Christ. Meaning we must be aware of what the world is doing. We are not saying that Christians must be like the world or that our lives must look worldly.

On the contrary, we are saying that we must be so heavenly-minded that we are an earthly good as we look at the culture around us and engage those that are from Christ with the good news of Jesus Christ. The history of the church has demonstrated time and time again that faithful followers of Jesus know the culture. For example, in Acts 17, Paul demonstrates his awareness of pagan worship practices. Similarly, what we are calling for with this fourth fold is that we would be a people who know what the culture around us is doing so that we may proclaim the glories of Jesus Christ into their darkness and despair. It is important to note that we cannot change the culture, but through the power of Christ and the proclamation of His gospel, we can change individuals by being devoted, four-fold disciples. When we are that, we will see gospel transformation in ourselves, our homes, workplaces, classrooms, and churches. Ultimately, that type of change rooted in individual discipleship of others changes cultures through God’s power.

The idea of being a four-fold disciple is not fancy or novel, it is simply an idea rooted in historic Christianity with results that speak for themselves. We believe that when we are four-fold disciples, disciples of Christ, saints, sources, and culture, we will be better-equipped disciplers for the sake of training, equipping, and raising up the next generation with a consecrated mind that is radically abandoned to the lordship of Jesus Christ.


A. Copyright 2023, Emet Ministries, Inc.


Additional Resources to Keep Learning...

Evangelism and The Christian Life

Disciple of Sources

The Story of Hope with Sara Stevenson

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