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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Discipleship vs. Catechesis: a Helpful Distinction

Discipleship Group

There has been much talk in recent years about the need for discipleship in churches. There are many different definitions of what it means to be a disciple and many different methods and programs proposed to become and/or make disciples. However, at the heart of it, we all just mean that we need to become more faithful followers of Jesus. Jesus had 12 disciples, and he told them to go and make more disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). We do this by believing in and obeying Jesus.

However, while I think discipleship is a useful category, it can be confusing and ambiguous. For one thing, discipleship never ends. You never stop learning to be a disciple. I take that to be fairly common sense. However, I have heard many people speak of the need to be discipled. Some will ask other believers if anyone has ever discipled them. Many churches offer courses in discipleship, sometimes as a requirement for membership. All of this makes discipleship sound like an event or some introductory phase that believers need to graduate from. But if someone is a believer, they are a disciple (how good of a disciple they are is a different question), and they never grow out of that. That makes the terminology confusing. Further, I worry that this terminology makes it sound like discipleship is this extra thing that you can throw on top of ordinary obedience that makes you extra spiritual — as though going to church for worship is not really discipleship.

I think we have correctly recognized a need, but don't have great terminology for it. The need is that new believers need a sort of initiation into the faith. They need to be instructed on what to believe and how to live. While there is a sense in which we all need that for our whole lives, we especially need an introduction at the beginning of our faith. We could liken it to learning to feed ourselves. We are born again spiritually unable to nourish ourselves. Other believers must feed us by teaching us, and as we grow, teaching us to feed ourselves. A new believer will likely be unable to get much out of prayer, Bible reading, or church simply because they don't know enough. They need help launching into a lifetime of discipleship. But when we call both this introduction and the rest of life discipleship, things get confusing.

I want to propose that we bring back the term "catechesis" to describe that initial phase of instruction. Given that I have a catechism posted on this website, it will be no surprise that I am a fan of the term and the practice. In a nutshell, catechesis comes from the Greek word for instruction. It is used in places like Luke 1:3 to describe Christian teaching. From the early church through the Reformation era, churches had some process of catechesis in which new believers and children were taught the basics of the faith. At its best, it was both doctrinal and practical, passing on the basics of the faith and calling believers to a vibrant and obedient walk with Christ. It usually included things like the Apostles' Creed (what to believe), the 10 Commandments (how to act), and the Lord's Prayer (how to pray). Unlike discipleship, this was the sort of thing you graduate from. Catechesis is not meant to last forever but is merely an introduction to the faith.

It is possible to wrangle over terminology that makes no difference. I hope what I am suggesting won't be used that way. Whether people like the term catechesis is of little importance to me. What is important to me is that we recognize that new believers need an introduction to the faith and we need to be intentional in providing that. Discipleship has no end, but it does have a beginning, and extra care and attention are needed at the beginning, just as infants need more care than adults. I think we would do well to learn how the church practiced catechesis throughout history and consider how we might apply their principles today.

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