Discipleship and The Early Church Fathers
It is believed that the Christian community multiplied four-hundredfold in the first three decades after Pentecost. The growth rate continued remarkably high for three hundred years.1 This growth would have never continued if the church only evangelized. For this growth to continue for three centuries multiplication had to have been the emphasis. After that period the progress of effective discipleship began to deteriorate.
Some of the early church fathers who had a direct connection to the apostles continued to practice a relational approach to discipleship just as their mentors had practiced. Two of these key people were Ignatius, who was a bishop at the church of Antioch in Syria from AD50– 117; and Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Both men were discipled by the apostle John. Ignatius, for his part, used discipleship terminology more than any of the other apostolic fathers, revealing the most about the practice of discipleship after the death of the apostles.2 Demonstrating a practice of multiplication discipleship, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, considered himself a disciple of Ignatius.3 According to Virginia Corwin, “The Ignatian letters have more references to imitation and discipleship than all the other Apostolic Fathers together.”4
The only known writings of Ignatius were written a few weeks before his martyrdom as he anticipated his death. He used the same terminology for discipleship as found in the New Testament fourteen times in the six letters he wrote during this period. For example, according to Michael Wilkins, he used the same verb, I make a disciple or I become a disciple (mathēteuō), which is the same verb used in Matthew 28:19 when Jesus gave the Great Commission. He also used the noun form of disciple (mathētēs) which means “a learner.” Finally, Ignatius uses the term to designate a mentor relationship between a Christian leader and an immature believer.5
I believe an in-depth and unbiased study of the early church, especially the life of the apostle Paul, shows that the discipleship we must practice emphasizes an interpersonal methodology that can only effectively take place in a life-on-life relationship—and for most people this will be a one-on-one relationship.
1. Coleman, Robert E., The Master Plan of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 2001),
2. Wilkins, Michael J., Following the Master, A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 314.
3. Hull, Bill, The Complete Book of Discipleship (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006), 76–77.
4. Corwin, Virginia, Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, Yale Publications in Religion 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 228, n. 9.
5. Wilkins, Following the Master, 318.
(This excerpt comes from chapter 3 of Changing the Landscape of Eternity)