The Thistle

Christ-Centered Discipleship

Christ-Centered Discipleship

by Dr. Robert Flayhart
Senior Pastor, Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church
Birmingham. Alabama

Our churches are filled with men and women who long to be mentored and see the gospel lived out. To grow in accordance with the truth, they need grace-centered relationships to deepen their faith and develop their walk with God.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are all called to be “fishers of men”—but just as fishermen must have the proper training and equipment to do their jobs well, so too those who would lead others to Christ and help them walk in his ways must understand the fine at of discipleship. And just as fishing in a sense, involves a kind of “dance” that brings the fisherman and the fish closer to one another, so too discipleship involves an intricate, dance-like movement that not only brings both participants closer to one another, but, more importantly, to Christ himself, who is the center and purpose of all things. In this adaptation of material developed in more detail in his Doctor of Ministry dissertation, Rev. Dr. Bob Flayhart walks us through the movements of this dance of Christ-centered discipleship and mentoring.


“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19–20)

Though many in the church have heard teaching or read a book on the topic of discipleship, the church often falls short in the area of mentoring. Congregations are filled with men and women who have walked with the Lord for years but have never been mentored or discipled, and many aren’t even sure what a biblical model of discipleship looks like. Far from being simply a critique of the church, such statements are an invitation to the church to embrace, model, and encourage Christ-centered discipleship.

Churches that do incorporate a balanced or integrated (scriptural) model of mentoring grow deeper spiritually and stronger relationally. Scripture puts forward a model of Christ-centered discipleship that involves the Holy Spirit, the power of the gospel, a mentor, a protégé (the one being mentored), and the larger community of believers (the church). this Christ-centered model is intentional and transparent, challenging believers to grow more in and like Christ.

Intentional Relationships

Discipleship, as Christ reveals in the Great Commission, is a relationship with an agenda—to teach Christians to observe all that Christ has commanded. But how do Christians grow in holiness? Do individuals become holy through a rigorous application of the will to perform the disciplines? Or do Christians become holy by grace through faith, a passivity which leads to transformed living?

The Scriptures set forth a paradigm for the formation of our spiritual life. this paradigm is based on the truths of the gospel and the commands that flow out of those truths—and this order is extremely important. The paradigm can be seen clearly in the epistles of Paul, whose usual pattern is to spend the earlier portions of his letters focusing his readers on the doctrines of grace, union with Christ, our adoption as children of God, and the hope of the power of Christ at work in believers. Only after laying this foundation of grace does Paul make clear how we are to live as we walk in the light and power of that grace.

Thus, what is needed in the church today is the implementation of a mentoring methodology that maintains the biblical tension of belief and behavior while also maintaining the biblical order of faith leading to works. In other words, mentoring strategies need to be more mindful of the doctrine of sanctification by integrating the biblical emphasis of growth by grace through faith and growth through personal effort—which is the working out of our faith with fear and trembling because it is God who is at work in us (Phil. 2:12–13).

Christ-Centered Focus

Leaders in the church must begin with a Christ-centered focus. One of the primary temptations facing a mentor is the tendency to make the relationship “man-centered,” focusing on having a protégé master certain disciplines rather than trusting Christ for everything. additionally, mentors must be constantly on guard to prevent their relationships from being about protégés following mentors rather than each person following Christ. Ultimately, the objective of mentoring must be growth in Christ-likeness and Christ-dependency that results in God being glorified, with both parties remembering that the only true disciple-maker is Jesus Christ.

