Discipleship, in the words of Mark Dever, is helping another person follow Jesus. Said another way (by Dever): Discipleship is doing deliberate spiritual good to another Christian.
Jesus commands Christians to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20), and Christians should count it a privilege to come alongside others to aid them in their walk with the Savior. We should also receive discipleship from others with gratefulness and a desire to learn. In light of Christ’s command in Matt 28:18-20 and, for that matter, the entire structure of the New Testament where believing relationships are an indispensable means of spiritual growth (e.g., Rom 15:14; Heb 3:12-15), discipleship should be central to our individual Christian lives and our corporate church life.
It’s likely, however, that when we consider the task of discipleship we think in terms of age. That is, in any given discipleship relationship, it should be the older teaching the younger. There is certainly biblical precedent for this model: Paul instructed Titus to have the older men teaching the younger men and the older women teaching the younger women (Titus 2:1-5). Wisdom typically attends and grows with age, so an older Christian will often have something of spiritual value to share with those who are younger.
But this is not always the case, nor would the Scripture have us conclude that age guarantees wisdom (see Eccl 4:13). We should not determine, based on mere age, that we cannot disciple or be discipled by another person. In his book, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, Mark Dever offers helpful counsel on this issue of age and discipleship.
Normally you would disciple someone younger than yourself. Having said that, Scripture is full of exceptional examples of the younger teaching the older. And surely, as we advance in age, we also want to advance in the humility of learning from those of our own age, and even those younger than us. Otherwise, we will have no teachers left! Personally, I find I learn much from friends in their twenties and thirties, even as I do from folks in their seventies and eighties (77).
In any discipleship senario, there will be, by definition, some asymmetry in the relationship. That is, there will be a teacher who has knowledge and a student who needs to glean and grow in that knowledge. In order to disciple someone, you must be able to teach them in some measure what the Scripture says and how they can apply it to their lives. You might be older than your disciple, or you may be younger. What matters is that you have something of spiritual value to offer them.
But also implied in Dever’s counsel is the truth that all of God’s people are called to be teachable and be ready to receive the truth of his Word, even when that truth comes from a younger disciple. Dever himself is an excellent example of this kind of humility:
As one who has been doing this for a long time, I can say that I’ve often been served and blessed and encouraged in the faith by those whom I am discipline. Even as I work to do them spiritual good, they do me spiritual good. They help me better follow Jesus. Together we learn what Paul means in Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” (40-41)
In other words, “The wise man is the one who listens to advice” (Prov 12:15). Left out of this brief proverbial gem (and others like it) is any indication that we should first consider the age of the one who offered the advice before listening to it.
Indeed, as we grow in Christ, we should be cultivating the ability to receive wisdom from those who are younger without feeling threatened or fearful that our disciple might surpass us in godliness and theological acumen. Actually, we should pray that they would progress well past our level of spiritual maturity! We don’t hope for this because we are negligent, but because we want to see our brothers flourish in the grace of God.
The best disciplers, therefore, will be those who not only teach others well, but those who are ready to learn from the people they are disciping. Again, this doesn’t imply that the roles of discipler and disciple are equal–there is a teacher and there is a student. Nevertheless, that younger brother to whom you are ministering has the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures, and it is likely he will have a few things to say to bless you in your walk with Christ.
[For more on humility and discipleship, please see my article 8 Signs You Are a Discipleship Bully at The Gospel Coalition.]