We start with a simple observation. With the advent of the Great Commission, Jesus called every Christian to matheteusate (verb), to the making of mathetes (disciples). The entire membership of the church is to be matheteusate and not of specific men or schools of thought (1 Cor 3:12-17), but of Jesus Christ as Lord, the one who is to be obeyed as absolute authority over all heaven and earth. This is discipleship.
Now as we progress through Ephesians 4 we see this description of the work of the membership:
to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (Ephesians 4.12–13)Note the characteristics of the "work of ministry" described here:
1) It builds up the body (the membership).
With the goals of
2) unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God (which Paul describes as mature manhood)
3) the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ
The entire membership is to pursue faith in, knowledge of and the fullness of Christ. Members are called to encourage each other closer to Christ but not every member is called to be a leader (Rom 12). This is an important distinction. Discipleship is the common activity of the membership. It is what we do with each other. No specific gifting is necessary for this work. We speak the Gospel to each other in every context so our faith, knowledge and fullness in Christ might increase (see also Hebrews 2:1, Hebrews 3:12-14 and Hebrews 10:24-25).
When the lines are blurred between leadership and discipleship, both are neutered. Leaders shy from asserting themselves as leaders because they have imported the more egalitarian "body building itself up" aspects of discipleship into their role. Members who do not possess leadership gifts feel disqualified from the work of the church. When leadership and discipleship are clear and distinct, leaders are freed to fulfill their responsibility and members are called to Christ's co-mission.
How they fit together
Leaders have responsibility to preserve the membership and lead it into a life of discipleship, where people (in and out of the church) are encouraged to trust and know Jesus Christ as Lord, Redeemer and Life. Membership defines the church's boundaries (answering "Who are we?"), discipleship defines its trajectory (answering "What are we to do?") and leaders set the course (answering "Who initiates?"). Seeing this interplay strengthens each element.
Why this is important
Membership, leadership and discipleship are biblical mandates for the church and a wide variety of programs can promote and preserve them. When a congregation understands these things, they begin to kill unfruitful and constraining sacred cows. For instance, depending on your season of life, certain meetings may provide a sense of membership but no discipleship. These need to change. Like a palette to an artist, clear definitions of membership, leadership and discipleship provide the basic elements leaders need to creatively find a solution. We can be flexible and creative with our solutions as long as they provide these basic biblical elements.
It is human nature to lean on our own understanding, institutionalize systems that meet our objectives and then hold them as sacred. Often (one must wonder if by God's design) circumstances change and our institutional systems no longer work. Curiously, a look back at the Bible reveals that God gives us very little in the form of institutional systems. Instead, He calls us to fundamental things like love, generosity, kindness to the poor, holiness, gospel-gratitude, gospel proclamation, membership, leadership and discipleship. It is as if His fatherly heart actually desires that we unite with Him to creatively discover how these things can be championed freshly every day.
Rabbi and Talmidim by Ray Vander Laan