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Jos Strengholt

Discipleship in the early church

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How did the ancient Church train its members to be faithful Christians? In this paper, I will give a brief introductory overview of the methods that churches in the first four centuries developed for what we would nowadays call discipleship training or spiritual formation.

In the ancient church, there were different focal points for following Jesus Christ as a disciple. The first centuries of the church were times of persecution; so following Christ in the way of martyrdom was not unknown for the Christian community. Many believers fulfilled in their martyrdom Christ’s command to follow him by carrying his cross. A very early record in the post-apostolic period is found in Ignatius of Antioch. According to him, the perfect disciple of Christ is one who follows him to the very end even to death. On the way to Rome he pondered his imminent martyrdom: “Now I begin to be a disciple” and when the world shall no longer see his body, he will then “truly be a disciple of Christ”.

The love of Christ developed a commitment to make him known so that to follow Christ in missionary commitment could be seen as another form of discipleship; disciples make other disciples. Around 248AD, Origen wrote:

“Christians do not neglect, as far as they can, to take measures to disseminate their doctrine throughout the whole world. Some of them, accordingly, have made it their business to travel not only through cities but even villages and countrysides, that they might make converts to God.”