If we’re honest, it’s easy to be more passionate about evangelism than discipleship in the church. We love to see the new birth of a Christian into the kingdom of God. What we’re not so keen on is the slog that follows—the helping someone ‘grow up into maturity’ part. Simply put: growing up is costly and hard.
Biblical discipleship takes commitment. It embraces walking with someone through the sunshine and also the storms of life. It’s not a steady incline to godliness—it’s ups and downs, mountaintops and valleys, with many tears and tantrums on the path to glory.
There are many books that help us think about what healthy discipleship might look like practically (we’ve found Ed Welch’s Side by Side super helpful in our context). But discipleship isn’t solely textbook. It’s relational. And relationships are often messy and dynamic.
Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to go and make disciples, so we had better listen. With all of this in mind, we need to ask a difficult question: Is it ever right to walk away from a discipleship relationship? Because every situation is complex and different, it’s not easy to give a sweeping answer to that question. But, doing a bit of biblical groundwork might help us unpack this issue.
Sheep, or Not?
In our context in the schemes, we see many people come forward, profess faith in Jesus and get baptised, only to later fall away. This happens either because of the simple passing of time or when the person is faced with persecution or trials of some sort. Like an anchor in a storm, faith is ultimately tested when real life hits. Though this is painful to witness, we shouldn’t be surprised, for this is what Jesus told us to expect in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).
Sadly, some people who profess faith will fall away. This can be anything from a gradual descent to an outright cutting off. In some cases, people will remain with us in the church, loving community, but be in ‘no man’s land’ spiritually. They’re still living an unrepentant, unchanged life, and they’re unwilling to come under the authority of Jesus. After all, the Christian community is attractive, but it’s not just a social club for free meals and good banter. It’s a hospital for the sick, and its sinful patients need to come under the authority and leadership of the great Physician.
This is why we have a one-to-one accountability system, based on Titus 2. We believe it’s crucial that believers meet together regularly outside of Sunday gatherings. It’s easy to say “I’m fine” on a Sunday, but it’s much harder to hide your heart’s true condition over a coffee with a concerned brother or sister.
We need spiritual check-ups—people reading, lamenting, and praying together, spurring one another on in the faith. That’s what the church is for. I think I would be relatively happy living on an island on my own, but I know I wouldn’t be challenged or sanctified if that were the case. In His wisdom, God puts us into a loyal community who have each other’s backs. I bet you can think of at least one brother or sister who has chased you down, picked you up, and put you back on the pilgrim’s path.
Let’s face the facts: we’ve all needed a kick up the backside at times. These are for our good. Proverbs 3:11–12 shows us that discipline is loving. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
In my experience, if someone I’m discipling is straying, they will usually cut the relationship, especially the self-examination part, off first. They tend to be unwilling to listen to biblical counsel or come under the authority of God’s Word.
In these cases, I would ask another lady to pursue this person as well, because sometimes it could simply be a case of personality clash or some unresolved issue. Or it could be that an unhealthy dependence has developed (works both ways). Either way, bringing someone else in usually helps. If that person studies God’s Word with them, and they still don’t respond, then that gives us further insight into the person’s heart. True sheep will listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27). They can take or leave your own wisdom, but over time they must listen to what comes from God’s Word.
What this looks like in practise takes a huge amount of grace, perseverance, and discernment. After all, we’re all sheep in need of shepherding.
Back Off, Pray, Wait
Let’s go back to the parenting example—this will help us answer our question, especially when we think in biblical terms. Consider the parable of the prodigal son: in letting his son leave, the father was, in a sense, giving him over to his heart’s desires. He was doing this in the hope that his son would, in time, come to his senses and, having seen that the pleasures of sin are fleeting, return home in repentance. Of course, we know that this is what happened (Luke 15:17–24).
So how does this apply to our question of whether it’s ever okay to walk away from someone you’re discipling? I think this shows us that, at times, it can be helpful to back off. Depending on the relationship, this may mean that you wait for them to approach you, rather than you initiating contact all the time. You may need to stop offering them lifts to church, seeing if they will pursue you in order to come. Do they persist even when it’s inconvenient for them, or do they only come when it’s easy? These small things can be signs that indicate where a person is spiritually.
In other words, if they really want to follow Jesus, then they will make it happen because it’s their heart’s desire. Just like a parent wants heartfelt sorrow over the wrongs of a child, so also God is after the heart. But the act of distancing can feel unnatural sometimes, perhaps even un-Christian. But what’s more brutal, and potentially eternally disastrous, is a goat who thinks they are a sheep because you carry them everywhere.
In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul wrote about the benefits and purifying purpose of putting someone in persistent, unrepentant sin out of the church: “. . . hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” Eternal care for the soul sometimes requires discipline. This involves waiting, like the father of the prodigal son—praying, watching, and hoping they return. Tough love can reap eternal reunion.
So yes, at times it’s necessary to walk away to allow someone to find their own way and/or return in repentance. But we must spiritually still care for and pray for a person’s soul, eager for their eternal salvation.