We mentor most effectively when we approach the relationship from a posture of humility. One of the best ways to keep Christ primary in the mentoring relationship is to remember that while we are called to be obedient to God through mentoring others, God could indeed mentor them without us—as he often does in the midst of our reluctance and failures! this attitude leads us to a healthy mistrust of our own abilities, strengths, and natural gifts so that we may remain desperately dependent upon the supernatural gifts and strength of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Dance of Discipleship

A simple paradigm to help keep the mentoring relationship Christ- centered and integrated when it comes to belief and behavior involves the concept of dancing. all Christians dance, whether they realize it or not! the various paradigms of growth, renewal, and transformation in the church can be seen as different types of dances. For instance, the bunny hop is a one-step dance, and those who would do the dance of discipleship this way tend to reduce the paradigm of growth to a singular focus. the most popular one-step of many such discipleship models is what I call “fight.” This is based on the idea that because believers are new creations in Christ and have new natures, they can become holy if they simply set their wills to follow the rigors of God’s law and the spiritual disciplines. the truth is, however, that we need more than a rigorous application of the will to follow the law. We must be more than bunny hoppers.

There are others who follow a one-step model of “surrender;” they echo the refrain, “Let go, and let God.” Unfortunately, this creates a mindset of waiting to be zapped. It tends to see the Christian like a stick in a river waiting for the current to whisk it along. This is passivism, and though there is a sense in which believers are waiting on God to act in them, this model is an inadequate understanding of how Christian change takes place.

The Texas Two-Step

A second dance model of discipleship can be described as the Texas two-step, which focuses on “repenting and recommitting”—or confessing and trying harder. This model teaches that if you acknowledge your sin and try a little bit harder, then transformation is just over the next hill. But trying hard—even with a new nature—won’t in itself accomplish transformation. If we bypass the cross of Christ, there’s no supernatural power in us, and the new nature will fail at merely trying harder.

Another form of the Texas two-step is the model of transformation or renewal focused upon the need to “repent and believe.” the discipling relationship is then focused on helping the believer acknowledge sin and trust Christ for change. Although this dance is the closest thus far to the biblical paradigm of heart-renewal than the others, it still lacks one essential element.

Effective Discipleship Growth: The Waltz

The most integrated model of discipleship, Christ-centered mentoring, must be seen in terms of a waltz—a three-step dance to spiritual growth. the first step of the waltz is “repent.” As believers are encouraged to live in the love of God, we become open to seeing that all Christian growth begins with an awareness of sin, failure, weakness, and an understanding of our desperate need to be changed.

Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Thus, acknowledging our sin and our helplessness must come first, and it requires great transparency and vulnerability. The mentor must model humility and acknowledge his or her own desperate need for forgiveness by leading in the area of repentance. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in this repent step and feel defeated, then fall into despair. Because all they see is their sin, they get stuck in the bunny hop of repentance.

Repentance must lead to the second step of the waltz, which is  “believe.” there are two elements to this particular step: appreciate and appropriate. As we acknowledge our sin before God with deep honesty about our failures and helplessness, we are to appreciate or affirm our justified standing with God, received through our union with Christ. Because of our union with Christ, God’s punitive anger and wrath have already been poured out upon Jesus, so there’s no need now to live in self-condemnation or shame. We are also to understand and appreciate that all of Christ’s righteousness has been transferred to us so that the Father rejoices and sings over us in Christ (Zeph. 3:17). God delights in us not on the basis of our performance but because of our union with Christ. Whenever we sin, we are called to repent—but we also must immediately appreciate, affirm, and re-preach to ourselves that gospel o grace concerning our legal or positional standing before God. Too many disciples fail to press on because they feel discouraged by their failure to live as the second half of Paul’s epistles call us to live. One huge responsibility of a Christ-centered mentor is to point others continually to the reality and hope of their union with Christ. The mentor must inject a lot of grace and unconditional love into the relationship, modeling the mercy and kindness of God for the protégé. But more is needed.

The second element of the believe step is to appropriate. Believers must be taught and reminded continually to appropriate the power of the blood of Christ at the particular point of repentance. In other words, just as those of us who know Jesus and have been saved from eternal condemnation have experienced the converting power of the blood, we Christians must realize the transforming power of the blood of Christ as well. We are to appropriate—to grab hold of by faith and make our own—by the power of the Holy Spirit, the transforming value of the blood of Christ at our particular point of repentance. Ultimately, we are not changed by simply trying harder. As the late theologian Francis Schaeffer taught so ably in his book True Spirituality, we are changed by trusting God to apply the “present value of the blood of Christ” to our daily lives. This model of discipleship keeps people rooted in the supernatural, not in themselves. The mentor, then, must constantly seek to emphasize to the protégé the redemptive power of the gospel, encouraging him or her to believe in and claim the reality that God is at work, and that the power of Christ’s blood will not fail.

