I’ve always been a passionate believer in the importance of coming alongside someone to help them flourish. I’ve read countless books about mentoring, coaching, spiritual direction and the like, all of which have inspired and challenged me - both in terms of growing myself and growing others.
However, it’s easy to get lost in the terminology. I’ve attended conferences where people have sought to give definitions to these types of activities but it often seems to me that one person’s mentoring is another person’s coaching - or one person’s discipling is another person’s mentoring.
On one level, it’s been fantastic to see a growing commitment to mentoring in the past ten years or so. In many ways there is nothing new about this, but it does seem that mentoring is more part of our common vocabulary today than it was a decade ago. But is it possible that our commitment to ‘mentoring’ has diluted the expansive, whole-life task of disciple-making - or is that just semantics and I’m simply being pedantic?
I’m not sure!
In their classic book ‘Connecting: The Mentoring Relationships you need to succeed in life’ authors Stanley and Clinton give a the following definition of ‘mentoring’ -
"Mentoring is a relational experience in which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resource.”
They then explore seven different types of mentoring, with discipling being one of the seven. They suggest that discipling comes under the banner of mentoring. But I wonder if that’s right. I wonder whether it should be the other way round. I wonder whether the definition above doesn’t fully capture the breadth of what it means to disciple someone.
In 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 Paul writes these words to the Christians in Corinth…
“I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”
There are three things worth noticing in these four verses.
Firstly, Paul is making a distinction between ‘guardians’ and spiritual ‘fathers’. The Greek word for ‘guardian’ is ‘paidagogos’ which means ‘tutor’, ‘school master’ or ‘boy-leader’. This usually referred to a highly respected slave who was employed by the family, responsible for supervising a son on behalf of the parents – until around the age of 16. A paid ‘mentor’ if you will. They would walk them to and from school, make sure they worked hard, and trained them to be obedient. They were concerned with a child’s educational and moral welfare. It was a very important role, but Paul makes the point that a father is different. A father is passionately concerned about every aspect of his child’s wellbeing. A father wants the son to grow up healthily physically, emotionally, relationally, financially, and spiritually - and surely that’s the aim of disciple making. That as people ‘learn’ to become more like Jesus, they experience God’s shalom (flourishing and wellbeing) across every part of life. Sometimes we might ‘mentor’ someone in a certain part of life, whereas disciple-making is ‘whole of life’ - if it’s anything less, then it’s not true disciple-making.
Secondly, Paul feels like a spiritual father to the Corinthians (v14) and to Timothy (v17). He’s embraced being a spiritual Dad as His calling. He’s saying – “There are loads of people out there who will teach you, give you good advice, try and keep you on the straight and narrow – that’s all fine. But what I feel for you goes deeper than that. I feel like a spiritual Dad towards you. You’re always in my thoughts and prayers. I want you to fully receive everything God has for you and nothing less. And I will use all the resources I have available to see that happen – as if you were my own biological child.” Paul was passionate about embracing the role of a spiritual father to many believers (see 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, Galatians 4:19 for other examples). And this is not just a New Testament principle. Whilst there aren’t many examples in the Old Testament it would be fair to say that there was spiritual father-son relationship between Moses and Joshua, Eli and Samuel, Elijah and Elisha.
Being a spiritual parent to someone means that you are spiritually more mature than them – not necessarily physically older than them. You simply have more experience in following Jesus than they do – which brings us to the third point we need to draw out of these verses in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17 (which help us understand even more clearer the difference in focus between a guardian and a spiritual parent).
Thirdly, Paul shows us that Spiritual parents are hoping that their spiritual children will grow up to follow their example and imitate them. Paul says in v16 – “I urge you to imitate me”. The word ‘urge’ here is ‘pä-rä-kä-le'-?’ – it’s rich in meaning – it means to beg, to encourage, to instruct, and to call someone to your side – It’s like Paul is saying ‘I beg and encourage you to get close to me – see what I’m doing – see how I’m living – and do the same.”
And in verse 17 Paul tells the Corinthians church that he’s sending his spiritual son Timothy to see them – so that Timothy can remind them of Paul’s example – Paul’s way of life in Christ. Timothy has spent a lot of time with Paul. Paul knows that his way of life will have rubbed off on Timothy and so he’s confident that this will rub off from Timothy to the Corinthian church.
A guardian would never say to a son – ‘imitate me’. That’s not how the guardian sees their function. But a father would say to the son ‘imitate me’.
The Greek word for ‘disciple’ is ‘mathetes’ which means learner - apprentice. We’re learning to become like Jesus. We are his apprentices. And the best way to learn to become like Jesus is to learn from others who are further ahead in this whole-life transforming journey. This is why Paul repeatedly calls believers to ‘Follow him, as he follows Christ’ - as do other New Testament writers (e.g. 1 Corinthians 4:16, 1 Corinthians 1:11, Philippians 3:17, Philippians 4:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 2 Thessalonians 3:9, 1 Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:7, Hebrews 6:12, Hebrews 13:7).
And to be clear, Paul is not saying ‘imitate me’ because he wants these spiritual children to become him exactly. He’s not trying to create a ‘mini me’. He’s not trying to turn them all in to preachers or writers like him. It’s his way of life – His way of following Jesus – that’s what he’s inviting them to imitate. It’s his godly values; his priorities - it’s his character and Christ-like-ness - his commitment to hold on to God even as he struggles honestly with his sin and suffering.
So is this just semantics? Am I just being pedantic? Not convinced yet?
Let me close with two more reasons.
Genuine disciple-making is always reproductive. We’re supposed to be disciples making disciples. Ultimately, Paul doesn’t just want to raise spiritual children. He wants those spiritual children to become spiritual parents. Spiritual parents raising spiritual parents. Isn’t this the goal of parenting biological children? You want your children to grow up into healthy, mature adulthood in the hope that they too might reproduce and grow their own children who will go on to do the same – and so on…Healthy parents raising healthy parents raising healthy parents.
How does this relate to mentoring? Is one of the primary goals of mentoring to train the person you mentor to mentor others? Sometimes maybe, but from my experience, mostly not. Whereas disciple-making should always be reproductive.
And finally (draws a ‘preachers’ breath)… Jesus told us to become his ‘disciples’ (Matthew 9:9) and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). So I think I’m going to stick with the word that Jesus choose.
I have no doubt that ‘mentoring’ forms a part of disciple-making but I’m convinced that it’s that way round and not the other. Our first call is to be and make disciples. It’s what Jesus asked us to do.
Ultimately perhaps that’s the most important point. Call it what you want, but are you committed to help people follow Jesus? Are you committed to make time to grow someone’s faith - seeing their relationship with Jesus impact every part of their lives? Are you passionate about seeing those who follow your example go on to be an example to others others? Disciples making disciples.
May God help us embrace His expansive vision of transformed lives and let’s wholeheartedly commit to do it - in His strength, for His glory. Amen!