The final element of the waltz is the “fight” step once we’ve acknowledged our sin and our helplessness; preached ourselves to the point of encouragement concerning our legal and positional standing before God in Christ (realizing that we’re non-condemnable), which does not change; and appropriated the power of the blood to change us at our point of sin; we are now indeed called to exercise our renewed wills to make choices to follow Christ in new obedience. Paul’s letters clearly call the Christian to engage the will to present ourselves as slaves to righteousness. We are called by Paul to put off the old self and to put on the new self (Eph. 4:22–24). The author of Hebrews charges us to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14). Peter calls us to make every effort to add to our faith virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5). though it is true that the Father does not delight in us because of our obedience but rather on account of our union with Christ, all our actions and attitudes either are or are not objectively pleasing to God based on the clear commands of Scripture.

Mentors can emphasize the “fight” step of the waltz by challenging protégés to engage in the means of grace, to be obedient, and to be engaged in personal ministry. In addition, from the mentor’s side of the relationship, the fight step of the waltz means that effort must be exerted to be intentional and somewhat structured by thinking through the curriculum necessary to keep the relationship on track. Though the discipling relationship must not become solely curriculum-driven, some structure is necessary to provide direction.

Beware of Heavy-Footedness

One key element of the discipling relationship is discerning how each believer tends to be “heavy-footed” in the waltz. For instance, some Christians are heavy-footed repenters. They see their sin and their helplessness but fail to live by faith in the gospel promises. Other Christians are heavy-footed in the believe step of the waltz. They have no trouble seeing God as gracious and loving or as good and benevolent. However, they tend to minimize their sinfulness or fail to truly strive after holiness with great effort and intentionality. Finally, some believers are heavy-footed in the fight step of the waltz. Many traditional discipleship models incline believers this way. These models can actually disciple believers into a paradigm of competency and individualism when in fact the biblical model seems to be a paradigm of brokenness and desperate dependence upon Christ.

In the end, those who seek to follow a truly Christ-centered model of discipleship must ask one vital question through every step of the process: at the end of each discipling phone call or meeting, with whom does the protégé (and the mentor as well!) walk as a result of the discipler’s encouragement? Himself and his own efforts? or the risen Christ, whose blood redeemed our sins and who alone can make us right and holy and whole before God?

Questions Related to Christ-Centered Discipleship

If leaders in the church want to help their congregations grow in grace, they must learn to ask come critical questions about discipleship, such as:

1) What is the main role of the mentor—merely to be an agent to pass on skills, or simply to speak the love of God to the protégé? Or, must a mentor do both?

2) Is there a place for curriculum in the structure of discipleship, or should the relationship be more fluid and spontaneous? Should the content primarily revolve around the spiritual disciplines, character issues, and ministry skills? Should the content expose protégés to doctrine and theological truth? Does it matter?

3) What role does the church play in discipleship? Should more mature believers seek to build relationships with younger Christians regardless of church connection? Are mentoring relationships more effective when both parties are actively involved in the same body of believers?

4) Is there anything specific the local church can do to foster mentoring, or should the church just let things happen serendipitously?

5) What role should the pastoral staff or church elders play in supporting a mentoring ministry?

6) What does the message of the gospel of grace have to say in addressing all these questions?

We must remember that discipleship is not about finding a foolproof method for obtaining or encouraging spiritual growth. rather, it is about the daily mutual reliance on and encouragement in the grace and mercy of God through which both the mentor and the protégé, “being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [they] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19).

Dr. Robert Flayhart (DMin ’02) is the senior pastor of Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He was called to plant this now-thriving church in 1989. Dr. Flayhart also serves on the Board of Trustees for Covenant Seminary.